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CHAPTER 72. Zhuge Liang’s Wit Takes Hanzhong; Cao Cao’s Army Retires To The Ye Valley.

| Articles of Ancient China, English Version - Romance of the Three Kingdoms Novel | March 7, 2011

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In spite of the most earnest dissuasion, Xu Huang
crossed the river and camped. Huang Zhong and
Zhao Yun asked to be allowed to go against the host
of Cao Cao, and Liu Bei gave his consent.
Then said Huang Zhong, “Xu Huang has been
bold enough to come; we will not go out against him
till evening, when his soldiers are fatigued. Then we
will fall upon him one on either side.”
Zhao Yun consented, and each retired to a
stockade. Xu Huang appeared and for a long time
tried to draw them into a fight, but they refused to go
forth. Then Xu Huang ordered his bowmen to begin
to shoot straight before them, and the arrows and
bolts fell in the Shu camp.
Huang Zhong said, “He must be thinking of
retreat or he would not shoot thus. Now is our time to
smite him.”
Then the scouts reported that the rearmost
bodies of the enemy had begun to retreat. The
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drums of Shu rolled a deafening peal, and Huang
Zhong’s army from the left and Zhao Yun’s army
from the right came to the attack, and the double
fight began. Xu Huang was badly defeated, and the
flying soldiers were forced to River Han, where many
were drowned. But Xu Huang escaped after fighting
desperately, and when he got back to camp, he
blamed his colleague Wang Ping for not having
come to his aid.
“Had I done so, these camps would have been
left unguarded,” said Wang Ping. “I tried to dissuade
you from going, but you would not hear me, and you
brought about this reverse yourself.”
Xu Huang in his wrath tried to slay Wang Ping;
but Wang Ping escaped to his own camp. In the
night, Wang Ping set fire on both camps, and great
confusion reigned in the lines. Xu Huang ran away,
but Wang Ping crossed the river and surrendered to
Zhao Yun, who led him to Liu Bei. Wang Ping told
Liu Bei all about River Han and the country near by.
“I shall surely capture Hanzhong now that you are
here to help me, friend Wang Ping,” said Liu Bei.
Liu Bei made Wang Ping General and Army
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Xu Huang reported Wang Ping’s defection, which
made Cao Cao very angry. Cao Cao placed himself
at the head of a force and tried to retake the bank of
the river. Zhao Yun, thinking his troops too few,
retired to the west side, and the two armies lay on
opposite sides of the stream. Liu Bei and his adviser
came down to view the position.
Zhuge Liang saw in the upper course of the
stream a hill which might well screen a thousand
soldiers, so he returned to camp, called in Zhao Yun
and said, “General, you lead five hundred troops,
with drums and horns, and place them in ambush
behind the hill, to await certain orders which will
come some time during the night or at dawn. When
you hear a detonation, you are not to appear, only
give a long roll of the drums at every report.” Zhao
Yun departed to play his part in the drama, while
Zhuge Liang went to a hill whence he could overlook
the scene.
When next the army of Cao Cao approached the
camp of Shu and offered battle, not a man came out,
nor was an arrow or a bolt shot. They retired without
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any result. But in the depths of the night, when all the
lights in the camp were extinguished and all
appeared tranquil and restful, Zhuge Liang exploded
a bomb, and at once Zhao Yun beat his drums and
blared his trumpets. Cao Cao’s soldiers awoke in
alarm, thinking it was a night raid. They rushed out,
but there was no enemy, and as the hubbub ceased
they went back to sleep. Soon after there was
another bomb, and again the drums and the
trumpets seeming to shake the earth itself, and the
fearsome roar echoing along the valleys and from
the hills again scared Cao Cao’s soldiers. Thus the
night passed in constant alarms. The next night was
the same, and the next. On the fourth day Cao Cao
broke up his camp, marched his troops ten miles to
the rear and pitched his camp in a clear, wide space
among the hills.
Zhuge Liang was pleased at the result of his ruse.
Said he, smiling, “Cao Cao is skilled in war, but still
he is not proof against all deceitful tricks.”
The troops of Shu then crossed the river and
camped with the stream behind them. When Liu Bei
asked the next move, he was told, but also told to
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keep the plan a secret.
Seeing Liu Bei thus encamped, Cao Cao became
doubtful and anxious, and, to bring things to a
decision, he sent a written declaration of war, to
which Zhuge Liang replied that they would fight a
battle on the morrow.
On the morrow the armies faced each other half
way between the two camps in front of the Mountain
of Five Borders, and there they arrayed. Cao Cao
presently rode up stood beside his banner; with his
officers right and left and the dragon and phoenix
banners fluttering in the wind. His drums rolled
thrice, and then he summoned Liu Bei to a parley.
