Sima Yi

Sima Yi

Three Kingdoms infobox
Name=Sima Yi

Caption=Qing Dynasty illustration.
Kingdom=Cao Wei
Pinyin=Sīmǎ Yì
WG=Szŭma I
Zi=Zhòngdá (仲達)

  • Wenxuan(文宣)
    by Cao Wei
  • King Xuan (宣王)
    by Sima Zhao
  • Emperor Xuan (宣皇帝)
    by Sima Yan
    Temple=Gaozu (高祖)

    Sima Yi (179 - 251) was a strategist, general, and politician of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms era of China. He is perhaps best known for defending Cao Wei from Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions. His success and subsequent rise in prominence paved the way for his grandson Sima Yan's foundation of the Jin Dynasty, which would eventually bring an end to the Three Kingdoms era. After the founding of the Jin Dynasty, Sima Yi was posthumously honored as Emperor Xuan of Jin with the temple name of Gaozu.

    Early life

    Sima Yi descended from the famous historian Sima Qian, author of the "Shiji". He was one of eight brothers, all of whom were famous due to their lineage. Each of them had a Chinese style name ending with the character Da (達). Because of this, the brothers were known collectively as the "Eight "Da" of Sima" (司馬八達). This was a term of respect, as other groups of eight talented administrators in previous eras had been referred to in this way. [Sakaguchi 2005:158] His family resided in Luoyang when Dong Zhuo occupied the city, destroyed it, and moved the capital to Chang'an. Sima Yi's elder brother, Sima Lang led the family to their ancestral home in the Wen district (温縣), and then, correctly predicting that it would become a battlefield, moved them again to Liyang (黎陽). In 194, as Cao Cao did battle with Lü Bu, Sima Yi accompanied his family back to Wen district. [ibid.]

    ervice under Cao Cao

    Accounts on how Sima Yi joined the service of Cao Cao differ, but he accepted his first position in Cao Cao's camp at the age of 30. According to the "Book of Jin", Sima Yi believed that the Han Dynasty would soon come to an end, and felt no motivation to join Cao Cao's camp, which had already taken control of the Han seat of government. He refused Cao Cao's requests to serve, saying that he was suffering from a disease. Cao Cao did not believe Sima Yi's excuse, and sent agents to check on Sima Yi at night. Sima Yi, knowing this in advance, stayed in bed all night and did not move. In 208, Cao Cao became Imperial Chancellor and ordered Sima Yi to serve him, saying "If he dallies, arrest him." Afraid of what would happen if he refused, Sima Yi finally accepted the position of Wenxueyuan (文学掾). ["Book of Jin, vol. 1."] However, according to "Weilüe", Cao Hong, Cao Cao's younger cousin, requested the presence of Sima Yi in order to start a friendship with him, but the latter, not having a very high opinion of Cao Hong, feigned illness by carrying a cane in order to avoid meeting him. Cao Hong went to Cao Cao in anger and told him what had happened, after which Cao Cao directly requested the presence of Sima Yi. Only then did Sima Yi officially enter Cao Cao's service. ["Weilüe"]

    In the Chancellor's service, he rose through the ranks of Dongcaoyuan (東曹掾; in charge of bringing officials into service), Zhubo (主簿; an administrative position), and Sima (司馬; position in charge of aids and advisors). In 215, when Cao Cao defeated Zhang Lu and forced him to surrender, Sima Yi advised that Cao Cao continue to advance south into Yizhou, since Liu Bei had still not stabilized his control of that area. However, Cao Cao did not listen to his advice. Sima Yi was among other advisors who urged for the implementation of the tuntian system and for Cao Cao to take the position of Prince of Wei. ["Book of Jin, vol. 1."]

