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Guan Yu ([kwán ỳ] (listen); died January or February 220), courtesy name Yunchang, was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. Along with Zhang Fei, he shared a brotherly relationship with Liu Bei and accompanied him on most of his early exploits. Guan Yu played a significant role in the events leading up to the end of the Han dynasty and the establishment of Liu Bei's state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. While he is remembered for his loyalty towards Liu Bei, he is also known for repaying Cao Cao's kindness by slaying Yan Liang, a general under Cao Cao's rival Yuan Shao, at the Battle of Boma. After Liu Bei gained control of Yi Province in 214, Guan Yu remained in Jing Province to govern and defend the area for about seven years. In 219, while he was away fighting Cao Cao's forces at the Battle of Fancheng, Liu Bei's ally Sun Quan broke the Sun–Liu alliance and sent his general Lü Meng to conquer Liu Bei's territories in Jing Province. By the time Guan Yu found out about the loss of Jing Province after his defeat at Fancheng, it was too late. He was subsequently captured in an ambush by Sun Quan's forces and executed.
Guan Yu's life was lionised and his achievements glorified to such an extent after his death that he was deified during the Sui dynasty. Through generations of story telling, culminating in the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, his deeds and moral qualities have been given immense emphasis, making Guan Yu one of East Asia's most popular paradigms of loyalty and righteousness. He is still worshipped by many Chinese people today in mainland China, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and among many overseas Chinese communities. In religious devotion he is reverentially called the "Divus Guan" (Guān Dì) or "Lord Guan" (Guān Gōng). He is a deity worshipped in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to him are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants. His hometown Yuncheng has also named its airport after him.
The authoritative historical source on Guan Yu's life is the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi) written by Chen Shou in the third century. During the fifth century, Pei Songzhi annotated the Sanguozhi by incorporating information from other sources to Chen Shou's original work and adding his personal comments. Some alternative texts used in the annotations to Guan Yu's biography include: Shu Ji (Records of Shu), by Wang Yin; Wei Shu (Book of Wei), by Wang Chen, Xun Yi and Ruan Ji; Jiang Biao Zhuan, by Yu Pu; Fu Zi, by Fu Xuan; Dianlue, by Yu Huan; Wu Li (History of Wu), by Hu Chong; and Chronicles of Huayang, by Chang Qu.
No explicit descriptions of Guan Yu's physical appearance exist in historical records, however the Sanguozhi recorded that Zhuge Liang once referred to Guan Yu as having a "peerless beard".
Traditionally, Guan Yu is portrayed as a red-faced warrior with a long, lush beard. The idea of his red face may have been derived from a description of him in Chapter 1 of the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where the following passage appears:
Xuande took a look at the man, who stood at a height of nine chi, and had a two chi long beard; his face was of the colour of a dark zao, with lips that were red and plump; his eyes were like those of a crimson phoenix, and his eyebrows resembled reclining silkworms. He had a dignified air and looked quite majestic.
Alternatively, the idea of his red face could have been borrowed from opera representation, where red faces represented loyalty and righteousness. In illustrations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu is traditionally depicted wearing a green robe over his body armour.
Supposedly, Guan Yu's weapon was a guan dao named Green Dragon Crescent Blade, which resembled a podao, glaive, or naginata and was said to weigh 82 catties (about 49.2 kg or 108.4674 lbs).
Early life and career
Guan Yu was from Xie County (解縣), Hedong Commandery (河東郡), which is present-day Yuncheng, Shanxi. His original courtesy name was Changsheng (長生). He was very interested in the ancient history book Zuo zhuan and could fluently recite lines from it. He fled from his hometown for unknown reasons and went to Zhuo Commandery (涿郡; present-day Zhuozhou, Hebei). When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in the 180s, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei joined a volunteer militia formed by Liu Bei, and they assisted a colonel Zou Jing in suppressing the revolt.
When Liu Bei was appointed as the Chancellor (相) of Pingyuan State (平原國; around present-day Dezhou, Shandong), Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were appointed as Majors of Separate Command (别部司马), each commanding detachments of soldiers under Liu Bei. The three of them were as close as brothers and they shared the same room. Zhang Fei and Guan Yu also stood guard beside Liu Bei when he sat down at meetings. They followed him on his exploits and protected him from danger.
Short service under Cao Cao
Liu Bei and his men followed Cao Cao back to the imperial capital Xu (許; present-day Xuchang, Henan) after their victory over Lü Bu at the Battle of Xiapi in 198. About a year later, Liu Bei and his followers escaped from Xu under the pretext of helping Cao Cao lead an army to attack Yuan Shu. Liu Bei went to Xu Province, killed the provincial inspector Che Zhou (車冑), and seized control of the province. He moved to Xiaopei (小沛; present-day Pei County, Jiangsu) and left Guan Yu in charge of the provincial capital Xiapi (下邳; present-day Pizhou, Jiangsu).
