Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Super Ma Liao Brothers

To the south, in Mogu province, the elderly governor died without issue. To prevent the state from being seized by opportunists, his first wife Lady Taozi took control of the province and instructed her trusted advisers to quell any rebellion that might arise. She routinely proved herself to be a wise and capable leader, however the district officials were in constant rebellion against her. One such official, the barbarian King Ku Pa, arranged to have Lady Taozi deposed by kidnapping her and forcing her into a marriage with him. He was once a King of numerous lands to the south, but Lady Taozi’s deceased husband had waged a successful campaign against the combined rebellion forces and drove the kings from the land. A handful who surrendered had been offered imperial titles in exchange for their service, and so Ku Pa took a Chinese name and seethed with inner resentment.

His lust for revenge drove him to conspire with other disaffected officials, and a plot was put into motion. When the Lady Taozi held her weekly council Ku Pa had his men hide behind the walls of the chamber . During the session, over one hundred warriors emerged and held her hostage while the councillors fled.

“You brutes, what do you want with me?” She cried but the attackers only laughed. “You should be happy today my Lady, for you are to be married tomorrow!” They bound her and brought her out to the courtyard where a palanquin was waiting. Racing from the capital, they began transporting her to Ku Pa’s castle in the west.

En route however they were met by two stalwart blood brothers, two generals whose stately mien betrayed great wisdom and strength of character. Their loyalty and devotion to the Lady Taozi was legendary, and they blocked the path of over one hundred rebels without breaking a sweat.

The older brother was Ma Liao, clothed in a wargown of red velvet and crushed lapis trim, his mustachioed face was grim in the setting sun. He was a cousin of Ma Chao the splendid. He rode the famous charger, the warhorse Western Light (Yao Xi) who was said to be able to jump 50 li in a single bound. The younger brother was Lu Yiji, the fabled archer and nephew of the infamous Lu Bu. He wore a gown of green brocade that tumbled down from his stately shoulders like a waterfall of tinkling jade. Low born, the brothers had sworn an oath to eachother as children that they would find fame and fortune in this land. That opportunity has presented itself when, as they worked as carpenters on the broken roof of the palace, they overheard a plot to assassinate Lady Taozi. They took the information to her and the rebels were beheaded. The two men were rewarded for their loyalty with positions in her palace guard, quickly rising through the ranks due to their martial prowess.

“Who goes there? Move aside, we are on official business for Lord Ku Pa!” One of the men cried but the brothers did not falter. “It is I, Ma Laio! Return the Lady Taozi to us, and there will be no bloodshed!” He threw his spear into the ground before him in challenge.

“Bloodshed? What foolishness is this? Two men alone cannot take on one hundred elite troops. Guards, forward!” The palanquin was dropped and the kidnappers rushed the two generals. “It is Lu Yiji time, brother. I will make short work of them!” Ma Liao nodded and took up his spear. “Let’s go!” The clash was brutal and a poet of later times captured the moment thus:

Brothers bound by honour and blood
A flash of red and green in the sun
Quicker than a falcon’s flight
Was the horse Yao Xi at a run

The brothers spared only two of the fighters, and presented the Lady Taozi with ninety-eight fresh heads. Bowing at her feet, the brothers rose and filled the palanquin with them. “Go now, and bring the Lord Ku Pa his ninety-eight brides! Do not tarry for it is your Lord’s wedding day.” Said Lu Yiji, and with that they made the two survivors bear the heads of their dead kin back to their master.

When they returned to the city, the Lady Taozi had Lu Yiji married to her younger sister, the Lady Chuju, and she took Ma Liao has her own consort.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms Chapter 19.5

Not so much an additional chapter but more of a retelling of the famous events surrounding Liu Bei’s cannibalism. Stories containing elements of the supernatural, horror and the occult were popular among women during the Wei and Jin dynasties and continue to be a theme of women’s literature in China to the present day. Adding supernatural reasoning to a famous narrative, and also in this case a clear portrayal of female empowerment and vengeance against a misogynistic husband, was a way for women to share their experiences with one another. Strangely for this genre, it includes a positive portrayal of peasant women and a rather reproachful moral to the story. One particular manuscript currently on display at the National Museum of China was discovered tied around an arrow, for unknown reasons.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms chapter 19.5: Liu An prays to the Crimson Jade Spirit

After his defeat at Xiaopei Liu Bei, separated from his brothers and his men, had only his horse to bear him to safety across the countryside. He went from village to village asking food from the local people, who were happy to supply him when they realised that it was the great hero Liu Bei.

