Bang Yong (177-206): An Unknown Tragic Prodigy

As the Han royal house started to decline, three states emerged: Wei, Shu, and Wu. Each of the three kingdoms fought to be the legitimate successor of the Han dynasty. Countless, talented people rushed out during this period of chaos. Among these people, the one that stood out the most was the one-in-a-million-prodigy persuader and tactician named Zhuge Liang[1]. His clever tactics are listed in actual history. His brilliance is well depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms; a popular novel by Luo Gaozhong based on actual historical events. The novel however, is still just a novel. While the novel’s story featured generally accurate historical events and figures[2], Luo Gaozhong modified the story to exaggerate it. To attract more people to read his book, Luo Gaozhong portrayed the Liu Bei brothers and Zhuge Liang as heroes, but portrayed Cao Cao as an absolute villain. Luo Gaozhong’s biased view of Cao Cao blinded people from seeing the great work that Cao Cao and his tacticians did. Bang Yong, son of a peasant who had worked for Cao Cao, played an important role. As Cao Cao’s adviser and tactician, he suggested Cao Cao to make more policies that would revive the economy[3].

In 184 CE, when Bang Yong was only 10 years old, there was the Yellow Turban Revolt, a peasant revolt against Han Empire[4]. In front of his eyes, Bang Yong witnessed his parents being killed during the skirmish between the Yellow Scarves and Han soldiers. When Bang Yong was 10 years old, his aunt adopted him. Because of his traumatic history, Bang Yong, from a very young age, dreamed to become a powerful figure that could make the poor peasants’ lives better. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford an education because he was so poor. At age of 15, he became an herb collector, a job where he collected herbs in the mountain and then sold what he gathered to Daoist monks who practiced the Daoist arts of making potions[5]. In 189 CE, he encountered a teacher who changed his life. In the winter of 189 CE, in the mountains, he found Sima Hui badly hurt from serious injuries. Bang Yong, a kind hearted man, treated Sima Hui until he recovered. As compensation, Sima Hui taught him Chinese words, literature, and the art of war for 2 years. Bang Yong was indeed a genius. He learned very fast. Moreover, he enjoyed learning. After studying under Sima Hui, Bang Yong gave up his job. Instead, he lived in the mountain by himself studying the art of war. Then in 194 CE, he joined Cao Cao’s army and continued to study the art of war.

At the age of 20, in 194 CE, Bang Yong joined Cao Cao’s army. Although he was very intelligent, a low ranking soldier like Bang Yond did not have any way to display his brilliant tactics. In the same year, Cao Cao moved thousands of civilians in Xu Province just to attack Tao Qian, Xu Province’s governor whom Cao Cao believed to be responsible for killing his father.[6] While other people thought of Cao Cao as a merciless killer, Bang Yong had a different outlook on Cao Cao’s action. Instead of seeing Cao Cao as a cruel merciless killer, Bang Yong believed that cruel side of Cao Cao was an attribute of what an emperor would have.

In 194 CE, when Cao Cao moved most of his army to Xu Province to target Tao Qian, he left his Yan province undefended. During this time, Chen Gong and Zhang Chao led a rebellion. Chen Gong paired with Lu Bu to come in with his army to take over the Yan Province. The remaining defending forces of the Yan Province decided to surrender instead of fighting against Lu Bu.[7] Juancheng, Dong’a, and the Fan counties of the Yan Province, however, managed to remain loyal to Cao Cao. When Cao Cao returned from Xu Province, Cao Cao settled at Juancheng. Cao Cao engaged a countless battle with Lu Bu. Cao Cao was winning the battle that was held outside of Puyang but Cao Cao could not win the battle to take over the Puyang. At this time, Bang Yong went to Cao Cao to suggest his brilliant plan. Bang Yong suggested that Cao Cao should divide his force into two groups. The first group would hide behind a dam, and the second group would work as bait that only pretended to engage battle with Lu Bu. When the second group and Lu Bu’s army engaged battle, Bang Yong said that the second group should retreat. Bang Yong was sure that Lu Bu would definitely follow the second group to finish off Cao Cao’s army. Bang Yong explained that it was when the second group and Lu Bu’s forces engaged in battle would it be the time to unleash the hidden army. Cao Cao followed Bang Yong and the other adviser’s suggestion. When Lu Bu’s larger army was ambushed by Cao Cao’s hidden army, Lu Bu was devastated and eventually fled from Cao Cao.[8] After the success of this brilliant plan, Cao Cao nominated Bang Yong as his war strategist. At a very early age, Bang Yong became one of Cao Cao’s favorites among his other subordinates.

