Zhou Yu

Zhou Yu
Zhou Yu
Qing Dynasty block print illustration of Zhou Yu
General of Sun Quan
Born 175
Died 210 (aged 35)
Simplified Chinese 周瑜
Traditional Chinese 周瑜
Pinyin Zhōu Yú
Wade-Giles Chou Yü
Style name Gongjin (公瑾)
Other names "Zhou the Handsome Youth" (美周郎)

Zhou Yu (175–210)[1] was a military general and strategist who served his close friend, the warlord Sun Ce, during the late Han Dynasty period of Chinese history. After the death of Sun Ce, another prominent warlord, Cao Cao, led a massive force southward with the intention to conquer the Jiangdong region, Zhou Yu was assigned by Sun Ce's brother and successor, Sun Quan, to be the naval commander for the defensive forces and he defeated Cao Cao's forces at the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs in 208. The subsequent Battle of Jiangling, which had Lieutenant General (偏將軍) Zhou Yu serving as the commander-in-chief of Sun Quan's forces, solidified the survivability of the future Eastern Wu regime. Thus, Zhou Yu was praised by Sun Quan to be the sole person who enabled him to become an emperor years after Zhou's death.[2]



Early life and career

Zhou Yu was born in Lujiang Commandery in an influential family with many members who served in high ranking positions in the government. Zhou Yu's grandfather, Zhou Jing, and Zhou Jing's son both took the post of Grand Commandant in the Han imperial court. Zhou Yu's father, Zhou Yi, was the Chief of Luoyang, the capital city.[3] When the coalition against Dong Zhuo was formed, Zhou Yi led his family to migrate to Lujiang. There, Sun Jian's son Sun Ce and Zhou Yu studied together and became lifelong friends. Zhou Yu's uncle later became the governor of Danyang under the warlord Yuan Shu , Zhou went visit his uncle and stayed there, while his best friend, Sun Ce, was planning to establish independence over the soil of Jiangdong.

Sun Ce, under a commission from Yuan Shu, entered Yang Province to aid his relatives, Wu Jing and Sun Ben, who were attacked by Liu Yao. When Sun was about to cross the Yangtze River to begin his Jiangdong campaign, he sent a letter to Zhou Yu, stating his ambition. In response, Zhou Yu led his troops to Liyang (歷陽, present-day He County, Anhui, China) to catch up with Sun Ce, who exclaimed upon Zhou's arrival, "with you, greatness can be attained!"[4]

Service under Sun Ce

Zhou Yu was involved in the first half of Sun Ce's campaign to unify Yang Province, wherein the focus was to defeat the warlords in the area. He was credited with the capture of Hengjiang (橫江; southeast of present-day He County, Anhui, on the northern shore of the Chang River) and Dangli (當利; east of present-day He County, Anhui). After this, Zhou Yu followed Sun Ce across the Yangtze River and conquered Huji (湖孰; present-day Husu, Jiangning, Jiangsu), Jiangcheng (江乘; near present-day Nanjing, Jiangsu), and Qu'e (曲阿; present-day Situ Town, Jiangsu). The area's strongest opponent, the Inspector of Yang Province, Liu Yao, fled from Moling (秣陵; near present-day Nanjing, Jiangsu) because Sun Ce's forces had been bolstered by by local peasant forces numbering several tens of thousands. Thinking that he could complete his objective with these troops, Sun Ce ordered Zhou Yu back to defend Dangyang.[5]

Fed by Sun Ce's victories, Yuan Shu's became more ambitious, to a point that he wanted to declare himself emperor. Sun Ce sent a letter to Yuan Shu trying to dissuade him from doing so, declaring his loyalty to the Han Emperor Xian, but his counsel fell on deaf ears. Yuan Shu sent his cousin to replace Zhou Shang as Administer of Dangyang and kept him and Zhou Yu in Shouchun (present-day Shou County, Anhui). In order to control Sun Ce, Yuan Shu had Sun Ce and Zhou Yu's families imprisoned. As a result, Zhou persuaded Yuan to grant him the position of Chief of Juchao, with the intention of escaping and returning to Sun Ce via Juchao (present-day Juchao District, Chaohu City, Anhui).

Upon knowledge of this plan, Sun Ce sent Lü Fan to secretly retrieve the families and take them to the southern side of the Yangtze River.[6] Sun Ce severed ties with Yuan Shu and allied with Lü Bu, Cao Cao, and Liu Bei to oppose him. It was during Zhou Yu's journey to Wu that he encountered a a wealthy merchant called Lu Su, whom he took to Sun Ce. This merchant would later become a prominent advisor to the Sun family.


