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Guo Yuan (Zini)

Guo Yuan
Minister Coachman (太僕)
In office
? (?) – ? (?)
Administrator of Wei Commandery
In office
212 or after (212 or after) – ? (?)
Chief Clerk (長史)
(under Cao Cao)
In office
211 (211) – ? (?)
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
ChancellorCao Cao
Personal details
Shouguang, Shandong
ChildrenGuo Tai
OccupationOfficial, scholar
Courtesy nameZini (子尼)

Guo Yuan (fl. 190s – 210s), courtesy name Zini, was an official and scholar serving under the warlord Cao Cao in the late Eastern Han dynasty of China.[1]

Early life

Guo Yuan was from Gai County (蓋縣), Le'an Commandery (樂安郡), which is around present-day Shouguang, Shandong. In his younger days, he studied under the tutelage of the Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan.[2] At the time, although Guo Yuan was a nobody, Zheng Xuan regarded him highly and once said, "Guo Zini is a beautiful talent. After observing him, I am sure that in the future he will become an important subject of the state."[3]

When the Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, Guo Yuan, along with Bing Yuan, Guan Ning and others, fled north to Liaodong Commandery (遼東郡; around present-day Liaoyang, Liaoning) to evade the chaos.[4] While living in the countryside of Liaodong, Guo Yuan earned a reputation as a well-read Confucian scholar and gained much prestige among the literati after he frequently gave public lectures.[5]

Service under Cao Cao

After returning to his native commandery sometime between 196 and 208,[a] Guo Yuan served as an assistant official under the warlord Cao Cao, who controlled the Han central government and the figurehead Emperor Xian. He was known for being very outspoken and direct, but honest and impartial, whenever he spoke up during debates in the imperial court.[7][1]

When Cao Cao implemented the tuntian system of agriculture, he put Guo Yuan in charge of supervising the implementation of the policy. Guo Yuan performed his role well and achieved commendable results. He assessed the costs and benefits, conducted a population census and divided the land into smaller units accordingly, appointed officials to oversee the various units, and established a clear set of rules and regulations governing the entire system. Within five years, the granaries were fully stocked with food supplies and the people got along with their livelihoods.[8]

In 211,[9] when Cao Cao personally led his forces on a campaign in the Guanzhong region, he appointed Guo Yuan as his Chief Clerk (長史) and ordered him to remain behind to oversee the daily activities of the Imperial Chancellor's office.[10]

In the following year,[9] Guo Yuan assisted the general Cao Ren[11] in suppressing a rebellion by Tian Yin (田銀) and Su Bo (蘇伯) in Hejian Commandery (河間郡; around present-day Cangzhou, Hebei). After the revolt was crushed, many rebels were rounded up and sentenced to death. Guo Yuan advised Cao Cao to grant clemency to those rebels because they were not the masterminds. Cao Cao approved. Over 1,000 rebels were spared due to Guo Yuan's effort.[12] At the time, it was not uncommon for officials to exaggerate their achievements in the reports they submitted after winning battles or suppressing rebellions. Guo Yuan, however, gave the exact figures in his report. When a surprised Cao Cao asked him why, Guo Yuan said that it was not something he was proud of because the rebellion was a sign of government failure.[1][13] Cao Cao was so pleased when he heard what Guo Yuan said that he promoted him to be the Administrator (太守) of Wei Commandery (魏郡; around present-day Handan, Hebei).[14]

During Guo Yuan's tenure in Wei Commandery, there was an incident where an anonymous person wrote libelous pamphlets and circulated them. Cao Cao, who hated defamatory behaviour, ordered Guo Yuan to investigate and find out who the culprit was. Guo Yuan kept the pamphlets and ordered his subordinates to keep it secret. After examining the pamphlets, he realised that they contained lines from the two "Metropolis Rhapsodies". He instructed one of his subordinates: "Wei Commandery is a big commandery. Even though it is a capital city, there are few scholars living here. These pamphlets can serve as something for the young to study. I want you to find three persons to study under the scholars." After his subordinate found him three young men, Guo Yuan told them, "You still have much to learn. The two "Metropolis Rhapsodies" are important works of literature, yet they are often neglected and very few scholars understand them. You should find a scholar who understands the two "Metropolis Rhapsodies" and ask him to teach you." He then secretly gave them other instructions. The three men found a scholar who was well-versed in the two "Metropolis Rhapsodies", got him to write an article, and passed it to Guo Yuan. Guo Yuan compared the scholar's handwriting with the handwriting in the pamphlets and saw that they were similar. He then arrested and questioned the scholar, who admitted that he was the culprit and confessed everything.[15][1]