In 196 CE, because Luoyang was damaged by war and Chang’an was not under Cao Cao’s control, Bang Yong and other advisers advised Cao Cao to persuade Emperor Xian to move the capital the to Xuchang. Moreover, Cao Cao received the title of Chancellor and General in Command. Cao Cao’s title was a sign of the amount of power he had. In other words, he would use it to turn the emperor into his “puppet.” Bang Yong and other advisers suggested that instead of having the king as a puppet, Cao Cao should take over the Han Empire[9]. Cao Cao, however, rejected there suggestion and said “If heaven bestows such fate on me, let me be the King Wen of Zhou.”[10]

Bang Yong was precocious with war tactics but he was clumsy with politics. Because he was young and had no experience in politics, he did not know how to handle public relations. His flaw was exposed in the conflict between Cao Cao and Yuan Shao. In an effort to remain in good relations with Yuan Shao, one of the strongest warlords in the Three Kingdoms Periods, Bang Yong advised Cao Cao that he should appoint Yuan Shao as the minister of work. This was a huge miscalculation by Bang Yong. When Cao Cao offered Yuan Shao the position of the minister of work, Yuan Shao thought of this as disrespectful and got furious. Cao Cao had previously received the title of chancellor and General in Chief. Even though Cao Cao was appointed by the king, Yuan Shao believed that he was never inferior to Cao Cao. But, if he became minister of work, that would rank him under Cao Cao. In the end, Yuan Shao’s anger was temporarily alleviated when Cao Cao offered Yuan Shao the position “General in Chief”.[11] Cao Cao ended up being ministry of work. Yuan Shao, in the end, rejected all the positions. Bang Yong’s mistake in analyzing Yuan Shao later led to the Battle of Guandu.

In 197 CE, to get rid of another major power, Liu Biao, Cao Cao headed south. Liu Biao had the Jing Province, a province that had always been rich and prosperous. Because a lot of people fled to the Jing Province to escape the battles that were going on in the northern areas, the Jing Province had swelled in size. On the way to Jing Province, Xun Yu, one of Cao Cao’s tacticians warned Cao Cao about Zhang Xiu, a warlord who helped Liu Biao to protect south from Cao Cao[12]. Bang Yong, on the other hand, insisted that Cao Cao engaged in battle with Zhang Xiu because they were almost guaranteed to win. Cao Cao had more soldiers. Bang Yong was right. Zhang Xiu was no match for Cao Cao. Zhang Xiu surrendered to Cao Cao. Thinking that Cao Cao was safe, Bang Yong gave the guards lenience. What Bang Yong missed was the tactic that Zhang Xiu used. He did not expect Zhang Xiu to attack as a night raid. As a consequence, Cao Cao’s forces were badly damaged. Later 197 CE, after Cao Cao recovered, Cao Cao returned to the south to get rid of Liu Biao and Zhang Xiu. Bang Yong was able to recover from the mistake by leading successful battles with his plan. At this point, however, Cao Cao favored Xu Shu more than Bang Yong.

