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Portrait of Xu Huang from a Qing Dynasty edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms
|General of Cao Wei|
|Style name||Gongming (公明)|
|Posthumous name||Marquis Zhuang (壯侯)|
Xu Huang (died 227) was a military officer serving under the warlord Dong Zhuo during the late Han Dynasty era of Chinese history. He later served another warlord Cao Cao and the state of Cao Wei, founded by Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi, during the Three Kingdoms period. He was best noted for breaking the siege at the Battle of Fancheng in 219 by routing enemy general, Guan Yu, on the field.
Born in the county of Yang (present day Hongdong, Shanxi) in the late years of the Han Dynasty, Xu worked as a local administrative officer in his youth. Later, he followed the general Yang Feng on a campaign against the Yellow Turban Rebellion and was appointed a commandant of the cavalry (騎都尉).
In 195, after the death of the warlord Dong Zhuo, Xu Huang followed Yang Feng to escort Emperor Xian from Chang'an back to Luoyang, which by then was much dilapidated. The Imperial Court and its protectors were afflicted by starvation and many officials died during the winter. Early the next year, Cao Cao came personally to Luoyang to move the emperor to his secured base in Xuchang. Xu Huang then prompted Yang to join Cao's forces, but Yang did not heed the advice. Instead Yang sent out a force in a futile bid to take back Emperor Xian. Cao Cao soon retaliated and defeated Yang, whereupon Xu submitted to Cao.
Hereafter Xu Huang participated in every major campaign Cao Cao undertook, including offensives against Lü Bu, Yuan Shao, Tadun, Sun Quan, and Ma Chao. Xu performed well in all of them except the war with Sun Quan. He was being noted especially for his military discipline.
During the Battle of Guandu in 200, Yuan Shao had been storing supplies at a depot in the village of Gushi (southwest of present-day Yanjin, Henan); Xu, along Shi Huan (史渙), were sent to attack this position. They defeated the defenders, and burned Yuan's grain carts. Yuan's supply line was disrupted, and he was forced to call for relief supplies in response to this raid.
After Yuan Shao's death, Xu joined the campaign against Yuan's heirs. In 203, the defender of Yiyang, Han Fan, initially surrendered but soon changed his mind, because he was afraid that Cao Cao would plunder the town. Seeing such behavior, Xu knew there were doubts in his enemy's heart. He then wrote a letter of persuasion and had it fired into the city on an arrow. The defender was hence won over and Xu conquered the city without bloodshed.
In 208, Xu Huang followed Cao Cao to pacify Jing Province, and was supposed to participate in the Battle of Red Cliffs in the same year. When Cao retreated north after his defeat at Red Cliffs, Xu was ordered to stay behind with Cao Ren in Jiangling to resist Sun Quan's counteroffensive. In one occasion, the enemy commander, Zhou Yu, left the defense of his main camp to his subordinate, Ling Tong, and led most of the troops to rescue another subject, Gan Ning, who was surrounded by Cao Ren's cavalry in a distant castle. Even Ling Tong was only left with a wee fraction of the army to guard the camp, the numerically superior Xu Huang and Cao Ren were defeated by the former and the enemy camps remained intact. As a result, a yearlong vigorous fighting followed and the casualty on Cao Cao side became enormous, so Xu and Cao Ren finally abandoned Jiangling and retreated north.
After continuous setback in the south, Cao Cao turned his attention to the west, and provoked the Battle of Tong Pass. Knowing the nominal leader of the Coalition of Guanxi forces, Han Sui, did not leave any troops guarding the shallow of Puban, Xu suggested Cao to send him north and cross the Yellow River via the Puban Ford (浦阪津) to the west side of the river to circumvent Tong Pass. Cao assented to Xu Huang's plan, and sent Zhu Ling to go with him. They crossed Puban and started pitching camps, but before the defense fortification was completed, one of the enemy leaders, Liang Xing, discovered them. Instead of informing his allies, Liang Xing attacked Xu and Zhu right away, but was routed in the end. Xu then impelled the pace to complete the fortifications, and waited for the arrival of Cao Cao. The discovery of Xu Huang's presence alerted the coalition forces and created a crisis for Cao Cao's crossing of the river.