Liu Bei rode out supported by Liu Feng, Meng Da,
and other leaders. Then Cao Cao insolently
flourished his whip and vilified his opponent.
“Liu Bei, you have forgotten kindness and lost the
sense of right; you are a rebel against the
Liu Bei answered, “I am related to the imperial
family, and I hold an edict authorizing me to seize all
rebels. You have dared to lift up your hand against
Empress Fu, made yourself a king, and arrogantly
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presume to an imperial chariot. If you are not a rebel,
what are you?”
Then Cao Cao ordered Xu Huang out to give
battle, and Liu Feng went to meet him. As the
combat began, Liu Bei retired within the ranks of his
array. Liu Feng was no match for his opponent, and
fled. Cao Cao issued an order to capture Liu Bei,
saying, “He who captures Liu Bei will be made
Prince of Hanzhong.”
At this the army of Wei uttered one great roar of
rage, then they came surging on. The troops of Shu
fled toward the river abandoning everything, even
throwing aside their weapons, which littered the
road. But as Cao Cao’s army pressed forward, he
suddenly clanged the gongs, called a halt and drew
“Why did you call us off, O Prince, just as we
w e r e o n t h e p o i n t o f s u c c e s s ? ” s a i d h i s
“Because I saw the enemy had encamped with
the river in their rear, which was very suspicious.
They also abandoned their steeds and weapons,
which made me doubt. Wherefore I could only retire.
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But retain your armor. Let not a person take off his
harness on pain of death. Now retire as quickly as
you can march.”
As Cao Cao turned about to retire, Zhuge Liang
hoisted the signal to attack, and the retreating
soldiers were harassed on every side both night and
day till they were all disordered. Cao Cao ordered his
army to retire to Nanzheng.
Presently they saw flames rising all around, and
soon it was known that their city of refuge was in the
hands Zhang Fei and Wei Yan, who, after Yan Yan
had taken the command of Langzhong, had
launched a double attack and captured Nanzheng.
Disappointed and saddened, Cao Cao bade them
march to Yangping Pass. Liu Bei with the main army
followed them to Baozhou and Nanzheng and there
pacified the people and restored confidence.
“Cao Cao was exceedingly quickly overcome this
time;” said Liu Bei, “how was that?”
“He has always been of a suspicious nature,” said
Zhuge Liang, “and that has led to many failures
although he is a good leader of armies. I have
defeated him by playing upon his doubts.”
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“He is rather weakened now,” said Liu Bei. “Can
you not devise a plan to drive him away finally?”
“That is all thought out.”
Next Zhang Fei and Wei Yan were sent along two
different roads to cut off Cao Cao’s supplies. Two
other cohorts led by Huang Zhong and Zhao Yun
were bidden to go and fire the hills and forests. All
these four armies had natives of the place to act as
guides and show the way.
Cao Cao’s scouts sent out from Yangping Pass
returned to report: “The roads far and near are
blocked by the troops of Shu, and every place seems
to be burning. No soldier is seen.”
Cao Cao knew not what to do. Then other scouts
told him, “Our stores are being plundered by Zhang
Fei and Wei Yan.”
At this, Cao Cao called for a volunteer to drive off
the plunderers; and Xu Chu offered. He was given a
thousand veterans, and went down the Pass to act
as escort of the grain wagons.
The officers in charge of the transport were very
glad to receive a general of such renown.
“Except for you, O General, the grain could never
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reach Yangping Pass.”
They entertained Xu Chu with the wine and food
on the carts; and he ate and drank copiously, so that
he became very intoxicated. And in that state he
insisted on marching, urging the convoy to start at
“The sun has nearly set,” said the transport
officers, “and the road near Baozhou is bad and
dangerous, so that we cannot pass there at night.”
“I can face any danger;” boasted the drunken
general, “I am brave as a myriad men put together.
What do you think I fear? Beside, there is a good
moon tonight, just the sort of thing to take grain carts
along by.”
Xu Chu took the lead, sword in hand. By the
second watch they were passing Baozhou. About
half the train had passed when the rolling drums and
the blare of horns came down to them through a rift
in the hills. It was soon followed by the appearance
of a cohort led by Zhang Fei. With spear ready, he
came racing down straight for Xu Chu, who, whirling
his sword, dashed to the front to meet the enemy.
But Xu Chu was too drunk to stand against such
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a warrior. After a few bouts he received a spear
thrust in the shoulder, turned round in his saddle,
and fell from his horse. His men rushed to his help,
and they carried him away as they retreated, while
Zhang Fei took the whole transport train of fodder
and forage away to his own camp.
