Ts’ao Ts’ao and Yuan Shao concluded a minor ceasefire when Yuan Shao’s son was sick. Yuan Shao’s advisor told him to attack Ts’ao Ts’ao unaware, but Yuan Shao hesitated and lost the golden opportunity. During this time, Ts’ao Ts’ao decided to consolidate control of areas between the two capitals Xuchang (his new capital) and Chang’an (the old capital once controlled by Tung Ch’o). He marched to the city linking the two, namely Wancheng.
Wancheng was ruled by Chang Siu, nephew of one of Tung Ch’o’s former general Chang Ji who had passed away earlier. Chang Siu knew he could not fight against Ts’ao Ts’ao and so decided to surrender at the Wei River. Ts’ao Ts’ao entered Wancheng pompously. While resting in Wancheng, he fell in love with Chang Ji’s beautiful widow, Lady Chang, and made her his mistress.
Chang Siu hath not surrendered willingly and was now greatly angered at the disgrace suffered by his aunt. His brilliant advisor Jia Xue devised a plan to destroy Ts’ao Ts’ao. Now, they knew that Ts’ao Ts’ao had a valiant general called Tian Wei, who was constantly by his side, so they invited Tian Wei to a banquet and bought out the finest wine. Tian Wei grew drunk, and Ts’ao Ts’ao was lost in his private world with Lady Chang. At this time, Chang Siu’s men attacked and destroyed many of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s troops in the ambush. Ts’ao Ts’ao barely escaped with his life. His eldest son and heir, Ts’ao Ang, died in this battle. As for Tian Wei, it was said that he fought valiantly despite his drunken stupor. When he died, there were arrows all over him. Such is the immortality of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s great generals that men would sing of Tian Wei long after his last days.
Ts’ao Ts’ao wept, for the loss of Tian Wei and Ts’ao Ang was a heavy price, “For the sake of one woman, I have lost my most loyal general and most capable son.”
However, Ts’ao Ts’ao was not one to give up hope. In another battle against Chang Siu of Wancheng, he successfully ambushed Chang Siu and attacked the weakest part of Wancheng’s wall and destroyed Chang Siu’s army. Unable to defend himself, Chang Siu surrendered. Ts’ao Ts’ao decided to forgive Chang Siu, who then served him loyally. Ts’ao Ts’ao also did not take Lady Chang back as his mistress. He thus gained the admiration of the Wancheng citizens, and Jia Xue also became one of Ts’ao Ts’ao’s most trusted advisors.
Having consolidated his control over the capital cities, Ts’ao Ts’ao once again marched out against Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao’s forces in Hebei continued to outnumber Ts’ao Ts’ao’s forces of Wei, and it was not an easy battle. At Guandu, Yuan Shao successfully held out for a long time. The Wei troops dug a tunnel into Guandu, but the Hebei troops successfully ambushed them there.
Ts’ao Ts’ao then installed tall towers around Guandu where he could watch the Hebei forces and occasionally shoot arrows into the city, causing much annoyment. The stalemate continued, and there was hunger on both sides. Finally, Ts’ao Ts’ao took the ultimate risk. He disguised himself as a private soldier and was recruited into the Hebei army.
Once inside, he secretly burned the food supplies of Yuan Shao. Without food, Hebei became vulnerable. Ts’ao Ts’ao hesitated to attack Guandu in a decisive battle, and his senior advisor Xun You told him to do so, citing several reasons why Wei would triump.
“Your Highness, though Yuan Shao’s forces outnumber us. I believe you will triumph for seven reasons. Firstly, you are a good leader, and Yuan Shao is indecisive man who blames his subordinates for his own failures. Secondly, their food supplies have dwindled, and the Hebei spirit are in disarray. Thirdly, your charisma has attracted generals of character and caliber such as Hsiahou Tun and Kao Tu, while Yuan Shao has lost his greatest warriors, Yan Liang and Wen Chou, to Kuan Yu’s blade. Fourthly, you dispense justice with wisdom, creating a chain of command that is efficient and meritocratic in nature, while Yuan Shao dispenses favors as it fancies him creating a court of psychopants.
Fifthly, your army is trained for fast maneuvers. Speed is of essence. Yuan Shao, on the other hand, is used to delays. In a time when food supplies are crucial, the swift will defeat the slow. My sixth reason is that you operate based on facts, military intelligence collected from our spies, and the Art of War, whereas Yuan Shao operates on superstitions and personal whims. The quality of generalship is as different as the Heavens and Earth. Finally, I must point out that Yuan Shao’s sons Yuan Yin and Yuan Tan are squabbling children, with nobles and generals taking sides in their petty conflicts. The people of Wei are united, and our spirit strong. We will certainly win!!”
Having listened to Xun You’s wise words, Ts’ao Ts’ao stormed Guandu. Despite being outnumbered more than five to one, the army of Wei vanquished those of Hebei. Yuan Shao fled from Guandu and died of heartbreak shortly after. Yuan Yin and Yuan Tan fought for control of the remnants of Yuan Shao’s domains. Yuan Tan was defeated and submitted to Ts’ao Ts’ao, who easily defeated Yuan Yin in battle. He later poisoned Yuan Tan. Now, Ts’ao Ts’ao was firmly in control of northern China.
Now, the last warlord who could still have a chance of challenging Ts’ao Ts’ao in northern China was Yuan Shu. It was time to destroy him as well. Yuan Shu asked for help from Sun Ts’e, but the latter decided to cooperate with Wei in this battle instead. Yuan Shu was left without allies after the death of Lu Bu, so he was penned up in Lum Yong during the flood and Ts’ao Ts’ao’s invasion.
Ts’ao Ts’ao was not without troubles of his own. His army was low on food rations, and he repeatedly ordered the quartermaster to cut rations. When the army grew restless and angry, Ts’ao Ts’ao executed the quartermaster, blamed him for cutting (and cheating!!) rations, and finally stormed Lum Yong after a strong dinner. He personally scaled the walls of Lum Yong first, hence greatly improving morale of the troops. Finally, he successfully captured Lum Yong. Yuan Shao fled from the city and eventually died of hunger. His Imperial Seal finally fell into the hands of Ts’ao Ts’ao.
Now that Ts’ao Ts’ao was undisputedly the most powerful warlord in the North, it was time for him to vanquish his long-time archenemy Liu Pei in the south.
Will Liu Pei survive in the court of his cousin, Liu Biao of Chingchou? To find out, don’t miss our next episode Book XVI The Sinister Plans of Chua Mao