Li Yan (Three Kingdoms)

Li Yan (died 234), courtesy name Zhengfang, also known as Li Ping, was a military general of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period of China. He climbed to the zenith of his career when he was asked by the Shu emperor Liu Bei to be the military paramountcy and co-regent alongside Zhuge Liang for his son and successor, Liu Shan. After the death of Liu Bei, Li Yan was given the rank of General of the Vanguard which was last held by Guan Yu back in 220. Li served most of his career in the mid and late 220s as the area commander for the Eastern Front centered in Yong An with Chen Dao as his deputy; he never faced any major battles in his position. However, during the 230s and the 4th of Zhuge Liang's Northern Expeditions, Li Yan was given a higher rank of General of the Agile Cavalry, below only Zhuge Liang. He was assigned to handle logistics, but he was unable to deliver supplies to Zhuge Liang's army in a timely manner. After his attempt to fraudulently cover his inability to follow commands, Li Yan was stripped from positions and power.

Li Yan
Central Protector-General (中都護)
In office
230 (230) – September or October 231 (September or October 231)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
General of Agile Cavalry (驃騎將軍)
In office
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
General of the Vanguard (前將軍)
In office
226 (226)–230 (230)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Minister of the Household (光祿勳)
In office
226 (226)–230 (230)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Prefect of the Masters of Writing (尚書令)
In office
222 (222)–223 (223)
MonarchLiu Bei
ChancellorZhuge Liang
General Who Assists Han (輔漢將軍)
In office
218 (218)–222 (222)
General Who Revives Glory (興業將軍)
In office
c. 214 (c. 214)–218 (218)
Administrator of Qianwei (犍為太守)
In office
c. 214 (c. 214)–218 (218)
Personal details
Nanyang, Henan
Zitong County, Sichuan
ChildrenLi Feng
Courtesy nameZhengping (正方)
Other nameLi Ping (李平)
PeerageMarquis of a Chief District

Early life and careerEdit

During his youth, Li Yan worked as a civil clerk in Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) under the provincial governor Liu Biao, and had earned himself a reputation of being competent. When the northern warlord Cao Cao launched a campaign in 208 to seize control of Jing Province, Li Yan became one of the refugees who escaped the province, and entered Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing), which was under control of Liu Zhang.[1]

Liu Zhang appointed Li Yan as the Prefect of Chengdu, and once again, Li Yan distinguished himself on his new post. Later, when the warlord Liu Bei invaded Yi Province, Li Yan was assigned as an army controller after initial resistance proved futile. Li was supposed to repel the invading army at Mianzhu, a strategic stronghold that laid before Yi Province's capital Chengdu; however, Li Yan led his subordinates to surrender to Liu Bei when the latter arrived. For his timely defection, Li Yan was appointed as a Major-General.[2]

Service under Liu BeiEdit

After Liu Bei conquered Yi Province, Li Yan was appointed as the Administrator (太守) of Qianwei Commandery (犍為郡) and General Who Revives Glory (興業將軍), as a follow-up solidification of the new regime. Even being a newcomer, Li Yan was invited to constitute the Shu Ke (蜀科; the code of law for the Shu region) with Zhuge Liang, Fa Zheng, Yi Ji and Liu Ba. (The Shu Ke was the most important guidance on the legal system of the Shu Han state later.)[3] Li Yan continued to prove his talent as a commandery administrator — several major civil projects were initiated and conducted under his leadership: a tunnel was dug through Mount Tianshe, roads along rivers were repaired, infrastructures within his jurisdiction were decorated and rebuilt. Residents under Li Yan's rule were pleased. However, he started to reveal his weak intra-bureaucratic relationship with his peer. Yang Hong, Li Yan's official chief assistant, opposed one of Li Yan's reconstruction projects — the relocation of the Administrator's residency. Li Yan refused to listen to Yang Hong's suggestion; Yang Hong resigned after repeatedly objecting to Li Yan's plan.[4] Wang Chong, a General of Standard under Li Yan, purportedly defected to Wei after a major fall-out with his supervisor.[5]