In 200 CE, Bang Yong became 26. Yuan Shao and Cao Cao engaged in the war called “the Battle of Guandu.” Yuan Shao, who wanted to defeat Cao Cao, marched south towards to Xuchang. Yuan Shao, under the name of rescuing the emperor from Cao Cao, led 100,000 troops. Compared to Yuan Shao, Cao Cao had far less troops. Despite of having larger army, Yuan Shao could not beat Cao Cao. As the war waged on longer, they both started sending spies into each other’s camps. Both Yuan Shao’s and Cao Cao’s sides were severely damaged. The battle, however, ended when Bang Yong lured a defector, Xu Yu, the tactician for Yuan Shao. From Xu Yu, Bang Yong managed to find out the location of supply depot. By attacking the supply depot and getting rid of the food source, Cao Cao was able to win.[13] In 202, Yuan Shao fell ill and died. As soon as Yuan Shao met his death, the Yuan family started to fall apart. Yuan Shao’s sons started to fight each other for the land their father left them. In 206 CE, during the civil war within Yuan family, Cao Cao took advantage of this and took over the northern part. Moreover, Liu Biao’s successor Liu Cong just surrendered to Cao Cao. As Bang Yong and other advisers wished, Cao Cao became the indestructible force among the warlords.

In 206 CE, Bang Yong finally became a powerful figure that he wanted. He was advisor and tactician of Cao Cao. Sadly, he was no longer especially adored by Cao Cao. There were too many talented people who had accomplished the most challenging things for Cao Cao. Bang Yong was not good with people. He was too honest. Thus, whenever tactician had conferences, Bang Yong would comment how other tactician’s strategy would fail. Co-tacticians hated him. Other tacticians always claimed that the cause of the Guandu battle was Bang Yong’s mistake, even setting up Bang Yong as possible defector for Yuan Shao.

For Cao Cao, everything was going smoothly. Taking Yuan Shao and Liu Biao’s territory made Cao Cao too confident. In 208 CE, Cao Cao was planning to battle with Sun Quan-Liu Bei alliance; the Battle of Redcliff. Bang Yong was the one tactician who was opposed to this battle. At this time in Cao Cao’s army was plagued by disease[14]. For the first time in his life, Bang Yong argued against Cao Cao. Bang Yong notified Cao Cao that Liu Bei and Sun Quan had formed allies. While the alliance’s army was good with a battle on the water, Cao Cao’s army almost had no experience. The lack of experience paired with the diseases made victory unlikely. Cao Cao did not listen to Bang Yong. He engaged in the battle. To give soldiers more stability on the water, Cao Cao connected ships together[15]. Liu Bei-Sun Quan alliance used fire arrows to burn these ships down.

After the miserable battle, Bang Yong murmured “It is easier to teach a cow than to teach Chancellor Cao.” His murmured word was eventually reported to Cao Cao. Cao Cao got enraged. When Cao Cao found him, Bang Yong was gone. Thinking that Cao Cao changed, he only had regrets. Bang Yong had always tried to make the country better. Just seeing Cao Cao yearning for victory made his life pointless. Thus, Bang Yong just killed himself by drinking poison. In 216 CE, after receiving the title of King of Wei, in his office, Cao Cao read a part of his poem, Duan Ge Xing, to Bang Yong’s soul:

Thoughts of you from deep inside,
cannot settle, cannot subside.
Friends drop by via a country road,
the respect they pay really show.
A long due reunion we fest,
sharing past stories we possessed.


[1] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 100

[2] Wills, 104

[3] Wills, 103

[4] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: Norton, 2000. Print. Page 135

[5] Hansen, 134

[6] “Rise of Cao Cao”, China Central Television, link :

[7] “Biography of Cao Cao”, China Central Television, link:

[8]  Luo Guanzhong; translated by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, link:

[9]  Hansen, 136

[10] “Rise of Cao Cao”, China Central Television, link :

[11] “Life,” China cental TV news, link:

[12] Luo Guanzhong; translated by C.H. Brewitt-Taylor, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, link:

[13] “Biography of Cao Cao”, China Central Television, link:

[14] Grant, R.G Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare Penguin,2011. Print. Page 55.

[15] Grant, 55.

Ahn Doyoung is a sophomore at the University of Rochester. His major is East Asian Studies and Psychology. He has been attracted to Chinese culture since childhood. He loves reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and has been learning Chinese for several years.