A Qing dynasty illustration of Fa Zheng
|Prefect of the Masters of Writing (尚書令)|
219 – 220
|Succeeded by||Liu Ba|
|General Who Protects the Army (護軍將軍)|
219 – 220
|General Who Spreads Martial Might|
215 – 219
|Administrator of Shu Commandery|
215 – 219
Mei County, Shaanxi
|Died||220 (aged 44)|
|Courtesy name||Xiaozhi (孝直)|
|Posthumous name||Marquis Yi (翼侯)|
Fa Zheng (176–220), courtesy name Xiaozhi, was a key adviser to the warlord Liu Bei in the late Eastern Han dynasty. Born in a family of high social status and of noble descent, Fa Zheng travelled to Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) in the late 190s and became a subordinate of Liu Zhang, the provincial governor. However, his feelings of alienation and perception of Liu Zhang as an incompetent governor eventually led him to betray Liu Zhang and defect to Liu Bei in 211. Between 211 and 214, Fa Zheng assisted Liu Bei in overcoming Liu Zhang and seizing control of Yi Province, and became one of Liu Bei's most trusted advisers. In 217, he urged Liu Bei to launch the Hanzhong Campaign to capture the strategic Hanzhong Commandery from a rival warlord, Cao Cao, but died a year after Liu emerged victorious in the campaign.
Fa Zheng's keen foresight and brilliance in formulating strategies earned him praise from his contemporaries such as Zhuge Liang and Chen Shou. In less than a decade serving under Liu, Fa showed an near unmatched sense of timing where military geniuses like Cao Cao and his best advisers fell victim to his schemes. However, he was also notorious for his vindictive personality. When he held office, he abused his power by taking revenge against those who had offended him before, and by killing them without reason. Nevertheless, he was still highly regarded and trusted by Liu Bei – to the point where Zhuge Liang once said that Fa Zheng might have been the only person capable of preventing Liu Bei from starting the disastrous Battle of Xiaoting in 221 if he were still alive.
Fa Zheng's ancestral home was in Mei County (郿縣), Youfufeng Commandery (右扶風郡), which is in present-day Mei County, Shaanxi. His ancestor was Tian Fazhang, who is historically known as King Xiang of the Qi state in the Warring States period. Tian Fazhang's descendants changed their family name from "Tian" to "Fa" after the fall of Qi in 221 BCE.
Fa Zheng's great-grandfather, Fa Xiong, served as the Administrator (太守) of Nan Commandery (南郡; around present-day Jingzhou, Hubei) during the reign of Emperor An in the Eastern Han dynasty. Fa Zheng's grandfather, Fa Zhen, was a reclusive scholar known for his lofty character; despite being a learned scholar, he led a humble life and repeatedly rejected offers to serve in the government. Fa Zheng's father, Fa Yan (法衍), whose courtesy name was Jimou (季謀), also served as a government official and held the positions of an assistant to the Excellency over the Masses (司徒) and the Minister of Justice (廷尉).
In the early Jian'an era (196–220) of the reign of Emperor Xian, when famines broke out, Fa Zheng and his friend Meng Da travelled to Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing) to join the provincial governor, Liu Zhang. Although Fa Zheng served as the Prefect (令) of Xindu County (新都縣) and later as a Colonel Who Advises the Army (軍議校尉) under Liu Zhang, he felt alienated because he neither held any important appointments nor made any significant achievements in his career under Liu Zhang. Besides, some of his fellows from Youfufeng, who had also moved to Yi Province, spoke ill of him in front of Liu Zhang. He maintained a close friendship with his colleague Zhang Song, who shared the same views as him about Liu Zhang being an incompetent and incapable governor.
In 208, Zhang Song travelled to Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) to meet the warlord Cao Cao, who controlled the Han central government and the figurehead Emperor Xian. After returning to Yi Province, Zhang Song advised Liu Zhang to break ties with Cao Cao and build friendly relations with another warlord, Liu Bei. When Zhang Song recommended Fa Zheng to be Liu Zhang's representative to meet Liu Bei, Fa initially refused to accept the task but eventually relented. When Fa Zheng returned from his mission, he told Zhang Song that Liu Bei had grand ambitions and persuaded Zhang to follow him to serve Liu Bei.