    ervice under Cao Pi

    Even before Cao Cao's death, Sima Yi was close to his successor, Cao Pi. When Cao Pi was designated Crown Prince of Wei in 216, Sima Yi was made his secretary. When Cao Cao wavered on choosing between Cao Pi and his younger brother Cao Zhi, Sima Yi was among those who backed Cao Pi and helped him secure the succession. In this way, he became greatly trusted by Cao Pi. ["Book of Jin, vol. 1."] After Cao Cao's death, and Cao Pi's ascension to Emperor of Wei, Sima Yi was involved in Cao Zhi's demotion and removal from politics. [Sakaguchi 2005:160]

    In 225, Cao Pi advanced against Sun Quan's Wu, and entrusted Sima Yi with command over the capital in his absence. He compared Sima Yi to Xiao He, whose quiet contributions behind the battle lines earned him much praise. ["Book of Jin, vol. 1."] Upon returning from the military expedition, Cao Pi once again praised his servant, saying "As I did battle in the East, you stayed in the capital and guarded our kingdom against Shu in the West. When I go to battle in the West against Shu, I'll entrust you with defence against Wu in the East." Sima Yi was soon given the post of Lushang Shushi (録尚書事), which at that time held the same real power and responsibilities as Imperial Chancellor. Sima Yi's position within Wei was now all but unassailable.

    ervice under Cao Rui

    In 226, as Cao Pi lay on his deathbed, he entrusted his successor Cao Rui to the care of Sima Yi, Cao Zhen, and Chen Qun. When Cao Rui became Emperor of Wei, he trusted Sima Yi greatly and appointed him Piaoqi General (骠骑大将军) [Watanabe 2006:283] and military commander of Yuzhou and Jingzhou (督荊豫二州諸軍事) and was placed on the border between Wei and Wu to defend against Sun Qian's forces.

    Battle of Xincheng

    In 220, when Meng Da surrendered to Wei and Cao Pi entrusted him as Administrator of Xincheng. Sima Yi did not trust him, and argued his case to Cao Pi, but his advice was not taken. [Sakaguchi 2005:160] In 227, Meng Da began making overtures to Wu and Shu, promising to turn against Wei when an opportunity presented itself. He was very slow to move in response to Zhuge Liang's urgings, however, and Zhuge Liang attempted to spur him into action by leaking Meng Da's rebellious intentions to Shen Yi, the administrator of Weixing (魏興). When Meng Da learned that his plans had been discovered, he began raising troops in preparation for action. [ibid.]

    Fearing quick action by Meng Da, Sima Yi sent him a letter saying "Long ago, you surrendered to our kingdom, and we put you in charge of the defense of our borders against Shu. The people of Shu are foolish, and still hate you for not coming to Guan Yu's assistance. Kongming is the same, and he has been looking for a way to destroy you. As you probably suspect, the news of your rebellion is only his plot." [ibid.] Meng Da now believed that he was safe, and did not rush his preparations. He believed that Sima Yi, posted on the border of Wei and Wu, would require a month to go to Cao Pi and request permission to raise troops, then to reach Xincheng. However, Sima Yi was already on his way and reached Xincheng in 8 days, quickly defeating the unprepared Meng Da, who was killed in the battle. This action contributed indirectly to the success at the Battle of Jieting and earned Sima Yi much praise.

    Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions

    When Cao Zhen, who had been leading the defense against Zhuge Liang's Northern expeditions died in 231, Sima Yi took his position in command, and faced Zhuge Liang's armies for the first time in battle. Sima Yi kept his armies safe in fortifications, his strategy being to wait out the Shu armies who had a very difficult time keeping their armies supplied with provisions. He did not attempt to do battle with Zhuge Liang whatsoever, and was mocked by his own subordinates, who claimed he was the laughing stock of the world. [Sakaguchi 2005:161] Unable to resist doing battle any longer, he allowed his generals to attack Shu's positions, but they were badly defeated and suffered losses including 3000 soldiers, 5000 suits of iron armor, and 3000 crossbows. ["Book of Shu", Legend of Zhuge Liang.] When Zhuge Liang finally did retreat, Sima Yi ordered Zhang He to pursue, who was ambushed and killed.

