Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book XXIV : Ma Chao Defeats Ts’ao Ts’ao at Xi Liang


Xi Liang is an important frontier city in northwestern China. The people there were strong and semi-barbaric, because they were not pure Chinese but generally had mixed Mongol blood and could withstand intense cold. Their leader Ma Teng was fiercely loyal to Han dynasty and was secretly communicating with Liu Pei of Chingchou despite the distance.

One day, Ts’ao Ts’ao wanted to test Ma Teng’s loyalty, so he summoned him to his capital (Xu Chang) and said that he would inspect Ma Teng’s famed cavalry. Ma Teng had every intention of murdering Ts’ao Ts’ao during the inspection, but his co-conspirator was a fool who told the secret to a mistress. The mistress in turn shared this important secret with her adulterer, who in turn carried the news to Ts’ao Ts’ao himself. Realizing the plot, Ts’ao Ts’ao rounded up Ma Teng and his co-conspirator and had him executed. He then executed the adulterer as well, for he hated treacherous people who could betray him later.

But Ma Teng had left an heir in Xi Liang. His eldest son, Ma Chao, was a famed warrior who wore the lion’s helmet. Ma Chao managed to kill an enemy general before he was 16. Apart from this, Ma Teng also had a sworn brother named Han Sui. Han Sui was a brilliant tactician. This is the story of how the two of them faced Ts’ao Ts’ao’s mighty invasion of the north and briefly triumphed.

At that time, Ts’ao Ts’ao was planning to invade Sun Quan of Wu. Though Liu Pei hath won many victories and expanded his territory, Ts’ao Ts’ao still realized that Wu was the greatest threat to Wei and not Liu Pei. However, Liu Pei was also brother-in-law and ally of Sun Quan, so when the latter requested his assistance against Ts’ao Ts’ao, it was difficult to turn them down.

Kung Ming, however, told Liu Pei not to send troops to Wu. Instead, he sent a letter to Ma Chao inciting him to go to war with Ts’ao Ts’ao in order to avenge his father. Instigated by Kung Ming’s crafty letter, Ma Chao and Han Sui led the Xi Liang forces against Wei and quickly captured Tian Shui and marched on An Ding by the Wei River.

Ts’ao Ts’ao realized that he could not simply ignore this threat. If An Ding fell, then his eastern capital Chang’an could be next, so he temporarily abandoned plans to attack Wu and led a massive force of 200,000 troops against Ma Chao. Ma Chao’s men were vastly outnumbered, but he also knew the terrain better than Ts’ao Ts’ao. Furthermore, it was winter, and the Wei soldiers were not as accustomed to the bitter cold as the Xi Liang troops.

At the Wei River, Ts’ao Ts’ao offered to parry. He said he was willing to make Ma Chao Lord of the Northwest if he would serve Wei. However, Ma Chao never forgave Ts’ao Ts’ao for his father’s death and charged in for the kill. Luckily for Ts’ao Ts’ao, his general Xu Zhu (a former Yellow Turban rebel with great fighting skill) went forth to fight with Ma Chao. Neither Xu Zhu nor Ma Chao could defeat the other. Xu Zhu had to take off his armor and fight ligher. He lost his lance to Ma Chao’s spear, but managed to protect himself by breaking Ma Chao’s spear. Not wanting to risk losing his favorite general, Ts’ao Ts’ao sounded the drums, whereupon Xu Zhu managed to get back in truce.

That night, Ma Chao spilled oil into the river and burned Ts’ao Ts’ao’s camp. In the Battle of Wei River, Ts’ao Ts’ao was badly retreated and forced to evacuate from An Ding. In fact, Ma Chao almost captured Ts’ao Ts’ao alive, but the latter took off his emblem of power and cut his own beard, pretending to be a private soldier. Ma Chao even met him in person, but not realizing that this was Ts’ao Ts’ao, merely asked him where Ts’ao Ts’ao went. Ts’ao Ts’ao, always quick-witted, merely pointed in the wrong direction, and so managed to escape just barely.

Ma Chao and Han Sui staged many winter raids on Ts’ao Ts’ao’s food depot. The damages were not much, but the deterioration of morale was worse. So Ts’ao Ts’ao built an underground fortress, but the Xi Liang army broke the dam and flooded this fortress, thus causing great damage.

Ma Chao still could not destroy Ts’ao Ts’ao’s gigantic army, but Ts’ao Ts’ao suffered great damages. Is this the end of the wily Minister? To know how the Battle of Xi Liang ends, don’t miss our next episode “Ts’ao Ts’ao Creates a Rift Between Ma Chao and Han Sui” (Book XXV).

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