Gan Ning 甘寧 was a daring and bloodthirsty warrior of Wu. A somewhat reformed brigand, Gan Ning put his courage to good use by small strike forces against greater enemy forces.


In his youth, Gan Ning was something of a brigand. He placed little value on the lives of others and would quite happily kill them. Those who crossed paths with Gan Ning, whether commoner or city official, if they received him with great courtesy, he would become close friends with them; if not, he would hide in their homes, kill and rob them. For this he became infamous throughout the commandery.[2]

Gan Ning recruited a following of youngsters; his gang would follow him round and they would attach bells to their belts so whenever someone heard the ringing, they would know Gan Ning to be near. Wherever he went, if he was on foot, his followers would array a grand display of carriages and cavalry; if he was on water, they would array a grand display of boats. His closest attendants would wear gaudy embroidery and he would moor his boats with brocades of fine silk, which he would cut off and discard to show his extravagance.[3]

It wasn't until Gan Ning was about 20 that he would make an effort to mend his ways. He stopped indiscriminately robbing and murdering people and found the value in scholarship, and he began to spend his time studying.

Service of Liu YanEdit

In 194 A.D., Inspector of Yi Liu Yan died. The locals appointed his son, Liu Zhang as his replacement, however, the court appointed Hu Mao as the legitimate Inspector of Yi. Several of Liu Zhang's officers, including Gan Ning, turned against him in support of the rightful Inspector, but they were beaten and fled into Jing province.[4] A second imperial edict then arrived appointing Liu Zhang as Governor, rendering Gan Ning's brash actions as unnecessary.[5]

When fleeing to Jing province, Gan Ning had brought with him 800 followers; they all took up service under Liu Biao, settling in Nanyang (南陽). However, Gan Ning saw Liu Biao to be a pedant with no interest in military affairs; and at that time, the land was in turmoil and many warlords were gathering forces and rising up. Gan Ning realised that eventually Liu Biao would be destroyed and Gan Ning didn't want to share his fate, instead he desired to move to Wu.[6]

Service to Huang ZuEdit

Gan Ning headed east, but at Xiakou (夏口) he found his passage blocked by Huang Zu. Gan Ning remained in the service of Huang Zu for the next three years, however, in that time Huang Zu never treated Gan Ning with courtesy. In 203 A.D., Sun Quan headed west to attack Huang Zu. Sun Quan's forces defeated Huang Zu's navy[7] and then pursued Huang Zu. At the time, Gan Ning was with the soldiers in the rearguard; Gan Ning was also a crack shot, and when he saw the pursuit forces closing in on Huang Zu, he took his bow and shot their commander Ling Cao, killing him.[8] After that, Sun Quan's forces withdrew.

Despite Gan Ning's help, Huang Zu's attitude towards him did not change. Huang Zu's Chief Controller Su Fei tried several times to get Huang Zu to give Gan Ning more responsibility, but Huang Zu ignored him. Huang Zu's disregard towards Gan Ning had left him dissatisfied and despondent and he desired to leave, yet he feared he would not be allowed to leave. Su Fei knew how Gan Ning was feeling, so he said to him: "I have recommended you several times to our lord, and yet you still have not been employed. As time keeps passing, how long can a man remain static before he stagnates. One ought seek far-reaching schemes and people who think the same." For a long time Gan Ning was silent, then he said: "Though I have ambition, I have no place to go." Su Fei said to him: "I will recommend you be appointed as Chief of Zhu, thereupon go immediately. Once there, you can shift allegiances." Gan Ning was elated and said: "Good fortune to you!" As Su Fei had promised, Gan Ning was relocated to Zhu, where he was able to recruit others who felt as dissatisfied as him. In the end, Gan Ning managed to bring several hundred people over to Sun Quan.[9]

