Cheng Yu

Cheng Yu
Cheng Yu
Strategist of Cao Wei
Born 141
Died 220
Simplified Chinese 程昱
Traditional Chinese 程昱
Pinyin Chéng Yù
Wade-Giles Cheng Yu
Style name Zhòngdé (仲徳)
Posthumous name Marquis of Su (肅侯)
Other names Cheng Li (程立)

Cheng Yu (141 - 220[1]), originally named Cheng Li (程立) and changed his name to Yu (lit. "lifting the sun") after dreaming of the sun on top of Mount Tai, was one of the major advisors to the Han Dynasty warlord Cao Cao, and became a high-ranking official of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms era of China. Chen Shou, author of Records of Three Kingdoms, described him as a very tall man (approximately 1.91m) with a beautiful long beard.[2] He was from Dong'e County, Dong Commandery (near present day Liaocheng). Cheng was best known at his time for his abnormal approach to outwit a shortage on grain: instead of sending hostage to Yuan Shao for food, he advised Cao to feed the army with human![3] He was also noted for his expertise in military tactics, which helped Cao Cao defeat the rival warlord Yuan Shao and his clan in the north. It was widely agreed that his numerous contributions laid the foundation of Cao Wei, the reason he was not promoted to the rank of a duke was only because of his fore-mentioned strategy to coup with the food shortage in Yan Province.

Cheng was given the posthumous name of "Marquis Su," meaning the Marquis of Solemnity.[4] Cheng Yu's son, Cheng Wu, continued to serve in Cao Wei.



Incidents in hometown

Born in Dong'e (modern Shandong, Yanggu, China) county of Yan Province (aka Yanzhou), Cheng Yu's early life was unrecorded, but he was known as a brave man in the area during his early 40s. When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in the 180s, a county magistrate named Wang Du burned down the food stored in the warehouse, and instigated his subordinates to seize the city. The county Prefect escaped the city and went into hiding, while the town residents took their families eastward and camped beside a mountain. After receiving intelligence from his spies that Wang had moved out and camped 1.3 to 1.6 mile away from the city, Cheng reported to and told a local parvenu, Xue Fang, that Wang must not have the ability to control the situation, so they should retrieve the prefect and reoccupy the city. Xue agreed to Cheng’s plan, yet the commoners refused to comply, wherein Cheng angrily said: "Stupid commoners lack the ability to plan." He then plotted with Xue, and secretly sent several cavalry holding streamers to the hilltop, where they rode down toward the civilians. Xue and his men then screamed upon sight of the riders, making the commoners mistook them as Yellow Turbans.[5] Led by Xue, the mass kept running until back into the city, where they realized the rebels were not so terrifying and started to defend the city with the prefect, who was found by Cheng.

Seeing the inhabitants had come back, Wang Du launched an attack, but was foiled by Cheng's defense. After some time, Wang could no longer hold on and intended to move elsewhere, and Cheng led a sudden attack when the former was packing, dealing him a major blow which enabled the survival of Dong'e.

In AD 192, the Inspector of Yan Province, Liu Dai invited Cheng to join his government, but was refused by the latter. At the beginning, Liu had very good relationship with both Yuan Shao and Gongsun Zan, wherein Yuan sent his family to reside with Liu while Gongsun sent a detachment of elite cavalry to help Liu fight the Yellow Turbans in the area; however, Yuan and Gongsun became bitter enemies later, and were way more powerful than Liu, who was forced to pick a side. Liu then seek advice from Cheng, who told the former that asking the help from Gongsun was like requesting someone to save a drowning child from afar.[6] He further analyzed that Gongsun, who had recently gained a minor military victory over Yuan, would eventually lose to the latter. Therefore, it was not sagacious to enjoy a short-term benefit without a careful long-term plan. Liu agreed with Cheng's speech and severed his tie with Gongsun, who ordered his cavalry in Yan Province back. Just as Cheng had predicted, Gongsun soon suffered a heavy defeat by Yuan before his cavalry could even join the battle. Liu then asked Cheng to become his officer, and offered him the title of Commandant of Cavalry, but Cheng again refused employment.