In 218, while Liu Bei was wrestling control with Cao Cao over Hanzhong Commandery, the bandit leaders Ma Qin (馬秦) and Gao Sheng (高勝) rebelled. The rebels controlled Zizhong County and gathered several tens of thousands people to join their cause. Since the majority of the mobile forces were deadlocked in the Hanzhong frontline, Li Yan could only muster 5,000-strong local defensive forces in Qianwei Commandery, where he successfully suppressed the revolt and brought back stability and order to the province and his people.[6] Gao Ding, the leader of the Sou (叟) tribe,[7] also took this opportunity to attack Xindao County (新道縣), but Li Yan deftly led his unit to defend the county and repelled Gaoding's aggression. For his effort, Li Yan was promoted to General Who Assists Han (輔漢將軍).[8]

In 222, Liu Bei suffered a devastating defeat to the eastern warlord, Sun Quan, at the Battle of Xiaoting and died not long later in Baidicheng. During this year, he summoned Li Yan to Baidicheng and promoted him to the rank of Prefect of the Masters of Writing (尚書令).[9] On his death bed, Liu Bei specifically asked Li Yan to be a co-regent with Zhuge Liang to take care of his son, Liu Shan, and appointed Li Yan as Central Protector-General (中都護) to handle all military matters — both imperial guards and standard armies were supposed to be under his command. He was also put in charge of the defense of Yong'an County (永安縣; present-day Fengjie County, Chongqing) near the border between Shu and its ally state Wu.[10] According to Liu Bei's dying wish, Li Yan should be the military paramountcy within the Shu regime. Liu's choice fell on Li because by 223, other original Yi officials likely to be given the position, Fa Zheng and Dong He had already died, while Huang Quan had surrendered to Wei the year before and Wu Yi (Three Kingdoms) wasn't considered as talented as Li Yan.

Service under Shu HanEdit

As a co-regentEdit

When Yong Kai, a local leader in the Nanzhong region, started a rebellion and declared independence from Shu rule, Li Yan tried to tap into his personal influence to dissuade Yong Kai from doing so, by writing a total of six letters to him, but to no avail. Gao Ding and Meng Huo also fanned the uprising and the campaign became a major revolution, which prompted Zhuge Liang to retaliate with military force.[11]

After his successful southern subjugation and repair of the Wu–Shu alliance, Zhuge Liang, utilising his huge bureaucratic power and influence, carried out a series of human resource rearrangement. After prescribing several officers as palace attendants for the young emperor, Zhuge Liang continued to spend considerable effort in strengthening ties with Wu. Chen Zhen (Three Kingdoms), a close associate of Zhuge Liang, was selected to be the ambassador to congratulate Sun Quan's enthronement in 229. Before his departure, Chen Zhen told Zhuge Liang that "Li Yan has scales in his stomach"[12] but Zhuge Liang replied that he would rather praise Li Yan than to attack him because the situation had not been settled.

Around 226, Li Yan was promoted to Minister of the Household (光祿勳) and enfeoffed with the Marquis of a Chief District (都鄉侯). The same year, he was given a new rank as General of the Vanguard (前將軍).[13] Later, Zhuge Liang attempted to replace Wei Yan, the area commander of Hanzhong assigned by Liu Bei, with Li Yan. Li Yan was the acting area commander of the eastern front at the time, so such a move transferred him form the east to the north without technically changing his rank; however, Li Yan did not perceive it thus. On the other hand, Li Yan suggested Zhuge Liang to create a new province, Ba Province, with five commanderies and recommended himself to be the Inspector of this new Ba Province. Zhuge Liang did not agree to Li Yan's suggestion. Li Yan however reassigned his position to Jiangzhou (江州; in present-day Chongqing).[14] In the following years, Li Yan and Zhuge Liang shared a competitive, yet cooperative relationship.

