Cui Yan (165–216), courtesy name Jigui, was a Chinese politician serving under the warlord Cao Cao during the late Eastern Han dynasty of China. In his early life, he served briefly in the local district office before leaving home to study under the tutelage of the Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan. In the late 190s, Cui Yan became a subordinate of the northern warlord Yuan Shao but did not make any significant achievements under the latter, who ignored his suggestions. Following Yuan Shao's death in 202, Cui Yan was imprisoned when he refused to help either of Yuan's sons—Yuan Shang and Yuan Tan—in their struggle over their father's territories. After he was freed, Cui Yan came to serve under Cao Cao, the de facto head of the Han central government. Throughout his years of service under Cao Cao, Cui Yan performed his duties faithfully and diligently, maintaining law and order within his bureau and recommending talents to join the civil service. In 216, in an incident widely regarded as a case of grievous injustice, Cui Yan was accused of defaming Cao Cao in a letter and ended up being stripped of his post, thrown into prison and subsequently forced to commit suicide.
|Commandant of the Capital (中尉)|
|Monarch||Emperor Xian of Han|
|Master of Writing (尚書)|
|Monarch||Emperor Xian of Han|
Gucheng County, Hebei
|Relations||see Cui family of Qinghe|
|Courtesy name||Jigui (季珪)|
Cui Yan was from Dongwucheng County (東武城縣), Qinghe Commandery, Ji Province, which is around present-day Gucheng County, Hebei. He was born in the Cui family of Qinghe Commandery, a political family which rose to prominence during the Sui and Tang dynasties later. In his youth, he was known to be plain, dull and lacking in communication skills, but he was very interested in swordsmanship and military arts. When he was 22 years old, he was nominated by the local district office to be a judicial officer,[a] for which he was so grateful that he started reading books such as the Analects and Han Shi (韓詩)[b]
Six years later, at the age of 28, Cui Yan befriended Gongsun Fang (公孫方) and others and they studied together under the tutelage of the Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan. However, in 194, before Cui Yan could even complete his first year of studies, the Yellow Turban rebels from Xu Province attacked Beihai Commandery, where Zheng Xuan conducted his classes, so Zheng and his students fled east to Mount Buqi (不其山; northwest of Mount Lao) to evade chaos. Despite so, the rebellion had resulted in food shortages, so Zheng Xuan had no choice but to send his students away. After leaving Mount Buqi, Cui Yan could not return to Qinghe Commandery because rebel forces and bandits were rampant in the region and the roads leading west were blocked. He wandered around Qing, Xu, Yan and Yu provinces and visited several places, including Shouchun (壽春; present-day Shou County, Anhui), Lake Tai and the northern bank of the Yangtze River. After four years, he returned home and spent his time playing music and writing calligraphy.
Service under Yuan ShaoEdit
Around the late 190s,[c] the northern warlord Yuan Shao heard of Cui Yan and recruited the latter to serve under him. At the time, due to widespread chaos and famine, many soldiers had resorted to crime as a means of survival and some started robbing and plundering tombs. Cui Yan urged Yuan Shao to maintain good discipline among his troops, saying, "In the past, Sun Qing once said: 'If the soldiers in an army are ill disciplined, the army's prowess will be weak. It will not achieve victory even if it was led by either Tang of Shang or King Wu of Zhou.' As of now, the roads are covered with the remains of the dead and the people have yet to see your virtuous deeds. You should order all commandery and county officials to ensure that the dead are properly buried, so as to showcase your sympathy and compassion by following the benevolent acts of King Wen of Zhou." Yuan Shao appointed Cui Yan as a Cavalry Commandant (騎都尉).