It was around this time that Zhou Yu and Sun Ce married the Qiao sisters, with Sun Ce marrying the elder Qiao and Zhou Yu the younger. Very soon afterwards, Sun Ce and Zhou Yu pacified most of Yang Province on the south of the Yangtze River and extended their power into the Wu region and north into the Huai River region, defeating Liu Xun and the remnant forces of Yuan Shu in the north as well as Huang Zu and the forces of Liu Biao to the west.

Serving Sun Quan

In 200, Sun Ce was assassinated and was succeeded by his younger brother, Sun Quan. Zhou Yu took control of military affairs while Zhang Zhao was in charge of domestic affairs. Around this time, Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao and demanded that Sun Quan send a family member hostage. Zhou Yu advised against sending a hostage. This raised Zhou Yu's prestige within the Sun family, and he was treated as an older brother by Sun Quan. In 206, Zhou Yu attacked the local bandits and captured over 10,000 people and resettled them. When he was stationed on the border, he repelled an attack by Liu Biao's general, Deng Long, who was captured in the battle.

In 208, Sun Quan ordered an attack on Jiangxia, which was controlled by Huang Zu. Zhou Yu was assigned the Grand Commander, Lü Meng the navy commander, and Ling Tong the vanguard commander for the campaign. Even the battles were harder than expected, Huang Zu was ultimately captured and executed.

Not long later, Cao Cao started a campaign aimed at wiping out all opposition in southern China. As his army conquered Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) and was closing in on Sun Quan, the latter's court was divided upon the issue of whether to surrender or resist. Sun Quan consulted Zhou Yu, who replied: "Although Cao Cao pretends to be a minister of the Han Dynasty, he is actually a thief who is attempting to steal the empire from Han. My lord, with your brilliant talent and your father and brother's military prowess, have ruled and pacified Eastern Wu. The territory stretches thousand of li, the soldiers are well trained, brilliant advisors of great talents are at your disposal. It is the time to get rid of Cao Cao and restore the Han Dynasty. Cao Cao has come down south and presented himself as an opportunity for you, my lord. Now I will analyse for you the dire situation Cao Cao has placed himself into: Even if the north has been completely unified, can Cao Cao's ground based army fight against our superior navy and marines? The truth is that the north has not been completely pacified. Ma Chao will remain a thorn in Cao Cao's flesh. Cao Cao's superior cavalry is useless against the mountainous and watery terrain of the south. Winter is upon us, and yet Cao Cao's large army has to depend on a long supply line halfway across China. Cao Cao's army are mainly composed of northerners, and they are not used to the environment of the south, thus they will easily become sick. With all of these problems, I promise you that with 30,000 men, I can easily defeat him." Greatly relieved, Sun Quan decided to resist Cao Cao's invasion.

The Battle of Red Cliffs ensued. Contrary to popular belief, Zhuge Liang did not contribute much and Zhou Yu was the supreme commander of the united forces against Cao Cao. In this battle, a series of stratagems were employed by Zhou Yu to destroy Cao Cao's naval fleet. Huang Gai proposed a plan in which he pretended to surrender to Cao Cao and infiltrated the enemy camp. There, he set his own ships on fire and rammed them into Cao Cao's ships before jumping into the river. Many of Cao Cao's ships were set ablaze and he was forced to flee back to Xuchang.

Afterwards, Zhou Yu led his army in pursuit of Cao Cao's army and laid siege to Nan Commandery. While on the front lines, Zhou Yu was seriously wounded by a stray arrow and forced to withdraw from the direct command of troops. Cao Ren, the defending general, heard of Zhou Yu's injury and ordered his soldiers to yell insults outside Zhou's camp in an attempt to dishearten his army. Zhou Yu personally inspected his troops to raise their morale. Seeing that the advantages he had hoped to gain were lost, Cao Ren retreated. After a year of siege, Nan Commandery was taken and Zhou Yu was appointed governor of the commandery.


In 210, Zhou Yu proposed to Sun Quan his plan to attack Liu Zhang of Yi Province (covering the Sichuan Basin) and unify all of southern China under Sun Quan to resist Cao Cao in northern China. In addition, he proposed an alliance with Zhang Lu of Hanzhong and Ma Chao of Liang Province (covering present-day Gansu), whom Zhou Yu correctly predicted would soon oppose Cao Cao (Ma Chao rebelled a year later, and Zhang Lu supported him). While preparing for the long campaign, he died at age 35 in Baqiu (present-day Yueyang, Hunan).

