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Cheng Yu

Cheng Yu
Strategist of Cao Cao
Born 141[1]
Died 220 (aged 79)[1]
Traditional Chinese 程昱
Simplified Chinese 程昱
Pinyin Chéng Yù
Wade–Giles Ch'eng Yü
Courtesy name Zhongde (Chinese: 仲徳; pinyin: Zhòngdé; Wade–Giles: Chung-te)
Posthumous name Marquis Su (traditional Chinese: 肅侯; simplified Chinese: 肃侯; pinyin: Sù Hóu; Wade–Giles: Su Hou)
Other names Cheng Li (程立)

Cheng Yu (141-220),[1][2] originally named Cheng Li (he changed his name to Yu (lit. "lifting the sun"), after dreaming of the sun on top of Mount Tai), courtesy name Zhongde, was one of the major strategists serving under the warlord Cao Cao in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He died in the same year when the state of Cao Wei was established by Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi, which marked the start of the Three Kingdoms period. Cheng Yu was described to be a very tall man (approximately 1.91m) with a beautiful long beard.[3] He was from Dong'e County, Dong commandery (near present day Liaocheng, Shandong). Cheng Yu 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 Cao to feed the army with human![4] He was also noted for his expertise in military tactics, which helped Cao Cao defeat his rival Yuan Shao in northern China. It was widely agreed that his numerous contributions laid the foundation of Wei, the reason he was not promoted to the rank of a duke was only because of his fore-mentioned strategy to cope with the food shortage in Yan Province.

Cheng Yu was given the posthumous name of "Marquis Su", meaning "solemn marquis".[5] Cheng Yu's son, Cheng Wu, continued to serve in Wei.


  • Incidents in hometown 1
  • Coming to serve Cao Cao 2
  • Performance in Lü Bu's invasion 3
  • Liu Bei's betrayal 4
  • Cao Cao's northern campaign 5
  • Battle of Red Cliffs 6
  • Advice to Cao Pi 7
  • Later life and death 8
  • Appraisal 9
  • In fiction 10
  • Family 11
  • Appointments and titles held 12
  • See also 13
  • References 14

Incidents in hometown

Born in Dong'e (modern Shandong, Yanggu, China) county of Yan Province, 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 miles away from the city, Cheng Yu 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 Fang agreed to Cheng Yu's plan, yet the commoners refused to comply, wherein Cheng angrily said: "Stupid commoners lack the ability to plan." He then plotted with Xue Fang, and secretly sent several cavalry holding streamers to the hilltop, where they rode down toward the civilians. Xue Fang and his men then screamed upon sight of the riders, making the commoners mistook them as Yellow Turban rebels.[6] Led by Xue Fang, 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 Yu.

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

In 192, the Inspector of Yan Province, Liu Dai, invited Cheng Yu to join his government, but was refused by the latter. At the beginning, Liu Dai 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 Dai then seek advice from Cheng Yu, who told the former that asking the help from Gongsun Zan was like requesting someone to save a drowning child from afar.[7] He further analyzed that Gongsun Zan, who had recently gained a minor military victory over Yuan Shao, would eventually lose to the latter. Therefore, it was not sagacious to enjoy a short-term benefit without a careful long-term plan. Liu Dai agreed with Cheng Yu's speech and severed ties with Gongsun Zan, who ordered his cavalry in Yan Province back. Just as Cheng Yu had predicted, Gongsun Zan soon suffered a heavy defeat by Yuan Shao before his cavalry could even join the battle. Liu Dai then asked Cheng Yu to become his officer, and offered him the title of Commandant of Cavalry, but Cheng again refused employment.