In 200, Cao Cao led his forces to attack Liu Bei, defeated him and retook Xu Province. Liu Bei fled to northern China and found refuge under Cao Cao's rival Yuan Shao, while Guan Yu was captured by Cao Cao's forces and brought back to Xu. Cao Cao treated Guan Yu respectfully and asked Emperor Xian to appoint Guan Yu as a Lieutenant-General (偏將軍).
Battle of Boma
Later that year, Yuan Shao sent his general Yan Liang to lead an army to attack Cao Cao's garrison at Boma (白馬; near present-day Hua County, Henan), which was defended by Liu Yan (劉延). Cao Cao sent Zhang Liao and Guan Yu to lead the vanguard to engage the enemy. In the midst of battle, Guan Yu recognised Yan Liang's parasol so he charged towards Yan Liang, decapitated him and returned with his head. Yan Liang's men could not stop him. With Yan Liang's death, the siege on Boma was lifted. On Cao Cao's recommendation, Emperor Xian awarded Guan Yu the peerage of "Marquis of Hanshou Village" (漢壽亭侯).
Leaving Cao Cao
Although Cao Cao admired Guan Yu's character, he also sensed that Guan Yu had no intention of serving under him for long. He told Zhang Liao, "Why don't you make use of your friendship with Guan Yu to find out what he wants?" When Zhang Liao asked him, Guan Yu replied, "I am aware that Lord Cao treats me very generously. However, I have also received many favours from General Liu and I have sworn to follow him until I die. I cannot break my oath. I will leave eventually, so maybe you can help me convey my message to Lord Cao." Zhang Liao did so, and Cao Cao was even more impressed with Guan Yu. The Fu Zi gave a slightly different account of this incident. It recorded that Zhang Liao faced a dilemma of whether or not to convey Guan Yu's message to Cao Cao: if he did, Cao Cao might execute Guan Yu; if he did not, he would be failing in his service to Cao Cao. He sighed, "Lord Cao is my superior and he is like a father to me, while Guan Yu is like a brother to me." He eventually decided to tell Cao Cao. Cao Cao said, "A subject who serves his lord but doesn't forget his origins is truly a man of righteousness. When do you think he will leave?" Zhang Liao replied, "Guan Yu has received favours from Your Excellency. He will most probably leave after he has repaid your kindness."
After Guan Yu slew Yan Liang and lifted the siege on Boma, Cao Cao knew that he would leave soon so he gave Guan Yu greater rewards. Guan Yu sealed up all the gifts he received from Cao Cao, wrote a farewell letter, and headed towards Yuan Shao's territory to find Liu Bei. Cao Cao's subordinates wanted to pursue Guan Yu, but Cao Cao stopped them and said, "He's just doing his duty to his lord. There's no need to pursue him."
Pei Songzhi commented on this as follows: "Cao Cao admired Guan Yu's character even though he knew that Guan Yu would not remain under him. He did not send his men to pursue Guan Yu when Guan Yu left, so as to allow Guan Yu to fulfil his allegiance (to Liu Bei). If he was not as magnanimous as a great warlord should be, how would he allow this to happen? This was an example of Cao Cao's goodness."
Returning to Liu Bei
When Cao Cao and Yuan Shao clashed at the Battle of Guandu in 200, Yuan sent Liu Bei to contact Liu Pi (劉辟), a Yellow Turban rebel chief in Runan (汝南), and assist Liu Pi in attacking the imperial capital Xu (許; present-day Xuchang, Henan) while Cao Cao was away at Guandu. Guan Yu reunited with Liu Bei around this time. Liu Bei and Liu Pi were defeated by Cao Cao's general Cao Ren, after which Liu Bei returned to Yuan Shao. Liu Bei secretly planned to leave Yuan Shao, so he pretended to persuade Yuan Shao to form an alliance with Liu Biao, the Governor of Jing Province. Yuan Shao sent Liu Bei to contact another rebel leader, Gong Du (共都/龔都), in Runan, where they gathered a few thousand soldiers. Cao Cao turned back and attacked Runan after scoring a decisive victory over Yuan Shao at Guandu, and he defeated Liu Bei in Runan. Liu Bei fled south and found shelter under Liu Biao, who put him in charge of Xinye (新野; present-day Xinye County, Henan) at the northern border of Jing Province. Guan Yu followed Liu Bei to Xinye.
