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Guan Yu

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Guan Yu (Wade-Giles spelling: Kuan Yu) (died 219) was a general serving under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern 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: Dharma Protecting deity who helps practitioners with worldly matters. Historically, he was a legendary military general (160-219 CE), loyal to Emperor Liu Bei. Also known as the "Lord with the Magnificent Beard," he is usually depicted with a red face (symbolizing extreme courage and loyalty) and holding a long-handled sword known as a "guandao." He is regarded as a Taoist saint and god of war and martial arts. After he died he sought refuge with a Buddhist master and quickly obtained liberation whereupon he became a protector of the Dharma

As one of the best known Chinese historical figures throughout East Asia, Guan's true life stories have largely given way to fictionalized ones, mostly found in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms or passed down the generations, in which his deeds and moral qualities have been lionized. Guan is respected as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness.

Guan was deified as early as the Sui Dynasty and is still worshipped by many Chinese people today, especially in southern China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong and their descendants overseas. He is a figure in Chinese folk religion, popular Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Buddhism, and small shrines to Guan are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants.

Physical appearance

Guan is traditionally portrayed as a red-faced warrior with a long lush beard. While his beard was mentioned in the Records of Three Kingdoms, the idea of his red face may have derived from a later description of him in Chapter One of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where the following passage appears:

“Xuande (Liu Bei's style name) took a glance at the man, who stood at a height of nine chi, and had a two chi long beard; his face was of the color of a zao, with red lips; his eyes were like that of a phoenix's, and his eyebrows resembled silkworms. He had a dignified aura and looked quite majestic.”

Alternatively, the idea of his red face could have been borrowed from opera representation, where red faces depict loyalty and righteousness. Supposedly, Guan's weapon was a guan dao named Green Dragon Crescent Blade, which resembled a halberd and was said to weigh 82 catties (about 18.25 kg or 40 lbs). A wooden replica can be found today in the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou County, China. He traditionally dons a green robe over his body armour, as depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Statue of Guan Yu in Zhuge Liang's temple in Chengdu


Early life

Guan Yu was born in Xie County, Hedong (present day Yuncheng (运城市), Shanxi). No details of the time of his birth are found in historical records until the late Qing Dynasty, when the tomb of Guan Yu was discovered, bearing some details of his family. It was written that Guan Yu was actually born from a family of scholars. His grandfather's name was Guan Shen. His father's name was Guan Yi. Guan Yu was born in the year 160, and like his ancestors, often read the classics Book of Changes and Spring and Autumn Annals. He married Lady Hu and his son Guan Ping was born in 178.

Guan Yu fled his hometown at the age of 23, after slaying a local despot named Xiong (呂熊). Five years later, he arrived in Zhuo Commandery (present day Zhuozhou, Hebei). He met Liu Bei, who was recruiting volunteers to form a civilian army to suppress the Yellow Turbans Rebellion. Together with Zhang Fei, Guan Yu joined Liu Bei and participated actively in fighting the Yellow Turban rebels in northern China.

When Liu Bei was appointed as the governor of Pingyuan County, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei were made "Senior Major" (别部司马) under Liu. According to Records of Three Kingdoms, the relationship of the three men 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 how perilous the situation was.

In 199, Liu Bei attacked Xu Province with an army after gaining independence from the warlord Cao Cao. He killed Che Zhou, the governor of Xu Province, and placed Guan Yu in charge of the regional capital city of Xiapi. Liu Bei returned to the city of Xiaopei.  Shortly after, Cao Cao personally led a campaign to reclaim Xu Province from Liu Bei and defeated him in battle.  Liu Bei fled to Hebei and joined the warlord Yuan Shao. Xiapi fell and Guan Yu was captured by Cao Cao's men. Cao Cao treated Guan Yu respectfully, and Guan surrendered to him under conditions. Guan Yu was appointed by Cao Cao as a Lieutenant General.