    The second battle between Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang was in 234. Cao Rui again identified Shu's problem being keeping their army supplied, and ordered Sima Yi to keep his armies fortified and wait the enemy out. The two armies faced each other at Wuzhang Plains. Although being challenged many times by Zhuge Liang, Sima Yi did not send his armies to attack. To provoke Sima Yi, Zhuge Liang sent women's clothes to him, suggesting that he was a woman for not daring to attack. The Wei officers were enraged by this, but Sima Yi would not be provoked. To appease his officers, Sima Yi asked the Wei Emperor Cao Rui for permission to engage the Shu forces. Cao Rui, understanding the situation, sent his advisor Xin Pi to Sima Yi telling the Wei forces to be patient. [Watanabe 2006:270] In an attempt to engage the Wei forces, Zhuge Liang sent Sima Yi an emissary urging him to battle. Sima Yi, however, would not discuss military matters with the emissary, instead inquired about Zhuge Liang's tasks. The emissary replied that Zhuge Liang personally manages matters both big and small in the military, from military tactics to meals for the night, but he consumes very little. Sima Yi then told an aide that Zhuge Liang would not last long. [Watanabe 2006:272]

    Following Zhuge Liang's death, the Shu forces quietly withdrew from their camps while keeping Zhuge Liang's death a secret. Sima Yi, convinced by the locals that Zhuge Liang had died, gave chase to the retreating Shu forces. Jiang Wei then had Yang Yi turn around and pretend to strike. Seeing this, Sima Yi feared that Zhuge Liang only pretended he was dead to lure him out, and immediately retreated. Word that Sima Yi fled from the already dead Zhuge Liang spread, spawning a popular saying, "A dead Zhuge scares away a living Zhongda" (死諸葛嚇走活仲達), referring to Sima Yi's courtesy name. When Sima Yi heard of such ridicule, he laughingly responded, "I can do battle with the living, but not the dead." [Watanabe 2006:276, Sakaguchi 2005:161]

    Expedition against Gongsun Yuan

    After Guanqiu Jian had failed to defeat the forces of Gongsun Yuan in Liaodong, and Gongsun Yuan had declared himself Prince of Yan, Cao Rui put Sima Yi in charge of the next expedition against him. Sima Yi defeated Gongsun Yuan twice on the field of battle, and forced him to retreat to Xiangping (襄平), where he prepared for siege. Long rains brought a temporary break from the fighting, but as soon as they lifted, Sima Yi launched an all out attack. Gongsun Yuan and his sons were killed while attempting to flee. [Watanabe 2006:278]

    ervice under Cao Fang and coup d'état

    As Cao Rui lay on his deathbed, he had doubts about Sima Yi, and initially planned to exclude him from the regency of his successor Cao Fang. [Sakaguchi 2005:204] He wanted to entrust Cao Fang to his uncle Cao Yu (曹宇), to serve as the lead regent, along with Xiahou Xian (夏侯獻), Cao Shuang, Cao Zhao (曹肇), and Qin Lang (秦朗). However, his trusted officials Liu Fang (劉放) and Sun Zi (孫資) were unfriendly with Xiahou and Cao Zhao and were apprehensive about their becoming regents, and managed to persuade him to make Cao Shuang (with whom they were friendly) and Sima Yi (who was then with his troops at Ji (汲縣, in modern Xinxiang, Henan, and to who Liu Fang and Sun Zi were close to) regents instead. Cao Yu, Cao Zhao, and Qin were excluded from the regency.

    Initially, Cao Shuang and Sima Yi shared power, but Cao Shuang quickly used a number of political maneuvers to honor Sima with honorific titles including Grand Tutor while stripping his actual power. Cao Shuang then made all important decisions and stopped consulting Sima. Quickly, Cao's associates, including Deng Yang (鄧颺), Li Sheng (李勝), He Yan (何晏), and Ding Mi (丁謐) [Watanabe 2006:280, Sakaguchi 2005:162] , who were known for their talents but lack of wisdom, all became powerful, and they excluded other officials who would not associate with them from positions of power. [Sakaguchi 2005:50] Sima was still given military authority (including command in repelling a major Eastern Wu attack in 241), but no real authority on governance. [ibid.]

