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.

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Author: Laurie

Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and all-round swamp goblin.

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