Their opportunity came in 211, when Liu Zhang became fearful upon receiving news that Cao Cao was planning to attack the warlord Zhang Lu in Hanzhong Commandery. As Hanzhong Commandery was located strategically at the northern route leading into Yi Province, Liu Zhang would be in great peril if Hanzhong fell into Cao Cao's hands. Zhang Song proposed to Liu Zhang to invite Liu Bei to Yi Province to assist them in countering the threat posed by Cao Cao. Liu Zhang agreed and sent Fa Zheng as his envoy to contact Liu Bei. When Fa Zheng met Liu Bei, he secretly told him, "General, with your brilliance, you can overcome our incompetent and weak Governor Liu. Zhang Song, as a trusted adviser (of Liu Zhang), will serve as your spy. Upon acquiring Yi Province's wealth and resources, and having its natural barriers as protection, you can easily realise your grand ambitions." Liu Bei accepted Fa Zheng's advice and led his forces into Yi Province, where he met Liu Zhang at Fu County (涪縣; present-day Fucheng District, Mianyang, Sichuan). Liu Bei then led his troops north to Jiameng (葭萌; located about 20 km northeast of present-day Jiange County, Sichuan) before turning south to attack Liu Zhang later.
Upon receiving news of Liu Bei's attack, Zheng Du (鄭度), an assistant officer from Guanghan Commandery (廣漢郡; around present-day Guanghan, Sichuan) serving under Liu Zhang, pointed out to his lord that Liu Bei's army lacked supplies and was composed of newly recruited soldiers who might not be loyal to him. He suggested that Liu Zhang adopt a scorched earth policy against Liu Bei by forcing the residents of Baxi (巴西) and Zitong (梓潼) commanderies to relocate elsewhere and destroy all the granaries and supply depots in the commanderies, and then fortify their defences while avoiding direct conflict with Liu Bei. He claimed that if this strategy was implemented, Liu Bei would run out of supplies within 100 days and retreat, and then Liu Zhang could attack him while he was retreating. Liu Bei felt frustrated when he heard about Zheng Du's plan and consulted Fa Zheng about it. Fa Zheng predicted that Liu Zhang would not heed Zheng Du's suggestion and was proven right: In response to Zheng Du's plan, Liu Zhang not only rejected it on the grounds that it would cause disturbance to the people, but also dismissed Zheng from office.
In 214, when Liu Bei's army surrounded Luocheng (雒城), one of Liu Zhang's strongholds, Fa Zheng wrote a long letter to his former lord, pointing out that Liu Zhang was already in a highly disadvantageous position and urging him to give up resistance and surrender to Liu Bei.
Later that year, when Liu Bei's forces was besieging Yi Province's capital Chengdu, Xu Jing, a commandery Administrator serving under Liu Zhang, planned to surrender and defect to Liu Bei, but his plan was leaked out and hence aborted. Liu Zhang felt that he was already at the brink of destruction so he did not punish Xu Jing. He eventually surrendered and relinquished his control of Yi Province to Liu Bei. After taking over Yi Province, Liu Bei treated Xu Jing coldly because he felt that Xu was a disloyal person. Fa Zheng advised him, "Xu Jing is someone with an exaggerated reputation. However, my lord, you've recently built your foundation and you can't possibly explain the facts to everyone. Xu Jing's name is already well known throughout the Empire. If you don't treat him respectfully, others might think that you're belittling talented and virtuous people. You should honour and respect him, and make this known to everyone, just like how the King of Yan treated Guo Wei (郭隗)." Liu Bei followed Fa Zheng's advice and treated Xu Jing generously.
Liu Bei appointed Fa Zheng as the Administrator (太守) of Shu Commandery (蜀郡) and General Who Spreads Martial Might (揚武將軍). Fa Zheng oversaw administrative affairs in the vicinity of Yi Province's capital Chengdu and served as Liu Bei's chief adviser.
During this period of time, he abused his power by taking revenge against those who offended him before, and by killing them without reason. Some officials approached Zhuge Liang, another of Liu Bei's key advisers, and urged him to report Fa Zheng's lawless behaviour to their lord and take action against him. However, Zhuge Liang replied, "When our lord was in Gong'an, he was wary of Cao Cao's influence in the north and fearful of Sun Quan's presence in the east. Even in home territory he was afraid that Lady Sun might stir up trouble. He was in such a difficult situation at the time that he could neither advance nor retreat. Fa Xiaozhi supported and helped him so much, such that he is now able to fly high and no longer remain under others' influence. How can we stop Fa Zheng from behaving as he wishes?" Zhuge Liang was aware that Liu Bei favoured and trusted Fa Zheng, which was why he refused to intervene in this matter.