Coming to serve Cao Cao

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

Performance in Lü Bu's invasion

When Lü Bu claimed his rule over Yan Province, many people gave up resistance and joined him, only Juancheng, Dong'e, and Fan county did not yield. At the time, Cheng Yu was guarding Juancheng with Cao Cao's chief strategist, Xun Yu, who analyzed the defense could only be successful if the three holdings worked together. Cheng Yu was asked for the defense of Dong'e because he could probably convince his hometown to fight with him. Thus, Xun Yu stayed behind to watch over the fortress, and Cheng Yu went to Dong'e. On his way, Cheng Yu passed by Fan county, where Lü Bu's lobbyist, Si Yi (氾嶷) was persuading the Prefect of Fan to switch allegiance to his master. Thus, Cheng Yu required a meeting with the Prefect, and conducted a persuasive speech to the latter, successfully prompting the Prefect 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 Yu split his cavalry force out to take control of Cangting ford to block the advance of Lü Bu's strategist, Chen Gong. Xue Ti then formulated a strategy with Cheng Yu, which enabled the defense of the three cities until Cao Cao's return.[8]

This year must be a hard one for Cao Cao, not only did he lose to Lü Bu several times in battles around Puyang, a widespread famine also broke out in Yanzhou (but this also forced Lü Bu to retreat). For once, Cao Cao thought about relinquishing his position in Yan Province, and prepared to surrender to Yuan Shao, who was his childhood friend. Nevertheless, Cheng Yu rebuked his master by saying that Cao Cao had a caliber greater than just being a subject under Yuan Shao, and it was shameful for a genius to submit to a man who only enjoyed an overvalued fame. Cheng Yu said to Cao Cao: "Even a mere warrior like Tian Heng knew about shame, how could you act so shamefully to surrender to Yuan Shao?" However, Cheng Yu's heroic speech was way easier to say than to do, because Cao Cao's army had already been running out of food! Nevertheless, not wanting to be called a shameful son of a eunuch, Cao Cao appeared to listen to Cheng Yu, but asked the latter to ready three days of grain. Unprepared to be asked to deal with this problem, Cheng Yu insanely devised a very vicious strategy: he personally led an armed force to pillage his hometown, and abducted his townsfolk, who would then be slaughtered like pigs for the army to feed on.[4]

Liu Bei's betrayal

After Lü Bu was forced to abandon Yan Province, Cheng Yu and Xun Yu advised Cao Cao to escort Emperor Xian, who was in dire situation, into territory under his control. When Emperor Xian was guided to his new capital Xuchang from Luoyang, Cheng Yu was made the Imperial Secretariat but was soon elevated to be the East General of the Household and Administrator of Jiyin to command over Yan Province. In 198, Lü Bu took Xu Province from Liu Bei, and the latter submitted to Cao Cao for protection. Cheng Yu told Cao Cao that Liu Bei 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 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.[9]

The following year, Yuan Shu was defeated by Cao Cao and Sun Ce, and attempted to go north to join his cousin Yuan Shao. Liu Bei volunteered to intercept Yuan Shu, and was granted a sizable army to do his job. When Cheng Yu heard the news, he rushed to Cao Cao and protested: "It's arguable you turned down our suggestion to kill Liu Bei earlier, but it's a certainty that he will betray you if lent a force."[10] Thus, Cao Cao regretted upon his decision and sent an envoy to call the troops back, but it was already too late. Liu Bei mobilized the army east and killed the Grand Administrator of Xu Province, Che Zhou (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 Juancheng with 700 soldiers. Cao Cao then sent a letter to Cheng Yu and asserted the latter that he would send 2,000 men as reinforcement. However, Cheng Yu 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."[11] Cao Cao was happy that he did not need to send additional troops to Cheng Yu, and was able to defeat Liu Bei in the east within a short time.

Three years after Cao Cao defeated Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu, Cheng Yu recruited and enlisted several thousand robbers and inhabitants of deep hills around Yan Province, 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 with Li Dian, Cheng Yu transported grain to Cao 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 Cao then ordered Cheng Yu to abandon the waterway and transport through other routes. But Li Dian reasoned with Cheng Yu that Gao Fan could be defeated because he was lightly guarded with a small army. Therefore, they violated Cao Cao's order, and landed the northern bank and defeated Gao Fan, resulting in the smooth delivery of military necessities.

