Chen Gong : biography
Chen Gong (died 198) was an advisor to the warlord Lü Bu during the late Han Dynasty period of Chinese history. However, he started his career under Cao Cao before defecting to Lü Bu and was executed when the latter was defeated by Cao.
In Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Gong was given a positive makeover. He was said to have given up his official post to follow Cao Cao, who was then on the run after an attempted assassination on Dong Zhuo, a tyrannical warlord holding the emperor hostage in the imperial court. However, he left Cao Cao when he thought the latter was not an upright man either.
A local of Dong Commandery (東郡; south of present-day Shen County, Shandong), Chen Gong’s year of birth is unclear. He joined Cao Cao around 190, at the time when warlords around the country formed a coalition against Dong Zhuo, a powerful warlord who held the emperor hostage. His most significant contribution while under service to Cao Cao was the taking over of Yan Province (兖州; covering present-day western Shandong) in 193 through diplomatic efforts, a strategic move which laid down the foundation for Cao Cao’s subsequent rise in power.
In 194, however, while Cao Cao was away leading a campaign against Tao Qian in Xu Province (徐州; covering present-day northern Jiangsu), Chen Gong defected to rival warlord Lü Bu along with his colleague, Zhang Miao. With the assistance of the two men, Lü Bu quickly took over most of Yan Province. Cao Cao hastily returned and laid siege on Lü Bu in Puyang (濮陽). After more than hundred days of stalemate, a famine breakout forced Lü Bu to give up his position and seek refuge under Liu Bei in Xiapi (下邳; present-day Pizhou, Jiangsu), capital of Xu Province.
In 196, Lü Bu turned on his host and took over Xiapi, proclaiming himself the regional governor and sending Liu Bei to the nearby county of Xiaopei (小沛).
In 198, Lü Bu launched an offensive against Liu Bei, who sought help from Cao Cao. Cao Cao personally led a force and laid siege on Xiapi. When Cao Cao’s army reached Pengcheng (彭城; present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu), which lies east of Xiapi, Chen Gong advised Lü Bu to grasp the initiative to strike but Lü Bu, taking the words of his wife, decided to stay put. After initial attempts to break the siege failed, Lü Bu intended to surrender but was dissuaded by Chen Gong.
The siege dragged on for two months. In the third, Cao Cao diverted the Si River and Yi River (沂水) to flood the city. Within a month, Lü Bu’s subjects Hou Cheng, Song Xian and Wei Xu captured Chen Gong and defected with their troops. Lü Bu made a last stand on the city gate but was eventually overpowered and captured. When brought to Cao Cao, Chen Gong refused to return to his service and chose death so that the law could be upheld (Cao Cao maintained as a general rule that those who surrendered after being besieged were not pardoned). Cao Cao was moved and provided for Chen Gong’s family henceafter.
The heads of Lü Bu, Chen Gong, Gao Shun, and some of the other generals were sent to Xuchang where they were buried.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic novel by Luo Guanzhong, is a romanticization of the events that occurred before and during the Three Kingdoms era. In this dramatized version of history Chen Gong was credited with much undue moral righteousness and craftiness, perhaps to accentuate the unscrupulousness of Cao Cao and incompetence of Lü Bu.
Meeting and parting with Cao Cao
The first incident that illustrates the righteousness of Chen Gong comes in Chapter 4, where Cao Cao was fleeing from the capital Luoyang after a foiled assassination attempt on Dong Zhuo. At Zhongmu County (中牟縣), where Chen Gong was the magistrate, Cao Cao was captured. When Chen Gong interrogated the fugitive, he was so impressed with Cao Cao’s loyalty to the emperor that he decided to abandon his official post and join Cao Cao, who planned to return to his home in Chenliu (陳留; around present-day Kaifeng, Henan) to raise an army against Dong Zhuo.