Service under Cao Cao

In 200, Yuan Shao mustered an army of about 100,000 and started a campaign against Cao Cao, which subsequently culminated in the Battle of Guandu. To ensure a safe crossing of the Yellow River, Yuan Shao sent his general Yan Liang to attack Boma (northeast of present day Hua County, Henan), in order to claim a foothold on the southern bank of the Yellow River. Using a diversionary tactic, Cao Cao moved his main force westward towards Yan Ford along the river. Yuan Shao withdrew his troops from Baima and Cao Cao's forces struck back eastward to relieve the siege on Baima. Guan Yu and Zhang Liao led the vanguard, and attacked Yuan Shao's remaining troops at Baima. Identifying Yan Liang's parasol, Guan Yu slew Yan Liang in the midst of battle and brought back Yan's severed head.

On recommendation of Cao Cao, Guan Yu was conferred the title of "Marquis of Hanshou" (漢壽亭侯) in recognition of his effort in Boma. After that, Guan Yu left for Hebei to rejoin Liu Bei, who was currently in Yuan Shao's camp. 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 stopped them, saying "We are only serving different lords, let him go."

Battle of Red Cliffs

Guan Yu captures Pang De, a Ming Dynasty painting by Shang Xi, c. 1430

After the Battle of Guandu, Liu Bei was defeated at the Battle of Runan by Cao Cao and forced to flee south. He sought Refuge under the Jing Province governor Liu Biao. Liu Bei and his forces were placed in charge of the city of Xinye by Liu Biao.

In 208, Cao Cao initiated a southern campaign and seized control of parts of Jing Province north of the Yangtze River. Liu Biao had died of illness then and was succeeded by his son, Liu Cong, who surrendered to Cao Cao. Jing Province was thrown into confusion, and Guan Yu was ordered by Liu Bei to lead a navy and sail to Jiangling. Meanwhile, Liu Bei led some 100,000 refugees south, but was caught up by the elite cavalry of Cao Cao at Changban. Leaving his family and the populace behind, Liu Bei galloped away eastward to Han Ford, where he met up with Guan Yu's navy. Together, they sailed downstream to Xiakou to rendezvous with Liu Qi, who was the older son of Liu Biao. Liu Bei then successfully formed an alliance with the warlord Sun Quan, who held substantial influence in southeastern China, and the allies defeated Cao Cao at the Battle of Red Cliffs. As a result, the allied force pursued Cao Cao's forces to Jiangling.

Effort in the battle of Jiangling

During the Battle of Jiangling, Guan Yu was sent to block Cao Ren's supply lines via infiltration. He led a special force composed of navy and infantry, to go up the Han River, and attacked the city of Xiangyang, which was guarded by Yue Jin. Guan Yu was defeated by Yue Jin outside the city walls. However, Liu Bei became a powerful warlord as he was joined by Lei Xu (雷绪) and his troops numbering to tens of thousands, and soon conquered southern Jing Province without much resistance. Liu Bei promoted Guan Yu to the rank of "General Who Exterminates Rebels" (蕩寇將軍) and appointed him as the governor of the city of Xiangyang. Backed by Liu Bei, Guan Yu led a force to Xiakou to fight Yue Jin and Wen Ping, but was repelled by his rivals. Wen Ping trailed Guan Yu to Han Ford, in which he had Guan's food storage burnt to the ground. As a result, Guan Yu attempted to recuperate at Jingcheng (荆城); however, his pursuer would not allow him to rest, and Guan was forced to fight a naval battle with Wen Ping, which resulted in a total destruction of the navy. Later, Guan Yu set up some layers of blockades to prevent Li Tong from reinforcing Jiangling, but Li removed the blockades and fought his way through. Guan Yu ordered a retreat and Li Tong managed to enter Jiangling.

After almost a year of fighting, Cao Cao could no longer afford continuous loss of materiel and labor in the siege, and ordered Cao Ren to withdraw from Jiangling fortress. Liu Bei convinced Sun Quan to lend him Nan Commandery, and stationed Guan Yu in its capital city, Jiangling. In 213, Liu Bei left for Yi Province (covering the Sichuan Basin) and wrestled control of the land from Liu Zhang after two years. Since then, Guan Yu had been the leading figure of Jing Province. Most of the Liu Bei's forces went to Yi Province when Liu was experiencing difficulty in his invasion, while Guan Yu and part of Liu's forces remained in Jing Province.

Defeat and death

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. In autumn, heavy showers in the region caused the Han River next to the city to overflow. The flood destroyed reinforcements troops from Cao Cao led by Yu Jin and Pang De. Both Yu Jin and Pang De were captured by Guan Yu in battle. However, reinforcements led by Xu Huang managed to force Guan Yu's troops to retreat.