Service under Cao Cao

However, without the assistance from Gongsun's elite cavalry, Liu Dai was soon killed by the Yellow Turbans, and Cao Cao came forth to takeover the province. Upon his arrival, Cao sent Cheng a letter concerning his presence in the government. Cheng replied Cao that he accepted the offer right away, so the commoners asked Liu:" How can you change your attitude so snobbishly?" Cheng laughed at them without commitment. When Cheng joined Cao, he was only assigned as a prefect, a position far lower than the ones Liu offered him in the past. Still, Cheng was determined to follow Cao, as evidenced by his defense against Lu Bu, who attacked Cao's homebase while the latter was on an expedition against Xu Province.

Performance in Lu Bu's invasion

When Lu claimed his rule over Yan Province, many people gave up resistance and joined him, only Zhen fortress, Dong'e, and Fan county did not yield. At the time, Cheng was guarding Zhen fortress with Cao's chief strategist, Xun Yu, who analyzed the defense could only be successful if the three holdings worked together. Cheng was asked for the defense of Dong'e because he could probably convince his hometown to fight with him. Thus, Xun stayed behind to watch over the fortress, and Cheng went to Dong'e. On his way, Cheng passed by Fan county, where Lu's lobbyist, Si Yi (氾嶷) was persuading the Prefect of Fan to switch allegiance to his master. Thus, Cheng required a meeting with the Perfect, and conducted a persuasive speech to the latter, successfully prompting the Perfect to murder Si Yi. When he arrived Dong'e, Xue Ti (薛悌, who became Zhang Liao's strategist in the Battle of Xiaoyao Ford,) and Zao Zhi (枣祗, who invented the Tuntian and urged Cao Cao to implement the system) already set up defense around the area, so Cheng split his cavalry force out to take control of Cangting ford to block the advance of Lu's strategist, Chen Gong. Xue then formulated a strategy with Cheng, which enabled the defense of the three cities until Cao's return.[7]

This year must be a hard one for Cao Cao, not only did he lose to Lu several times in battles around Poyang, a widespread famine also broke out in Yanzhou (but this also forced Lu to retreat). For once, Cao thought about relinquishing his position in Yan, and prepared to surrender to Yuan Shao, who was his childhood friend. Nevertheless, Cheng rebuked his master by saying that Cao had a caliber greater than just being a subject under Yuan, and it was shameful for a genius to submit to a man who only enjoyed an overvalued fame. Cheng said to Cao: "Even a mere warrior like Tian Heng knew about shame, how could you act so shamefully to surrender to Yuan?" However, Cheng's heroic speech was way easier to say than to do, because Cao's army had already been running out of food! Nevertheless, not wanting to be called a shameful son of a eunuch, Cao appeared to listen to Cheng, but asked the latter to ready three days of grain. Unprepared to be asked to deal with this problem, Cheng insanely devised a very vicious strategy: he personally led an armed force to pillage his hometown, and abducted his townfolk, who would then be slaughtered like pigs for the army to feed on.[3]

As a strategist

Liu Bei's betrayal

After Lu Bu was forced to abandon Yan Province, Cheng and Xun Yu advised Cao Cao to escort the emperor, who was in dire situation, into territory under his control. When Emperor Xian was guided to his new capital Xuchang from Luoyang, Cheng was made the Imperial Secretariat but was soon exonerated to be the East General of the Household and Administrator of Jiyin to command over Yan Province. In AD 198, Lu Bu took Xu Province from Liu Bei, and the latter submitted to Cao for protection. Cheng told Cao that Liu was an ambitious man who was admired by many, and he would not be a subject for long, so he should be taken care of as soon as possible. Cao refused under the rationale that he did not want the death of one individual affect the decision of others who might yield to the Han court.