Battle of Red Cliffs and aftermath
Liu Biao died in 208 and was succeeded by his younger son, Liu Cong, who surrendered Jing Province to Cao Cao when the latter started a campaign that year with the aim of wiping out opposing forces in southern China. Liu Bei evacuated Xinye together with his followers and they headed towards Xiakou (夏口; in present-day Wuhan, Hubei), which was guarded by Liu Biao's elder son Liu Qi and independent of Cao Cao's control. Along the journey, Liu Bei divided his party into two groups – one led by Guan Yu which would sail along the river towards Jiangling (江陵; in present-day Jingzhou, Hubei); another led by Liu Bei which would travel on land. Cao Cao sent 5,000 elite cavalry to pursue Liu Bei's group and they caught up with them at Changban (長坂; in present-day Dangyang, Hubei), where the Battle of Changban broke out. Liu Bei and his remaining followers managed to escape from Cao Cao's forces and reach Han Ford (漢津), where Guan Yu's group picked them up and they sailed to Xiakou together.
In 208, Liu Bei allied with Sun Quan and they defeated Cao Cao at the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs. Cao Cao retreated north after his defeat and left Cao Ren behind to defend Jing Province. During the Battle of Jiangling, Guan Yu's mission was to block Cao Ren's supply lines via infiltration so he led a special force to attack Xiangyang, which was guarded by Cao Cao's general Yue Jin. Yue Jin defeated Guan Yu and Su Fei (蘇非) and drove them away. After seizing and pacifying the various commanderies in southern Jing Province, Liu Bei appointed Guan Yu as the Administrator (太守) of Xiangyang and General Who Defeats Bandits (盪寇將軍), and ordered him to station at the north of the Yangtze River.
Guan Yu later engaged Yue Jin and Wen Ping at Xunkou (尋口) and lost. Wen Ping attacked Guan Yu's equipage and supplies at Han Ford (漢津) and burnt his boats at Jingcheng (荊城).
Guarding Jing Province
Between 212 and 214, Liu Bei started a campaign to seize control of Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) from the provincial governor Liu Zhang. Most of Liu Bei's subordinates participated in the campaign, while Guan Yu remained behind to guard and oversee Liu Bei's territories in Jing Province.
Sun-Liu territorial dispute
During the mid 210s, a territorial dispute broke out between Liu Bei and Sun Quan in southern Jing Province. According to an earlier arrangement, Liu Bei "borrowed" southern Jing Province from Sun Quan to serve as a temporary base; he would have to return the territories to Sun Quan once he found another base. After Liu Bei seized control of Yi Province, Sun Quan asked him to return three commanderies but Liu Bei refused. Sun Quan then sent his general Lü Meng to lead his forces to seize the three commanderies. In response, Liu Bei ordered Guan Yu to lead troops to stop Lü Meng. Gan Ning, one of Lü Meng's subordinates, managed to deter Guan Yu from crossing the shallows near Yiyang. The shallows were thus named 'Guan Yu's Shallows' (關羽瀨). Lu Su (the overall commander of Sun Quan's forces in Jing Province) later invited Guan Yu to attend a meeting to settle the territorial dispute. Around 215, after Cao Cao seized control of Hanzhong Commandery, Liu Bei saw that as a strategic threat to his position in Yi Province so he decided to make peace with Sun Quan and agreed to divide southern Jing Province between his and Sun Quan's domains along the Xiang River. Both sides then withdrew their forces.
Battle of Fancheng
In 219, Liu Bei emerged victorious in the Hanzhong Campaign against Cao Cao, after which he declared himself "King of Hanzhong" (漢中王). He appointed Guan Yu as General of the Vanguard (前將軍) and bestowed upon him a ceremonial axe. In the same year, Guan Yu led his forces to attack Cao Ren at Fancheng (樊城; present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei) and besiege the fortress. Cao Cao sent Yu Jin to lead reinforcements to help Cao Ren. It was in autumn and there were heavy showers so the Han River overflowed. The flood destroyed Yu Jin's seven armies. Yu Jin surrendered to Guan Yu while his subordinate Pang De refused and was executed by Guan Yu. The bandits led by Liang Jia (梁郟) and Lu Hun (陸渾) received official seals from Guan Yu, so they submitted to him and became his followers. Guan Yu's fame spread throughout China.
The Shu Ji recorded that before Guan Yu embarked on the Fancheng campaign, he dreamt about a boar biting his foot. He told his son Guan Ping, "I am growing weaker this year. I might not even return alive."