At that time, Guan Yu realised that Sun Quan had secretly formed an alliance with Cao Cao and attacked Jing Province while he was attacking Fancheng. Mi Fang and Shi Ren, whom he left in charge of Jing Province, had surrendered to Sun Quan. When Guan Yu's troops received news that their families in Jing Province 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 forces at Maicheng (southeast of present day Dangyang, Hubei). Guan Yu attempted to break out of the encirclement with his son Guan Ping and subordinate Zhao Lei but failed. They were captured in Zhang Town (east of present-day Yuan'an County, Hubei) and executed by Sun Quan after refusing to surrender. Sun Quan sent Guan Yu's severed head to Cao Cao, who performed the proper funeral rites and buried Guan's head with full honours. In 260, Liu Shan gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of "Marquis Zhuangmou" (壯繆侯), which states that he does not live up to his name in terms of his ability.


  • Grandfather: Guan Shen (關審), style name Wenzhi (問之)
  • Father: Guan Yi (關毅), style name Daoyuan (道遠)
  • Spouse: Lady Hu (胡氏)

According to Pei Songzhi's annotations in Records of Three Kingdoms, after the fall of Shu, Pang Hui (son of Pang De) massacred the Guan clan to avenge his father, who was put to death by Guan Yu.

Appointments and titles held

  • Senior Major (別部司馬)
  • Administrator of Xiapi (下邳太守)
  • Lieutenant General (偏將軍)
  • Marquis of Hanshou (漢壽亭侯)
  • Administrator of Xiangyang (襄陽太守)
  • General Who Rocks the Bandits (盪寇將軍)
  • General of the Vanguard (前將軍)
  • Marquis Zhuangmou (壯繆侯) - granted to Guan Yu posthumously

In fiction

Portrait of Guan Yu (behind) from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms glorified Guan Yu by portraying him as a righteous and loyal warrior. Guan Yu was one of the most altered and aggrandised characters in the novel, which accounted for his popular image in Chinese society. The following are some significant stories involving Guan Yu from the novel:

Early life

In Chapter 1, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei met in Zhuo County and took an oath of fraternity in the fabled Peach Garden, thus becoming sworn brothers. Guan Yu was ranked second in seniority among the three. The oath served as a guiding principle for Guan Yu and influenced much of his later life. Guan Yu held on to his oath until his death and was always loyal to his sworn brothers.

In Chapter 5, Guan Yu made his name by slaying the seemingly "undefeatable" warrior Hua Xiong in the campaign against Dong Zhuo. Later, the sworn brothers challenged the mighty warrior Bu at the Battle of Hulao Pass and managed to force him to retreat even though they were unable to defeat him.

Short service under Cao Cao

In Chapter 25, Cao Cao attacked Liu Bei's territory of Xu Province and defeated Liu's army. The sworn brothers were temporarily separated. Guan Yu was in charge of defending Xiapi, where Liu Bei's wives were housed. Guan Yu was lured out of the city and besieged on a nearby knoll while the city fell to Cao Cao's troops. Cao Cao sent Zhang Liao to persuade Guan Yu to surrender. Guan Yu was worried about the safety of his sisters-in-law as he saw that as his responsibility. After much consideration, Guan Yu agreed to submit to Cao Cao on three conditions:

  1. In name, Guan Yu submits to the Emperor Xian (who was actually a puppet ruler in Cao Cao's control) and not to Cao Cao.
  2. Liu Bei's wives must not be harmed in any way. They must be treated with full respect and honour.
  3. If Guan Yu discovers the whereabouts of Liu Bei (whose fate was unknown after the battle) one day, he will leave Cao Cao and reunite with his sworn brother.

Cao Cao agreed to the conditions although he felt uneasy about the last one. Guan Yu then submitted to Cao Cao and served Cao for a short period of time. Cao Cao treated Guan Yu with the utmost respect and bestowed upon him several gifts, luxuries and women, as well as the famous steed Red Hare, which once belonged to Bu. Guan Yu was not very appreciative towards Cao Cao's other gifts, but when Cao gave him the steed, he knelt down and thanked Cao. When Cao Cao inquired the reason, Guan Yu replied, "Sir, I'm very grateful to you for the steed because with it, I can reach my sworn brother in a shorter period of time if I ever know where he is."

