Ma Chao

Ma Chao

Three Kingdoms infobox
Name=Ma Chao

Caption=Qing Dynasty illustration.
Title= Military general
Kingdom=Shu Han
Pinyin=Mǎ Chāo
WG=Ma Ch'ao
Zi=Mengqi (孟起)
Post=Marquis of Wei
Other=Ma Chao the Splendid

Ma Chao (176 – 222) was the eldest son of Ma Teng and a military general during the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. In Luo Guanzhong's 14th century historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" he received the nickname "Ma Chao the Splendid" due to his elaborate armour and grand skill as a warrior. Ma Chao is remembered as one of the Five Tiger Generals of Shu Han, popularized by "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms". As a Shu general he raised morale and offered more strategies than achievements in battles.


Early life

Ma Chao was from Fufeng Prefecture's Maoling County; he was born of mixed blood — half Han Chinese and half Qiang. In the latter years of Emperor Ling's reign, his father, Ma Teng together with Han Sui, Bian Zhang and others built an army in Liangzhou. Later on, Ma Teng and Han Sui led their troops to Chang'an. The Han imperial court gave a title of "General who Controls the West" (鎮西將軍) to Han Sui and ordered him to return to Jincheng while giving the title of "General who Conquers the West" (征西將軍) to Ma Teng and stationed him at Mei County (in the province of Shaanxi). Later, Ma Teng attacked Chang'an but was defeated and retreated to Liangzhou. Meanwhile, Zhong Yao, who protected the pass of Guanzhong, wrote a letter to Ma Teng and Han Sui informing them of an interest in forming an alliance. Subsequently, Ma Teng and Han Sui had some disagreements and Ma Teng asked to return to the vicinity of the capital. So the Han imperial court summoned Ma Teng back and made him a Commandant of the Palace Guards. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.10]

Cao Cao recommended Ma Teng’s firstborn son, Ma Chao, to serve in office, but Ma Chao declined. Later on, however, Ma Chao became Sili Xiaowei Dujun Congshi (roughly meaning a subordinate military officer of Sili Xiaowei), ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "Dianlüe"] and accompanied Zhong Yao to Pingyang and suppress Guo Yuan and Gao Gan. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.10] In the ensuing battle, Ma Chao was hit by an arrow on the foot, but he took a pouch, wrapped his foot in it, and continued fighting and beheaded Guo Yuan. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "Dianlüe"] The court made him Inspector of the Xu province, and then transferred him to be an Imperial Consultant. When Ma Teng went into the Capital, Ma Chao was made Lieutenant-General, and ordered to take over Ma Teng’s command. He also received the title of Marquis of Duting. The court also made Ma Chao’s younger brother Ma Xiu Chief Commandant of the Charioteers, and Ma Xiu’s younger brother Ma Tie Colonel of the Cavalry. All their families were sent to Ye city, but Ma Chao stayed behind. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "Dianlüe"]

Uprising against Cao Cao

After he took control of Ma Teng's forces, Ma Chao reconciled with Han Sui. He also contacted Yang Qiu, Li Kan, Cheng Yi and others, and started the Battle of Tong Pass. Cao Cao personally negotiated with Ma Chao and Han Sui. Ma Chao thought highly about his own ability and had planned to capture Cao Cao alive. His charges were only held back by Cao Cao’s personal bodyguard, Xu Chu. After executing Ma Chao's family in Ye for his rebellion, Cao Cao used Jia Xu's ploy to drive Han Sui and Ma Chao apart and instigated them to be suspicious of each other. Thus, their forces were annihilated and Ma Chao escaped to the west and lived among the tribes. Cao Cao pursued him to Anding (安定) when he heard about unrest in the north and ordered his troops to return. Yang Fu warned Cao Cao, "Ma Chao has the courage of Ying Bu and Han Xin, and he has the support of the Qiangs and the other tribes. If you order the army to retreat now and we don't have enough forces here, we forfeit the prefectures of Longxi." ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.11]

Sure enough, Ma Chao attacked the prefectures of Longxi with the forces of the western tribes and the prefectures took their lead from him, except for the city of Jicheng (冀城). ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 25 Wei Book 25.9] When he conquered Jicheng, Ma Chao killed the Inspector of Liangzhou, Wei Kang, occupied the city and controlled Wei Kang’s forces. He called himself the General Who Conquers the West and took over the governance of Bingzhou and the military matters of Liangzhou. The deputies who served under Wei Kang: Yang Fu, Jiang Xu, Liang Kuan, Zhao Qu and others plotted against Ma Chao. Yang Fu and Jiang Xu revolted in Licheng and Ma Chao left Jicheng to quell the uprising, but was not successful. Meanwhile, Liang Kuan and Zhao Qu closed the gates to Jicheng and Ma Chao could not return to the city. He had little choice but to seek refuge with Zhang Lu in Hanzhong.

ervice under Zhang Lu

Ma Chao was unhappy with Zhang Lu because he felt Zhang Lu was not capable enough nor ambitious enough to accomplish great tasks. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.11] He would ask Zhang Lu for troops to attack Liangzhou from time to time, but was never triumphant.