Belittling Sun Quan
After Yu Jin's defeat, Cao Cao contemplated relocating the imperial capital from Xu (許; present-day Xuchang, Henan) further north into Hebei to avoid Guan Yu, but Sima Yi and Jiang Ji told him that Sun Quan would become restless when he heard of Guan Yu's victory. They suggested to Cao Cao to ally with Sun Quan and get him to help them hinder Guan Yu's advances; in return, Cao Cao would recognise the legitimacy of Sun Quan's claim over the territories in Jiangdong. In this way, the siege on Fancheng would automatically be lifted. Cao Cao heeded their suggestion. Previously, Sun Quan had sent a messenger to meet Guan Yu and propose a marriage between his son and Guan Yu's daughter. However, Guan Yu not only rejected the proposal, but also scolded and humiliated the messenger. Sun Quan was enraged.
Encounter with Xu Huang
Cao Cao later sent Xu Huang to lead another army to reinforce Cao Ren at Fancheng. Xu Huang broke through Guan Yu's encirclement and routed Guan Yu's forces on the battlefield, thus lifting the siege on Fancheng. Guan Yu withdrew his forces after seeing that he could not capture Fancheng. The Shu Ji recorded an incident about Xu Huang encountering Guan Yu on the battlefield. Xu Huang was previously a close friend of Guan Yu. They often chatted about other things apart from military affairs. When they met again at Fancheng, Xu Huang gave an order to his men: "Whoever takes Guan Yu's head will be rewarded with 1,000 jin of gold." A shocked Guan Yu asked Xu Huang, "Brother, what are you talking about?" Xu Huang replied, "This is an affair of the state."
Losing Jing Province
Although Guan Yu defeated and captured Yu Jin at Fancheng, his army found itself lacking food supplies, so he seized grain from one of Sun Quan's granaries at Xiang Pass (湘關). By then, Sun Quan had secretly agreed to an alliance with Cao Cao and sent Lü Meng and others to invade Jing Province while he followed behind with reinforcements. At Xunyang (尋陽), Lü Meng ordered his troops to hide in vessels disguised as civilian and merchant ships and sail towards Jing Province. Along the way, Lü Meng infiltrated and disabled the watchtowers set up by Guan Yu along the river, so Guan Yu was totally unaware of the invasion.
When Guan Yu embarked on the Fancheng campaign, he left Mi Fang and Shi Ren behind to defend his key bases in Jing Province – Nan Commandery (南郡; around present-day Jingzhou, Hubei) and Gong'an (公安; present-day Gong'an County, Hubei). Guan Yu had all along treated them with contempt. During the campaign, after Mi Fang and Shi Ren sent insufficient supplies to Guan Yu's army at the frontline, an annoyed Guan Yu said, "I will deal with them when I return." Mi Fang and Shi Ren felt uneasy about this. When Sun Quan invaded Jing Province, Lü Meng showed understanding towards Mi Fang and successfully induced him into surrendering while Yu Fan also persuaded Shi Ren to give up resistance. Liu Bei's territories in Jing Province fell under Sun Quan's control after the surrenders of Mi Fang and Shi Ren.
Dubious account from the Dianlue
The Dianlue recorded:
When Guan Yu was besieging Fancheng, Sun Quan sent a messenger to Guan Yu to offer aid while secretly instructing the messenger to take his time to travel there. He then sent a registrar ahead to meet Guan Yu first. Guan Yu was unhappy that Sun Quan's offer came late because he had already captured Yu Jin by then. He scolded the messenger, "You raccoon dogs dare to behave like this! If I can conquer Fancheng, what makes you think I can't destroy you?" Although Sun Quan felt insulted by Guan Yu's response, he still wrote a letter to Guan Yu and pretended to apologise and offer to allow Guan Yu to pass through his territory freely.
Pei Songzhi commented on the Dianlue account as follows:
Although Liu Bei and Sun Quan appeared to get along harmoniously, they were actually distrustful of each other. When Sun Quan later attacked Guan Yu, he dispatched his forces secretly, as mentioned in Lü Meng's biography: '[...] elite soldiers hid in vessels disguised as civilian and merchant ships.' Based on this reasoning, even if Guan Yu did not seek help from Sun Quan, the latter would not mention anything about granting Guan Yu free passage in his territory. If they genuinely wished to help each other, why would they conceal their movements from each other?
By the time Guan Yu retreated from Fancheng, Sun Quan's forces had occupied Jiangling (江陵; present-day Jiangling County, Hubei) and captured the families of Guan Yu's soldiers. Lü Meng ordered his troops to treat the civilians well and ensure that they were not harmed. Most of Guan Yu's soldiers lost their fighting spirit and deserted and went back to Jing Province to reunite with their families. Guan Yu knew that he had been isolated so he withdrew to Maicheng (麥城; present-day Maicheng Village, Lianghe Town, Dangyang, Hubei) and headed west to Zhang District (漳鄉), where his remaining men deserted him and surrendered to the enemy. Sun Quan sent Zhu Ran and Pan Zhang to block Guan Yu's retreat route. Guan Yu, along with his son Guan Ping and subordinate Zhao Lei (趙累), were captured alive by Pan Zhang's deputy Ma Zhong (馬忠) in an ambush. Guan Yu and Guan Ping were later executed by Sun Quan's forces in Linju (臨沮; present-day Nanzhang County, Hubei).