In 200 CE, when Yuan Shao was preparing for a campaign against a rival warlord Cao Cao, he set up military garrisons at Liyang (黎陽) and Yan Ford (延津). Cui Yan attempted to dissuade him from going to war by saying, "The Emperor is in Xu[d] and the people's hopes are with him. Why don't you faithfully perform your duties by defending the border and maintaining peace within your jurisdiction?" Yuan Shao refused to listen to Cui Yan and insisted on attacking Cao Cao, but ended up being defeated by Cao at the decisive Battle of Guandu later that year. After Yuan Shao died in 202, his sons Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang formed their own military forces and started fighting for control over their father's territories in northern China. Both Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang wanted Cui Yan on their side, but Cui refused to help either of them and claimed that he was ill. As a consequence, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shang, but was later saved by Yin Kui (陰夔) and Chen Lin.
Service under Cao CaoEdit
In 205, after Cao Cao had defeated the Yuan brothers and taken over Ji Province, he wanted to recruit Cui Yan to serve as an aide-de-camp (別駕從事) under him. He told the latter, "According to official records, there are 300,000 troops under my command now. (Ji Province) is indeed a large province." Cui Yan replied, "The Empire is in a state of chaos and the Nine Provinces are divided, while the Yuan brothers fight among themselves and the bodies of the dead are scattered throughout the wilderness. The people have yet to see how your forces will bring benevolent rule and relief aid to them and liberate them from war and disaster, but now the first thing you do is to check the records for the numbers of troops and military equipment you've obtained. Is this what the people in this province expect of you?" Those present at the scene were all startled by Cui Yan's response. Cao Cao's facial expression changed and he thanked Cui Yan for his advice.
In the following year, when Cao Cao left Ji Province to attack Yuan Shao's nephew Gao Gan in Bing Province, he left his son Cao Pi in charge of Ye, the capital of Ji Province, and instructed Cui Yan to mentor Cao Pi. Once, when Cao Pi went on a hunting excursion to enjoy himself, Cui Yan wrote a long letter to him, haranguing the former on overly indulging in personal pleasures and neglecting his duties. Cao Pi later sent a reply, stating that he had destroyed his hunting equipment and thanking Cui Yan for his lecture.
In 208, when Cao Cao became the Han Chancellor, Cui Yan was appointed as a Senior Clerk in the East and West Bureaus (東西曹掾屬). The order from the Han imperial court conferring the appointment on Cui Yan read, "You possess the style of Boyi and the integrity of Shi Yu (史魚).[e] Corrupt officials will mend their ways out of admiration for you while men of valour will strive harder after being inspired by you. You will be serving as a role model in these times, therefore you are hereby appointed to the East Bureau."
In 216, Cao Cao was granted the title of a vassal king, King of Wei, by Emperor Xian of Han and was allowed to set up an autonomous vassal kingdom, which was nominally still under the Han dynasty. Cui Yan was appointed as a Master of Writing (尚書) in Cao Cao's vassal kingdom. At the time, Cao Cao had yet to designate one of his sons as his heir apparent and he was considering Cao Zhi, so he secretly sought the opinions of his subjects, including Cui Yan. Cui Yan openly replied, "According to Confucian ethics, a man's heir apparent should be his eldest son. Besides, Cao Pi is kind, filial and intelligent, so he is a suitable successor. I fully support him until my death."[f] Cao Cao was very impressed with Cui Yan for adhering to Confucian rules of propriety (and succession). (Cui Yan's niece was Cao Zhi's wife, so Cao Cao expected Cui Yan to support Cao Zhi, but Cui Yan followed the rules and endorsed Cao Pi (the eldest son) instead.)[g] He promoted Cui Yan to Commandant of the Capital (中尉) later.
Cui Yan once recommended Yang Xun (楊訓), who was from Julu Commandery, to serve in the government. Although Yang Xun's abilities were not up to expectations, Cui Yan still nominated him on the grounds of excellent moral conduct. Cao Cao heeded Cui Yan's suggestion and employed Yang Xun. After Emperor Xian enfeoffed Cao Cao as a vassal king, Yang Xun wrote a memorial to the imperial court, glorifying Cao's achievements in his military campaigns and showering Cao with words of praise. Yang Xun was ridiculed by many people for his flattering behaviour; Cui Yan was also cast in a negative light because he was deemed as having recommended a sycophant to join the civil service. After the incident, Cui Yan read Yang Xun's memorial and wrote to him,
"I have read your memorial. It is good. That is all. Time, time. There will be changes as time passes."
