Lu Bu was a dynamic man who played an important part in Chinese history. A cunning warrior, his martial prowess was nearly unmatched. However, what he had physically he lacked in tactical ability and personal loyalty.
The Backstabbing Begins
Lu was from what is now Inner Mongolia – the northernmost province of China. A renowned martial artist, he was recruited by the Cavalry Commandant and taken to Henan – located centrally in China. When the Emperor died, Lu Bu went with the Commandant to the capital Louyang to join a coalition led by a general in deposing some corrupt and powerful eunuchs. Due to the eunuchs faking an imperial degree, the general was killed, and warlord Dong Zhuo took his place. Dong Zhuo successfully took the capital, but wanted more control of the coalition, so he induced Lu Bu to kill the Commandant who recruited him. After the Commandant’s death, Dong Zhuo appointed Lu as the new Commandant, and eventually promoted him to General.
Now, Dong Zhuo was not a benevolent dictator, and the populace grew unhappy. A coalition was formed to oppose him, led by Yuan Shao. Lu Bu was in co-command of one of the defense forces. Unfortunately, Lu could not get along with his co-commander, giving one of the enemy commanders the opportunity to attack and force them into retreat. The defense had to pull back to the capital. Dong Zhuo decided to move the capital to Chang’an, farther East. He “encouraged” the populace to come with him by burning Louyang. Luckily for him, the coalition petered out and dissolved.
As you can see, Dong Zhuo was not a very nice man. Because of this, he was worried about potential assassination attempts. Therefore, he chose Lu Bu to be his bodyguard. However, even in front of a trusted compatriot, he still could not stop his fits of rage. One day, during such a fit, he threw several daggers at Lu Bu. As you can imagine, regardless of how well Dong Zhuo had treated him, Lu was not happy about this. Because of a secret affair Lu was having with one of Dong’s maids, he also was feeling less loyal to Dong.
Lu took the opportunity to make his complaints known, and he just happened to talk to the wrong people: two officials who had a secret plan to kill Dong Zhuo. They decided to let Lu in on the plan, and he, after putting up a token defense, let them talk him into killing Dong, which he did quickly. With Dong Zhuo dead, the two officials seized power and appointed Lu to one of the higher positions in the new government.
A coalition formed to oppose the new government, and Lu Bu was in command of the defense. This time, one of the enemy commanders decided that dueling rather than fighting was the best way to attack, and he approached Lu Bu with the offer. Lu Bu, being an expert martial artist, accepted and won the duel, leaving the commander injured. The commander’s soldiers rescued him, and even though the duel had been won by Lu Bu, fighting eventually commenced. Now, as we’ve noted before, Lu Bu was an excellent fighter but a rather poor commander, and he was forced to withdraw from Chang’an.
A Few More Betrayals
Lu Bu traveled until he found Yuan Shu, the brother of Yuan Shao. Because of Yuan Shu’s dislike of Dong Zhuo, Lu thought Yuan would be grateful to him for killing Dong. However, this was not the case, and Yuan grew worried of Lu Bu, especially as Lu had allowed his men to raid the area, territory which belonged to Yuan. Lu Bu, not one to stay where he was not welcome, left to meet Yuan Shao.
Lu Bu joined Yuan Shao’s forces and helped during many raids against a man called Zhang Yang. However, the same problems that had occurred with Yuan Shu reared their heads, this time being severe enough that Yuan Shao plotted Lu’s death. However, Lu got wind of it and ordered one poor soldier to be a decoy and sleep in his tent. The soldier was murdered in his sleep, and Lu fled to the enemy Zhang Yang for refuge!
Lu sweet-talked his way into Zhang’s good graces by bringing up that they were originally from the same province and should help each other. Zhang Yang protected him from Yuan’s men as well as from some other former associates of Dong Zhuo. Eventually Lu Bu decided to leave and return home.
On the way home, he met Zhang Miao, whom he befriended. Zhang Miao ruled over territories ultimately controlled by Cao Cao, a powerful warlord, who was an ally of Yuan Shu. However, when Cao Cao left to attack another province, Zhang Miao’s younger brother started a rebellion. Lu Bu, of course, had to join in, and he took control of the city of Puyang and declared himself Governor. Cao Cao cut short his campaign and returned home to oust the rebellion. Lu Bu and Cao Cao fought for over 100 days, but Lu’s side fared worse because of a drought and locusts. It got so bad that the people of Puyang started to resort to cannibalism. Lu had to leave, so he moved his base east to Shanyang. Cao Cao eventually caught up and won the battle, once again forcing Lu to flee.