Next year, Yuan Shu was defeated by Cao Cao and Sun Ce, and attempted to go north to join his elder brother (cousin) Yuan Shao. Liu Bei volunteered to intercept Yuan Shu, and was granted a sizable army to do his job. When Cheng heard the news, he rushed to Cao and protested: "It's arguable you turned down our suggestion to kill Liu earlier, but it's a certainty that he will betray you if lent a force."[8] Thus, Cao regretted upon his decision and sent an envoy to call the troops back, but it was already too late. Liu mobilized the army east and killed the Grand Administrator of Xu Province, Che Jiu (車胄), and usurped the title of the latter for an open rebellion.

Cao Cao's northern campaign

When the northern warlord, Yuan Shao defeated Gongsun Zan and congregated the four provinces north of the Yellow River, he assembled an army of over 100,000 to declare war against Cao Cao. Cheng Yu was made a general and stationed in Zhen fortress with 700 soldiers. Cao then sent a letter to Cheng and asserted the latter that he would send 2,000 men as reinforcement. However, Cheng replied: "Yuan Shao has 100,000 men and considers himself invincible. If he sees I only have such a small army, he will not attack easily. On the contrary, if my position is strong (enough to threaten his movement), then he will not be able to pass me by without attacking; if he attacks, he'll surely win, so it will be a mere waste to send in reinforcement. I hope you could understand my rationale and don't doubt on that."[9] Cao was happy that he did not need to send additional troops to Cheng, and was able to defeat Liu in the east within a short time.

Three years after Cao defeated Yuan at the Battle of Guandu, Cheng recruited and enlisted several thousand robbers and inhabitants of deep hills around Yanzhou, and led them to rendezvous with Cao in Liyang, where Cao set up as a front line military operation base against Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang. Along Li Dian, Cheng transported grain to Cao by ships. Once, the supply line was blocked by the Grand Administrator of Wei Commandery, Gao Fan, who capitalized on the geographic advantage. Cao then ordered Cheng to abandon the waterway and transport through other routes. But Li reasoned with Cheng that Gao could be defeated because he was lightly guarded with a small army. Therefore, they violated Cao's order, and landed the northern bank and defeated Gao, resulting in the smooth delivery of military necessities.

Battle of Red Cliffs

In AD 208, Cao Cao accepted the surrender of Jing Province, and sent a letter to the eastern warlord, Sun Quan, to inform the latter that he had assembled a 800,000 strong force in Jiangling city, and was eager to meet Sun in person. The majority believed Sun would surely kill Liu Bei and submit to Cao, but Cheng opposed and analyzed Sun would support Liu to fight a desperate war.[10] However, due to the fact Cao enjoyed an absolute advantage both in terms of military and economy; he did not take Cheng’s counsel seriously, and held lavish banquets on his warships from time to time. Out of negligence, none of Cao’s officers knew the wind direction would change a few days per year along the Yangtze River, and they thought the direction of wind preferred Cao’s side. While Cao was certain the allied forces could not make use of a fire attack, the enemy commander, Zhou Yu, had his grand fleet burnt into ashes overnight.

Advice to Cao Pi

When Cao Cao went west to fight Ma Chao and Han Sui, Cheng was assigned as a strategist to Cao's eldest son, Cao Pi, who was in charge of the capital. During the time Cao Cao went west, local gentries of Hejian rebelled. Cao Pi sent a general to subdue the revolt, several thousand rebels offered to surrender when they were besieged. A meeting was held within the court to decide whether they should accept the surrender. Many participants of the discussion proposed to reject the surrender, because Cao Cao once issued a fiat that those who surrendered after being besieged should be executed. But Cheng opposed: "The reason Cao Cao set such expedient rule was that he was fighting numerous enemies in a chaotic time. To execute those surrender after being besieged could intimidate other potential enemies, and encouraged early submissions; subsequently, we did not need to lay siege every time. However, the territory under control is stablized, and this battle happens within our domain, so this kind of enemies will surely surrender, killing them will not threaten other enemies. Thus, to kill the rebels now is not Cao Cao's primary focus of his rule. I suggest their surrender be accepted; if you must execute them, please inform master Cao first."[11] The feckless audience simply ignored Cheng's rationale, and vindicated their choice by claiming they had the autonomy over military issues and it was not necessary to report every single provision. Cheng remained silence and the officers left the courtroom. After the exodus, Cao Pi specifically consulted Cheng if he held any thought back in the discussion, wherein Cheng replied: "The reason Commandants and Commanders were given autonomic power is that frontline military issues are so imminent that decisions must be made immediately. But the surrendered rebels are enfettered by your general, and have no way to mutiny. That is why I don't want to see you use (abuse) your authority.[12] Being delighted by Cheng, Cao Pi changed his mind and reported the issue to Cao Cao, who ordered the surrendered rebels to be spared. After Cao Cao returned from his expedition, he particularly expressed his gratitude to Cheng by claiming the latter to be an intelligent man who not only excelled in tactics but also knew how to manage the relationship between father and son.[13]