    In 244, Cao Shuang, who wanted to garner for himself a military reputation as well, made a major attack against Shu Han's major border city of Hanzhong (in modern Hanzhong, Shaanxi), without careful logistics planning. The battles themselves were inconclusive, but after Cao Wei forces ran out of food supplies, Cao Shuang was forced to withdraw at great loss of life. [Sakamoto 2005:51] Despite his failure on the battlefield, however, Cao Shuang held onto power firmly. In 247, Sima, upset at his actual powerlessness, claimed that he was ill and retired from government service. Cao Shuang sent Li Sheng to determine whether or not Sima Yi was truly ill, and Sima Yi deceived him by acting senile in his presence. [Watanabe 2006:281]

    In 249, Sima made his move. While Cao Fang and Cao Shuang were outside the capital on an official visit to Cao Rui's tomb, Sima, with support from a number of anti-Cao Shuang officials, claiming to have an order from Empress Dowager Guo to do so, closed all city gates of Luoyang and submitted a report to Cao Fang, accusing Cao Shuang of dominating and corrupting the government and demanding that Cao Shuang and his brothers be deposed. Cao Shuang was stricken by panic and did not know how to react, and even though his senior advisor Huan Fan recommended that he take Cao Fang to the secondary capital Xuchang and then resist Sima with his troops, Cao chose to surrender his troops and powers, under promise by Sima that he would still be able to maintain his titles. However, Sima soon reneged on the promise and had Cao Shuang and his associates, as well as their clans, executed on charges of treason. [Sakamoto 2005:162, Watanabe 2006:282]

    After Sima Yi's takeover, he carefully but inexorably removed people who were actual or potential threats to his authority. Yet, at the same time, he strived to distance himself from the patterns followed by the man his actions seemed to mirror most - Cao Cao; when Cao Fang offered him the nine bestowments, he strenuously refused them, only accepting them after more than three offers. The 18-year-old Cao Fang left himself in a vulnerable position by going so far as to grant one of his followers such influence; Sima, however, had the support of the people by removing corruption and inefficiency that characterized Cao Shuang's regency and promoting a number of honest officials. He was offered the title of Imperial Chancellor, but refused. [Watanabe 2006:283]

    In 249, the powerful general Wang Ling, who was in charge of the key southeastern city of Shouchun (壽春, in modern Lu'an, Anhui) began to plan a revolt against Sima's hold on power, in association with Cao Biao (曹彪), the Prince of Chu and a son of Cao Cao (whom he planned to replace Cao Fang with as emperor). In 251, Wang was ready to carry out his plans when his associates Huang Hua (黃華) and Yang Hong (楊弘) leaked the plan to Sima. Sima quickly advanced east before Wang could be ready and promised to pardon him. Wang knew that he was not ready to resist, so he submitted, but Sima again reneged on his promise and forced Wang and Cao Biao to commit suicide. Wang's clan and the clans of his associates were all slaughtered.

    Having secured his family's control of Cao Wei, Sima Yi died in 251, succeeded by his son Sima Shi.


    After the fall of the Western Jin Dynasty, the belief began to shift from the popular ideal that Wei was the rightful successor to the Han toward a sympathetic view of Shu Han. Before this change, Sima Yi was seen as a righteous figure in the "Book of Jin" and was practically deified. Afterwards, Sima Yi began to be vilified; a view which was epitomized in the classic novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". In the novel, Sima Yi was portrayed as the dedicated servant of Cao Cao, obsessed with his ideals even to the point of honing his example of usurping power against a weak ruler and using it to bring down Cao Cao's own descendants. In terms of history, many of the accounts are either contradicted or simply do not exist and were most likely borrowed from either the elements of Luo Guanzhong's imagination or from folk tales that had been passed down through the ages.