The defeated escort carried their wounded leader
back to Cao Cao’s camp, where he was placed in the
care of physicians. Then Cao Cao himself led out his
army to fight a decisive battle with the army of Shu.
Liu Bei went out to meet him, and, when both sides
were arrayed, Liu Feng went out to challenge. Cao
Cao at once let loose a torrent of taunts and
“Seller of shoes, you are always sending out this
pretended son of yours to fight for you. If I only call
my golden−bearded son Cao Zhang, your so−called
son will be chopped to mincemeat!”
These words enraged Liu Feng, who raised his
spear and galloped toward Cao Cao. Cao Cao bade
Xu Huang do battle with the young man, and Liu
Feng at once ran away. Cao Cao led on his legions,
but he was harassed by the explosion of bombs, the
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beating of drums, and the blare of trumpets that
came from every side. He concluded that he was
being led into an ambush, and he hastened to retire.
The retreat was unfortunate, for the soldiers
trampled upon each other and many were killed.
Anon they all ran off to Yangping Pass as quickly as
they could.
But the soldiers of Shu came right up to the walls
of the Pass, and some burned the east gate while
others shouted at the west. Others, again, burned
the north gate while drums rolled at the south.
Leaders and led were alike harassed and frightened,
and presently they left the Pass and ran away. They
were pursued and sore smitten.
The road to safety was not easy. In one direction
Zhang Fei barred the way, while Zhao Yun attacked
the rear. Then Huang Zhong came from Baozhou
and pressed a slaughter on the flank. Cao Cao’s
army lost many troops, and he was severely
defeated in this triple attack. His commanders
gathered about him and took him off toward the Xie
Valley. Here a great cloud of dust was seen in the
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“If that is an ambush, it is the last of me,” sighed
Cao Cao.
The soldiers came nearer, and then Cao Cao
recognized not a enemy but his second son, Cao
Zhang. As a lad Cao Zhang was a good horseman
and an expert archer. He was more powerful than
most men and could overcome a wild beast with his
bare hands. Cao Cao did not approve of the young
man’s bent, and often warned him to study instead.
“You do not study, but only love your bow and
your horse; this is the courage of a mere person.
Think you that this makes for an honorable career?”
But Cao Zhang replied, “The really noble person
ought to imitate such grand men as Wei Qing and
Huo Qubing. They won their reputation in the Gobi
Desert, where they led a mighty host of hundred
thousand, able to overrun the whole world and go
anywhere. What have I to do with scholarship?”
Cao Cao used to ask his sons what career they
found admirable, and Cao Zhang always replied that
he would be a leader of armies.
“But what should a leader be like?” asked Cao
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“He should be endued with firmness and courage,
never turn aside from a difficulty, but be in the van of
his officers and troops. Rewards should be certain;
and so should punishments.”
Cao Cao smiled with pleasure. In the twenty−third
year of Rebuilt Tranquillity (AD 218), the Wuhuan
Peoples revolted in Daichun, and Cao Cao sent this
son with fifty thousand troops to suppress them. Just
as Cao Zhang was leaving, his father read him a
homily on his duty.
“At home we are father and son, but when a task
is given you, you have to consider your duty as a
servant of your ruler. The law knows no kindness,
and you must beware.”
When the expedition reached the north of
Daichun, Cao Zhang led the array and smote as far
as Sanggan in the Gobi Desert, and peace was
restored. He had lately heard that his father was at
Yangping Pass, and had come to help him to fight.
His coming greatly pleased his father, who said,
“Now that my golden−bearded son has arrived, we
can destroy Liu Bei for certain.”
Then the army was marched back again and
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pitched camp at the Xie Valley.
Someone told Liu Bei of the arrival of Cao Zhang,
and he asked for a volunteer to go out against the
newcomer. Liu Feng offered. Meng Da also desired
to go, and Liu Bei decided to let both go.
“Vie with each other,” said he.
Each general had five thousand troops, and Liu
Feng led the way. Cao Zhang rode out and engaged
him, and in the third bout Liu Feng was overcome
and ran off. Then Meng Da advanced, and a battle
was just beginning when he saw that Cao Cao’s
troops were in confusion. The cause was the sudden
coming of Ma Chao and Wu Lan. Before the enemy
had recovered from the panic, Meng Da attacked on
another side. Ma Chao’s force, who had been
nursing their courage for a long time, fought
brilliantly, so that none could withstand their
onslaught, and they won the day. But in his flight,
Cao Zhang met Wu Lan, and he thrust and slew Wu
Lan with his spear.