According to the historian Chen Shou, who wrote Cui Yan's biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi), Cui's true intention in writing those remarks was to mock Yang Xun's critics for being too eager to disparage Yang without making any careful consideration. However, Cui Yan was accused of displaying arrogance and defaming Cao Cao in his letter. Cao Cao angrily said, "There is a saying, 'I gave birth to a daughter, that is all.' 'That is all' is not a complimentary phrase. He meant disrespect when he wrote, 'There will be changes as time passes.'"[h] Cao Cao then had Cui Yan stripped off his post, thrown into prison, and ordered to perform hard labour. Later, he sent agents to observe Cui Yan in prison and they reported that Cui continued to remain defiant. Cao Cao issued an official statement, "Even though Cui Yan is serving a sentence, he still receives high numbers of visitors in prison. He glares at them straight in the eye as if he has grievances." He then forced Cui Yan to commit suicide.
The Weilüe recorded more details of the events leading to Cui Yan's death. It mentioned that Cui Yan's letter to Yang Xun fell into the hands of Cui Yan's enemies, who accused him of defaming Cao Cao. Cao Cao felt that Cui Yan was discrediting him so he had the latter arrested, imprisoned, head shaved, and sent to perform hard labour. Later, Cui Yan's enemies told Cao Cao, "When Cui Yan serves his sentence, he glares at people straight in the eye as if he is filled with resentment." Cao Cao believed them and wanted Cui Yan to die so he sent an official to inform Cui, "You've three days to live." Cui Yan did not understand what the official meant and he continued to live on for several days. When the official reported to Cao Cao that Cui Yan was alive and well, Cao furiously said, "Cui Yan is forcing me to use the sword on him!" The official went to see Cui Yan again and explained to the latter that Cao Cao actually wanted him to kill himself within three days. Cui Yan said, "How silly of me. I didn't know that he actually wanted me to do this." He committed suicide after that.
Cui Yan's execution was widely considered as unfair. In his work, Yi Zhongtian proposed three reasons why Cao Cao wanted to have Cui Yan killed:
- Cao Cao's infamous skepticism got the better out of him in this case. Cao had long been suspicious of his own subordinates since many of them actually disagreed of Cao's moves to take the supreme power. Cao Cao especially distrusted the "morally perfect" people since their contemporary "moral codes" included the loyalty and commitment for the existing Han dynasty, not for Cao Cao's rise to power. Cao Cao also disliked the contemporary clans of "intelligentsia nobility" (士族) whom he had to politically cooperate with but could never completely relied on. Cui Yan unfortunately belonged to both categories.
- Cao Cao had been upset about being publicly reprimanded by Cui Yan after the victories in Ji Province years ago.
- Cao Cao was actually displeased of how Cui Yan openly expressed his opinion in the choice of heir apparent despite Cao Cao's aim to sought the opinion only in secret. In contemporary politics when hidden moves were common, the public statements were occasionally believed as only "half-truth", and Cui Yan's honesty, although genuine, under the distrustful eyes of Cao Cao were intepreted as having hidden agenda. Moreover, Cui Yan's openess could be seen as a moral blow to Cao Cao's secret way of surveying, which strongly upset Cao Cao.
Cui Yan was described as having a lofty and dignified bearing, a clear voice, sparkling eyes, and a beard four chi long. He commanded much respect from his colleagues in the Han imperial court with his august appearance and demeanour, and even Cao Cao admired and feared him.
Once, when Cao Cao was about to meet an emissary from the Xiongnu, he felt that he looked ugly and might not be able to command respect so he ordered Cui Yan to impersonate him while he carried a sword and stood beside Cui, pretending to be a bodyguard. After the meeting, Cao Cao sent someone to ask the Xiongnu emissary, "What are your thoughts about the King of Wei?" The Xiongnu emissary replied, "The King looks handsome and extraordinary. However, the man who was carrying a sword and standing beside him is a real hero." Cao Cao had the emissary killed when he heard that.
