A Qing dynasty illustration of Xun Yu (1734)
|Prefect of the Masters of Writing (尚書令)|
196 – 212
|Monarch||Emperor Xian of Han|
|Succeeded by||Hua Xin|
|Died||212 (aged 49)|
Shou County, Anhui
|Occupation||Military official, politician|
|Courtesy name||Wenruo (文若)|
|Posthumous name||Marquis Jing (敬侯)|
|Peerage||Marquis of Wansui Village|
Xun Yu was from Yingchuan Commandery (around present-day Xuchang, Henan), and was born in a family of government officials. He was described in historical records as a tall and handsome gentleman. His grandfather, Xun Shu, served as a local governor and had eight sons who were nicknamed the "Eight Dragons of the Xun Family"; an uncle of Xun Yu, Xun Shuang, served as one of the Three Ducal Ministers, while Xun Yu's father Xun Fan was the chancellor of the principality of Jibei.
Xun Yu proved to be a talented youth, and was evaluated by the scholar He Yong as "someone capable of assisting kings" (王佐之才). In 189, he was nominated as a xiaolian (civil service candidate) and began his career in the civil service. When the warlord Dong Zhuo seized control of the capital Luoyang, Xun Yu feared for his safety and resigned, returning to Ji Province (present day Hebei).
In the subsequent years, warlords quickly rose in each region; Xun Yu first served Yuan Shao, whose power base was in Ji Province, but later left him and went to serve Cao Cao in 191. Cao Cao recognised Xun Yu's talent and he exclaimed, "Here comes my Zifang!" when Xun Yu arrived, and he appointed Xun as an army commandant.
Xun Yu's contributions to Cao Cao's forces and administration are immense. On one hand he recommended many other men of calibre to Cao Cao, including Xun You (his second cousin-nephew), Chen Qun, Zhong Yao, Guo Jia and Sima Yi, creating a body of advisors around Cao; at the same time he participated in several battles and major events of the era, often giving timely advice to his lord. Cao Cao, in turn, respected Xun Yu greatly and placed great store in his advice.
In 194, as Cao Cao led a campaign against Tao Qian in Xu Province, his home base at Yan Province was suddenly attacked by Lü Bu, and two of Cao's officials, Chen Gong and Zhang Miao, chose to defect to Lü Bu. At that time Xun Yu was in charge of the defences of Juancheng (鄄城), and his firm actions saved the city from capture, allowing Cao Cao's armies to return and drive away Lü Bu. Subsequently, on the death of Tao Qian, Cao Cao was tempted to turn around and move on Xu Province before returning to deal with Lü Bu; it was Xun Yu who dissuaded him from this, reminding him that Yan Province was his heartland and power base and should be secured first before launching campaigns abroad.
It was also at Xun Yu's suggestion that Cao Cao chose to escort Emperor Xian, who was then living in the ruins of Luoyang, to his own base at Xu (present-day Xuchang, Henan) in 196, taking on the role of protecting the emperor. Xun Yu's plan was to "control the rebellious in the name of the emperor" (奉天子以令不臣); the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms subtly distorts this to "hold the emperor hostage to control the warlords" (挾天子以令諸侯). In the long run, this strategy would give Cao Cao a considerable political advantage over his rivals, allowing him to legitimise his actions by taking them in the name of the emperor.
In 200, Cao Cao was locked in a stalemate against Yuan Shao at the Battle of Guandu for months, eventually exhausting his food supply; while contemplating retreat he sent a letter to Xun Yu (who was then defending Xu) for advice. Xun Yu dissuaded Cao Cao with a letter, highlighting several advantages that his army held over Yuan Shao's forces and urging him to stand fast; the eventual result was a decisive victory for Cao Cao, which was crucial to his domination of northern China.
In 211, Dong Zhao and a group of Cao Cao loyalists submitted a memorial to Emperor Xian proposing that Cao should be granted the title of a duke. This proposal was significant as it would allow Cao Cao to set up a self-contained feudal state within the Han dynasty. Up to this point, Cao Cao's political legitimacy was only underpinned by his position as the chancellor. Xun Yu, whose ideals were for Cao Cao to continue being the protector of the Han dynasty, opposed Dong Zhao's proposal.
Knowing that Dong Zhao was probably a conduit for Cao Cao, when approached by the former for his support, Xun Yu told Dong that Cao's personal mission was one of restoring the Han dynasty and would not approve of such a move – thus possibly hinting to Cao that he should abandon the idea. Xun Yu's remarks greatly displeased Cao Cao.
Following this, Xun Yu was sent to Qiao to reward the soldiers who took part in a military campaign against Sun Quan. While there, Xun Yu was said to have fallen sick and brought to Shouchun (寿春; present-day Shou County, Anhui) for treatment and recuperation. He died in the following year in 212. The circumstances of his death aroused great suspicion and is a matter of debate as it came closely after his opposition towards Cao Cao's ascension to duke.
In Koei's video game Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires, fans voted in the Facebook and Twitter poll for one of the new officers to have the name Xun Yu. Xun Yu became a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires.
In Koei's Kessen II, Xun Yu plays a prominent role, although the character is portrayed as a woman who harbours a requited love for Cao Cao. In the visual novel and anime series Koihime Musō, Jun'iku (Xun Yu's Japanese name) also serves as a strategist to Sōsō (Cao Cao) and has a huge crush on her.