Guan Yu (160 – 220 AD) from the Three Kingdom era has been one of the most venerated characters of Chinese history. He was not the smartest or the best warrior of his time, let alone in the 5,000 years of Chinese history. Why is he so revered?
The famous Chinese philosopher Mencius once said there are three criteria to be a great man: “No riches or honors may induce him to corruption; no poverty or lowliness may cause him to waver; no might or force may compel him to submit. Such would be what we call a great man.”
Guan Yu ‘s deeds and moral qualities which were exemplified in the 14th-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms are believed to fit these criteria.
It is said that Guan Yu had killed a rich and powerful thug in his youth. Because of it, he had escaped his hometown. He met Liu Bei and Zhang Fei, and the three of them became blood-oath brothers. They vowed to “work together; help the poor and those in danger.” They started with nothing, fought together, and suffered many hardships, and later established the kingdom of Shu Han. Thus “no poverty or lowliness caused him to waver.”
During one of the battles, the three were separated. In order to protect his sisters-in-law (Liu’s two wives), Guan Yu surrendered to Cao Cao. Cao Cao regarded him highly and gave him lots of gifts and beautiful girls. Guan Yu put away the gifts and sent the girls to serve his sisters-in-law. He wore the new robe given by Cao Cao under his old robe. Once he had news about his blood brother Liu Bei, he returned the gifts, resigned his official post, left Cao Cao and went to look for Liu Bei. That is an example of “no riches or honors may induce him to corrupt.”
When most warriors were reluctant to answer the challenge of Hua Xiong, a great warrior who had defeated many, Guan Yu stepped up and defeated Hua. He was famous for his bravery. Later, Guan Yu was captured along with his son in an ambush. They were both executed but did not change sides. That is “no might or force may compel him to submit.”
The history of the Three Kingdoms mainly illustrated the virtue of righteousness. Guan Yu has always been associated with this virtue.
During his life and after his death, kings and emperors bestowed many titles on him, from “Marquis Zhuangmou” to “His Holiness Guan.”
Of course, Guan Yu was not flawless. He was prideful, and he lost the battle of Jingzhou because of it. But that does not keep people from respecting him. People seem to understand that there is no perfect human. For thousands of years, Guan Yu has been thought of as a great man.