Also in Chapter 25, during the battle between the forces of Cao Cao and the warlord Yuan Shao on the banks of the Yellow River, Cao's generals were defeated by Yuan's general Yan Liang. Cao Cao wanted to send Guan Yu to challenge Yan Liang but he hesitated because he did not want Guan to make any contributions. Guan Yu had earlier said that he would show his gratitude towards Cao Cao by making some contributions during the period of time when he served Cao. Eventually, Cao Cao did send Guan Yu to fight Yan Liang and Guan emerged victorious, slaying Yan and returning with his opponent's head. In the following chapter, Wen Chou, another of Yuan Shao's generals, came to avenge Yan Liang. Wen Chou defeated a few of Cao Cao's best warriors, including Zhang Liao and Xu Huang. Guan Yu made another major contribution to Cao Cao again by slaying Wen Chou.

Crossing Five Passes and Slaying Six Generals

Mural of Guan Yu's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (千里走單騎) in the Summer Palace

In Chapter 26, Guan Yu finally received news that Liu Bei was alive and currently in Yuan Shao's camp. He decided to leave Cao Cao with Liu Bei's wives to rejoin his sworn brother. Guan Yu attempted to bid Cao Cao farewell in person before his departure but Cao did not give him the chance to do so. Frustrated, Guan Yu eventually wrote a farewell letter to Cao Cao and left. He took with him none of the luxuries and gifts Cao Cao gave him, except the Red Hare. He even gave up his title as Marquis of Hanshou by leaving behind his official seal. Cao Cao's subordinates felt that Guan Yu behaved far too rudely and arrogantly by leaving without bidding farewell and wanted to pursue him and bring him back. However, Cao Cao knew that no one could stop Guan Yu and he gave orders for the officials along the way to give passage to Guan.

Guan Yu rode beside the carriage carrying his sisters-in-law and escorted them safely all the way. The first pass they reached was Dongling Pass (south of present-day Dengfeng, Henan). The guarding officer Kong Xiu denied Guan Yu passage as Guan did not have any official permits with him. Infuriated, Guan Yu killed Kong Xiu and forced his way through the pass.

They next reached the city of Luoyang. The governor Han Fu led 1,000 men to block Guan Yu. Han Fu's deputy Meng Tan challenged Guan Yu to a duel but was sliced in two by Guan. While Guan Yu was fighting with Meng Tan, Han Fu secretly took aim and fired an arrow at Guan. The arrow hit Guan Yu's arm and wounded him, but Guan drew the arrow from the wound and proceeded to kill Han Fu. The shocked soldiers immediately gave way and Guan Yu's party passed through safely.

Guan Yu's party arrived at Sishui Pass (north of present-day Xingyang, Henan). The guarding officer Bian Xi received Guan Yu's party with a warm welcome and invited Guan to a feast at the temple outside the pass. In fact, Bian Xi had ordered 200 men to lie in ambush inside the temple and kill Guan Yu. Fortunately, one of the monks called Pujing, who was also from Guan Yu's hometown, hinted to Guan of the hidden danger. The ambush failed and Guan Yu killed Bian Xi and passed through Sishui Pass.

The governor of Xingyang, Wang Zhi, adopted a similar scheme to kill Guan Yu. Like Bian Xi, he pretended to be welcoming towards Guan Yu and led Guan's party to a courier station for them to settle in for the night. After that, Wang Zhi ordered his subordinate Hu Ban to lead 1,000 men to surround the station secretly and set fire to it in the middle of the night. Curious to know how Guan Yu looked like, Hu Ban stole a glance at Guan. Guan Yu noticed Hu Ban and invited him into the room. Guan Yu had met Hu Ban's father earlier and carried a letter with him. He gave the letter to Hu Ban and, after reading his father's letter, Hu Ban decided to help Guan Yu. Hu Ban revealed Wang Zhi's plot and opened the city gates secretly for Guan Yu and his party to leave. Wang Zhi caught up with the party a while later but Guan Yu turned back and killed him.