Zhang Lu once thought of marrying his daughter to Ma Chao, but Wang Shang, one of Zhang Lu's officers, dissuaded him, saying "Ma Chao is full of courage but not humanity; he knows no allegiance. He can not be trusted in a relationship that calls for an interdependency." ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 38 Shu Book 8 Note "Yizhou qi jiu chuan"] (referring to his uprising that doomed his clan). Ma Chao was deeply regretful for causing the death of his family, as on one New Year's Day, he laments with younger cousin Ma Dai: "A family of hundreds, sharing the same fate in one day. Now are there only the two of us to give greetings to each other?"

Zhang Lu grew to distrust Ma Chao more and more, and sent Yang Bo to monitor him. Ma Chao then left Zhang Lu to live with the Di people.

ervice under Liu Bei

Meanwhile, Liu Bei attacked Liu Zhang in Chengdu and sent Li Kui to convince Ma Chao to join him. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 43 Shu Book 13.5] Ma Chao responded by killing Yang Bo and leading his men to defect to Liu Bei. When Liu Bei heard that Ma Chao was coming, he said delightedly, "I am going to get Yizhou!" ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "Dianlüe"] He sent an envoy to greet Ma Chao. Ma Chao led his men to the north side of Chengdu, capital city of Liu Zhang. There was great fear within the city. Within ten days, Liu Zhang surrendered. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "Dianlüe"] Ma Chao was appointed as "General Who Pacifies the West" (平西將軍) and put in charge of the areas of Linju (臨沮) as befitting a Marquis of Duting, which was the title awarded by the Han court to Ma Chao. When Liu Bei became Prince of Hanzhong, he gave Ma Chao the title of "General of the Left" (左將軍). In 221, Ma Chao was appointed as "General of the Agile Cavalry" (驃騎將軍) and governor of the Province of Liang. He also received a noble title of Marquis of Lixiang. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.12]

Liu Bei wrote to Ma Chao, "I am incapable but I needed to preserve the Han dynasty. Cao Cao and his son ruined the country would be remembered by all for their sins. I am disconsolate by their wrongdoings. Our people loathed them and hope to regain the Han realm such that the Di, Qiang and Xunyu and other tribes on all corners of China will be willing to join us. You are in good esteem of the northerners and your valor is well-known there. I have an important task for you: I hope you use your great influence to govern them and be concerned about the sufferings of the people. You must show the benefits of the Han government. Be fair in your task to reward the good and punish the wrongdoers. Add to the fortunes of the Han culture and not let our people down." ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.12]

Ma Chao passed away at the age of 46 in second year of Zhangwu as a result of illness. Before he died, he wrote to Liu Bei, "Most of my extended family of two hundred odd were killed by Cao Cao. Only my younger cousin Ma Dai is left. Let him continue what is left of our family. I entrust him to you. That is all I have to say." ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.12]

Liu Bei gave Ma Chao the posthumous title of Marquis of Wei and his son, Ma Cheng, inherited his nobility. Ma Chao's daughter married Prince of Anping, Liu Li. ["Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.12]

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The main difference between the historical version and the fiction is the sequence of events and Ma Chao’s character:
* In the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", Ma Teng was executed which was why Ma Chao led an uprising. In the historical version, Ma Chao led an uprising which caused Ma Teng to be executed.
* In the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", Ma Chao was described as "brave but incapable" (Chapter 64). That does not tally with the comments of Cao Cao and Zhuge Liang, two brilliant minds of the time, who gave him high praises.
* In most versions of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms", Ma Chao's life is extended to 225, after Liu Bei's death and Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign.

Battle of Tong Pass

In 211, Cao Cao executed Ma Teng, who was a conspirator against him, along with Ma Tie. Ma Chao, seeking revenge, mobilized his forces to wage war against Cao Cao. Together with his father's sworn brother Han Sui, Ma Chao set off for Chang'an and conquered it easily. Having conquered Chang'an they advanced towards Tong Pass. Thus Cao Cao immediately dispatched Xu Huang and Cao Hong with 10,000 troops to Tong Pass and issued orders that they must refrain from engaging the enemy and defend the pass for ten days. However, on the ninth day Cao Hong could no longer put up with the insults and taunts shouted by Ma Chao and his army and therefore led a contingent of troops out of the pass to fight Ma Chao's forces without permission. Xu Huang came out to help Cao Hong but the two of them were no match for Ma Chao who successfully took the pass. Cao Cao led troops personally to recapture Tong Pass and Ma Chao defeated many of Cao Cao's top generals such as Zhang He and Yu Jin single handedly.