Late life and death

Cheng went into a semi-retirement after losing to his political enemy, Xing Zhen(邢貞).[14] What was worse for him was that much invectives were done to Cheng after his downfall, and someone even libelled him as hiding intention to revolt, but Cao did not further investigate his once trusted aide; in contrast, he gave Cheng more monetary rewards. Cheng remained as a "commoner" and seldom left his home until Cao Pi ascended the throne as Emperor Wen of Wei. He was re-instituted as the Minister of the Imperial Guards, and earned a tax revenue of 800 households.[15] Since Cao Pi intended to make Cheng a duke, a discussion was made in regard to the issue, but Cheng died before the decision would be settled. He was given the posthumous name of "Su," for his inviolable reverence (See Xing Zhen's case in the following section). Both of his young son Cheng Yan and grandson Cheng Xiao were made Marquis, and Cheng Yu was succeeded by his eldest son, Cheng Wu after death. His grandson Cheng Xiao became a known scholar of the time later.


Despite being famous for his paradoxes, he tended to belittle others in his speeches. For once, he inveighed Cao Cao as inferior to the likes of Tian Heng, who was a mere warrior, when he tried to dissuade Cao from surrendering to Yuan Shao. He also used to call his townsfolk "stupid commoners."

Cheng was a recalcitrant old man, and his hidebound characteristic compelled him to quarrel with others on a frequent basis. There is a quaint incident about how he entered a predicament when he offended Xing Zhen. When Cao Cao first established the kingdom of Wei,[16] Cheng was made the Minister of the Imperial Guards (衛尉) while Xing was made Minister of the Palace Guards (中尉). However, Cheng had a rabid quirk in pontificating his dominance, and he purposedly flaunted before his supposedly subordinate, who reported his invidious behavior to Cao. As a punishment, Cheng was stripped of his position.[14]

Although ingeniously intelligent, Cheng was of a perverse and hardhearted nature.[17] Once, he ransacked his hometown, Dong'e, and kidnapped his own townfolk in order to serve the appetite of Cao's army in an act of cannibalism. It was recorded Cheng would have the abducted cut into pieces to mix with rice, so the soldiers would happliy enjoy their prized meals...[3]

In fiction

In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cheng Yu offered a ruse in order to get Xu Shu to serve Cao Cao. At the time Xu was serving as rival Liu Bei's key strategist and managed to score a major victory against Cao's generals Lü Kuang (呂嚝), Lü Xiang (呂翔), and Cao Ren (曹仁). Exploiting the fact that Xu was an extremely filial person, Cheng suggested to Cao to hold her mother hostage and force Xu to leave Liu and serve Cao. Cheng wrote a fake letter to Xu and successfully tricked Xu to come to Xuchang. Ironically Xu's mother committed suicide after seeing her son fall for such a ruse and leaving a righteous person like Liu Bei to serve under the ruthless Cao Cao. Prior to the Battle of Red Cliffs, Cheng Yu had predicted that the Eastern Wu forces would use fire to attack Cao Cao's naval fleet. However, Cao Cao did not heed his advice seriously as the winds were to their advantage then. After Cao Cao's major defeat, Cheng Yu was one of the few advisors who stood by Cao Cao all the way during their escape.


