People secretly admire or love cultural heroes or heroines especially those who are or thought to be exemplary.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictionalized version mixed with historical facts, written in the fourteen century by a Chinese scholar, Lo KuanChung, provided many down-to-earth heroes for the Chinese to admire and love or try to emulate.
The popularity of the book spawned many discussions, drama plays, and story telling down several centuries. Some depicted actions and characters even found their way into qin as ancients to help devotees decipher what the Daoist temple deities usually Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, were trying to tell.
Of course if readers blinked or just read the Romance like any novel, they may not understand the cultural significances in depth. If students want to be learned of things Chinese, we cannot give this important book a miss. It plays a part in later Chinese civilization.
After the correction by my father, I decided to reread the book in two volumes and found the episode of significance. Over the years, being a slow learner at absorbing knowledge, I have read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its entirety, several times.
C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, the translator of the book had this comment on Guan Yu:
“For many, Guan Yu will always be somewhat too austere and untouchable to be a real hero of the romance, but many Chinese critics and students have not felt this way. Certainly it is no exaggeration to say that, whatever the merits of the figure of Guan Yu as presented in the book, the fictional Guan Yu has completely replaced the historical one in the Chinese imagination. When he is mentioned at all today, it is the figure as he appears in this novel that the Chinese have in mind, and this fact tends to be true of all the characters appearing in the book.”
After his death, Guan Yu was deified and became known as the God of War. While he is not my hero, I can certainly say I have some affinity with this Daoist deity over the decades.
If you happen to watch Hong Kong crime movies or documentaries, they may show scenes of the HK police including British officers (before 1997) praying or paying their respects to Guan Gong at the altar. So would the Chinese Triads.
Both sides, the good and the bad, know that justice or righteousness of which Guan Gong is really famous for, is far more important than duty and/or loyalty.
According to the novel, the Huayung episode was foreseen and planned by Zhuge Liang, the great strategist, for Guan Yu to manifest his righteousness/ justice (yi) for the whole world to see. To placate Liu Bei’s concern that Guan Yu would allow Cao Cao to pass, Zhuge Liang told him that he had already consulted the stars and knew that the adversary, Cao Cao was not fated to come to his end yet.
Here is the significant episode where Guan Yu manifested his sense of righteousness/justice:
“When the going improved a little and the path was moderately level, Cao Cao turned to look at his following and saw he had barely three hundred men. And these lacked clothing and armour and were tattered and disordered.
But he pressed on, and when the officers told him the horses were quite spent and must rest, he replied, ‘Press on to Chingchou and there we shall find repose.’
So they pressed on. But they had gone only a few li when Cao Cao flourished his whip and broke once again into loud laughter.
‘What is there to laugh at?’ asked the officers.
‘People say those two are able and crafty; I do not see it. They are a couple of incapables. If an ambush had been placed here we should all be prisoners.’
He had not finished this speech when the explosion of a bomb broke the silence and a half company of men with swords in their hands appeared and barred the way. The leader was Guan Yu holding the famous Black Dragon sword, bestriding the Red Hare steed. At this sight the spirits of the soldiers left them and they gazed into each others’ faces in panic.
‘Now we have but one course;’ said Cao Cao, ‘we must fight to the death.’
‘How can we?’ said the officers. ‘The men are scared, the horses are spent.’
Cheng Yu said, ‘I have always heard that Guan Yu is haughty to the proud but kindly to the humble; he despises the strong, but is gentle with the weak. He discriminates between love and hate and is always righteous and true. You, O Minister, have shown him kindness, and if you will remind him of that we shall escape this evil.’
Cao Cao agreed to try. He rode out to the front, bowed low and said, ‘General, I trust you have enjoyed good health.’
‘I had orders to await you; O Minister,’ replied he, bowing in return, ‘and I have been expecting you these many days.’
‘You see before you Cao Cao, defeated and weak. I have reached a sad pass and I trust you, O General, will not forget the kindness of former days.’
‘Though indeed you were kind to me in those days, yet I slew your enemies for you and relieved the siege of Paima. As to the business of today, I cannot allow private feelings to outweigh public duty.’
‘Do you remember my generals, slain at the five passes? The noble man values righteousness. You are well versed in the histories and must recall the action of Yu-kung, the archer, when he found his master Tzu-cho in his power.’
Guan Yu was indeed a very mountain of goodness and could not forget the great kindness he had received at Cao Cao’s hands, and the magnanimity he had shown over the deeds at the five passes. He saw the desperate straits to which his benefactor was reduced and tears were very near to the eyes of both. He could not press him hard. He pulled at the bridle of his steed and turned away saying to his followers, ‘Break the formation.’
From this it was evident that his design was to release Cao Cao, who then went on with his officers, and when Guan Yu turned to look back they had all passed. He uttered a great shout and the soldiers jumped off their horses and knelt on the ground crying for mercy. But he also had pity for them. Then Chang Liao, whom he knew well, came along and was allowed to go free also.
After having allowed the escape of Cao Cao, Guan Yu found his way back to headquarters. By this time the other detachments had returned bringing spoil of horses and weapons and supplies of all kinds. Only Guan Yu came back empty-handed. When he arrived Zhuge Liang was with his brother congratulating him on his success. When Guan Yu was announced Kung Ming got up and went to welcome him, bearing a cup of wine.
‘Joy! O General,’ said he. ‘You have done a deed that overtops the world. You have removed the country’s worst foe and ought to have met at a distance and felicitated.’
Guan Yu muttered inaudibly and Kung Ming continued, ‘I hope it is not because we have omitted to welcome you on the road that you seem sad.’
Turning to those about him he said, ‘Why did you not tell us he was coming?’
‘I am here to ask for death,’ said Guan Yu.
‘Surely Cao Cao came through the valley?’
‘Yes; he came that way, and I could not help it; I let him go.’
‘Then whom have you captured?’
‘Then you remembered the old kindness of Cao Cao and so allowed him to escape. But your acceptance of the task with its conditions is here. You will have to suffer the penalty.’
He called in the lictors and told them to take away Guan Yu and put him to death.
An accompanying poem:
‘Guan Yu risked his life when he spared Cao
In direst need,
And age-long admiration gained
For kindly deed.’
[Romance of the Three Kingdoms translated by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor]
Guan Yu had died there if not for his elder brother who spoke for him. The sentence was remitted.
Hopefully with this third and final entry, readers can differentiate between Duty, Loyalty, and Justice/ Righteousness.