Guan Yu's party finally arrived at a ferry crossing on the southern bank of the Yellow River. Qin Qi, the officer in charge, refused to allow them to cross the river and was killed by Guan Yu in anger. Guan Yu and his party then crossed the river safely and entered Yuan Shao's domain. However, they soon realised that Liu Bei was no longer in Yuan Shao's territory and had already left for Runan. Guan Yu and his party then made their long journey back and were finally reunited with Liu Bei and Zhang Fei at Gucheng.

During this trip of crossing five passes, Guan Yu met many men who would become his subordinates and remain loyal to him until his death, including Liao Hua, Zhou Cang, and even his adoptive son Guan Ping.

Releasing Cao Cao at Huarong Trail

In Chapter 50, after his defeat at the Battle of Red Cliffs, Cao Cao made his escape with his surviving men towards the city of Jiangling. Liu Bei's strategist Zhuge Liang had foreseen Cao Cao's defeat and predicted Cao's escape route. He ordered Guan Yu to lead 5,000 men and lie in ambush along the Huarong Trail, a narrow shortcut in the woods leading towards Jiangling. Before his departure, Guan Yu made a military pledge that he would not spare Cao Cao's life on account of his past relationship with the warlord. If he failed to do so, he would face execution under military law. As expected, Cao Cao did pass through Huarong Trail after having met with several ambushes along his escape route.

Cao Cao and his men encountered Guan Yu and his army. Cao Cao spoke to Guan Yu and begged him to spare his life on account of their past relationship. Guan Yu was moved when he recalled the favours he received from Cao Cao while he was serving the warlord earlier for a short period of time. When he saw the plight of Cao Cao's defeated troops and Zhang Liao, whom he befriended when he serving Cao earlier, he decided to allow Cao and his men to leave. Upon his return, Guan Yu pleaded guilty to having violated the pledge he made earlier and expressed his willingness to accept execution. However, with the interference of Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, Zhuge Liang decided to pardon Guan Yu on account of his past contributions. It was later revealed that Zhuge Liang had expected Guan Yu to spare Cao Cao and his intention was actually to allow Cao to escape so as to hasten the formation of the Three Kingdoms, as detailed in his Longzhong Plan.

Hua Tuo treats Guan Yu's arm

A 19th century Japanese woodcut of Guan Yu by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. In this scene he is being attended to by the physician Hua Tuo while playing weiqi.

In Chapter 75, during a siege on Fancheng (present-day Fancheng District, Xiangyang, Hubei), Guan Yu's arm was wounded by a poison arrow fired by enemy crossbows. The arrow was promptly removed but the poison smeared on the arrowhead had already seeped through the wound into Guan Yu's arm. Guan Yu was unwilling to order a retreat so his subordinates had to send for a physician to treat his wound. The famous physician Hua Tuo appeared to treat Guan Yu's wound.

Hua Tuo diagnosed that he needed to perform surgery on Guan Yu's arm by cutting open the flesh and scraping off traces of poison on the bone. He also suggested that Guan Yu be blindfolded and have his arm secured tightly because the surgery would be performed in the absence of anesthesia and most patients were unable to bear with the excruciating pain. However, Guan Yu requested that the surgery be performed on the spot and he proceeded to continue a game of weiqi with Ma Liang during the surgery. Throughout the surgery, those watching nearby cringed as they watched the gory scene before them, but Guan Yu remained calm and did not show any sign of pain at all. Eventually, Hua Tuo managed to heal Guan Yu's wound and sewed it up after applying medication and then left with a great reward.

Enlightenment on Yuquan Hill

In Chapter 77, after Guan Yu's death at the hands of Sun Quan, his spirit roamed the land, crying out, "Return my head!" His spirit came to Yuquan Hill outside Dangyang County (present-day Dangyang, Hubei), and encountered Pujing, the Monk who saved his life several years ago at Sishui Pass. Pujing spoke to the spirit, "Now you ask for your head, but from whom should Yan Liang, Wen Chou, the pass guardians and many others ask for theirs?" Guan Yu's spirit was enlightened and disappeared, but henceforth it manifested itself around the hill and protected the locals from evil. The locals built a temple on the hill to worship the spirit.

The Buddhist monk Pujing was said to have built a grass hut for himself at the southeastern foot of Yuquan Hill during the last years of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The Yuquan Temple (玉泉寺), the oldest temple in the Dangyang region from where the worship of Guan Yu originated, was built on the exact location of the hut, and its construction was completed only until the Sui Dynasty.

