The legendary General Guan Gong is a dazzling, mythical figure. He stands for loyalty, courage and justice. He is revered to this day, both as a Boddhisvata in Buddhism and as a protective deity in Taoism and Chinese folklore. Depicted with red skin and a powerful Guandao, he guards the door, not least in our schools.
The history of the three empires
The work ‘The History of the Three Realms’ (sometimes just ‘The Three Realms’) is one of the four classics of Chinese literature and one of the earliest representatives of the Wuxia genre. The author Luo Guanzhong (ca. 1330 – 1400) created a great work, which is still significant today.
Luo Guanzhong’s work is based on various historical texts as sources, but not only. A part of the events in ‘The History of the Three Realms’ is based on anecdotes and legends.
Since the novel is often equated and used as a historical source, the knowledge we have about Guan Gong should be treated with caution. Luo Guanzhong has supported his work sufficiently that we can believe the overall picture he has drawn. Accordingly, I will only present this one.
The historical figure
Guan Gong (also: Guan Yu, Guang Gung, Kwan Kung) was born and grew up in Shanxi in 160. Probably already in 178 he became father of a son named Guan Ping. A few years later, at the age of 23, Guan Gong murdered the local tyrant Lu Xiong and was forced to flee. On this way he met General Liu Bei. He was in the process of assembling an army to fight against the uprising of the ‘Yellow Turbans’. Guan Gong joined them.
Within a short time Guan Gong made a name for himself as a powerful and courageous warrior. His trademark was his Guandao, which is said to have weighed almost fifty kilograms. Guan Gong’s abilities did not escape Liu Bei. He soon appointed Guan Gong as one of his generals. (Probably within a year.) The two men and Zhang Fei were close friends. They were considered incorruptible and sincere. Even when other important warlords joined Liu Bei, Guan Gong and Zhang Fei remained his closest and most important confidants.
In 200 Guan Gong was captured by Liu Bei’s enemy, Cao Cao. He treated Guan Gong very well and even made him an officer in his own army. However, Guan Gong never forgot his loyalty to Liu Bei, despite all his kindness. His honor, however, did not allow him to simply take advantage of the privileges and flee. Instead, he decided to do Cao Cao a service and killed one of his enemies, Yan Liang. After this fight, Guan Gong fled to return to Liu Bei. It is said that Cao Cao was so impressed by Guan Gong that he forbade his followers to stop him.
Battle of Chibi
In the following almost twenty years Guan Gong went through a series of fights and battles. In 208 he fought again in the ‘Battle of Chibi’ against Cao Cao, who was defeated (but not killed). (This battle, also called ‘Battle of Red Cliffs’, was filmed under the name ‘Red Cliff’). Guan Gong’s exact role in this battle is disputed, but not his participation.
In 219 Guan Gong again led a battle against Cao Cao. Sun Quan, a former ally of Liu Bei and a powerful warlord, plotted against him. Guan Gong considered this information to be a lie when it was brought to his attention. When Lu Meng, who had been appointed by Sun Quan to lead the troops, went on the attack, he was surprised and his troops were pushed back.
Captivity and death
Lu Meng conquered the city of Jiangling in 219. The families of many of Guan Gong’s officers lived there. This put him in a clearly inferior position. His men lost interest in fighting and began to desert in droves. Despite repeated offers to surrender, Guan Gong did not give up. However, defeat was inevitable. Finally, Guan Gong and his son, Guan Ping, were captured and executed. He did not live to see the founding of the Shu Han State, for which he had fought all his life under the leadership of Liu Bei. Liu Bei became the first king of Shu Han.
Only after his death did people begin to worship Guan Gong as a god. At first this happened out of fear – the people in Linju, where he was executed, thought that he would become a demon because of the way he died. They feared his revenge. This resulted in a widespread worship of Guan Gong as a god of war and protection, a personification of loyalty, courage and justice.
Guan Gong today
The figure of Guan Gong is omnipresent in Chinese culture. There are countless shrines and he is revered by all social classes. No matter whether policemen or the mafia, rich or poor. In Hong Kong alone there are countless statues and statuettes, shrines and even temples. But he is not only worshipped by fighters. Numerous trades name him as patron saint.
The ‘Five Tiger Generals’
In the novel ‘The Three Realms’ Guan Gong is given the title of one of the ‘Five Tiger Generals’. In the historical context this title did not exist, but the five generals did. Guan Gong is always listed as the first of these five. The other four were: Zhang Fei, Huang Zhong, Ma Chao and Zhao Yun. In South China, in the traditional lion dance, the lions bear the names of the five generals and their master, Liu Contribute.