Guan Yu, also known as Guan Gong, Lord Guan. In religion, he is called Saintly Emperor Guan or in Buddhism, Sangharama Bodhisattva. He is also held in high esteem in Confucianism.
The history of Guan Yu
Guan Yu, courtesy name Yuchang (originally Changsheng), was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Han Dynasty of China. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period, of which Liu Bei was the first emperor.
Guan Yu was born in the county of Xie (a subdistrict of present-day Yuncheng, Shanxi). The year of his birth is not found in historical records, but according to a 1680 stele in a temple worshipping Guan Yu in his hometown, as well as a biography of Guan Yu written in 1756, Guan Yu’s birth year is estimated to be 160.
He met Liu Bei, who was recruiting volunteers to form a civilian army to suppress the Yellow Turbans Rebellion. At this time, the Han Dynasty was falling. The Yellow Turbans Rebellion was a Daoist-led rebellion that formed large armies and threatened to conquer the empire. Together with Zhang Fei, Guan Yu joined Liu Bei and participated actively in fighting the Yellow Turban rebels in northern China.
According to Records of Three Kingdoms, the relationship of these three men Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei was described to be as close as brothers. They slept in the same room and had their meals together, behaving as though they were real brothers. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei followed Liu Bei most of the time wherever he went and protected him from danger regardless of perilous the situation was.
There were various major rulers who vied for power at the end of the Eastern Han Empire. Some like Liu Bei supported the sitting emperor. In 199, Cao Cao had Emperor Xian under his control and issued decrees in Emperor Xian’s name. Liu Bei saw this and conspired against Cao Cao. He started to attack Cao Cao’s territory. Cao Cao attacked him, and he had to flee.
Cao Cao captured Guan Yu. He surrendered to Guan Yu, and Cao Cao made him a general. Guan Yu was sent against an advancing army that was led by a rival regional ruler. Guan Yu personally killed the commanding general of the enemy during the battle. He cut off the commanding general’s head and sent it to Cao Cao.
On the recommendation of Cao Cao, Guan Yu has conferred the title of “Marquis of Hanshou” in recognition of his effort. After this, he left to return to Liu Bei. He thought that he was dead before. He did not take any of Cao Cao’s gifts with him and left behind a farewell letter. Some of Cao Cao’s subordinates wanted to pursue Guan Yu and bring him back but Cao Cao stopped them, saying “We are only serving different lords, let him go.”
Guan Yu was once hit by a stray arrow on his left arm and although the wound had healed, the bone would still hurt badly especially during a rainy day. The doctor told him that, “The arrow tip had poison on it, and the poison had entered the bone. The remedy would be to open to the arm and scrape away the poison, lest it becomes too problematic in the future.” Guan Yu promptly stretched out his arm and bid the doctor to cure his arm. During the surgery, Guan Yu was eating and drinking with his fellow officers whilst the blood flowed from his arm into the basin below. Throughout the process fo treatment, Guan Yu drank wine and conversed and laughed as usual.
In 219, Guan Yu attacked the nearby enemy city of Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei), which was guarded by Cao Ren, and besieged it. Cao Cao sent Yu Jin and Pang De to assist Cao Ren. It was autumn then and there was heavy downpour leading to the overflowing of River Han. As a result, the seven armies commanded by Yu Jin all drowned. Yu Jin surrendered to Guan Yu, and Guan Yu executed General Pang De. Thus Guan Yu’s name spread throughout China.
Cao Cao was discussing whether to move the capital to Xudu (present-day Jianan District, Xuchang, Henan) to avoid any encounters with Guan Yu’s strong forces. At that time, Sun Quan (The founder of the state of Eastern Wu during the Three Kingdoms period) sent an emissary to Guan Yu relating his wish for marriage be arranged his own son and Guan Yu’s daughter. Guan Yu insulted the emissary and rejected the marriage proposal. Sun Quan was furious. Besides this, Mi Fang, the governor of Nanjun (present-day Jiangling District, Jingzhou, Hubei) and General Fu Shiren, who was serving at Gongan (present-day Gongan District, Jingzhou, Hubei), felt that Guan Yu looked down on them. Ever since Guan Yu sent out his troops to war, Mi Fang and Fu Shiren were in charge of army supplies, but they did not assist in the battle. Guan Yu’s reply was to mete out the respective punishments once he returns. Upon hearing such words, Mi Fang and Fu Shiren were fearful. Sun Quan chanced upon their shaken loyalty and enticed them to surrender, of which they did and allowed the Eastern Wu army to enter the land.
When Guan Yu’s troops received news that their families in Jing Province (present-day, Jingzhou, Hubei) had fallen into the control of Sun Quan, some of them started deserting and returning to Jing Province to reunite with their families.
Guan Yu’s army was severely depleted due to the desertions so he attempted to retreat to Yi Province in the west but was surrounded and besieged by Sun Quan’s force at Maicheng (present-day Dangyang, Hubei). Guan Yu attempted to break out of the encirclement with his son Guan Ping but failed. They were captured and executed by Sun Quan after refusing to surrender. Guan Yu met his end in 219, one year before the Three Kingdoms period officially began.
Worth of Guan Yu
Like many Chinese gods, Guan Yu isn’t a mythological figure. He isn’t multi-limbed or elephant-faced. He isn’t a cloud-dwelling superbeing or a worker of miracles. He is an actual historical figure who lived during the latter years of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) and died in the year 219.
With regional warlords fighting to fill the power vacuum left in the collapse of the Han Dynasty, he was part of a group still loyal to the Han and seeking to restore the Emperor to power. Thus, with his master Liu Bei and fellow general Zhang Fei, he swore an oath of brotherhood, according to the legend, vowing to protect the Han Dynasty and remain loyal to the cause.
As a general, he was known for his strength, bravery, and loyal to his men. As an individual, he was respected his honor and righteousness. Many of his exploits, along with those of his “brother” Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, were fictionalized in 14th century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and much of what we now know and attribute to Guan Yu can be found within its pages. But though the events of his life and times may have been subsequently romanticized, there is little doubt as to the historical basis of the story.
Nowadays, Guan Yu is worshipped for many reasons and by many different strands of Chinese society. As a mighty warrior, Guan Yu protect those he watches over from ill and misfortune so many people wear Guan Yu Pendant Necklace. As the embodiment of honesty and integrity, he is often displayed by business as a sign of trustworthiness and as a defender of their good name. While as an upholder of the code of brotherhood and a symbol of fraternal loyalty, he is worshipped by everyone most of Chinese, also Hong Kong police force and even underground triad organizations.
In China, in particular, you can see him in temples and in restaurants, in shops and business. There are statues of him in street shrines and Guan Yu Portrait in the most unlikely of places.
Even if a temple isn’t dedicated to his name you’ll most likely still find him there, so revered, is he? He is the Chinese every god; A symbol of everything from loyalty to wealth. And best of all, he existed.