Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Dong Zhou Deposes the Emperor, Yuan Shao Vies for Power (A Summary)

Having effectively put down the Yellow Scarves uprising, Regent-Marshal He Jin moved a contingent of his forces to the Imperial Castle, determined to end the influence of the Ten Eunuchs. Upon his arrival, He Jin requested an audience with the Emperor in hopes of storming the residence and seizing the eunuchs. At his side were two young officers who'd distinguished themselves during the uprising, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao. Like Cao Cao, Yuan Shao, the eldest son of the powerful Yuan family, had urges for power lurking behind his loyalty to the house of Han.

Stripped of his weapons, He Jin was admitted to the castle while Cao Cao and Yuan Shao were forced to remain behind. After some time, the officers realized that He Jin should have returned and began to pound fiercely on the doors demanding his release. The young officers met with great shock as the doors opened and the Regent-Marshal's severed head was flung out.

Enraged, Cao Cao and Yuan Shao roused He Jin's waiting troops and stormed the castle. In the midst of the ensuing slaughter, the Ten Eunuchs were tracked down and their influence swept from the empire. To escape the flames and destruction quickly closing in on them, Emperor Shao and his cousin, Prince Xie fled. Along their way, they encountered imperial inspector Dong Zhou who was moving to assist He Jin's forces. Dong Zhou, having long considered deposing the young emperor in favor of his more charismatic and more easily influenced cousin. Thus, in the mounting confusion, Dong Zhou began to plan for Xie's ascension to the throne.

In the months following the slaughter of the eunuchs, Dong Zhou implanted himself as protector to Emperor Shao and the young Prince Xie. Simultaneously, he plied a warrior by the name of Lu Bu into his scheme by gifting him with his prized steed Red Hare. Upon Lu Bu's receipt of Dong Zhou's gift and their subsequent alliance, it was said throughout the land, Amongst men, Lu Bu, amongst horses, Red Hare. With this, Zhou now was both close to the emperor and had allied with a warrior so powerful that no single man dared challenge him. Naming himself commander of the First Army, Zhou pressured the young Emperor Shao to abdicate to his younger cousin, Prince Xie. With Xie's ascension, Dong Zhou aided the deposed Shao by forcing him to drown his sorrows in a cup of poisoned wine.

Many throughout the land opposed Zhou increasing power and traitorous actions. He began to build himself lavish palaces, debauch the Imperial concubines, and even to sleep in the emperor's bed. Soon, a league of loyal servants to the emperor sprang up in secret resistance to the despot. Led by the young Yuan Shao, their ranks, though spread across the land, included Sun Jian, Cao Cao, as well Liu Bei and his brothers.

Through contacts within the imperial household, several attempts were made against Dong Zhou's life, all of them fruitless. At last, Cao Cao sought audience with Dong Zhou under the auspices of presenting him with a fine jeweled knife. Thinking Cao Cao still a loyal to his protection of the emperor, Zhou allowed him a private audience. Finding himself alone with the traitor, Cao Cao made to stab him, but Lu Bu entered the chamber at the selfsame moment. Cao proceeded to present Zhou with the dagger and a begged his leave.

Subtle measures had run out for those loyal to the Han, the time for military action had come. Calling upon his kinsmen Cao Ren, Cao Hong, Xiahou Yuan and Xiahou Dun, Cao Cao began to raise an army. At the same time, he sent a proclamation throughout the districts calling good men to arms. The roster of worthy respondents included Yuan Shu, Liu Dai, Ma Teng, Gongsun Zan with Liu Bei and his brothers under him, Sun Jian, and Yuan Shao. In council, the men chose Yuan Shao as war ruler and supreme commander of the allied forces with each other taking a subordinate position. With their roles thus set, the force moved to engage Dong Zhou at Si River Pass near the Hu Lao Gate.

The insurgent forces moved quickly, with Sun Jian taking the vanguard reinforced by Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, defeating Hua Xiong . Dong Zhou, in an attempt to divide the oncoming army by positioning Lu Bu's unit at Tiger Trap. Lu Bu's challenge was met by Gongsun Zan, who was outmatched after only a few passes. Fortunately, Zhang Fei, followed by his brothers, engaged Bu, ensuring the officer's escape.

In their pursuit of Lu Bu, the oath brothers stumbled upon Dong Zhou's central camp. Pressing the battle, they made to take the tyrant's head, yet Dong Zhou escaped to the capital and began to raze it before retreating further. With the corrupt guardian in flight, the council was forced to turn to other means. At last, Li Rue offered a solution.

Knowing both Dong Zhou and Lu Bu to be petty and vain, he sent his daughter, the songstress Diao Chan to Zhou to take as a wife. Zhou was most happy to accept, yet little did he know Diao Chan was to be his downfall. Diao Chan had been sent to the despot under strict instruction to ensnare both Dong Zhou and Lu Bu in her feminine wiles. Marrying Zhou and entangling herself in an affair with Lu Bu, she drove the latter to slay the despot out of jealousy.

With the tyranny of Dong Zhou eliminated, the coalition began to crumble. Sun Jian, having found and hidden the Imperial Jade Seal, made war with Liu Biao and was killed in an ambush. Gongsun Zan, worried that Yuan Shao would attempt to seize power for himself, moved his forces to engage him. Meanwhile, Cao Cao bent himself towards the pursuit and elimination of Lu Bu.

With the death of the tyrant, the empire found itself not restored, but rather, caught in a vacuum of power that ambition rushed to seize.


1. He Jin had ample reason to enter the imperial chambers, in addition to his position, he was brother to the Imperial Mother. Thus, his death at the hands of the eunuchs was doubly enraging to his men.

2. Emperor Shao reigned from May 15 to September 28 of that year.

3. Lu Bu's Red Hare horse was, in all likelihood, not red at all. "Chi tu ma," the phrase used to describe the horse, indicates simple a horse that is good for hunting hares.

Sources: Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- Luo Guanzhong, translated by Moss Roberts

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