A local hunter called Liu An was travelling home after an unsuccessful hunting trip when he overheard some farmers talking. “My lord Liu Bei was so gracious, he promised me a handsome sum in thanks for my meager offerings.” said one. “Truly he is so generous! For the ox I slaughtered to feed him, he promised me ten more in return for my good deed.” said the other. Both men were jubilant and tipsy with rice wine, and didn’t notice the stealthy Liu An listening in.

“My surname is also Liu.” He thought to himself. “It is common enough, but I am known also with everyone in the province for my generosity. It stands to reason that such a great man must be my relative.” With great haste he headed deeper into the mountains in search of meat to make a fine banquet for his magnanimous namesake. However, every hare he sighted escaped, every deer he cross paths with was able to outrun him. Not even the pheasants fell for his traps. It was like the forest itself conspired to keep him hungry. He was driven by desire for riches and recognition. “When I am Liu Bei’s recognised nephew, I will have land of my own, servants and beautiful concubines. No longer will I have to look after my doddery old mother and my ugly peasant wife!”

Finally, when he was so deep into the hinterland he didn’t even recognise the scenery anymore, he saw a small shrine.

Nestled into the trunk of a tree, the small crimson jade stone was carved into the shape of a beautiful woman. Her arms were outstretched in a gesture of giving, and at her feet lay piles of gold. Liu An sank to his knees and prayed aloud to the forest goddess. “O spirit, please grant me the means to impress my lord Liu Bei. If you grant my wish I will be forever grateful, I will give you anything I own in return!” then he turned and headed home as the last rays of the sun painted the sky red. He did not see, but the statue’s hands were now claws, and it’s feet trampled skulls instead of coin.

When he got home, his wife Bao Zi and his elderly grandmother met him at the gates. “Where have you been?” They asked, full of concern. “None of your business, meddling women!” He snapped. He had forgotten all about the goddess in the forest and was consumed with worry about how to impress his Lord. That night, Liu An slept fitfully and was filled with violent dreams.

When morning came he set out as usual and immediately saw, to his horror, that Liu Bei had arrived near his house. His heart felt like a stone in his chest and sweat beaded his brow. With reluctance, he called out to Liu Bei. “My Lord, will you not accept food at our table?” The big-eared one followed him into his humble home and made himself comfortable. His wife served them both drinks before retiring into the kitchen. His grandmother slept fitfully in the corner of the room. He felt deep shame at the state of his hovel, the impropriety of his older relatives, and his inability to properly care for his noble guest. “You must be used to such beautiful women at the castle!” He said by means of small talk. “Perhaps, but true beauty lies in a woman’s grace, not merely in her face alone.” Liu Bei replied, and sipped his tea.

Struck with a sudden idea, the wicked Liu An made his excuses and went to the kitchen to see his wife. “Even the noble Liu Bei thinks you are plain.” He berated her. Used to his taunts, she bowed her head and kept stirring the pot. “You shame me, and yet you carry on heedless? How dare you!” And like a man possessed, he chopped at her arms with a carving knife. Her life fading, Bao Zi’s last vision was of her husband’s eyes, which had turned to crimson jade.

When Liu An returned to his guest, he served big cutlets of succulent, fatty meat. “Delicious! I have never had the like before. What meat is this?” Asked Liu Bei, his appetite satiated and his cheeks red and tipsy. “This is a mean old wolf that has been harassing me for years.” Answered Liu An, a smile on his lips. However, he was careless in his drunkenness, and Liu Bei caught sight of the dissected Bao Zi hanging in the kitchen.

“You should come and fight for me, we can always use good and loyal men like you.” Liu Bei exhorted him, with tears in his eyes. Feigning humility, the crafty Liu An replied “My Lord, I would, but I cannot leave my ageing grandmother behind alone.” Overcome with emotion at his filial piety and his willingness to show more love to him than his own wife, Liu Bei said his farewells and hurried to rejoin his brothers.

After saying his farewells, Liu An dropped his happy visage. “Only my ageing mother stands in the way of my dreams. Why am I plagued by useless women!” He thought to himself, and began planning to murder her as well. Her name was Mo Fu and when she was younger she has been a mighty hunter herself. Liu An, however, was born after her retirement and so never knew her as anything other than frail.