After a great fight, Cao Cao ordered his army to
retire into camp at the Xie Valley. Here he remained
many days, prevented from advancing by Ma Chao
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and fearing the ridicule of Shu if he should retreat.
One day, while he was anxiously trying to decide
what to do, his cook sent in some chicken broth. He
noticed in the broth some chicken tendons, and this
simple fact led him into a train of reflection. He was
still deep in thought when Xiahou Dun entered his
tent to ask the watchword for that night. Cao Cao at
once involuntarily replied, “Chicken tendon.”
The word was passed on in orders. When First
Secretary Yang Xiu saw the order that the
watchword was “chicken tendon,” he told all his
people to pack up their belongings ready for the
march. One who saw this went and told Xiahou Dun,
who sent for Yang Xiu and asked why he had
packed up.
Yang Xiu replied, “By tonight’s orders I see that
the Prince of Wei is soon going to retire. ‘Chicken
tendons’ are tasteless things to eat, and yet it is a
pity to waste them. Now if we advance, we cannot
conquer; and if we retire, we fear we shall look
ridiculous. There being no advantage here, the best
course is to retire. You will certainly see the Prince of
Wei retreat before long. I have made my
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preparations so as not to be hurried and confused at
the last moment.”
“You seem to know the Prince’s inmost heart,”
said Xiahou Dun, and he bade his servants pack.
The other generals seeing this, also made
preparations for departure.
Cao Cao’s mind was too perturbed for sleep. In
the night he got up, took a steel battle−ax in his
hand, and wandered privily through the camp. When
he got to Xiahou Dun’s tents, he saw everything
packed and ready for a move. Much surprised, he
made his way back to his own tent and sent for that
“Why is everything in your camp packed as if
ready for the march?”
“Yang Xiu, the First Secretary, seems to have
private knowledge of the Prince’s design to retire,”
said Xiahou Dun.
Cao Cao summoned Yang Xiu and questioned
him, and Yang Xiu replied with the chicken tendon
“How dare you invent such a story and disturb the
hearts of my army?”
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Cao Cao called in his lictors and told them to take
Yang Xiu away and behead him and hang his head
at the camp gate.
Yang Xiu was a man of acute and ingenious
mind, but inclined to show off. His lack of restraint
over his tongue had often wounded Cao Cao’s
susceptibilities. Once Cao Cao was having a
pleasance laid out, and when it was completed, he
went to inspect the work. He uttered no word of
praise or blame; he just wrote the word “alive” on the
gate and left. Nobody could guess what he meant till
Yang Xiu heard of it.
“’Gate’ with ‘alive’ inside it makes the word for
‘wide,’“ said he. “The Prime Minister thinks the gates
are too wide.”
Thereupon they rebuilt the outer walls on an
altered plan. When complete, Cao Cao was asked to
go and see it. And he was then delighted.
“But who guessed what I meant?” said he.
“Yang Xiu,” replied his people.
Cao Cao thereafter lauded Yang Xiu’s ingenuity,
but in his heart he feared.
Another time Cao Cao received a box of cream
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cheese from Mongolia. Cao Cao just scribbled three
words “One Cream Box” on the top and left it on the
table. The words seemed to have no meaning. But
Yang Xiu happened to come in, saw the box and at
once handed a spoonful of the contents to each
guest in the room. When Cao Cao asked why he did
this, he explained that that was the interpretation of
the words on the box, which, resolved into primary
symbols, read, “Each person a mouthful.”
“Could I possibly disobey your orders?” said he.
Cao Cao laughed with the others, but hatred was
in his heart.
Cao Cao lived in constant fear of assassination,
and said to his attendants, “Let none of you come
near me when I am sleeping, for I am likely to slay
people in my dreams.”
One day he was enjoying a siesta, and his quilt
fell off. One of the attendants saw it and hastened to
cover him again. Cao Cao suddenly leaped from the
couch, cut down the intruder with his sword, and lay
down again to sleep. Some time after he awoke,
simulated surprise and asked who had killed his
attendant. When they told him, Cao Cao wept aloud
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for the dead man and had him buried in a fine grave.
Most people thought that Cao Cao had slain the man
while asleep, but Yang Xiu knew better, and at the
funeral of the victim Yang Xiu remarked, “The Prime
Minister was in no dream, but only you were asleep.”
This only increased the hatred.
Cao Cao’s third son, Cao Zhi, took great delight in
Yang Xiu’s cleverness and often invited him, when
they would talk the whole night.