    As Sima Yi's contributions toward Cao Wei are substantial, the debate of his legacy lies within what motivated his actions. A debate, that has continued to this day and will most likely never be resolved, as to whether Sima Yi was acting in a benevolent way, such as Huo Guang did during the Han Dynasty, or whether he was acting out of pure ambition, comparable to Wang Mang's short-lived Xin Dynasty. However, he died only a few years after forcibly regaining his power from Cao Shuang, leaving no definitive answer to his intentions for future generations.


    One legend about Sima Yi is that he could turn his head 180° around on his neck to look backwards without turning his body. This characteristic was called "the turning-back of the wolf" (狼顧) supposedly based on the fact that wolves are cautious and aware of everything going on around them as though they had eyes in the back of their heads. It is said that Cao Cao heard this rumor and wanted to test it for himself. According to the legend, he came up behind Sima Yi and called out his name, and indeed his head did turn completely around. According to the "Book of Jin", when Cao Cao saw this he grew cautious of Sima Yi, saying "This man is hiding great ambition". Cao Pi would later say of Sima Yi "This man probably has no intention of ending his life as a mere servant".

    Modern references

    Sima Yi appears in the "Dynasty Warriors" video game series by Koei, with his first appearance being "Dynasty Warriors 2". Sima Yi is portrayed as cunning, ruthless and extremely arrogant, boasting endlessly with each victory. Throughout the series, his main rival has invariably been Zhuge Liang, all the way to the latter's death at the Wu Zhang Plains. In "Dynasty Warriors 6" he wears a slightly different outfit and wields extendable claws instead of a feather fan.



    *Lady Zhang Chunhua (張春華) (d. 247), later posthumously honored as Empress Xuanmu (宣穆皇后)
    *Princess Fu (伏貴妃)
    *Lady Zhang (張夫人)
    *Lady Bai (柏夫人)

    Direct descendants

    *Sima Shi (司馬師) (born by Lady Zhang Chunhua)
    *Sima Zhao (司馬昭) (born by Lady Zhang Chunhua)
    **Sima Yan (司馬炎) (Grandson, founder of the Jin Dynasty)
    *Sima Gan (司馬幹) (born by Lady Zhang Chunhua)
    *Sima Zhou (司馬伷) (born by Lady Fu)
    *Sima Liang (司馬亮) (born by Lady Fu)
    *Sima Jing (司馬京) (born by Lady Fu)
    *Sima Jun (司馬駿) (born by Lady Fu)
    *Sima Rong (司馬肜) (born by Lady Zhang; died very young)
    *Sima Lun (司馬倫) (born by Lady Bai)

    Other family

    *Sima Xi (司馬錫) (distant ancestor)
    *Sima Áng (司馬卬) (Prince of Qin (秦末殷王), 12th generation ancestor)
    *Sima Qian (司馬遷) (famous historian, ancestor)
    *Sima Jun (司馬鈞) (great-great-grandfather)
    *Sima Liang (司馬量) (great grandfather)
    *Sima Jun (司馬儁) (grandfather)
    *Sima Fang (司馬防) (father)

    *Sima Lang (司馬朗) (older brother)
    *Sima Fu (司馬孚) (younger brother)
    *Sima Kui (司馬馗) (younger brother)
    *Sima Xun (司馬恂) (younger brother)
    *Sima Jin (司馬進) (younger brother)
    *Sima Tong (司馬通) (younger brother)
    *Sima Min (司馬敏) (younger brother)



    *Fang Xuanling, "Book of Jin" vol. 1.
    *Yu Huan, "Weilüe".
    *Luo Guanzhong, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms".
    *Sakaguchi, Wazumi (ed.) (2005) 坂口和澄・著 "Seishi Sangokushi Gunyu Meimeiden" 『正史三國志群雄銘銘傳』 Kojinsha:Tokyo.
    *Watanabe, Seiichi (ed.) (2006) 渡辺精一・監修 "Moichidomanabitai Sangokushi" 『もう一度学びたい 三国志』 Seitosha:Tokyo.

    ee also

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

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