In a letter to the recently defected Meng Da, Li Yan wrote that both Kongming and him were entrusted with a difficult task and a lot of responsibilities follows it. Yet, he was lucky to have such a great partner.[15] Zhuge Liang also wrote a letter to Meng Da where he praised Li Yan's abilities and conduct.[16] Li Yan once sent a letter to Zhuge Liang, stating the latter should receive the nine bestowments and become a vassal king of the Shu regime; Zhuge Liang replied that he would do so only after Shu had vanquished its rival state, Wei. The letter was written as such :

“You and I know each other since a long time yet we no longer understand reciprocally each other! Your mission should be to support the restoration of the State and be worried of improper ways hence I cannot be silent. At first, I was of humble rank from the eastern region yet my talent was exaggerated by the Former Emperor and now my rank is the highest among the officials, my salary and bestowment far too many. At this moment, the suppression of the rebels hasn't been accomplished. You who understand that our task is still going would encourage us to receive undeserved favor and wait with glorious titles. It isn't the path of the virtuous. Now, if we vanquish the rebels and slay Cao Rui with the emperor recovering his imperial seat, then both you and I would rise. In that case, I would accept even ten bestowments, all the more for nine!”[17]

In August 230, the Wei general Cao Zhen launched a punitive campaign against Shu as a form of retaliation against Zhuge Liang's previous attacks. Zhuge Liang urged Li Yan to lead 20,000 troops to Hanzhong Commandery to defend against the Wei invasion. However, Li Yan did not want to leave his home base and serve under Zhuge Liang, so he told the latter that he should have the right to open an office (just like Zhuge Liang) as a co-regent. Zhuge Liang denied Li Yan's request, but appeased him by allowing his son, Li Feng, to replace him if he did come to Hanzhong Commandery. Li Yan finally went to Hanzhong Commandery under persuasion and pressure from Zhuge Liang.[18]

As a logistic officerEdit

After the Wei attack stalled due to continuous rainfall, Li Yan was not permitted to go back to the east; instead, Zhuge Liang included Li Yan as a member of his cabinet, granting the latter access to the Imperial Chancellor's office to help prepare for future campaigns against Wei. Thus, Li Yan changed his name to "Li Ping", compromised on Zhuge Liang's war plan, and accepted the role of a logistic officer for Zhuge Liang's fourth northern expedition.[19]

As the fourth expedition dragged on for months, Zhuge Liang and the Wei general Sima Yi had been having a series of battles around Mount Qi, and both sides needed backup supplies. However, rainfall rendered the transportation lines impassable, and Li Yan failed to provide supplies to Zhuge Liang's camp. Instead of informing Liu Shan of the situation, Li Yan attempted to cover up his failure. Li Yan had the Advisor to the Army Hu Zhong (狐忠) and the Commander of the Army Cheng Fan (成藩) deliver a letter to Zhuge Liang, informing the commander of the logistic problem, and asked the latter to return. When Zhuge Liang got back to Hanzhong Commandery, Li Yan told him that the food supply was ready and asked him why he retreated. At the same time, Li Yan sent Liu Shan a memo which says "the army feigned retreat in order to lure the enemy to do battle", hoping that Zhuge Liang would resume the war so his failure to transport supplies would go unnoticed.[20]

However, Zhuge Liang absolved himself from the campaign, and returned to Chengdu to deal with Li Yan. On the way back to Chengdu from Hanzhong Commandery, Zhuge Liang did not reprimand Li Yan, but he secretly preserved Li Yan's letter. When the returning officers greeted the emperor at the imperial palace, Zhuge Liang showed Li Yan's handwritten letter to Liu Shan, so Li Yan could not deny his fault. Then, Zhuge Liang asked Liu Shan to strip Li Yan off all of his titles and official posts and exile him to Zitong Commandery. There, Li Yan lived the rest of his life as a civilian until he heard the news of Zhuge Liang's death in 234, after which he became ill and died. Li Yan always hoped that Zhuge Liang would forgive him and reemploy him thinking that officials after him wouldn't be able to. Hence his pain and anger when he heard that he died.[21][22] After Li Yan's dismissal from office, Zhuge Liang kept employing his son Li Feng (李豐) and encouraged him to do his best under Jiang Wan so he may regain his father's honor. After Li Yan's death, Li Feng reached the rank of Administrator of Zhuti (朱提太守).[23][24]

Xi Zuochi commented on Li Yan's cause of death and Zhuge Liang's application of law:

