Ma Su (190–228),[1][2] courtesy name Youchang, was a military general and strategist of the state of Shu Han in the Three Kingdoms period of China. Ma Su had conspicuous talent in military theories and was admired by the Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang. However, a tactical blunder by Ma Su at the Battle of Jieting resulted in Shu being dealt a huge defeat by Zhang He, a general of the rival state of Wei. He was a younger brother of Ma Liang.

Ma Su
Ma Su Portrait.jpg
A Qing dynasty illustration of Ma Su
Administrator of Yuexi (越嶲太守)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Prefect of Chengdu (成都令)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Prefect of Mianzhu (綿竹令)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Personal details
Yicheng, Hubei
Died228 (aged 38)[1]
Childrenat least one son
OccupationGeneral, strategist
Courtesy nameYouchang (幼常)

Much dramatisation shrouds the death of Ma Su. According to the biography of Ma Su's close friend Xiang Lang, Ma Su was said to have attempted to flee with no further information if it was after or during his defeat at Jieting, but was captured. Following this, he was executed on Zhuge Liang's order and seemed to have face death with dignity. Most of the cultural's depictions concentrate on the latter part such as the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms as well as the Peking opera Loss of Jieting.

Early lifeEdit

A local of Yicheng, Xiangyang (present-day Yicheng, Hubei), Ma Su was one of the five brothers in the family, all of whom were renowned for their intellects and commonly known as the "Five Changs" as their style names all contained "Chang". Though Ma Su's elder brother Ma Liang was deemed to be the most talented among them all.[3] Together with Ma Liang, Ma Su began his service under Liu Bei around 205, when Liu Bei was still a guest of Liu Biao in Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan). In 214, when Liu Bei started his campaign against Liu Zhang into Yi Province, Ma Su followed him with the army and served as a military advisor along with Pang Tong and Fa Zheng. To reward him for his help during the campaign; Liu Bei after his victory named him not only as the Prefect of Mianzhu, but also Chengdu the capital of the recently conquered province.[4]

Since the start, Ma Su had talent and ability that surpassed others and enjoyed discussing planning and strategy. Liu Bei's chief advisor Zhuge Liang had been impressed by Ma Su's expansive knowledge in military strategy.[5] At some point before 219, Ma Su was transferred to Yuexi, a troubled commandery in the south as his Administrator. Yuexi was home to numerous indigenous tribes, many of whom refused to accept Liu Bei’s authority. It was the site of a significant tribal revolt led by Gao Ding (高定), the chief of the Sou tribe (叟族) in 218. With help from Li Yan who bent Gao Ding in battle; Ma Su did well in keeping order in the commandery.[6][7] However, before Liu Bei died in 223, he warned Zhuge Liang that Ma Su's knowledge and speech exceed his real abilities and should not be given important appointments.[8] Still, Zhuge Liang did not heed the warning, and Ma Su was made a personal military consultant to Zhuge soon after Liu died. The two were very close and would often hold discussions from dawn to dusk.[9]

Southern CampaignEdit

During the campaign against Meng Huo, Ma Su went several tens of li to see Zhuge Liang off. Zhuge Liang told Ma Su: "It's been years since we strategized together, now I ask for your help with your wise and skilled planning."[10]

Ma Su answered to Zhuge Liang as such:

"Nanzhong relies on the distance from the capital and its difficult access, if we submit them and leave, tomorrow they would rebel again. Now that you lord are about to engage the whole state and army for a Northern Expedition against the powerful rebels. And so, the Nanzhong rebels when they learn that the authority of the government is weak while you are occupied in the north then they will immediately rebel again. However, if all the tribes with their kinds are exterminated to end future worries... That would be innhumane as this is not the way of the benevolent man and moreover, it would take a lot of time. I learned that, in the way of using troops: attacking the heart is the wisest, attacking cities is worst; psychological warfare is best, and armed warfare is the worst I hope that you my lord will focus on subduing their hearts.”[11]

Zhuge Liang was greatly impressed and followed Ma Su's advice, many times he forgave Meng Huo in order to gain the trust of the people of the South. And so, until the end of Zhuge Liang’s life, the South did not rebel again.[12]

Performance in JietingEdit

In 228, Zhuge Liang launched his Northern Expeditions against Wei, at the time there were veteran leaders such as Wei Yan and Wu Yi. Among the army, many suggested appointing either one of them as the vanguard commander however Zhuge Liang disagreed with the majority and chose the callow Ma Su to command the army at the front instead.[13]

