Heroes of Ancient China: Guan Yu, Warrior of Loyalty, Justice, and Righteousness

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Multi-story statue in Jinguashi, Taiwan of Guan Yu, a celebrated hero of ancient China still recognized today for his virtue and righteousness. (Image: Fred Hsu via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Guan Yu (關羽, 160 – 220 AD) was a well-known warrior in Chinese history. Known for his bravery and loyalty, he helped his blood-oath brother to the throne in the Three Kingdoms era (200 – 280 AD). 

During his life and after his death, kings and emperors bestowed many titles on him, such as the semi-religious “Lord Guan.”

When Guan Yu died, all three kingdoms honored him with a tomb. It was said that Guan Yu had “his head pillowed in Luoyang, his body resting in Danyang, and his soul returned to his hometown.” He was not only honored by the imperial court; the common people also respected him, and warriors especially worshiped him.

Guan Yu was neither the smartest nor the best warrior of his own time, let alone throughout the 5,000 years of Chinese history. How did he gain such powerful and lasting reverence?

A great man must exhibit integrity

Mencius, a Confucius scholar and philosopher, once said that there were three criteria one must meet to be a great man: “No riches or honors may corrupt him; no poverty or lowliness may change him; no might or force may bend him. Such would be what we call a great man.” Many historical figures could meet one or two of these criteria, but Guan Yu met them all!

This painting depicts Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Liu Bei in the peach garden where they became blood brothers. (Image: Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. via Flickr CC0 1.0)

It is said that Guan Yu killed a thug in his youth and had to leave his hometown. He met his blood-oath brother Liu Bei (劉備) and vowed to “work together to help the poor and those in danger, and to serve the country and the people.” They started with nothing, fought together, and suffered many hardships; but no poverty or lowliness changed Guan Yu.

During one of the battles, Guan Yu became separated from his brothers. In order to protect Liu’s two wives, Guan Yu surrendered to Cao Cao, the king of Wei. Cao Cao thought highly of Guan Yu and wanted him to stay and serve, giving him fine gifts and beautiful women. Guan Yu put away the gifts and sent the women to serve his sisters-in-law. He wore the new robe the king had given him under his old robe from his brother. Once he discovered where Liu Bei was, he returned the gifts, resigned his official post, left the king, and went to look for his blood-oath brother. He was not corrupted by riches or honors.

When others were reluctant to answer the challenge of a great warrior who had defeated many, Guan Yu stepped up and defeated the man. His reputation for bravery spread across the land. Later, Guan Yu was captured along with his son in an ambush. They refused to surrender and were both executed. He could not be bent by might or force.

Paragon of yi or righteousness

Immortalized by the Ming Dynasty-era classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this period of history is mainly understood to illustrate the virtues of loyalty, justice, and righteousness, known as yi (義). Whenever people bring up Guan Yu, they associate him with such virtues.

Guan Yu had his faults. His pride led him to lose in a major battle. Yet people still respect and honor him, as it must be acknowledged that no one is without fault. For thousands of years, Guan Yu has been thought of as a great man. His story had been passed down via novels, musicals, and various art forms.

  • Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.