When Cao Cao was considering the nomination
of his heir and desired to name Cao Zhi, Cao Pi got
to hear of the proposal to set him aside in favor of his
younger brother, so he secretly requested the Master
of the Court Singers, Wu Zhi, to come and discuss
this matter. Then fearing that someone might see his
visitor, Cao Pi got a large basket made, in which his
friend was smuggled into the Palace. Cao Pi gave
out that the basket contained rolls of silk. Yang Xiu
heard the truth and informed Cao Cao, who sent
guards to watch at the gates. Cao Pi, in alarm, told
Wu Zhi, who said, “Be not afraid, but to fill a basket
actually with rolls of silk on the morrow and have it
carried in as before.”
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The searchers peeped into the basket and found
the rolls of silk. They told Cao Cao the result of their
search, and Cao Cao began to think Yang Xiu was
plotting against his son. This also added to his
Another time Cao Cao, wishing to compare the
abilities of his two sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, told
them both to go out of the city, at the same time
ordering the gate wardens to forbid their exit. Cao Pi
first came to the gate, was stopped by the wardens
and returned to his palace. But his brother Cao Zhi
consulted Yang Xiu, who said, “You have received
orders from the Prince to go out; simply cut down
any who may try to prevent you.”
When Cao Zhi went to the gate and was stopped,
he shouted out to the wardens, “I have the Prince’s
order to go out; dare you stop me?”
He slew the man who would have prevented him.
Wherefore Cao Cao considered his younger son the
more able. But when some other person told him that
the device came from Yang Xiu, he was angry and
took a dislike to his son Cao Zhi.
Yang Xiu also used to coach Cao Zhi in preparing
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replies to likely questions, which were learned by
heart and quoted when necessary. Cao Cao was
always asking this son his opinion on military
matters, and Cao Zhi always had a fluent reply
ready. His father was not without suspicions, which
were turned into certainties when Cao Pi gave his
father the written replies which Cao Pi had bribed a
servant to filch from his brother’s apartments. Cao
Cao was quite angry.
“How dare he throw dust in my eyes like this?”
said Cao Cao.
Yang Xiu very nearly lost his life for his share in
that business. Now sending him to execution on the
charge of destroying the morale of the soldiers was
only a subterfuge. Yang Xiu was but thirty−four when
he met his end.
Talented was Yang Xiu,
Born of an illustrious stock,
His pen traced wonderful characters,
In his breast were beautiful words.
When he talked, his hearers were astonished,
His alert responses overpast every one.
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He died because of misdirected genius
And not because he foretold retreat.
Cao Cao thus put to death the prime mover and
simulated anger against Xiahou Dun. He threatened
to execute Xiahou Dun, but listened to those who
begged him to show mercy. “Get out of this!” said he.
Next he issued an order to advance on the
morrow. The army moved out of the valley and came
face to face with the troops of Shu led by Wei Yan.
He summoned Wei Yan to surrender, but received
abuse and contumely in return.
Pang De went out to fight Wei Yan; but while the
combat was in progress, fires broke out in Cao Cao’s
camp, and a soldier came flying to say that the rear
and center camps had been seized by Ma Chao.
Fearing lest this should lead to a rout, he drew his
sword and stood before the army, crying out, “Death
for any officer who flinches!”
Wherefore the men of Wei pressed forward
valiantly, and Wei Yan, pretending defeat, retreated.
Having driven back this army, Cao Cao gave the
signal to turn toward camp and fight with Ma Chao.
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He took up his station on the top of a hill whence he
could survey the field. Suddenly a cohort appeared
just below him, and the leader cried, “Wei Yan is
Wei Yan fitted an arrow to his bow, shot, and
wounded Cao Cao right in his lip. Cao Cao turned
and fell. Wei Yan threw aside his bow, seized his
sword, and came charging up the hill to finish his
enemy. But with a shouting Pang De flashed in.
“Spare my lord!” cried Pang De.
He rushed up and drove Wei Yan backward.
Then they took Cao Cao away. Ma Chao also
retired, and the wounded prince slowly returned to
his own camp.
As has been said, Cao Cao was wounded full in
the face, and the arrow knocked out two of his front
teeth. When in the hands of the physicians, he lay
thinking over Yang Xiu’s words. In a repentant mood
he had Yang Xiu’s remains decently interred.
Then he gave the order to retreat. Pang De was
the rear guard. Cao Cao set out homeward in a
padded carriage, escorted by his Tiger Guard.
Before they had gone far, there was an alarm of
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fire and ambush in the Xie Valley. The soldiers of
Wei were all fear−stricken.
That was something like the danger once at Tong
Pass met,
Or like the fight at the Red Cliffs which no one
could never forget.
How Cao Cao fared will next be told.
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