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Guan Yu (162-219) is one of the best known historical figures in ancient history. Part of the reason for this is that he appears in popular comics and movies.
He is also a major character in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that is a semi-historical novel said to be written by Luo Guan Zhong at the end of the Yuan Dynasty period (1279-1368).
This novel is one of China's four greatest classic novels. He is also a god! Millions of people worship him and make little statues of him to put in their dwellings. He was said to be a strong warrior and a successful and daring general who was loyal to his rulers. One of the unusual things he did was that he served both his long-time leader and friend Liu Bei and the enemy leader Cao Cao well. How he did this is an interesting story in itself.
Finally, he died in 219. During his life as an important leader in the bloody conflicts of the fall of the Han Empire, he showed daring and fairness, and then he became a god.
Guanyu is worshipped by many Chinese people today, especially in southern China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Small shrines to Guanyu are almost ubiquitous in traditional Chinese shops and restaurants.
Guan Yu was born in 162 in Shanxi. He married and had a son named Guan Ping who was born in 178 when he was 16 years old. Guan Ping fought and died with him. He met Liu Bei and fought with him against the Yellow Turbans. At this time, the Han Dynasty was falling. The Yellow Turbans were a Daoist-led rebellion that formed large armies and threatened to conquer the empire along with another Daoist-led rebellion that was called the Five Pecks of Rice.
Liu Bei became a ruler in Shandong. Shandong is known in history as a place where rebellions start. He made Guan Yu and Zhang Fei generals. They protected Liu Bei in every danger.
There were various major rulers who vied for power at the end of the Han Empire. Some like Liu Bei supported the sitting emperor. In 199, Cao Cao had Emperor Xian under his control and issued decrees in Emperor Xian's name. Liu Bei saw this and conspired against Cao Cao. He started to attack Cao Cao's territory. Cao Cao attacked him, and he had to flee.
Cao Cao captured Guan Yu. He surrendered to Guan Yu, and Cao Cao made him a general. Guan Yu was sent against an advancing army that was led by a rival regional ruler. Guan Yu personally killed the leader during the battle. This was a major feat. He cut off the leader's head and sent it to Cao Cao. After this, he left to return to Liu Bei. He probably thought that he was dead before. He left behind a farewell letter.
Wars between Liu Bei and Cao Cao continued for about twenty more years until Liu Bei died. In 219, Guan Yu attacked a nearby enemy city called Fancheng. While he was doing this, an army from Eastern Wu was attacking Liu Bei's territory. Guan Yu tried to escape, and the Eastern Wu army killed Guan Yu and his son who fought with him in 219.
Partly because of fictional portrayals in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, his reputation has only increased over the years. One of his feats in the novel was to have arm surgery performed without anesthesia while he was playing a game of go (weiqi).
It is said that a shrine for him is in every Hong Kong police station. He is also a patron god of Chinese criminal groups for his bravery and fighting prowess. Business people and shop owners put up shrines in order to gain wealth. He is worshipped as a Daoist god, a Buddhist deity, and by Confucianists.