Cui Yan was a close friend of Sima Lang. When Sima Lang's younger brother Sima Yi was still young, Cui Yan once told Sima Lang, "Your younger brother is intelligent, perceptive and strong. He'll surpass you in the future." Sima Lang disagreed with Cui Yan and they often debated about this.
Cui Yan's younger cousin, Cui Lin, was not highly regarded when he was young. However, Cui Yan said, "He's what we call a 'late bloomer'. He'll go far in the future." When Sun Li and Lu Yu first came to serve under Cao Cao, Cui Yan said, "Sun Li is energetic, strong and decisive, while Lu Yu is alert, sensible and resilient. Both of them are capable of shouldering great responsibilities in the future." As Cui Yan foresaw, Cui Lin, Sun Li and Lu Yu rose to prominence later and they became important officials in the state of Cao Wei (established by Cao Pi) during the Three Kingdoms period.
Two of Cui Yan's ex-classmates, Gongsun Fang (公孫方) and Song Jie (宋階), who studied together with him under Zheng Xuan, died early. Cui Yan adopted their children and treated them as if they were his own children.
The Xianxian Xingzhuang (先賢行狀) mentioned, "Cui Yan was noble and virtuous, possessed foresight, promoted ethics, and stood dignified in the imperial court. According to early records from Wei, his bureau was orderly and free of corruption throughout the ten years or so when he held office. He was well versed in literary and military arts, and had recommended many talents to serve in the government. [...]"
Chen Shou, who wrote Cui Yan's biography in the Sanguozhi, commented on Cui as follows, "Cui Yan's moral character was the most sound, [...] yet they were unable to avoid being killed. What a pity!" After writing about Cui Yan's death, Chen added: "Cao Cao was a suspicious person. He killed those whom he could not tolerate or bore grudges against because they had shown disrespect towards him. Among his victims – Kong Rong, Xu You, Lou Gui and others – Cui Yan is the most lamented. Until today, Cui Yan's case is still regarded as one of grave injustice."
During the reign of the Wei emperor Cao Rui in the Three Kingdoms period, Cui Lin (Cui Yan's cousin) and Chen Qun had a discussion on famous people from Ji Province. Cui Lin felt that Cui Yan was the most outstanding among all of them, but Chen Qun disagreed, saying that "intelligence alone is insufficient for a person to survive". Cui Lin replied, "We only get to see a real man by sheer coincidence. People like you only consider obtaining fame and fortune the best achievements in life."
- Cui Yan's appointment was a Director (正) under a Minister of Justice (廷尉).
- The Han Shi (韓詩; literally poems of Han) was written by Han Ying (韓嬰), an academician who lived in the early Western Han dynasty, as an addendum to the Classic of Poetry.
- Cui Yan's biography in the Sanguozhi mentioned that Yuan Shao held the nominal appointment of General-in-Chief (大將軍) under the Han imperial court when he recruited Cui to serve him. Cao Cao's biography in the Sanguozhi mentioned that Cao was initially appointed General-in-Chief by the Han imperial court in 196 but he later declined the post and offered it to Yuan Shao instead. (See Cao Cao#Receiving Emperor Xian for details.)
- Referring to Xu (許; present-day Xuchang, Henan), the Han capital, which was under Cao Cao's control.
- Shi Yu (史魚) was an official of the Wey state in the Spring and Autumn period. He was known for being very frank and candid in giving advice to the Duke of Wey.
- Cao Cao's official spouse, Lady Bian, bore him four sons. Cao Pi was the eldest while Cao Zhi was the third.
- Cao Zhi's wife was the daughter of Cui Yan's elder brother. Once, she wore embroidered clothes to a ceremony and was seen by Cao Cao. Cao Cao later forced her to commit suicide because she violated a rule with her dress code. Quote from the Shiyu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 12: (世語曰：植妻衣繡，太祖登臺見之，以違制命，還家賜死。)
- In traditional Chinese culture, sons are regarded more highly than daughters, so the birth of a girl was sometimes seen as something unimportant and not worthy of celebration or even mention. As such, the "that is all" remark was made in a dismissive or patronising tone similar to the use of words along the lines of "merely", "simply", "no more than", "only so", etc. It was therefore not seen as a complimentary phrase.