Alternate account from the Shu Ji
The Shu Ji mentioned that Sun Quan initially wanted to keep Guan Yu alive in the hope of using Guan Yu to help him counter Liu Bei and Cao Cao. However, his followers advised him against doing so by saying, "A wolf shouldn't be kept as a pet as it'll bring harm to the keeper. Cao Cao made a mistake when he refused to kill Guan Yu and landed himself in deep trouble. He even had to consider relocating the imperial capital elsewhere. How can Guan Yu be allowed to live?" Sun Quan then ordered Guan Yu's execution.
Pei Songzhi disputed this account as follows:
According to (Wei Zhao's) Book of Wu, when Sun Quan sent Pan Zhang to block Guan Yu's retreat route, Guan Yu was executed after he was captured. Linju was about 200 to 300 li away from Jiangling, so how was it possible that Guan Yu was kept alive while Sun Quan and his subjects discussed whether to execute him or not? The claim that 'Sun Quan wanted to keep Guan Yu alive for the purpose of using him to counter Liu Bei and Cao Cao' does not make sense. It was probably meant to silence smart people.
Sun Quan sent Guan Yu's head to Cao Cao, who arranged a noble's funeral for Guan Yu and had his head properly buried with full honours. In October or November 260, Liu Shan granted Guan Yu the posthumous title "Marquis Zhuangmou" (壯繆侯). According to posthumous naming rules in the Yi Zhou Shu, "Zhuangmou" was meant for a person who failed to live up to his reputation.
Request to take Qin Yilu's wife
During the Battle of Xiapi in late 198, when the allied forces of Cao Cao and Liu Bei fought against Lü Bu, Guan Yu sought permission from Cao Cao to marry Qin Yilu's wife Lady Du (杜氏) after they won the battle. After Cao Cao agreed, Guan Yu still repeatedly reminded Cao Cao about his promise before the battle ended. After Lü Bu's defeat and death, Cao Cao was so curious about why Guan Yu wanted Lady Du so badly and he guessed that she must be very beautiful, so he had her brought to him. Cao Cao ultimately broke his promise as he took Lady Du as his concubine and adopted her son Qin Lang (whom she had with Qin Yilu).
Advice to Liu Bei
The Shu Ji recorded an incident as follows:
When Liu Bei was in the imperial capital Xu, he once attended a hunting expedition together with Cao Cao, during which Guan Yu urged him to kill Cao Cao but he refused. Later, when Liu Bei reached Xiakou (after his defeat at the Battle of Changban), Guan Yu complained, "If you heeded my advice during the hunting expedition in Xu, we wouldn't end up in this troubling situation." Liu Bei replied, "I didn't do so then for the sake of the Empire. If Heaven still helps those who are righteous, it might be possible that this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise!"
Pei Songzhi commented on the Shu Ji account as follows:
When Liu Bei, Dong Cheng and others plotted against Cao Cao, their plan failed because it was leaked out. If he did not want to kill Cao Cao for the sake of the Empire, what did he mean when he said this? If Guan Yu did urge Liu Bei to kill Cao Cao during the hunting expedition and Liu Bei did not do so, it was probably because Cao Cao's close aides and relatives were present at the scene and they outnumbered him. Besides, there was a lack of careful planning so Liu Bei had to wait for another opportunity. Even if Liu Bei succeeded in killing Cao Cao, he would not have been able to escape alive, so Liu Bei did not heed Guan Yu's words. There was nothing to regret. The hunting expedition event happened in the past, so it was used to justify that Guan Yu had given Liu Bei "valued advice", which the latter ignored.
Asking Zhuge Liang about Ma Chao
In 214, Ma Chao defected from Zhang Lu's side to Liu Bei's forces, and he assisted Liu Bei in pressuring Liu Zhang to surrender and yield Yi Province to Liu Bei. When Guan Yu received news that Ma Chao (whom he was unfamiliar with) had recently joined them, he wrote to Zhuge Liang in Yi Province and asked him who was comparable to Ma Chao. Zhuge Liang knew that Guan Yu was defending the border (so he should not displease Guan Yu). He replied: "Mengqi is proficient in both civil and military affairs. He is fierce and mighty, and a hero of his time. He is comparable to Qing Bu and Peng Yue. He can compete with Yide, but he is not as good as the peerless beard."