Guo Yuan was later promoted to the position of Minister Coachman (太僕) in the imperial court. Although he was a high-ranking minister, he led a simple and frugal lifestyle, and was known for being polite and humble towards everyone. He never accumulated any personal wealth and instead used it to help his relatives, friends and acquaintances in need. He died in office[16] most probably before the end of the Eastern Han dynasty in 220.


Guo Yuan had a son, Guo Tai (國泰). After Guo Yuan's death, Cao Cao recruited Guo Tai to serve as a government official.[17][18]

See also


  1. ^ Cao Cao held the position of Minister of Works (司空) in the Han central government between 196 and 208.[6] Guo Yuan's biography in the Sanguozhi specifically stated that he started his career under Cao Cao as an assistant official in the office of the Minister of Works, therefore it must have been sometime between 196 and 208.


  1. ^ a b c d de Crespigny (2007), p. 293.
  2. ^ (國淵字子尼,樂安蓋人也。師事鄭玄。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  3. ^ (玄別傳曰:淵始未知名,玄稱之曰:「國子尼,美才也,吾觀其人,必為國器。」) Zheng Xuan Biezhuan annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  4. ^ (後與邴原、管寧等避亂遼東。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  5. ^ (魏書曰:淵篤學好古,在遼東,常講學於山巖,士人多推慕之,由此知名。) Wei Shu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  6. ^ Zizhi Tongjian vols. 62–65.
  7. ^ (旣還舊土,太祖辟為司空掾屬,每於公朝論議,常直言正色,退無私焉。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  8. ^ (太祖欲廣置屯田,使淵典其事。淵屢陳損益,相土處民,計民置吏,明功課之法,五年中倉廩豐實,百姓競勸樂業。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  9. ^ a b Zizhi Tongjian vol. 66.
  10. ^ (太祖征關中,以淵為居府長史,統留事。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  11. ^ (蘇伯、田銀反,以仁行驍騎將軍,都督七軍討銀等,破之。) Sanguozhi vol. 9.
  12. ^ (田銀、蘇伯反河閒,銀等旣破,後有餘黨,皆應伏法。淵以為非首惡,請不行刑。太祖從之,賴淵得生者千餘人。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  13. ^ (破賊文書,舊以一為十,及淵上首級,如其實數。太祖問其故,淵曰:「夫征討外寇,多其斬獲之數者,欲以大武功,且示民聽也。河閒在封域之內,銀等叛逆,雖克捷有功,淵竊恥之。」) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  14. ^ (太祖大恱,遷魏郡太守。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  15. ^ (時有投書誹謗者,太祖疾之,欲必知其主。淵請留其本書,而不宣露。其書多引二京賦,淵勑功曹曰:「此郡旣大,今在都輦,而少學問者。其簡開解年少,欲遣就師。」功曹差三人,臨遣引見,訓以「所學未及,二京賦,博物之書也,世人忽略,少有其師,可求能讀者從受之。」又密喻旨。旬日得能讀者,遂往受業。吏因請使作箋,比方其書,與投書人同手。收攝案問,具得情理。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  16. ^ (遷太僕。居列卿位,布衣蔬食,祿賜散之舊故宗族,以恭儉自守,卒官。) Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  17. ^ (魏書曰:太祖以其子泰為郎。) Wei Shu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 11.
  18. ^ de Crespigny (2007), p. 290.
  • Chen, Shou (3rd century). Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi).
  • de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms 23-220 AD. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9789004156050.
  • Pei, Songzhi (5th century). Annotations to Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi zhu).
  • Sima, Guang (1084). Zizhi Tongjian.
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