- (獻帝建安二十一年（丙申、二一六年） ... 初，中尉崔琰薦鉅鹿楊訓於操，操禮辟之。及操進爵，訓發表稱頌功德。或笑訓希世浮偽，謂琰為失所舉。琰從訓取表草視之，與訓書曰：「省表，事佳耳。時乎，時乎！會當有變時。」琰本意，譏論者好譴呵而不尋情理也。時有與琰宿不平者，白琰「傲世怨謗，意旨不遜」，操怒，收琰付獄，髡為徒隸。前白琰者復白之云：「琰為徒，對賓客虬須直視，若有所瞋。」遂賜琰死。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 67.
- (崔琰字季珪，清河東武城人也。少樸訥，好擊劒，尚武事。年二十三，鄉移為正，始感激，讀論語、韓詩。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (至年二十九，乃結公孫方等就鄭玄受學。學未朞，徐州黃巾賊攻破北海，玄與門人到不其山避難。時穀糴縣乏，玄罷謝諸生。琰旣受遣，而寇盜充斥，西道不通。於是周旋青、徐、兖、豫之郊，東下壽春，南望江、湖。自去家四年乃歸，以琴書自娛。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (大將軍袁紹聞而辟之。時士卒橫暴，掘發丘壠，琰諫曰：「昔孫卿有言：『士不素教，甲兵不利，雖湯武不能以戰勝。』今道路暴骨，民未見德，宜勑郡縣掩骼埋胔，示憯怛之愛，追文王之仁。」紹以為騎都尉。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (後紹治兵黎陽，次于延津，琰復諫曰：「天子在許，民望助順，不如守境述職，以寧區宇。」紹不聽，遂敗于官渡。及紹卒，二子交爭，爭欲得琰。琰稱疾固辭，由是獲罪，幽於囹圄，賴陰夔、陳琳營救得免。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (太祖破袁氏，領兾州牧，辟琰為別駕從事，謂琰曰：「昨案戶籍，可得三十萬衆，故為大州也。」琰對曰：「今天下分崩，九州幅裂，二袁兄弟親尋干戈，兾方蒸庶暴骨原野。未聞王師仁聲先路，存問風俗，救其塗炭，而校計甲兵，唯此為先，斯豈鄙州士女所望於明公哉！」太祖改容謝之。于時賔客皆伏失色。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (太祖征并州，留琰傅文帝於鄴。世子仍出田獵，變易服乘，志在驅逐。琰書諫曰：「蓋聞盤于游田，書之所戒，魯隱觀魚，春秋譏之，此周、孔之格言，二經之明義。殷鑒夏后，詩稱不遠，子卯不樂，禮以為忌，此又近者之得失，不可不深察也。袁族富彊，公子寬放，盤游滋侈，義聲不聞，哲人君子，俄有色斯之志，熊羆壯士，墯於吞噬之用，固所以擁徒百萬，跨有河朔，無所容足也。今邦國殄瘁，惠康未洽，士女企踵，所思者德。况公親御戎馬，上下勞慘，世子宜遵大路，慎以行正，思經國之高略，內鑒近戒，外揚遠節，深惟儲副，以身為寶。而猥襲虞旅之賤服，忽馳騖而陵險，志雉兎之小娛，忘社稷之為重，斯誠有識所以惻心也。唯世子燔翳捐褶，以塞衆望，不令老臣獲罪於天。」世子報曰：「昨奉嘉命，惠示雅數，欲使燔翳捐褶，翳已壞矣，褶亦去焉。後有此比，蒙復誨諸。」) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (太祖為丞相，琰復為東西曹掾屬徵事。初授東曹時，教曰：「君有伯夷之風，史魚之直，貪夫慕名而清，壯士尚稱而厲，斯可以率時者已。故授東曹，往踐厥職。」) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (魏國初建，拜尚書。時未立太子，臨菑侯植有才而愛。太祖狐疑，以函令密訪於外。唯琰露板荅曰：「蓋聞春秋之義，立子以長，加五官將仁孝聦明，宜承正統。琰以死守之。」植，琰之兄女壻也。太祖貴其公亮，喟然歎息，遷中尉。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (琰甞薦鉅鹿楊訓，雖才好不足，而清貞守道，太祖即禮辟之。後太祖為魏王，訓發表稱贊功伐，襃述盛德。時人或笑訓希世浮偽，謂琰為失所舉。