Guan Yu was very pleased when he received Zhuge Liang's reply and he welcomed Ma Chao.
Guan Yu was once injured in the left arm by a stray arrow which pierced through his arm. Although the wound healed, he still experienced pain in the bone whenever there was a heavy downpour. A physician told him, "The arrowhead had poison on it and the poison had seeped into the bone. The way to get rid of this problem is to cut open your arm and scrape away the poison in your bone." Guan Yu then stretched out his arm and asked the physician to heal him. He then invited his subordinates to dine with him while the surgery was being performed. Blood flowed from his arm into a container below. Throughout the operation, Guan Yu feasted, consumed alcohol and chatted with his men as though nothing had happened.
Guan Yu had two known sons – Guan Ping and Guan Xing. Guan Xing inherited his father's title "Marquis of Hanshou Village" (漢壽亭侯) and served in the state of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period. Guan Yu also had a daughter. Sun Quan once proposed a marriage between his son and Guan Yu's daughter, but Guan Yu rejected the proposal. Her name was not recorded in history, but she was known as "Guan Yinping" (關銀屏) or "Guan Feng" (關鳳) in folktales and Chinese opera. Guan Yu allegedly had a third son, Guan Suo, who is not mentioned in historical texts and appears only in folklore and the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Guan Xing's son, Guan Tong (關統), married a princess (one of Liu Shan's daughters) and served as a General of the Household (中郎將) among the imperial guards. Guan Tong had no son when he died, so he was succeeded by his younger half-brother Guan Yi (關彝).
According to the Shu Ji, after the fall of Shu in 263, Pang Hui (Pang De's son) massacred Guan Yu's family and descendants to avenge his father, who was executed by Guan Yu after the Battle of Fancheng in 219.
In 1719, the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty awarded the hereditary title "Wujing Boshi" (五經博士; "Professor of the Five Classics") to Guan Yu's descendants living in Luoyang. The bearer of the title is entitled to an honorary position in the Hanlin Academy.
Chen Shou, who wrote Guan Yu's biography in the Sanguozhi, commented on the latter as such: "Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were referred to as mighty warriors capable of fighting thousands of enemies. They were like tigers among (Liu Bei's) subjects. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei both had the style of a guoshi Guan Yu repaid Cao Cao's kindness while Zhang Fei released Yan Yan out of righteousness. However, Guan Yu was unrelenting and conceited while Zhang Fei was brutal and heartless. These shortcomings resulted in their downfalls. This was not something uncommon."
The Australian sinologist Rafe de Crespigny commented: "There are anecdotes describing Zhang Fei as a man of literary tastes who composed verse in the midst of battle, but he is more generally known as arrogant, impetuous and brutal. While Guan Yu was said to be harsh towards men of the gentry but treated his soldiers well, Zhang Fei was courteous towards his betters but cruel to his rank and file. The two men were nonetheless regarded as the finest fighting men of their lifetime."
In Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms glorifies Guan Yu by portraying him as a righteous and loyal warrior. Guan Yu is one of the most altered and aggrandised characters in the novel, which accounts for his popular image in Chinese society.
See the following for some fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms involving Guan Yu:
- Oath of the Peach Garden
- Battle of Sishui Pass
- Battle of Hulao Pass
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu's three conditions
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu slays Yan Liang and Wen Chou
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu crosses five passes and slays six generals
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu slays Cai Yang at Gucheng
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Guan Yu releases Cao Cao at Huarong Trail
- Sun–Liu territorial dispute#In Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Hua Tuo heals Guan Yu's arm
- Lü Meng#In Romance of the Three Kingdoms
- List of fictitious stories in Romance of the Three Kingdoms#Events after Guan Yu's death
Worship of Guan Yu
Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui dynasty (581–618), and is still worshipped today as a bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition and as a guardian deity in Chinese folk religion and Taoism. He is also held in high esteem in Confucianism.
In Chinese religion
In Chinese folk religion, Guan Yu is widely referred to as "Emperor Guan" (關帝; Guāndì) and "Duke Guan" (關公; Guān Gōng), while his Taoist title is "Holy Emperor Lord Guan" (關聖帝君; Guān Shèng Dì Jūn). Martial temples and shrines dedicated exclusively to Guan Yu can be found across mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other places with Chinese influence such as Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Some of these temples, such as the Guandi Temple in Xiezhou (解州), Shanxi, were built exactly in the layout of an imperial residence, befitting his status as a "ruler".