Ma Chao then directly attacked Cao Cao. Cao Cao, in a bid to escape, cut off his beard and threw away his robe to avoid being identified by Ma Chao's troops before being rescued by Cao Hong and Xiahou Yuan. In order to cut off Ma Chao's supplies lines, Cao Cao led troops to cross the river but Ma Chao was prepared and ambushed him instead. According to legend, if not for Xu Chu's bravery and loyalty, Cao Cao would certainly have perished there. Later Ma Chao was challenged to a duel by Xu Chu, a man of herculean strength and one leader of Cao Cao's personal bodyguards (the other being Dian Wei, who was dead at that time). Ma Chao fought with Xu Chu in a long bloody duel with no victor, and the duel was cut off by Cao Cao after he ordered his troops to advance. Back at his camp Ma Chao praised Xu Chu as a true mighty warrior with the well earned name "Mad Tiger". In the days ahead, Ma Chao harassed Cao Cao's troops and gave them no chance of setting up camps. Knowing that it would be very difficult to defeat a valiant general like Ma Chao, Cao Cao accepted his adviser Jia Xu's proposal to pretend to make peace with Ma Chao and at the same time attempt to turn Ma Chao and Han Sui against each other. Slowly the two men were driven apart. Ma Chao thought that Han Sui had collaborated with Cao Cao against him and tried to kill Han Sui, but only managed to chop off Han Sui's hand. In the ensuing confusion, Cao Cao launched an attack on his confused enemies and overcame them.

Battle of Jiameng Pass

Ma Chao, together with his cousin Ma Dai and his subordinate Pang De, escaped and later sought refuge with the warlord Zhang Lu. Later Zhang Lu sent Ma Chao to rescue Liu Zhang's Yizhou from Liu Bei's invading forces. The first encounter with Liu Bei's army was with Zhang Fei in Jiameng Pass (葭萌關). The two men fought like tigers for long periods on two occasions with no signs of either one gaining an upper hand. Fearing that either one would get hurt, Liu Bei consulted Zhuge Liang and they agreed that such a valiant and highly skilled general like Ma Chao would be a waste if any harm fell on him or Zhang Fei. An envoy was thus sent to persuade Ma Chao to defect over to Liu Bei, and tricks were used to make Liu Zhang distrust Ma Chao. Ma Chao, being in a fix then, switched his allegiance over to Liu Bei.


"Ma Chao is both a scholar and a warrior. His might is exceptional. He is a peerless hero, the likes of Ying Bu and Peng Yue". – Zhuge Liang ("Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.3)

"If the baby horse (Ma) doesn’t die, I wouldn’t be able to have a burial site!" – Cao Cao ("Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6 Note "San yang gong zai ji")

"Ma Chao has the courage of Ying Bu and Han Xin" – Yang Fu ("Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.11; "ibid". Scroll 25 Wei Book 25.9)

"Ma Chao is brave but unprincipled." – Yang Fu ("Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 25 Wei Book 25.10)

"Ma Chao because of his ability to control the Western tribes and also because of his courage was conceited and brought about the doom of his entire clan. What a great pity! But he overcame his difficult position and reached a state of tranquility. Isn't that compensation?" – Chen Shou ("Records of Three Kingdoms" Scroll 36 Shu Book 6.18)

"A veritable tiger of a general." – Liu Bei ("Romance of the Three Kingdoms", Chap. 65)

Modern references

Ma Chao is a character from the "Dynasty Warriors" series, developed by Koei. Being a playable character and introduced in "Dynasty Warriors 2", he is portrayed as a brave and highly skilled warrior who fights for justice and is eager to end the chaos. He bears the nickname "Ma Chao the Splendid" and is known for his elaborate armor. Ma Chao fights with a spear called 'Stallion Fury'. With good speed and rage, he is a flexible warrior who is able to fight skillfully on both foot and horse.

In "Warriors Orochi", he was leading a resistance team along with Mori Ranmaru in an attack in Mt. Ding Jun. The rebellion is quelled and his comrade Ranmaru joins Sun Ce while Ma Chao escapes. Later he is trying to save people from Orochi and evacuate them to Zenkoji. with a little help from Oda Nobunaga and Ma's close friend Huang Zhong they were able to withstand Sima Yi's onslaught at Kawanakajima and Ma Chao pledges his spear forever to the Oda clan.



*Chen, Shou. 三国志全译. ed. Wu Shundong, Tan Shuchun, Chen Aiping. ISBN 7-221-03447-8.
*Chen, Shou. 白话三囯志. ISBN 7-5325-2115-X.
*Fang, Shiming. 三国人物散论. ISBN : 7-5325-2755-7
*Zhang, Dake. 三囯人物新传. ISBN : 7-5075-1421-8

ee also

*Three Kingdoms
*Personages of the Three Kingdoms
*"Records of Three Kingdoms"
*"Romance of the Three Kingdoms"

External links

* [ KongMing Archives' San Guo Zhi Translation of Ma Chao's biography]
* [ Romance of the Three Kingdoms Ma Chao Biography]

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