Ma Su's forces encountered Zhang He's forces at Jieting. It was here that Ma Su made a serious tactical blunder. He had camped on top of a hill, believing the vantage point would provide him with a more advantageous position in terms of observation and a place of attack. The veteran general Wang Ping advised against Ma Su's decision, arguing that their water supply might be cut off and their forces surrounded. While his good counsel was rejected, Ma Su allowed Wang Ping to take 1,000 men and camp nearby the source of the Shu forces' water supply.[14][15]

As Wang Ping predicted, Zhang He took advantage of Ma Su's mistake by striking at the Shu camp's water supply. Scattering Wang Ping's much smaller force, he succeeded in cutting off the enemy's water supply. The parched soldiers of Shu were easily defeated when Zhang He launched an offensive on the main camp itself. Wang Ping, with only a handful of soldiers, did his best to keep the retreat organized and ordered his soldiers to beat their drums loudly to create the impression that reinforcements had arrived. Zhang He believed this to be an ambush and did not pursue. When Zhuge Liang arrived, he could not force Zhang He from his position and retreated to Hanzhong.[16][17]

Records on Ma Su's deathEdit

Kongming shedding tears as he subjects Ma Su to execution

According to a record from the biography of Xiang Lang, it is stated that Xiang Lang, as a close friend of Ma Su, didn't report him when he fled though the record makes no statement if it was during or after the battle.[18]

Though he survived the battle, Ma Su's army suffered a heavy defeat (Wang Ping was able to regroup the scattered forces), so he was soon arrested and sentenced to execution by a reluctant and tearful Zhuge Liang[19][a] as a way to soothe the masses.[20] Before his execution Ma Su wrote a letter to Zhuge Liang:

"You wise lord regarded me like a son and myself looked upon you as a father. I dearly hope that this is the righteousness of the execution of Kun leading to the rise of the state of Yu (禹). May our whole life's relationship not be reduced by this. Though I shall die, I shall bear no resentments against the yellow earth."[21]

Many among the army wept greatly for Ma Su's death.[22]

When Jiang Wan later visited Hanzhong, he spoke with Zhuge Liang on this matter: "In the past, when the kingdom of Chu killed Dechen (得臣) then the joy of the Duke Wen of Jin was great. Today, the Empire has yet to be unified, however you put a man of wise counsel to death. Is it not regretful?" Zhuge Liang, in tears, answered: "The reason why the kingdom of Sun Wu (孫武) was able to end the war through the empire was that he was clear in application of laws. Thus, it was because Yang Gan (楊干) had brought confusion to laws that Wei Jiang put his charioteer to death. Now that the 'four seas' are still divided and split and war has just begun. If we again abandon the laws, then by what means shall we quell the rebels?"[23]

Xi Zuochi commented on this event and harshly criticized Zhuge Liang for Ma Su's death, he said:

"Wasn't it appropriate that Zhuge Liang failed to unify the realm? When Xun Linfu (荀林父) was defeated by the army of Chu, the Duke of Jin refused to execute him knowing his latter success would allow him to win the war. While when the King Cheng of Chu executed Dechen (得臣) ignorant of all he was doing for his country and brought his defeat. Now, Shu is situated in a remote location with less population and talent than the central plains they executed their outstanding men and have to fall back and employed lesser men. To be so severe with the talented and not apply the "principle of three defeats" while wanting to realize great enterprises, isn't that difficult? Moreover Liu Bei warned him that Ma Su shouldn't be employed in important matters. Why choose Ma Su rather than someone else? Zhuge Liang heard his warning but didn't follow it. Surely he wasn't able to refuse Ma Su. However Zhuge Liang was the chief minister of his empire and wanted to gather more resources yet he didn't evaluate the ability of each to make the correct appointments and assigned people thanks to their talent. His judgement was wrong and he ignored his lord's brilliant advice. Hence he failed and killed a man who had something to offer. After this, It seems hard to include him when speaking of the wise."[24]

Li Sheng and Zhang Xiu were also put to death with Ma Su. Wang Ping, on the other hand, was promoted to General Who Attacks Bandits for his efforts in minimizing casualties and for trying to prevent Ma Su's actions. Zhuge Liang sent a memorial to the Emperor Liu Shan requesting to be demoted for the defeat at Jieting which he was.[25]

Regardless, Ma Su was deemed by Zhuge Liang and later by Liu Shan in an imperial memorial following the Battle of Jianwei to hold major responsibility for the failure of the first Northern Expedition. However, Ma Su's wife and children were well taken care of by Zhuge Liang after Ma Su's death. Zhuge Liang also personally offered sacrifice at Ma Su's grave.[26][27]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Although the text simply says that Ma Su died (wugu 物故), the implication is clearly that he was executed.