The apotheosis of Guan Yu occurred in stages, as he was given ever higher posthumous titles. Liu Shan, the second emperor of Shu, gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of "Marquis Zhuangmou" (壯繆侯) four decades after his death. During the Song dynasty, Emperor Huizong bestowed upon Guan Yu the title "Duke Zhonghui" (忠惠公), and later the title of a prince. In 1187, Emperor Xiaozong honoured Guan Yu as "Prince Zhuangmou Yiyong Wu'an Yingji" (壯繆義勇武安英濟王). During the Yuan dynasty, Emperor Wenzong changed Guan Yu's title to "Prince of Xianling Yiyong Wu'an Yingji" (顯靈義勇武安英濟王).
In 1614, the Wanli Emperor bestowed on Guan Yu the title "Holy Emperor Guan, the Great God Who Subdues Demons in the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven" (三界伏魔大神威遠震天尊關聖帝君). During the Qing dynasty, the Shunzhi Emperor gave Guan Yu the title of "Guan, the Loyal and Righteous God of War, the Holy Great Deity" (忠義神武關聖大帝) in 1644. This title was expanded to "Guan the Holy Great Deity; God of War Manifesting Benevolence, Bravery and Prestige; Protector of the Country and Defender of the People; Proud and Honest Supporter of Peace and Reconciliation; Promoter of Morality, Loyalty and Righteousness" (仁勇威顯護國保民精誠綏靖翊贊宣德忠義神武關聖大帝), a total of 24 Chinese characters, by the mid-19th century. It is often shortened to "Saint of War" (武聖; Wǔ Shèng), which is of the same rank as Confucius, who is honoured the "Saint of Culture" (文聖; Wén Shèng). The Qing dynasty promoted the worship of Guan Yu among the Mongol tribes, making him one of their most revered religious figures, second only to their lamas.
Throughout history, Guan Yu has also been credited with many military successes. In the 14th century, his spirit was said to have aided Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, at the Battle of Lake Poyang. In 1402, when Zhu Di launched a coup d'état and successfully deposed his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, Zhu Di claimed that he was blessed by the spirit of Guan Yu. During the last decade of the 16th century, Guan Yu was also credited with the repulse of Japanese invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Manchu imperial clan of the Qing dynasty was also associated with Guan Yu's martial qualities. During the 20th century, Guan Yu was worshipped by the warlord Yuan Shikai, president and later a short-lived emperor of China.
Today, Guan Yu is still widely worshipped by the Chinese, and many shrines to him are found in homes, businesses and fraternal organisations. In Hong Kong, a shrine to Guan Yu can be found in every police station. Though by no means mandatory, Chinese police officers worship and pay respect to him. Although seemingly ironic, members of the triads and Heaven and Earth Society worship Guan Yu as well. Statues used by triads tend to hold the halberd in the left hand, and statues in police stations tend to hold the halberd in the right hand. This signifies which side Guan Yu is worshipped, by the righteous people or vice versa. The appearance of Guan Yu's face for the triads is usually more stern and threatening than the usual statue. In Hong Kong, Guan Yu is often referred to as "Yi Gor" (二哥; Cantonese for "second elder brother") for he was second to Liu Bei in their fictional sworn brotherhood. Guan Yu is also worshipped by Chinese businessmen in Shanxi, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia as an alternative wealth god, since he is perceived to bless the upright and protect them from the wicked. Another reason is related to the release of Cao Cao during the Huarong Trail incident, in which he let Cao and his men pass through safely. For that, he was perceived to be able to extend the lifespan of people in need.
Among the Cantonese people who emigrated to California during the mid-19th century, the worship of Guan Yu was an important element. Statues and tapestry images of the god can be found in a number of historical California joss houses (a local term for Chinese folk religion temples), where his name may be given with various Anglicised spellings, including: Kwan Dai, Kwan Tai or Kuan Ti for Guandi (Emperor Guan); Kuan Kung for Guan Gong (Lord Guan), Wu Ti or Mo Dai for Wu Di (War Deity), Kuan Yu, Kwan Yu, or Quan Yu for Guan Yu. The Mendocino Joss House, a historical landmark also known as Mo Dai Miu (Wudimiao, i.e. the Temple of the Deity of War), or Temple of Kwan Tai, built in 1852, is a typical example of the small shrines erected to Guan Yu in the United States.
Guan Yu is also worshipped as a door god in Chinese and Taoist temples, with portraits of him being pasted on doors to ward off evil spirits, usually in pairings with Zhang Fei, Guan Ping, Guan Sheng or Zhou Cang.
Apart from general worship, Guan Yu is also commemorated in China with colossal statues such as the 1,320-tonne sculpture in Jingzhou City, Hubei Province, standing at 58 metres.