In 215, Xu Huang was tasked with defending Hanzhong's communication line, Mamingge (馬鳴閣), under the command of Xiahou Yuan to halt the advances of Liu Bei's army. When Liu sent his general Chen Shi to sever the supply routes to the city, Xu struck the enemy head-on. Due to Xu's ferocious attack, many enemy soldiers jumped off the cliff, and the casualty was high enough to keep Hanzhong secure for the time being.
Xu Huang's most glorious moment in his military career came in the Battle of Fancheng in 219. When the city of Fan (a district of present day Xiangfan, Hubei) was besieged by Guan Yu and the first relief force led by Yu Jin was vanquished by a natural disaster, Xu was sent with a second relief force to help protect the city.
Knowing that most of his soldiers were composed of new recruits without training, Xu did not go into battle straight away but camped behind the enemy to impose a deterrence effect. Meanwhile, he instructed his men to dig trenches around the nearby enemy city of Yancheng (偃城) in a pretense to cut off supplies into the city. The enemies were deceived and abandoned their position. Xu then established a foothold in Yan. By this time more support troops had arrived, and with the strengthened army Xu finally unleashed an attack on Guan's camp. Guan personally led 5,000 horsemen to meet the attackers, but was eventually outmatched. Many of his soldiers were forced into the nearby Han River and drowned. The siege on Fancheng was then broken. When Cao Cao heard of the victory, he praised Xu and compared the general to Sun Tzu and Tian Rangju¹.
Upon Xu's return, Cao Cao went seven li out of the city to greet him, giving him full credits for securing Fancheng. Throughout the field reception, the soldiers of other commanders shifted about in order to get a better view of Cao, but Xu's men stood stationary in neat files. Seeing this, Cao lauded, "General Xu has truly inherited the style of Zhou Yafu."
After Cao Cao's death in 220, Xu continued to be heavily trusted by Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi. He was appointed General of the Right (右將軍) and Marquis of Yangping (陽平侯). When Cao Pi's successor Cao Rui took over in 227, he sent Xu to defend Xiangyang against the Eastern Wu invasion. However, Xu died in the same year due to illness, leaving behind a will demanding a burial in plain clothes. He was given the posthumous title of Marquis Zhuang (壯侯), literally meaning the robust marquis. He was succeeded in his offices by his son, Xu Gai (徐該), who along with Xu Huang's other descendants was also given the title of marquis.
In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Xu made his first appearance in chapter 13, where he served under Yang Feng, a general in the capital Chang'an. Together they escorted Emperor Xian back to Luoyang after the death of Dong Zhuo, who had been holding the emperor hostage.
When Cao Cao came to Luoyang to fetch the emperor to Xuchang, Yang sent out Xu Huang to deter him. Seeing the formidable Xu Huang on his horse, Cao knew he was an extraordinary man. Cao then dispatched his own personal bodyguard and one of his fiercest warriors Xu Chu to duel with the enemy. Neither side could gain an advantage over each other after 50 bouts, by then Cao was very impressed by Xu Huang's skill. Not wanting either duelist to get hurt, Cao then called for Xu Chu to retreat. Knowing his lord intended to recruit Xu Huang, Man Chong, a subject of Cao and a fellow townsman of Xu Huang, volunteered to persuade Xu to defect. That very night, Man disguised himself as a common soldier and sneaked into Xu's tent. After some persuasion, Xu was won over. Man then suggested slaying Yang Feng as a gesture of defection. However, Xu was a righteous man and refused to kill his former superior.
Xu, along with Zhang Liao, was the closest friend to Guan Yu during the latter's service under Cao Cao. They meet again when Xu led Cao Cao's army against Guan while Lü Meng was attacking Jing Province. After exchanging pleasantries, Xu shouted to his men offering 1,000 pieces of gold for whoever that took Guan's head. Guan was stunned, and Xu remarked that as he was on official duty, and he would not allow his private friendship with Guan to affect his performance.
In the novel, Xu met his end outside Xincheng, where he was shot in his forehead by Meng Da from the city wall. His men immediately took him back to camp, where the physician removed the arrow and tried to heal him, but Xu eventually died later that night. The novel claimed that he was 59 years old, but this figure is not supported by any historical record. Xu is also widely regarded as one of Cao Cao's greatest generals, along with Zhang Liao, Yue Jin, and Zhang He.
Xu Huang is featured as a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. He also appears in all 11 installments of Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms strategy game series.