When Liu Bei’s messenger arrived to reward his kindness and generosity with a hundred ounces of silver, he was horrified to see Liu An attempting to strangle his grandmother with the string of his bow. In fear, he dropped the silver to the floor and entreated the young hunter to stop.

“Meddling imbecile, I’ll kill you too!” was the reply, but his wrath was interrupted by the sound of footsteps on the stone floor. His dead wife walked out of the kitchen of her own free will, her feet not touching the floor. No-one in the room could move. Her butchered arms were made of pure crimson jade, and she used her scarlet hands to pick up the fallen silver.

“Harlot! Woman of evil! Harlot still if woman or devil, get you from this place at once! My dearest, be obedient, and return to hell.” Liu An cried, but his blood was cold in his veins and his limbs refused to obey him.

“You have me wrong, I am not your wife. I am but a mean old wolf, do you not remember?” And with that she forced the silver down his throat. Liu An died, choking on tears and greed.

That evening, the grandmother Mo Fu passed away from the trauma of the previous day. When her spirit rose from her body it was met with the warm embrace of crimson jade arms. Together, Mo Fu and her granddaughter went to heaven through the grace of the forest goddess and their afterlife was free from suffering.

Ever since, the Liu family descendants have been haunted by the arms of Bao Zi, which possess the Liu daughters in the hopes that they will one day die as part of a complete human body. The only cure for this possession is to treat your wives with greater respect, only then will the goddess’ wrath will subside.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms Chapter 10.5

A later retelling of the events around Cao Song’s death, written by Wei officials in the reign of Cao Pi and added as a supplemental chapter to the Romance by Ming dynasty courtiers. Popular among women of the palace, it is part of the “Apricot Blossom Wreath”, a collection of histories and stories from the Three Kingdoms period which were either written by women or contained political content such that they were not considered relevant to include in the main narrative. They did, however, remain immensely popular with the Hidden Court despite Apricot Blossom stories being regarded as seditious and unfilial by the ruling elite. As a collection, Apricot Blossom stories were mostly written in the reigns of Cao Pi and Cao Rui but some have been dated to the later Tang and Yuan dynasties.


Romance of the Three Kingdoms chapter 10.5: Zhang Kai is brought to justice by the women of the hills

As Cao Cao mourned the death of his father, Yan province turned white like snow. On every corner pale flags fluttered in mourning, inscribed with the words ‘Sorrow and Rest’. Reports came that in the highest mountains snow was falling out of season as though even heaven itself was weeping pale tears with the death of the Emperor Tai. The hinterlands of Xu province were also affected by this sudden flurry. This was noticed by the bandit leader Jin Yaoyu. “What! Snowfall in this season? How will our crops survive?” She exclaimed as the first snowflake touched her forehead. She was an astounding figure, with the shoulders of a tiger and the long arms of a monkey. Her mouth was set firmly in the long grin of the lion. The women of her group grumbled and wondered “Why have the heavens cursed us so? Do we not have enough on our plates as it is?”

Living deep in the mountains to the North, the daughters of the hills had escaped violence from both the Yellow Turbans and from the Emperor’s forces. Many had young children, and wondered how they would feed them if there was a sudden cold snap.

Zhang Kai had brought his stolen riches into the mountains with his renegade troops and had taken refuge in a small cave near the cliff edge. He and his men laughed heartily as they wore the fine Cao family silks and drank the precious wine. Jewels dripped from his fingertips as he laughed. “We really did it this time, now the world is ours. No man can stop us now, we just need to lie low and wait out the storm.” As he said this, he was interrupted by the distant cry of a baby.

“Whose child could that be, so deep into the wilderness?” His men remarked, and some began to wail “It is the Cao ancestors come to torture us! This is the cries of a broken lineage, we are being haunted!”

“Cowards, and fools all of you!” Cried Zhang Kai and drove the scared men out of the camp. “It is only a baby left to die by exposure. It will move on to Heaven soon.” But night after night the traitors were awoken by the sound of crying children. Gradually the faint-hearted fled until only Zhang Kai and a handful of others remained in the cave.

“Fine, I will go myself and kill this child.” He said, but his men dissuaded him. “Sir, we cannot. Either it is a ghostly baby, and it will be bad luck to kill it, or it will be living, and that is murder!” But he shook off their concerns. “Nonsense. Thanks to those cries, there is less of us to fight over the treasure. Whoever brings me the head of that baby can have half the loot.”

That night, the men tracked their prey by sound alone, unable to see even their hands in front of their faces in the gloom. One by one, they were picked off in the dark, until only Zhang Kai remained.