Guan Yu is revered as "Holy Ruler Deity Guan" (關聖帝君; Guān Shèng Dì Jūn) and a leading subduer of demons in Taoism. Taoist worship of Guan Yu began during the Song dynasty. Legend has it that during the second decade of the 12th century, the saltwater lake in present-day Xiezhou County gradually ceased to yield salt. Emperor Huizong then summoned Zhang Jixian (張繼先), a 30th-generation descendant of Zhang Daoling, to investigate the cause. The emperor was told that the disruption was the work of Chi You, a deity of war. Zhang Jixian then recruited the help of Guan Yu, who battled Chi You over the lake and triumphed, whereupon the lake resumed salt production. Emperor Huizong then bestowed upon Guan Yu the title "Immortal of Chongning" (崇寧真君; Chóngníng Zhēnjūn), formally introducing the latter as a deity into Taoism.
In the early Ming dynasty, the 42nd Celestial Master, Zhang Zhengchang (張正常), recorded the incident in his book Lineage of the Han Celestial Masters (漢天師世家), the first Taoist classic to affirm the legend. Today, Taoist practices are predominant in Guan Yu worship. Many temples dedicated to Guan Yu, including the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou County, show heavy Taoist influence. Every year, on the 24th day of the sixth month on the lunar calendar (Guan Yu's birthday in legend), a street parade in Guan Yu's honour would also be held.
In Chinese Buddhism, Guan Yu is revered by most practising Buddhists as Sangharama Bodhisattva (伽蓝菩萨; 伽藍菩薩; Qiélán Púsà) a heavenly protector of the Buddhist dharma. Sangharama in Sanskrit means 'community garden' (sangha, community + arama, garden) and thus 'monastery'. The term Sangharama also refer to the dharmapala class of devas and spirits assigned to guard the Buddhist monastery, the dharma, and the faith itself. Over time and as an act of syncreticism, Guan Yu was seen as the representative guardian of the temple and the garden in which it stands. His statue traditionally is situated in the far left of the main altar, opposite his counterpart Skanda.
According to Buddhist legends, in 592, Guan Yu manifested himself one night before the Chan master Zhiyi, the founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, along with a retinue of spiritual beings. Zhiyi was then in deep meditation on Yuquan Hill (玉泉山) when he was distracted by Guan Yu's presence. Guan Yu then requested the master to teach him about the dharma. After receiving Buddhist teachings from the master, Guan Yu took refuge in the triple gems and also requested the Five Precepts. Henceforth, it is said that Guan Yu made a vow to become a guardian of temples and the dharma. Legends also claim that Guan Yu assisted Zhiyi in the construction of the Yuquan Temple, which still stands today.
In popular culture
Guan Yu appears in Chinese operas such as Huarong Trail, Red Cliffs, and other excerpts from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. His costume is a green military opera uniform with armour covering his right arm and the knees of his pants. The actor's face is painted red with a few black lines, to represent honour and courage. He also wears a long three-section black beard made of yak hair and carries the Green Dragon Crescent Blade. Traditionally, after the show ends, the actor has to wash his face, burn joss paper, light incense, and pray to Chinese deities.
Film and television
Notable actors who have portrayed Guan Yu in film and television include: Lu Shuming in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994); Wang Yingquan in The Legend of Guan Gong (2004); Ti Lung in Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008); Ba Sen in Red Cliff (2008–2009); Yu Rongguang in Three Kingdoms (2010); Donnie Yen in The Lost Bladesman (2011); Han Geng in Dynasty Warriors (2019).
Films which make references to Guan Yu include: Stephen Chow's comedy film From Beijing with Love (1994), which, in one scene, refers to the story of Hua Tuo performing surgery on Guan Yu's arm; Zhang Yimou's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), in which the fictional story of Guan Yu slaying six generals and crossing five passes forms a major part of the narrative; the horror comedy film My Name Is Bruce (2007), where Guan Yu's vengeful spirit is accidentally set free by a group of teenagers and he begins to terrorise their town.
Guan Yu is referenced in the manga Battle Vixens (as a schoolgirl Kan-u Unchou) and BB Senshi Sangokuden (as ZZ Gundam, who is portrayed as Guan Yu Gundam).
Guan Yu appears as a playable character in many video games based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms which are produced by Koei, including: the strategy game series of the same title as the novel; the action game series Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi. Other non-Koei titles in which he also appears include: Total War: Three Kingdoms; Puzzle & Dragons; Sango Fighter; Destiny of an Emperor; Atlantica Online; and Smite. He is also referenced in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, Titan Quest, and Koihime Musō.
Guan Yu is referenced in the Portal Three Kingdoms of the card game Magic: The Gathering on a playable card. He also appears in the History Channel's Anachronism card game.