Zhou Yu was buried in his ancestral home in Lujiang. Lu Su succeeded him as commander-in-chief of Sun Quan's military, while his oldest son Zhou Xun inherited his title of nobility.


  • Great-grandfather: Zhou Rong (周榮), served as Imperial Secretary during the reigns of Emperor Zhang and Emperor He
  • Grandfather: Zhou Jing (周景), served as Inspector of Yu Province, Imperial Secretary, and Grand Commandant
  • Father: Zhou Yi (周異), served as Prefect of Luoyang
  • Uncles:
    • Zhou Shang (周尚), served as Grand Commandant
    • Zhou Zhong (周忠), served as Administrator of Danyang
  • Children:
    • Zhou Xun, oldest son, married Sun Quan's daughter Sun Luban, served as Cavalry Commandant, died at a young age
    • Zhou Yin (周胤), second son, served as Commandant of Xingye, married a woman of the Sun clan, granted title of Marquis of Duxiang, later exiled to Luling Commandery for committing a crime, died of illness
    • Lady Zhou (周氏), personal name unknown, married Sun Quan's oldest son Sun Deng
  • Nephew: Zhou Jun (周峻), son of Zhou Yu's older brother, appointed Lieutenant-General


Zhou Yu was an intelligent young man, who was considered handsome and good-looking by his contemporaries. He was open and made friends with his humility. Cheng Pu, a senior general who had served the Sun family since Sun Jian's time, made fun of Zhou Yu's young age, but Zhou took his remarks stoically and they became friends later. Zhou Yu was also a multi-talented person with interest in poetry and music. There was a saying at that time about Zhou Yu's skill in music, "If the tune has a problem, Zhou Yu will fix it." (曲有誤, 周郎顧).[citation needed] Zhou Yu was also well known for his loyalty towards his lord. Even though Sun Quan regarded him as an older brother, Zhou Yu always respected Sun as his lord and served him with humility and care.

In fiction and popular culture

In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Zhou Yu is depicted as a rival of Zhuge Liang. He was extremely jealous of Zhuge Liang's talent and he relentlessly attempted to outwit the latter but never succeeded. His role in the novel was also overshadowed by Zhuge Liang, especially in the events of the Battle of Red Cliffs. Furthermore, Zhou Yu's death was dramatized in the novel and altered to be caused intentionally by Zhuge Liang. Zhou Yu sustained an arrow wound during the earlier Battle of Jiangling, and his condition deteriorated as he was infuriated by Zhuge Liang, who foiled his plans three times. On the third time, he coughed blood and lamented, "If (Zhou) Yu has already been born, why is (Zhuge) Liang to be born?" (既生瑜, 何生亮?), before collapsing and dying.[7]

In Chinese opera, Zhou Yu is cast as a xiaosheng (young man) or wusheng (military dress man), even when he appears together with Zhuge Liang, who was actually younger than he was. In Kun opera, Zhou Yu appears as a zhiweisheng, as in the scene The Swaying Reeds, in which he is captured and later released by Zhang Fei.[citation needed]

Modern references

  • In the anime series Ikki Tousen, the character Shuuyu Koukin is roughly based upon Zhou Yu. His cousin and ward, Sonsaku Hakufu, is based on Zhou Yu's close friend Sun Ce. Like his counterpart in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Shuuyu Koukin resents Zhuge Liang, though for a different reason.
  • In the anime series Koutetsu Sangokushi, Zhou Yu (again in the original Japanese as Shuuyu Koukin) was not able to prevent Sun Ce's assassination, but serves as Sun Quan's level-headed advisor and admiral, as well as something of a story foil to the more impulsive and brash Taishi Ci (known as "Taishiji" in Japanese).
  • Zhou Yu is featured as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. He also appears in Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy game series.

See also


  1. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 1152. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0. 
  2. ^ (「孤非周公瑾,不帝矣。」) Chen Shou. (c.280). Records of Three Kingdoms, Biography of the Lord of Wu (Sun Quan).
  3. ^ (從祖父景,景子忠,皆為漢太尉。父異,洛陽令。) Chen Shou. (c.280). Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 54, Biography of Zhou Yu.
  4. ^ (策大喜曰:"吾得卿。諧也。") Chen Shou. (c.280). Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 54, Biography of Zhou Yu.
  5. ^ (劉繇奔走,而策之眾已數萬矣。因謂瑜曰:"吾以此眾取吳會平山越已足。卿還鎮丹楊。"瑜還。)
  6. ^ (時太妃在江都,策遣范迎之。) Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 56, Biography of Lü Fan.
  7. ^ Luo Guanzhong. (c.1321). Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


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