"In the ancient times. Because they were found guilty of an offense and in accordance with the law. Qi Huan Gong ordered Guan Zhong to seize three hundred households of the Bo Clan (伯氏) however since Guan Zhong's law enforcement was fair, they never complained. People of wisdom thought this attitude worthy and praised Guan Zhong for his just application of law. In comparison with this, Zhuge Liang's death made Liao Li shed tears and Li Ping to die of despair even though he was responsible for their dismissal from office. Though Water may bend, It stays of utmost evenness and adapt. Though Mirrors may show ugliness, It reflects without judgement. Both Water and Mirrors reveal the concealed without any complaints, this is because there is an absence of Ego. Water and Mirrors are without Ego and so avoid slander. So all the more difficult for men of high rank put in position of power over people to accept the judgement of others. Promoting people into positions of power yet they have no Ego, pronouncing sentences over people and yet they have no anger. Can one act as such and avoid resentment in this world. Zhuge Liang therefore can be praise for his enforcement of the law, from Qin to Han few can compare."[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ (李嚴字正方,南陽人也。少為郡職吏,以才幹稱。荊州牧劉表使歷諸郡縣。曹公入荊州時,嚴宰秭歸,遂西詣蜀,) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  2. ^ (劉璋以為成都令,復有能名。建安十八年,署嚴為護軍,拒先主於綿竹。嚴率眾降先主,先主拜嚴裨將軍。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  3. ^ (後遷昭文將軍,與諸葛亮、法正、劉巴、李嚴共造蜀科;蜀科之制,由此五人焉。) Sanguozhi vol. 38.
  4. ^ (先主定蜀,太守李嚴命為功曹。嚴欲徙郡治舍,洪固諫不聽,遂辭功曹,請退。) Sanguozhi vol. 41.
  5. ^ (先為牙門將,統屬江州督李嚴。為嚴所疾,懼罪降魏。) Sanguozhi vol. 41.
  6. ^ (成都既定,為犍為太守、興業將軍。二十三年,盜賊馬秦、高勝等起事於郪,音淒。合聚部伍數萬人,到資中縣。時先主在漢中,嚴不更發兵,但率將郡士五千人討之,斬秦、勝等首。枝黨星散,悉復民籍。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  7. ^ 宋炳龙 (2011) Study on Nanzhao's Origin (南诏王室族源新探), 《大理文化》2011年第11期.
  8. ^ (輔又越嶲夷率高定遣軍圍新道縣,嚴馳往赴救,賊皆破走。加輔漢將軍,領郡如故。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  9. ^ (章武二年,先主徵嚴詣永安宮,拜尚書令。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  10. ^ (三年,先主疾病,严与诸葛亮并受遗诏辅少主;以严为中都护,统内外军事,留镇永安。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  11. ^ (都護李嚴與闓書六紙,解喻利害,闓但答一紙曰:「蓋聞天無二日,土無二王,今天下鼎立,正朔有三,是以遠人惶惑,不知所歸也。」其桀慢如此。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  12. ^ Chen Zhen's original phrase is "(李)正方腹中有鱗甲", which Zhuge Liang interpreted as "Li Yan is easily irritated" (吾以為鱗甲者〔但〕 不當犯之耳).