琰從訓取表草視之，與訓書曰： ...) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (... 「省表，事佳耳！時乎時乎，會當有變時。」) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (琰本意譏論者好譴呵而不尋情理也。有白琰此書傲世怨謗者，太祖怒曰：「諺言『生女耳』，『耳』非佳語。『會當有變時』，意指不遜。」於是罰琰為徒隷，使人視之，辭色不撓。太祖令曰：「琰雖見刑，而通賔客，門若市人，對賔客虬鬚直視，若有所瞋。」遂賜琰死。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (魏略曰：人得琰書，以裹幘籠，行都道中。時有與琰宿不平者，遙見琰名著幘籠，從而視之，遂白之。太祖以為琰腹誹心謗，乃收付獄，髠刑輸徒。前所白琰者又復白之云：「琰為徒，虬鬚直視，心似不平。」時太祖亦以為然，遂欲殺之。乃使清公大吏往經營琰，勑吏曰：「三日期消息。」琰不悟，後數日，吏故白琰平安。公忿然曰：「崔琰必欲使孤行刀鋸乎！」吏以是教告琰，琰謝吏曰：「我殊不宜，不知公意至此也！」遂自殺。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- Yi Zhongtian. Analysis of the Three Kingdoms. Vol. 2. (Vietnamese translation). Publisher of People's Public Security, 2010. Chapter 29: Truth of the notorious cases and Chapter 48: The convergence of separated lines.
- (琰聲姿高暢，眉目疏朗，鬚長四尺，甚有威重，朝士瞻望，而太祖亦敬憚焉。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (魏武將見匈奴使，自以形陋，不足雄遠國，使崔季珪代，帝自捉刀立牀頭。既畢，令間諜問曰：「魏王何如？」匈奴使答曰：「魏王雅望非常，然牀頭捉刀人，此乃英雄也。」魏武聞之，追殺此使。) Shishuo Xinyu ch. 14.
- (始琰與司馬朗善，晉宣王方壯，琰謂朗曰：「子之弟，聦哲明允，剛斷英跱，殆非子之所及也。」朗以為不然，而琰每秉此論。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (琰從弟林，少無名望，雖姻族猶多輕之，而琰常曰：「此所謂大器晚成者也，終必遠至。」涿郡孫禮、盧毓始入軍府，琰又名之曰：「孫疏亮亢烈，剛簡能斷，盧清警明理，百鍊不消，皆公才也。」後林、禮、毓咸至鼎輔。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (及琰友人公孫方、宋階早卒，琰撫其遺孤，恩若己子。其鑒識篤義，類皆如此。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (先賢行狀曰：琰清忠高亮，雅識經遠，推方直道，正色於朝。魏氏初載，委授銓衡，總齊清議，十有餘年。文武羣才，多所明拔。朝廷歸高，天下稱平。) Xianxian Xingzhuang annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (初，太祖性忌，有所不堪者，魯國孔融、南陽許攸、婁圭，皆以恃舊不虔見誅。而琰最為世所痛惜，至今冤之。) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (崔琰高格最優，鮑勛秉正無虧，而皆不免其身，惜哉！) Sanguozhi vol. 12.
- (魏略曰：明帝時，崔林甞與司空陳羣共論兾州人士，稱琰為首。羣以「智不存身」貶之。林曰：「大丈夫為有邂逅耳，即如卿諸人，良足貴乎！」) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 12.