After death

In Chapter 77, after Sun Quan's general Meng captured Jing Province and killed Guan Yu, Sun threw a banquet to celebrate the victory in honour of Meng, who planned the attack. During the feast, Guan Yu's spirit possessed Meng and seized Sun Quan. As the others rushed forward to save Sun Quan, the possessed Meng swore vengeance before collapsing onto the floor and dying moments later. Sun Quan was terrified and he sent Guan Yu's head to Cao Cao, hoping to push the responsibility of Guan's death to Cao and sow discord between Liu Bei and Cao.

When Cao Cao opened the box containing Guan Yu's head, he saw that Guan's facial expressions resembled that of a living person. He smiled and spoke to the head, "I hope you are well since we last parted." To his horror, Guan Yu's head opened its eyes and mouth and the long beard and hairs stood on their ends. Cao Cao collapsed and did not regain consciousness until a long time later. When he came to, he exclaimed, "General Guan is truly a god from heaven!" Then he ordered the head to be buried with full honours befitting that of a noble.

Worship of Guan Yu

[[File:Xingtian Temple DSC02236.jpg|thumb|Burning of incense during the veneration of lord Guan Yu, Xingtian Temple)] Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui Dynasty (581–618), and is still popularly worshipped today among the Chinese people. He is variedly worshiped as an indigenous Chinese deity, a Bodhisattva in Buddhist tradition and as a guardian deity in Taoism and many religious bodies. He is also held in high esteem in Confucianism. These roles are not necessarily contradictory or even distinguished within the Chinese religious system, which often merge multiple ancient philosophies and religions.

In the Western world, Guan Yu is sometimes called the Taoist God of War, probably because he is one of the most well-known military generals worshiped by the Chinese people. This is a misconception of his role, as, unlike the Greco-Roman deity Mars or the Norse god Týr, Guan Yu, as a god, does not necessarily bless those who go to battle but rather people who observe the code of brotherhood and righteousness.

General worship

A Guan Yu statue holding the guan dao in the right hand.

In general worship, Guan Yu is widely referred to as Emperor Guan (關帝), short for his Taoist title "Saintly Emperor Guan" (關聖帝君), and as "Guan Gong" (關公; literally "Lord Guan"). Temples and shrines dedicated exclusively to Guan can be found in parts of mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other places with Chinese influence such as Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. Some of these temples, such as the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou (解州), Shanxi, were built exactly in the layout of a palace, befitting his status as an "emperor".

The apotheosis of Guan Yu occurred in stages, as he was given ever higher posthumous titles. Liu Shan, the second emperor of Shu, gave Guan Yu the posthumous title of "Marquis Zhuangmou" (壯繆侯) four decades after his death. During the Song Dynasty, Emperor Huizong bestowed upon Guan Yu the title of "Duke Zhonghui" (忠惠公), and later the title of a prince.  In 1187, during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong, Guan Yu was established as "Prince Zhuangmou Yiyong Wu'an Yingji" (壯繆義勇武安英濟王). After the Song Dynasty was annihilated by the Mongols, who established the Yuan Dynasty in China, Guan Yu was renamed "Prince of Xianling Yiyong Wu'an Yingji" (顯靈義勇武安英濟王) by Emperor Wenzong.

The escalation of Guan Yu's status to that of an emperor took place during the Ming Dynasty. In 1614, the Wanli Emperor bestowed on Guan Yu the title of "Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven" (三界伏魔大神威遠震天尊關聖帝君). During the Qing Dynasty, the Shunzhi Emperor gave Guan Yu the title of "Zhongyi Shenwu Great Saintly Emperor Guan" (忠義神武關聖大帝) in 1644. This title was expanded to "The Grand Emperor Zhongyi Shenwu Lingyou Renyong Weixian Huguo Baomin Jingcheng Suijing Yizan Xuande Guan Sheng Dadi" (仁勇威顯護國保民精誠綏靖翊贊宣德忠義神武關聖大帝), a total of 24 Chinese characters, by mid-19th century. This name is often shortened to "Saint of War" (武聖), which is of the same rank as Confucius, who was known as the "Saint of Culture" (文聖) during the same period. The Qing advancement of Guan Yu served to strengthen the loyalty of Mongol tribes, as the Mongols revered Guan as second only to their lamas.