  1. ^ a b c Ma Su's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms stated that he died at the age of 39 (by East Asian age reckoning) in 228. (... 謖年三十九。) By calculation, his birth year should be around 190.
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 649. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0.
  3. ^ (馬良字季常,襄陽宜城人也。兄弟五人,並有才名,鄉里為之諺曰:「馬氏五常,白眉最良。」良眉中有白毛,故以稱之。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  4. ^ (良弟謖,字幼常,以荊州從事隨先主入蜀,除綿竹成都令,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  5. ^ (才器過人,好論軍計,丞相諸葛亮深加器异,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  6. ^ (越希太守。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  7. ^ (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.
  8. ^ (先主臨薨謂亮曰:“馬謖言過其實,不可大用,君其察之!”) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  9. ^ (亮猶謂不然,以謖為參軍,每引見談論,自晝達夜。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  10. ^ (襄陽記曰:建興三年,亮征南中,謖送之數十里。亮曰:「雖共謀之歷年,今可更惠良規。」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  11. ^ (謖對曰:「南中恃其險遠,不服久矣,雖今日破之,明日復反耳。今公方傾國北伐以事彊賊。彼知官勢內虛,其叛亦速。若殄盡遺類以除後患,既非仁者之情,且又不可倉卒也。夫用兵之道,攻心為上,攻城為下,心戰為上,兵戰為下,願公服其心而已。」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  12. ^ (亮納其策,赦孟獲以服南方。故終亮之世,南方不敢復反。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  13. ^ (建興六年,亮出軍向祁山,時有宿將魏延、吳壹等,論者皆言以為宜令為先鋒,而亮違眾拔謖,統大眾在前,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  14. ^ (与魏將張邰戰于街亭,為邰所破,士卒离散。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  15. ^ (建興六年,屬參軍馬謖先鋒。謖舍水上山,舉措煩擾,平連規諫謖,謖不能用,大敗於街亭。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  16. ^ (亮進無所据,退軍還漢中。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  17. ^ (眾盡星散,惟平所領千人,鳴鼓自持,魏將張郃疑其伏兵,不往偪也。於是平徐徐收合諸營遺迸,率將士而還。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  18. ^ (朗素與馬謖善,謖逃亡,朗知情不舉,亮恨之,免官還成都。). Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 41, Biography of Xiang Lang. The quote can together with other sources be interpreted as saying that Ma deserted his army earlier, but was captured and sent to jail.
  19. ^ (謖下獄物故,亮為之流涕。良死時年三十六,謖年三十九。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  20. ^ ((亮)戮謖以謝眾。) (literally (Zhuge) Liang had to execute (Ma) Su as an apology to the citizens.) Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 35, Biography of Zhuge Liang.
  21. ^ (襄陽記曰:謖臨終與亮書曰:「明公視謖猶子,謖視明公猶父,願深惟殛鯀興禹之義,使平生之交不虧於此,謖雖死無恨於黃壤也。」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  22. ^ (于時十萬之眾為之垂涕。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  23. ^ (蔣琬後詣漢中,謂亮曰:「昔楚殺得臣,然後文公喜可知也。天下未定而戮智計之士,豈不惜乎!」亮流涕曰:「孫武所以能制勝於天下者,用法明也。是以楊干亂法,魏絳戮其僕。四海分裂,兵交方始,若復廢法,何用討賊邪!」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  24. ^ (習鑿齒曰:諸葛亮之不能兼上國也,豈不宜哉!夫晉人規林父之後濟,故廢法而收功;楚成闇得臣之益己,故殺之以重敗。今蜀僻陋一方,才少上國,而殺其俊傑,退收駑下之用,明法勝才,不師三敗之道,將以成業,不亦難乎!且先主誡謖之不可大用,豈不謂其非才也?亮受誡而不獲奉承,明謖之難廢也。為天下宰匠,欲大收物之力,而不量才節任,隨器付業;知之大過,則違明主之誡,裁之失中,即殺有益之人,難乎其可與言智者也。) Xi Zuochi's annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  25. ^ (丞相亮既誅馬謖及將軍張休、李盛,奪將軍黃襲等兵,平特見崇顯,加拜參軍,) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  26. ^ (亮自臨祭,待其遺孤若平生。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  27. ^ (詔策亮曰:「街亭之役,咎由馬謖,而君引愆,...」) Sanguozhi vol. 35.