A Qing dynasty illustration of Yang Xiu
|Registrar of the Imperial Chancellor|
? – 219
|Monarch||Emperor Xian of Han|
|Died||219 (aged 44)|
|Mother||Yuan Shu's sister|
|Courtesy name||Dezu (德祖)|
Yang Xiu was the son of Yang Biao (楊彪) and a grandson of Yang Ci (楊賜). His mother, Lady Yuan (袁氏), was Yuan Shu's sister.
Sometime during the 200s, Yang Xiu was nominated as xiaolian and became a Registrar (主簿) under Cao Cao, the Imperial Chancellor. He was said to have been skilled in both civil and military affairs and understood Cao Cao well. Because of this, Yang Xiu became an influential figure in the government.
Yang Xiu was a close friend of Cao Cao's son, Cao Zhi, and became involved in the succession struggle between Cao Zhi and his brother Cao Pi. Yang Xiu's close links with Cao Zhi caused him misfortune during Cao Zhi's occasional misbehaviour such as the incident in Ye city, where Cao Zhi drunkenly rode through the gate reserved for only the emperor. But the final blow was when Yang Xiu was discovered to have leaked the council's discussion agenda to Cao Zhi so that his friend could prepare beforehand and impress Cao Cao. Because of this and remembering his connection with Yuan Shu, Cao Cao had Yang Xiu executed.
Prior to Yang Xiu's death, Cao Cao had written a letter to his father Yang Biao, reproaching him for his son's arrogance. After news of his execution, Yang Biao was struck by grief and self-blame, becoming gray-haired and thin. Upon hearing this, Cao Cao sent Yang Biao many gifts to compensate for the loss of his son.
Once, a garden door was built by some servants of Cao Cao. When he arrived, he did not talk to his servants about their work but instead wrote a character, 活, meaning "alive", on the door. Nobody could understand what Cao Cao meant by this, except Yang Xiu, who explained that, since, in Chinese, 門 means door, writing the character 活 inside a door forms the character 闊, which means "wide". Thus Cao Cao was indicating that he thought the door was too wide. The servants of Cao Cao then altered the garden door, and when Cao Cao heard that it was Yang Xiu alone who had understood his meaning, he became alerted of his talent.
Once, a nomadic tribe sent a box of cake to Cao Cao as a gift, who wrote the words 一合酥 on the box, which in English, means "a box of cake". However, when Yang Xiu saw it, he took out a spoon and shared the cake with the other followers of Cao Cao. Cao Cao, mystified, asked why, to which he replied, "My lord, you wrote the words 'A mouthful of cake for every person' on the box. How can we disobey your orders?" Since, in Chinese, the words 一合酥 can be separated into 一人一口酥, which translates thus. Cao Cao then became dissatisfied with Yang Xiu.
Another time, Cao Cao and Yang Xiu were riding on their horses and passed by the grave of Cao E (no relation to Cao Cao). On the gravestone were four sets of words, "huang juan (yellow silk fabric), you fu (young woman), wai sun (grandson), and ji jiu (powdering mortar)" (黃絹、幼婦、外孫、齏臼). Cao Cao then asked Yang Xiu if he knew what those four sets of words meant, and Yang Xiu immediately gave an answer. However, Cao Cao interrupted him and told him to wait until he has obtained the answer and then they can compare. After riding for another 30 li (approximately 15 km), Cao Cao finally understood the hidden meaning behind those words and asked Yang Xiu to share his insights and see if he got it correct. Yang Xiu then explained that "huang juan (黃絹) is a synonym for se si (色絲)' (which meant "coloured silk"). If you combine the character si (絲; silk)' with se (色; colour), you get jue (絕; absolute). You fu (幼婦) is a synonym for shao nü (少女; young woman). If you combine the character nü (女; woman) with shao (少; young), you get miao (妙; wonderful). Wai sun (外孫) is equivalent to nü er de er zi (女兒的兒子; "daughter's son"), if you combine take the two major characters out and combine nü (女; "daughter") with zi (子; son), you get hao (好; good). Ji jiu (齏臼) is basically shou wu xin zhi qi (受五辛之器; a device which receives and grinds the five Chinese spices). If you take the two major characters out and combine shou (受; "takes, receives") with xin (辛; spice), you get ci (辤/辭; refined). Combine the four characters and you get jue miao hao ci (絕妙好辭; "absolute, wonderful, good, refined"), which were used to praise Cao E." This greatly impressed Cao Cao, who exclaimed to Yang Xiu: "Your talent surpasses mine, by an astounding distance of 30 li."
In the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao thinks that Yang Xiu is too boastful and overconfident in his cleverness, and eventually kills him after what is known as the "chicken rib" incident. (When Cao Cao's army was at Hanzhong, preparing for battle, Cao Cao was brought some soup with chicken ribs in it and thoughtlessly muttered the word "chicken rib" a few times. Yang Xiu immediately thought he knew what Cao Cao implied: he explained that "chicken rib" is a metaphor for "retreat" and told all generals to make the soldiers pack their bags and get ready to retreat. When Cao Cao was alerted that Yang Xiu had given a false camp-wide signal, he was immensely angered and executed Yang Xiu.)
In an earlier chapter, Yang Xiu was described by Mi Heng as one of the two sole "talented" officials under Cao Cao (the other being Kong Rong). This however should be taken with a grain of salt, as Mi Heng's expressed opinions on other characters, as well as his own actions and the disaster that befell him because of them, make him appear as a poor judge of character.