  13. ^ (建興元年,封都鄉侯,假節,加光祿勳。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  14. ^ (建四年,轉為前將軍。以諸葛亮欲出軍漢中,嚴當知後事,移屯江州,留護軍陳到駐永安,皆統屬嚴。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  15. ^ (嚴與孟達書曰:「吾與孔明俱受寄託,憂深責重,思得良伴。」) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  16. ^ (亮亦與達書曰:「部分如流,趨捨罔滯,正方性也。」其見貴重如此。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  17. ^ Zhuge Liang's reply can be found in Collected works of Zhuge Liang. (諸葛亮集) - 亮答书曰:“吾与足下相知久矣,可不复相解!足下方诲以光国,戒之以勿拘之道,是以未得默已。吾本东方下士,误用於先帝,位极人臣,禄赐百亿,今讨贼未效,知己未答,而方宠齐、晋,坐自贵大,非其义也。若灭魏斩叡,帝还故居,与诸子并升,虽十命可受,况於九邪!”
  18. ^ (八年,迁骠骑将军。以曹真欲三道向汉川,亮命严将二万人赴汉中。亮表严子丰为江州都督督军,典为后事。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  19. ^ (亮以明年當出軍,命嚴以中都護署府事。嚴改名為平。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  20. ^ (九年春,亮軍祁山,平催督運事。秋夏之際,值天霖雨,運糧不繼,平遣參軍狐忠、督軍成藩喻指,呼亮來還;亮承以退軍。平聞軍退,乃更陽驚,說「軍糧饒足,何以便歸」!欲以解己不辦之責,顯亮不進之愆也。又表後主,說「軍偽退,欲以誘賊與戰」。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  21. ^ (亮具出其前後手筆書疏本末,平違錯章灼。平辭窮情竭,首謝罪負。於是亮表平曰:「自先帝崩後,平所在治家,尚為小惠,安身求名,無憂國之事。臣當北出,欲得平兵以鎮漢中,平窮難縱橫,無有來意,而求以五郡為巴州刺史。去年臣欲西征,欲令平主督漢中,平說司馬懿等開府辟召。臣知平鄙情,欲因行之際偪臣取利也,是以表平子豐督主江州,隆崇其遇,以取一時之務。平至之日,都委諸事,群臣上下皆怪臣待平之厚也。正以大事未定,漢室傾危,伐平之短,莫若褒之。然謂平情在於榮利而已,不意平心顛倒乃爾。若事稽留,將致禍敗,是臣不敏,言多增咎。」乃廢平為民,徙梓潼郡。十二年,平聞亮卒,發病死。平常冀亮當自補復,策後人不能,故以激憤也。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  22. ^ (亮公文上尚書曰:「平為大臣,受恩過量,不思忠報,橫造無端,危恥不辦,迷罔上下,論獄棄科,導人為姦,(狹情)〔情狹〕志狂,若無天地。自度姦露,嫌心遂生,聞軍臨至,西嚮託疾還沮、漳,軍臨至沮,復還江陽,平參軍狐忠勤諫乃止。今篡賊未滅,社稷多難,國事惟和,可以克捷,不可苞含,以危大業。輒與行中軍師車騎將軍都鄉侯臣劉琰,使持節前軍師征西大將軍領涼州刺史南鄭侯臣魏延、前將軍都亭侯臣袁綝、左將軍領荊州刺史高陽鄉侯臣吳壹、督前部右將軍玄鄉侯臣高翔、督後部後將軍安樂亭侯臣吳班、領長史綏軍將軍臣楊儀、督左部行中監軍揚武將軍臣鄧芝、行前監軍征南將軍臣劉巴、行中護軍偏將軍臣費禕、行前護軍偏將軍漢成亭侯臣許允、行左護軍篤信中郎將臣丁咸、行右護軍偏將軍臣劉敏、行護軍征南將軍當陽亭侯臣姜維、行中典軍討虜將軍臣上官雝、行中參軍昭武中郎將臣胡濟、行參軍建義將軍臣閻晏、行參軍偏將軍臣爨習、行參軍裨將軍臣杜義、行參軍武略中郎將臣杜祺、行參軍綏戎都尉盛勃、領從事中郎武略中郎將臣樊岐等議,輒解平任,免官祿、節傳、印綬、符策,削其爵土。」) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  23. ^ (豐官至朱提太守。) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  24. ^ (諸葛亮又與平子豐教曰:「吾與君父子戮力以獎漢室,此神明所聞,非但人知之也。表都護典漢中,委君於東關者,不與人議也。謂至心感動,終始可保,何圖中乖乎!昔楚卿屢絀,亦乃克復,思道則福,應自然之數也。願寬慰都護,勤追前闕。今雖解任,形業失故,奴婢賓客百數十人,君以中郎參軍居府,方之氣類,猶為上家。若都護思負一意,君與公琰推心從事者,否可復通,逝可復還也。詳思斯戒,明吾用心,臨書長歎,涕泣而已。」) Sanguozhi vol. 40.
  25. ^ (習鑿齒曰:昔管仲奪伯氏駢邑三百,沒齒而無怨言,聖人以為難。諸葛亮之使廖立垂泣,李平致死,豈徒無怨言而已哉!夫水至平而邪者取法,鏡至明而醜者無怒,水鏡之所以能窮物而無怨者,以其無私也。水鏡無私,猶以免謗,況大人君子懷樂生之心,流矜恕之德,法行於不可不用,刑加乎自犯之罪,爵之而非私,誅之而不怒,天下有不服者乎!諸葛亮於是可謂能用刑矣,自秦、漢以來未之有也。) Xi Zuochi's annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 40.