“I am not scared of tigers in the dark!” Zhang Kai shouted into the night. “Show your stripy faces!”

Out of the bushes emerged Jin Yaoyu and her cohort, much to the surprise of Zhang Kai who, expecting ferocious beasts, was instead met with ferocious women. “You accuse us of having fur but you are the one with the raggedy beard. We have earned our stripes fair and square, now hand over those silks.” Enraged, Zhang Kai challenged the bandit leader to a duel and the two faced each other on the forest floor in the dark. They fought for 20 rounds, with neither gaining the advantage of the other, until Jin Yaoyu grabbed a brocade robe from the stolen hoard and threw it in Zhang Kai’s face. Caught off-guard, he struggled with the garment as she tied the arms around his head and, with her spear, thrust a hole straight through the fabric and into his forehead, splitting his head in two.

Thus a later poet was drawn to write these verses:

In the woods a child cries, a flashing glimpse of tiger’s eyes
Zhang Kai, full of greed, mistook the sound and did not heed
Fair warning in advance, the traitor did not stand a chance
Underrating capable ladies, driven to death by the cry of babies

Zhang Kai’s blood stained the robe red but the other clothes were distributed out among the women and their children. “With this, we will be warm and be able to trade throughout the winter!” her handmaid [Lit: bodyguard] cried, and wept with joy.

“Wait, we cannot use these.” Jin Yaoyu frowned. “They bear the name of Cao – why, this is what remains of Cao Cao’s family! He will crush us if he finds out.” Fear spread throughout the camp. Having to choose between a hard winter and a harsh warlord, she wrapped the head of Zhang Kai in the bloodstained robe and set out with her retinue to Cao Cao’s camp.

Cao Cao, who was currently garrisoned in Pengcheng, was dining with his generals when a guard informed him of the arrival of the bandit leader. “Show them in.” He said, and Jin Yaoyu approached the dining party with the head. She spread the bloodsoaked robe with the “Cao” symbol clearly visible on the floor, and placed the two halves of Zhang Kai’s head on top. She held out her spear, and bowed low. “My Lord, this spear of mine severed the head of the traitor who killed your father.”

Cao Cao was filled with admiration for her bravery. “My soul feels more at peace knowing that the villain has been brought to justice.” He cried, and granted amnesty to the women of the hills and to each of them enough provisions to last three years.

However, his assault on Xu province did not falter and the war raged on. “Zhang Kai may have delivered the blow, but it was Tao Qian who masterminded the operation.” Cao Cao said when petitioned by his generals to cease the bloodshed. He appointed Jin Yaoyu to be his regional adviser, and they were known to play weiqi (Go) together long into the night.

After Cao Cao had returned to Yan province and ousted the invaders, Lu Bu and Chen Gong, he made Jin Yaoyu his consort (容華; róng huá). However, there was some backlash from the women of his harem who argued with him that such a person did not deserve that rank, and that she should be a concubine (美人; měi rén) at most. The presence of this wilderness woman scandalised the harem, who shunned her and she became known to them as Zhaozhi (沼枝; Swampy Log) after an incident where she was pushed into a lotus pond. Jin Yaoyu bore Cao Cao two offspring, a daughter and a son, but soon after her second birth became ill and died.

Cao Cao in his grief was heard to have said:

A fox is joyful in the forest
but wilts in captivity
like a late spring flower
only the weak can truly be tamed
this is the burden of us fools
who love only the strong

Five of the consorts were sent to a private villa in Luoyang while Cao Cao led his campaigns to the south. He never visited them again, and their influence waned. It was never proven but it was assumed by many at court that Jin Yaoyu was poisoned by one among that faction. They were left in isolation and lost any power they had within the Hidden Court.

Lady Bian’s Bad Goblin

These lines were found painted on indigo silk embroidered into the holes of a cattail-leaf fan dating from the three kingdoms period. Judging from the text it is likely to have belonged to Cao Cao’s consort (ronghua) Lady Jin and repaired for her by his second wife, Lady Bian:

“This fan was torn by my cat, Bad Goblin (坏妖 Huaiyao), in the year 198. With no remorse in his claws I present […] small […] to bring joy to the Lady Jin.”

It can be inferred that one of Huaiyao’s kittens was given to Lady Jin as an apology. It is unknown if this is the same Jin Yaoyu who avenged the death of Cao Cao’s father in 193. Presumably, the holes were made by the aforementioned cat.