Throughout history, Guan Yu has also been credited with many military successes. During the Ming Dynasty, his spirit was said to have aided Zhu Yuanzhang (founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty)'s fleet at the Battle of Lake Poyang. In 1402, Zhu Di launched a coup d'état and successfully deposed his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor. Zhu Di claimed that he was blessed by the spirit of Guan Yu. During the last decade of the 16th century, Guan Yu was also credited with the repulse of Japanese invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (called the Seven-Year War of Korea). The ruling Manchu house of the Qing Dynasty was also associated with Guan Yu's martial qualities. During the 20th century, Guan Yu was worshipped by the warlord Yuan Shikai, president and later a short-lived emperor of China.

Today, Guan Yu is still widely worshiped by the Chinese, with many shrines to him are found in homes or businesses. In Hong Kong, a shrine for Guan is located in each police station. Though by no means mandatory, most Chinese policemen worship and pay respect to him. Although seemingly ironic, members of the triads and Heaven and Earth Society worship Guan as well. Statues used by triads tend to hold the halberd in the left hand, and statues in police stations tend to hold the halberd in the right hand. This signifies which side Guan Yu is worshiped, by the righteous people or vice versa. The appearance of Guan Yu's face for the triads is usually more stern and threatening than the usual statue. This exemplifies the Chinese belief that a code of honor, epitomized by Guan Yu, exists even in the underworld. In Hong Kong, Guan Yu is often referred to as "Yi Gor" (二哥, Cantonese for "second big brother") for he was second to Liu Bei in their fictional sworn brotherhood. Guan Yu is also worshipped by Chinese businessmen in Shanxi, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia as an alternative wealth god, since he is perceived to bless the upright and protect them from the wicked. Another reason being related to the release of Cao Cao during the Huarong Trail incident, in which he let Cao and his men pass through safely. For that, he was perceived to be able to extend the lifespan of people in need.

Among the Cantonese people who emigrated to California during the mid-19th century, the worship of Guan Yu was an important element. Statues and tapestry images of the god can be found in a number of historical California joss houses (a local term for Taoist temples), where his name may be given with various Anglicized spellings, including Kwan Dai, Kwan Tai, Kuan Ti, Kuan Kung, Wu Ti, Mo Dai, Guan Di, Kuan Yu, Kwan Yu, or Quan Yu. The Mendocino Joss House, a historical landmark also known as Mo Dai Miu, The Military God-King's Temple, or Temple of Kwan Tai, built in 1852, is a typical example of the small shrines erected to Guan Yu in America.

Worship in Taoism

Guan Yu is revered as "Saintly Emperor Guan" (simplified Chinese: 关圣帝君; traditional Chinese: 關聖帝君; pinyin: Gūanshèngdìjūn) and a leading subduer of demons in Taoism. Taoist worship of Guan Yu began during the Song Dynasty. Legend has it that during the second decade of the 12th century, the saltwater lake in present day Xiezhou County (解州鎮) gradually ceased to yield salt. Emperor Huizong then summoned Celestial Master Zhang Jixian (張繼先), 30th generation descendant of Zhang Daoling, to investigate the cause. The emperor was told that the disruption was the work of Chi You, a deity of war. Zhang Jixian then recruited the help of Guan Yu, who battled Chi You over the lake and triumphed, whereupon the lake resumed salt production. Emperor Huizong then bestowed upon Guan Yu the title of "Immortal of Chongning" (崇寧真君), formally introducing the latter as a deity into Taoism.

In the early Ming Dynasty, the 42nd Celestial Master Zhang Zhengchang (張正常) recorded the incident in his book Lineage of the Han Celestial Masters (漢天師世家), the first Taoist classic to affirm the legend. Today Taoism practices are predominant in Guan Yu worship. Many temples dedicated to Guan Yu, including the Emperor Guan Temple in Xiezhou County, show heavy Taoist influence. Every year, on the 24th day of the sixth month on the lunar calendar (legendary birthday of Guan Yu, Emperor Guan was actually born on the 22nd day of the sixth month of 160), a street parade in the honor of Emperor Guan would also be held.