Lu met a man named Liu. Lu was very respectful to Liu, but by this time Lu had gained a reputation as a backstabber, so Liu did not trust him, though he kept this distrust quiet. Yuan Shu heard that Lu was staying with Liu, and sent Lu a private letter detailing Yuan’s former struggles with Dong Zhu, thanking Lu for killing Dong, and asking him to help Yuan remove Liu from power in exchange for a large amount of and continuous flow of supplies, as well as shelter. Lu was delighted and, when Liu led an army to fight Yuan Shu, kidnapped Liu’s family. Yuan Shu’s army managed to defeat Liu, so Liu was forced to return home in disgrace, humiliated on both sides. However, Lu was not happy that Yuan’s promised supplies were late in coming, and welcomed Liu back with open arms, appointing him to a high position in the government Lu had just usurped from him!
Not only was Lu an impressive warrior, he also had unparalleled archery skill. When Yuan Shu sent a general to attack him, Lu set up a bet, where if he managed to hit a polearm exactly in one designated spot, the opposing force would leave. He made the shot, which impressed everyone, and prevented the battle.
And A Few More
Yuan Shu eventually got a bit big for his britches and declared himself Emperor. This quickly attracted the attention of the real Emperor, who ordered anyone who could to kill Yuan. Yuan feared Lu, so even with all their past history, he proposed a marriage alliance between his son and Lu’s daughter which Lu accepted. However, Lu was convinced not to go through with the marriage once he was reminded how Yuan had treated him in the past, so he ordered men to catch up with the convey and take his daughter back.
During this time, Lu also sent a message to the real Emperor, and, in return, was appointed as a General. This involved getting a physical seal as part of the promotion. However, the emissary bringing the seal lost it, and the responsibility and guilt for this action fell upon Lu. He wrote another letter to the Emperor taking responsibility, attempting to explain why he had not supported the Emperor earlier, and proclaiming his attempt to follow all the Emperor’s commands to the best of his ability, particularly the command to eliminate Yuan Shu. Surprisingly, Cao Cao, the warlord whom Lu had fought against before wrote encouragement to Lu and paid for the making of another seal as the Imperial Treasury did not have enough. However, Cao Cao also warned Lu about Lu’s connections to Yuan, advising him to immediately sever all ties.
When Yuan, still waiting for the marriage convey to arrive, got news of Lu’s newest betrayal, he was livid. He allied with two other commanders and prepared to attack Lu. Lu got wind of the attack and, via a letter reminding the two commanders of the real Emperor’s command and a promise of vast rewards for helping, managed to win them to his side. Together, Lu and the two commanders struck toward Yuan’s capital, plundering all the way.
When Lu drew close to Yuan, Lu sent a messenger taunting Yuan about the fact that he had managed to sway Yuan’s allies to his side. Then, he and his men laughed at Yuan across a river, then withdrew.
Lu Meets his End
A few years later, Lu found himself allied with Yuan again, this time against Liu Bei. With Lu not leading the army himself, Lu’s commander managed to win against Liu, plus some reinforcements Cao Cao sent. Cao Cao decided to strike directly at Lu Bu. As Cao closed in, he sent a letter to Lu outlining why it would be best for Lu to surrender. Lu almost did, but his advisers all remembered Lu’s previous betrayal of Cao Cao and urged him to reconsider. He did for a time, but as Cao ramped up his attacks, Lu once again found himself preparing to surrender. His advisers again pushed back, so he sent a request for aid from Yuan Shu.
Yuan, still upset about the whole marriage renegement, laughed at Lu’s emissaries. Lu’s emissaries told him he would suffer too if Lu was defeated, so Yuan made a show of preparing his forces. Lu, knowing none of this, guessed correctly that Yuan was still upset about the failed marriage alliance and attempted to kidnap his daughter and fight single-handedly through Cao Cao’s lines in order to personally deliver her to Yuan’s son! While Lu was a master warrior, he was not good enough to win, by himself, against the whole army, especially with his daughter tied to his back. Having to take cover against the enemy’s archers, he was forced to retreat back into the city.
Lu decided to strike against the enemy’s supply lines, but his wife, better able to read the political undercurrents between Lu’s advisers, advised him not to go. This resulted in a few rounds of silent tug of war over Lu’s mind, with Lu constantly changing his opinion to coincide with whom he heard from last. Cao Cao, unable to break into the city, was beginning to get tired, but his advisers convinced him to keep trying. Cao tried a different tactic, diverting two rivers in order to flood the city Lu was in. Lu’s men were losing the will to fight, and eventually a few of Lu’s subordinates managed to capture Lu’s troublesome advisers, then surrender to Cao Cao.
Lu tried to have his men kill him and present his head to Cao, but they wouldn’t do so. Lu was then captured by Cao’s men and brought before him. Lu pleaded with Cao, and Cao almost released him, but Liu Bei, who was also there, reminded Cao of how untrustworthy Lu was. Lu, finally feeling the sting of betrayal himself, was enraged at Liu, ironically calling Liu “the most untrustworthy person”. Cao finally ended Lu’s betrayal spree by having him hanged.