Battle of Red Cliffs

In 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 an 800,000 strong force in Jiangling city, and was eager to meet Sun in person. The majority believed Sun Quan would surely kill Liu Bei and submit to Cao Cao, but Cheng Yu opposed and analyzed Sun Quan would support Liu Bei to fight a desperate war.[12] However, due to the fact Cao Cao enjoyed an absolute advantage both in terms of military and economy; he did not take Cheng Yu's counsel seriously, and held lavish banquets on his warships from time to time. Out of negligence, none of Cao 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 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 Yu was assigned as a strategist to Cao Cao's 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 Yu opposed: "The reason Cao Cao set such expedient rule was that he was fighting numerous enemies in a chaotic time. To execute those who 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 stabilized, and this battle happens within our domain, so these kinds 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."[13] The feckless audience simply ignored Cheng Yu'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 Yu remained silence and the officers left the courtroom. After the exodus, Cao Pi specifically consulted Cheng Yu 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.[14] Being delighted by Cheng Yu, 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 Yu 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.[15]

Later life and death

Cheng Yu went into semi-retirement after losing to his political enemy, Xing Zhen (邢貞).[16] What was worse for him was that much invectives were done to Cheng Yu after his downfall, and someone even libelled him as hiding intention to revolt, but Cao Cao did not further investigate his once trusted aide; in contrast, he gave Cheng Yu more monetary rewards. Cheng Yu 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.[17] Since Cao Pi intended to make Cheng Yu 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 "Marquis 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 Yu 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,[18] Cheng Yu was made the "Commandant of the Guards" (衛尉, responsible for the security of imperial palaces) while Xing Zhen was made "Commandant of the Capital" (中尉, tasked to maintain law and order in the capital city—excluding the palaces). However, Cheng Yu had a rabid quirk in pontificating his dominance, and he purposely flaunted before Xing Zhen, who reported his invidious behavior to Cao Cao. As a punishment, Cheng Yu was stripped of his position.[16]

Although ingeniously intelligent, Cheng Yu was of a perverse and hardhearted nature.[19] Once, he ransacked his hometown, Dong'e, and kidnapped his own townfolk in order to serve the appetite of Cao Cao's army in an act of cannibalism. It was recorded Cheng Yu would have the abducted cut into pieces to mix with rice, so the soldiers would happliy enjoy their prized meals...[4]

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 Shu 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 Shu was an extremely filial person, Cheng Yu suggested to Cao Cao to hold her mother hostage and force Xu Shu to leave Liu Bei and serve Cao. Cheng Yu wrote a fake letter to Xu Shu and successfully tricked Xu to come to Xuchang. Ironically, Xu Shu'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 Sun Quan's 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


  1. ^ a b c Cheng Yu's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms mentioned that Cheng died not long after Cao Pi ascended the throne in 220. (文帝踐阼, ... 方欲以為公,會薨, ...) An annotation from the Wei Shu stated that he was 80 years old (by East Asian age reckoning) when he died. (魏書曰:昱時年八十。) By calculation, Cheng Yu's birth year should be around 141.
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 92.  
  3. ^ "長八尺三寸,美須髯。" Description in SGZ, vol. 14.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ "剛德克就曰肅。執心決斷曰肅" Hardhearted or determined person might receive the posthumous title of "Su". Cheng Yu qualified for both criteria. See Lost book of Zhou. Rules on assigning a posthumous name.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ "「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.
  8. ^ "兗州從事薛悌與昱協謀,卒完三城,以待太祖。" See SGZ vol. 14.
  9. ^ (呂布襲劉備,取下邳。備來奔。程昱說公曰:「觀劉備有雄才而甚得衆心,終不為人下,不如早圖之。」公曰:「方今收英雄時也,殺一人而失天下之心,不可。」) Chen Shou. Records of the Three Kingdoms, Volume 1, Biography of Cao Cao.
  10. ^ "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.
  11. ^ “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.
  12. ^ “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.
  13. ^ “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.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ “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.
  16. ^ a b "與中尉邢貞爭威儀,免。" See SGZ vol.14.
  17. ^ Cheng Yu earned a tax revenue of 500 household during Cao Cao's reign, and was granted an additional 300 household during Cao Pi's reign.
  18. ^ This kingdom of Wei was actually literally a kingdom (or dukedom) only, and should not be confused with the later state of Wei established by Cao Pi.
  19. ^ "昱性剛戾。" See SGZ vol. 14.

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