Worship in Buddhism

Traditional Buddhist depiction of Guan Yu as Sangharama Bodhisattva.

In Chinese Buddhism, Guan Yu is revered by most practicing Buddhists as Sangharama Bodhisattva (simplified Chinese: 伽蓝菩萨; traditional Chinese: 伽藍菩薩,; pinyin: Qíelán Púsà) a heavenly protector of the Buddhist Dharma. Sangharama in Sanskrit means 'community garden' (Sangha, community + arama, garden) and thus 'monastery'. The term Sangharama also refer to the Dharmapala class of devas and spirits assigned to guard the Buddhist monastery, the Dharma, and the faith itself. Over time and as an act of syncreticism, Guan Yu was seen as the representative guardian of the temple and the garden in which it stands. His statue traditionally is situated in the far left of the main altar, opposite his counterpart Skanda.

According to Buddhist legends, in 592, Guan Yu manifested himself one night before Ch'an Master Zhiyi, the founder of the Tiantai school of Buddhism, along with a retinue of spiritual beings. Zhiyi was then in deep meditation on Yuquan Hill (玉泉山) when he was distracted by Guan Yu's presence. Guan Yu then requested the master to teach him about the Dharma. After receiving Buddhist teachings from the master, Guan Yu took Refuge in the triple gems and also requested the Five Precepts. Henceforth, it is said that Guan Yu made a vow to become a guardian of temples and the Dharma. Legends also claim that Guan Yu assisted Zhiyi in the construction of the Yuquan Temple (玉泉寺), which still stands today.

Modern references

Chinese opera

Qing Dynasty opera mask of Guan Yu.

Guan appears in Chinese operas such as Huarong Trail, Red Cliffs, and other excerpts from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. His costume is a green military opera uniform with armour covering his right arm and the knees of his pants. The actor's face is painted red with a few black lines, to represent honour and courage. He also wears a long three-section black beard made of yak hair and carries the Green Dragon Crescent Blade. Traditionally, after the show ends, the actor has to wash his face, burn joss paper, light incense, and pray to Chinese deities.


  • In Zhang Yimou's 2005 film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, a nuo opera performance of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (with reference to Guan Yu's fictional story of slaying six generals and crossing five passes) forms a major part of the film's narrative.
  • In Stephen Chow's 1994 comedy film From Beijing with Love, Chow plays an absentminded spy named "Ling Ling Chai" (007) who is shot by a double agent during a mission. When it is discovered the bullet has lodged deep into his thigh bone, he watches an interracial pornographic film to divert his attention (and blood flow) from the wound while the bullet is removed. When asked why, he recalls Guan Yu's example of playing weiqi while Hua Tuo performed surgery on his wounded arm.
  • In the 2007 horror-comedy film My Name Is Bruce, Guan Yu's vengeful spirit is accidentally set free by a group of teenagers and he begins to terrorize their town. The town then enlists the aid of B-movie actor Bruce Campbell to combat Guan Yu because of his experience with dispatching monsters in his previous films. Campbell accepts the job, believing it to be some impromptu movie production, but later discovers the threat is real.
  • In the 2008 historical film Red Cliff, Guan Yu is played by Basen Zhabu and is featured primarily in the Battle of Changban and later in a semi-fictional land battle near Red Cliff, which preceded the major naval battle.
  • In the 2008 historical film Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, Guan Yu is played by Ti Lung. He holds off Cao Cao's army together with Zhang Fei while Zhao Zilong searches for the infant Liu Shan. He is also featured again during the appointment of the Five Tiger Generals.
  • The 2011 film The Lost Bladesman stars Donnie Yen as Guan Yu. The plot is adapted from the story of Guan Yu crossing five passes and slaying six generals in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.



Video games

Card games

  • In Magic: The Gathering's Portal Three Kingdoms game set, he is a playable rare creature card with the "Horsemanship" ability.
  • In the History Channel's Anachronism card game, Guan Yu's cards have high initiative. His weapon is the "Green Dragon Crescent Blade", his armor is "General's Armour", his Special card is "Oath of the Peach Garden", and his inspiration card is "Guan Di", possibly alluding to his worship in the Taoist pantheon. Artwork for the five cards was done by Rob Alexander.


Wikipedia:Guan Yu