  • Sons:
    • Cheng Wu, inherited title of Marquis of Su
    • Cheng Yan (程延), granted a marquis title
  • Grandsons:
    • Cheng Ke (程克), inherited title of Marquis of Su
    • Cheng Xiao (程曉), appointed Gentleman of the Yellow Gate, later Prefect of Runan

Appointments and titles held

  • Commandant of Cavalry (騎都尉) - recommended by Liu Dai but rejected by Cheng Yu
  • Prefect of Shouzhang (壽張令)
  • Chancellor of Dongping (東平相)
  • Imperial Secretary (尚書)
  • General of the Household of the East (東中郎將)
  • Administrator of Jiyin (濟陰太守)
  • General Who Inspires Might (振威將軍)
  • General Who Uplifts Military Might (奮武將軍)
  • Marquis of Anguo (安國亭侯)
  • Minister of the Guards (衛尉)
  • Marquis of An (安鄉侯)
The following two titles were granted to Cheng Yu posthumously
  • General of Chariots and Cavalry (車騎將軍)
  • Marquis Su (肅侯)

See also

  • List of people of the Three Kingdoms


  1. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 92. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0. 
  2. ^ "長八尺三寸,美須髯。" Description in SGZ, vol. 14.
  3. ^ a b c 世语曰:"初,太祖乏食,昱略其本县,供三日粮,颇杂以人脯,由是失朝望,故位不至公。" See Folklore of the time (《魏晋世语》), compiled by Guo ban.
  4. ^ "剛德克就曰肅。執心決斷曰肅" Hardhearted or determined person might receive the posthumous title of "Su". Cheng qualified for both criteria. See Lost book of Zhou. Rules on assigning a posthumous name.
  5. ^ "密遣數騎舉幡於東山上,令房等望見,大呼言「賊已至」,便下山趣城,吏民奔走隨之" See SGZ vol. 14.
  6. ^ "「若棄紹近援而求瓚遠助,此假人於越以救溺子之說也。」" Cheng's line quoted from SGZ vol. 14.
  7. ^ "兗州從事薛悌與昱協謀,卒完三城,以待太祖。" See SGZ vol. 14.
  8. ^ "公前日不图备,昱等诚不及也。今借之以兵,必有异心。" See SGZ vol. 14.
  9. ^ “袁绍拥十万众,自以所向无前。今见昱兵少,必轻易不来攻。若益昱兵,过则不可不攻,攻之必克,徒两损其势。原公无疑!” See SGZ vol. 14.
  10. ^ “曹公无敌於天下,初举荆州,威震江表,权虽有谋,不能独当也。刘备有英名......权必资之以御我。" See SGZ vol. 14.
  11. ^ “诛降者,谓在扰攘之时,天下云起,故围而后降者不赦, 以示威天下,开其利路,使不至於围也。今天下略定,且在邦域之中,此必降之贼,杀之无所威惧,非前日诛降之意。臣以为不可诛也;纵诛之,宜先启闻。” See SGZ vol. 14.
  12. ^ Cao Pi's father, Cao Cao, bore a furtive displeasure towards him, and even wavered to replace him with Cao Zhi. Therefore, Cheng Yu's plan was actually in favor of Cao Pi's interest, because it dissuaded the latter to draw repulsion from Cao Cao by abusing the autonomy.
  13. ^ “君非徒明於军计,又善处人父子之间。” This is a direct line of Cao Cao's praise from the Brife History of Wei, by Yu Huan.
  14. ^ a b "與中尉邢貞爭威儀,免。" See SGZ vol.14.
  15. ^ Cheng earned a tax revenue of 500 household during Cao Cao's reign, and was granted an additional 300 household during Cao Pi's reign.
  16. ^ This kingdom of Wei was actually literally a kingdom (or dukedom) only, and should not be confused with the latter Kingdom of Wei established by Cao Pi.
  17. ^ "昱性剛戾。" See SGZ vol. 14.


  • Yu Huan. Weilue.
  • Chen Shou (2002). San Guo Zhi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7-80665-198-5. 
  • Luo Guanzhong (1986). San Guo Yan Yi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7-80520-013-0. 
  • Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-3467-9. 

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