Xun Yu

Xun Yu


Xun Yu (163 - 212), styled Wenruo (文若), was a strategist and statesman who served as a key advisor to Cao Cao during the Three Kingdoms era of China.


Origins and youth

Xun Yu was a native of Yingchuan (modern day Xuchang, Henan), and was born to a renowned family. His grandfather, Xun Shu, served as a local governor and his eight sons were called the "Eight Dragons"; an uncle, Xun Shuang, served as one of the Three Excellencies, while his own father Xun Fan was the chancellor of the feudal principality of Jibei.

Xun Yu proved to be a talented youth, and was evaluated by the scholar He Yong as "someone capable of assisting kings" (王佐之才). In 189 he was nominated as Xiaolian (literally "Fillial and Incorrupt"), beginning his career as an official in the Eastern Han Dynasty, but Dong Zhuo entered the capital of Luoyang soon after, and fearing for his safety Xun Yu fled to Ji Province (modern-day Hebei), resigning his post.

In the subsequent years local warlords quickly rose in each region; Xun Yu first served Yuan Shao, whose power base was in Ji Province, but later left him and went over to Cao Cao in 191; Cao Cao recognised his talent, calling him "my Zifang" (Zifang being the courtesy name of Zhang Liang, a key advisor to Han Gaozu) and appointing him as an army commandant.

ervice under Cao Cao

Xun Yu's contributions to Cao Cao's army and administration are immense. On one hand he recommended many other men of calibre to Cao, including Xun You (who was his nephew), Chen Qun, Zhong Yao, Guo Jia and Sima Yi, creating a formidable body of advisors around Cao; at the same time he participated in several battles and major events of the era, often giving timely advice to his master. Cao Cao, in turn, respected Xun Yu greatly and placed great store in his advice.

In 194, as Cao Cao led a campaign against Tao Qian in the area of Xu province, his home base at Yan province was suddenly attacked by Lu Bu's armies, and two of Cao Cao's officials, Chen Gong and Zhang Miao, chose to defect to Lu Bu. At that time Xun Yu was in charge of the defences of Juancheng (鄄城), and his firm actions saved the city from capture, allowing Cao's armies to return and beat off Lu Bu. Subsequently, on the death of Tao Qian, Cao Cao was tempted to turn around and move on Xu province before returning to deal with Lu Bu; it was Xun Yu who dissuaded him from this, reminding him that Yan province was his heartland and power base and should be secured first before launching campaigns abroad.

It was also at Xun Yu's suggestion that Cao Cao chose to escort Emperor Xian of Han, who was then living in the ruins of Luoyang, to his own base at Xuchang in 196, taking on the role of protecting the Emperor's safety. Xun Yu's plan was to "control the rebellious in the name of the Emperor" (奉天子以令不臣); the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" subtly distorts this to "hold the Emperor hostage to control the warlords" (挟天子以令诸侯). In the long run this strategem would give Cao Cao a considerable political advantage over his rivals, allowing him to legitimise his actions by taking them in the name of the Emperor.

In 200, Cao Cao faced off at Guandu against Yuan Shao for months, eventually exhausting his food supply; while contemplating retreat he sent a letter to Xun Yu (who was then guarding Xuchang) for advice. Again Xun Yu dissuaded his master with a letter, highlighting several advantages that his army held over the Yuan forces and urging him to stand fast; the eventual result was the Battle of Guandu, a decisive victory for Cao and crucial to his domination of northern China.


In 211, Dong Zhao and a group of Cao loyalists submitted a memorial to Emperor Xian proposing that Cao Cao should be promoted to the rank of duke (公). This proposal was significant as it would allow Cao Cao to set up a self-contained feudal state (国) within the Han empire. Up to this point, Cao Cao's political legitimacy was only underpinned by his position as the Han Chancellor. Xun Yu, whose ideals were for Cao Cao to continue being the protector of the Han Dynasty, opposed Dong Zhao's proposal.

Knowing that Dong Zhao was probably a conduit for Cao Cao, when approached by the former for his support, Xun Yu told Dong Zhao that Cao Cao's personal mission was one of restoring the Han Dynasty and would not approve of such a move — thus possibly hinting to Cao Cao himself that he should abandon the idea. According to Book Ten of Chen Shou's "Records of Three Kingdoms", Xun Yu's remarks were said to have greatly displeased Cao Cao.

Following this, Xun Yu was sent to to Jiao (谯) to reward the soldiers who took part in a military campaign against Sun Quan. While there, Xun Yu was said to have fallen sick and brought to Shouchun (寿春) for treatment and recuperation. He passed away the following year in 212. The circumstances of his death aroused great suspicion and is a matter of debate as it came closely after his opposition towards Cao Cao's ascension to duke.

Personal information

* Brother
** Xun Chen (荀諶)

ee also

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

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