The historian Sun Sheng criticised Zhuge Liang's attitude towards Fa Zheng's abuse of power and called it a "lapse in justice". He felt that no subject should be above the law, regardless of how great his past contributions were.
In 217, Fa Zheng urged Liu Bei to attack Hanzhong Commandery, which was originally under Zhang Lu's control but was conquered by Cao Cao in 215. He pointed out Hanzhong's strategic importance and said that it was an opportune moment for Liu Bei to seize Hanzhong from Cao Cao's generals Xiahou Yuan and Zhang He. Liu Bei accepted his plan and started the Hanzhong Campaign.
In 219, during the Battle of Mount Dingjun, when Xiahou Yuan led troops to attack Liu Bei's camps at Dingjun and Xingshi mountains, Fa Zheng suggested Liu Bei to strike the enemy. Liu Bei ordered his general Huang Zhong to lead his men on a charge down the mountain towards Xiahou Yuan's forces, with war drums beating in the background. Huang Zhong defeated and killed Xiahou Yuan in the midst of battle.
Later, when Cao Cao was leading his forces from Chang'an to reinforce Hanzhong, he received news about the strategy proposed by Fa Zheng to Liu Bei to attack Hanzhong. He remarked, "I know Xuande (Liu Bei) is not capable of doing this. He must be following somebody's advice." The historian Pei Songzhi commented that Cao Cao made that remark – which suggests that Liu Bei was not wise enough to notice Hanzhong's strategic importance – because of his personal disdain for Liu, and that it should not be taken seriously. He felt that a lord acting on his adviser's suggestion should not be interpreted as a sign that the lord was not wise enough to make his own judgment. He pointed out that Cao Cao himself also followed the advice of his adviser Guo Jia.
In 219, after Liu Bei emerged victorious in the Hanzhong Campaign, he declared himself "King of Hanzhong" (漢中王) and appointed Fa Zheng as the Prefect of the Masters of Writing (尚書令) and General Who Protects the Army (護軍將軍). Fa Zheng died in the following year at the age of 45 (by East Asian age reckoning). Liu Bei cried for days when Fa Zheng died and awarded Fa the posthumous title "Marquis Yi" (翼侯), which literally means "marquis of the flank". Fa Zheng's son, Fa Miao (法邈), received the title of a Secondary Marquis (關內侯) and served as a Commandant of Equipage (奉車都尉) and the Administrator of Hanyang Commandery (漢陽郡) in the state of Shu Han, which Liu Bei established in 221.
Fa Zheng and Zhuge Liang did not share the same moral beliefs but they had a good working relationship because of their common goal, which was to serve Liu Bei well. Zhuge Liang was very impressed with Fa Zheng's brilliance. In 221, before the Battle of Xiaoting, many of Liu Bei's subjects advised their lord against going to war with his former ally, Sun Quan, who seized Jing Province from Liu in 219 and executed Liu's general Guan Yu. Liu Bei ignored them and proceeded with his campaign against Sun Quan. In the following year, he lost to Sun Quan's forces at the Battle of Xiaoting and had to retreat to Baidicheng, where he died in 223. Zhuge Liang sighed, "If Fa Xiaozhi was still alive, he could have prevented our lord from going on this eastern campaign; even if our lord did go on this campaign, he wouldn't have ended up in this disastrous situation (if Fa Xiaozhi was with him)."
Zhuge Liang might be right about Fa Zheng, as inferred from an incident during the Hanzhong Campaign. During one battle, when the odds turned against Liu Bei, Liu's subjects urged their lord to retreat but he stubbornly refused. They did not dare to advise him again for fear of incurring his wrath. Fa Zheng rushed forth and stood in front of Liu Bei when Cao Cao's forces rained arrows on their camp. Liu Bei told Fa Zheng to stay under cover to avoid the arrows, but Fa insisted on braving the arrows with his lord. Liu Bei then decided to retreat together with Fa Zheng.
Chen Shou, who wrote Fa Zheng's biography in the Sanguozhi, appraised Fa as follows: "Fa Zheng clearly foresaw success and failure, and conceived brilliant strategies and plans, but was not known to be of good moral character. In comparison with officials from (Cao) Wei, if Pang Tong was akin to Xun Yu, Fa Zheng should be comparable to Cheng (Yu) and Guo (Jia)."