Service to Sun QuanEdit

Zhou Yu and Lü Meng both recommended Gan Ning to Sun Quan and Sun Quan treated him with great respect. Gan Ning proposed a plan to Sun Quan: "The prosperity of Han declines further every day, and Cao Cao will eventually usurp power. The southern part of Jing province, with its natural barriers of hills and rivers, is truly the western defence-line of your state. I know Liu Biao: he cannot plan far ahead, and his sons too are poor quality; neither of them is capable of inheriting or maintaining his fortune. Your honour should plan to deal with them early, before Cao Cao can get at them."[10]

He continued, saying: "The first thing is to take Huang Zu. He is now very old and quite senile, his treasure and food are in short supply, the men about him are greedy and undisciplined and his officers and soldiers are discontented. His fleet and armaments are damaged, blunted and in disrepair, he pays no attention to farming and his army has neither order nor authority. If your honour goes to attack him now, his defeat is assured. Once you have destroyed Huang Zu's army, drum the advance to the west and occupy the Passes of Chu. Your power will grow and extend, and you will eventually be able to take over the territory of Ba and Shu."[11]

Sun Quan was most satisfied with this plan, but Zhang Zhao, Sun Quan's mentor and advisor, was less convinced, he said: "The people in Wu are unsettled. Should the army leave I fear there will surely be rebellion." Gan Ning turned to Zhang Zhao and said: "Our ruler has given you position like Xiao He. If all you can do is sit and worry about rebellions, how will you compare to the men of ancient time?" Sun Quan was again pleased, he gave a cup of wine to Gan Ning and said: "This year, Ning, I go to the attack. Like this wine, I have decided to entrust it to you. Just make the plans we need to defeat Huang Zu. Why need you object to anything Chief Clerk Zhang may say?"[12]

That year Sun Quan attacked Huang Zu for the third time, killing Huang Zu and capturing all his forces. Sun Quan gave Gan Ning a military command and stationed him at Dangkou (當口). Before commencing the attack, Sun Quan made two boxes, one each for the heads of Huang Zu and Su Fei; Gan Ning still remembered Su Fei's kindness and wanted to save him from his fate. Sun Quan was feasting with his generals over the victory when Gan Ning came in and kowtowed before him. Tears streaming down his face he said: "Su Fei showed me favour in the past. Had it not been for him I would now be neglected bones in a ditch, and I could never have come under your standard. Even if Su Fei's crimes are worthy of death, I beg you, let him keep his head."[13][14]

Sun Quan was touched by his words and asked Gan Ning: "If I leave him to you, what happens if he runs away?" Gan Ning replied: "Su Fei has escaped the misfortune of having his head divided from his body, and he has received the gift of a new life. Even if we chased him away he would not go. Why should he plan to escape? If he does go away, let my head take his place in the box." Sun Quan was satisfied and pardoned Su Fei.[15][16]

In 208 A.D., Cao Cao attacked the south. Gan Ning followed the Wu forces and helped defeat Cao Cao's forces at Wulin (烏林). The Wu forces took advantage of their momentum to attempt to drive Cao Cao out of Jing province by attacking Cao Ren in Nan commandery. Cao Ren's forces had taken up position across a river to prevent the Wu advance[17], Gan Ning proposed that he take an indirect path to Yiling (夷陵) so that he could put pressure on Cao Ren's rear; Zhou Yu accepted his idea and dispatched him.

Gan Ning took the city without incident, but drawing Cao Ren's attention proved dangerous. Gan Ning had only brought with him a few hundred troops, and combined with those from Yiling willing to join him, he had just over 1,000 troops. Against Gan Ning, Cao Ren had dispatched 5-6,000 troops and they quickly surrounded the city. Cao Ren's troops raised mounds of earth on top of which they built towers so they could fire projectiles into the city. The attack continued for several days and the soldiers within the city were all afraid; Gan Ning, however, seemed unperturbed, he would talk and laugh as though nothing was wrong to keep the men's spirits up. Gan Ning sent a messenger to request urgent help and Zhou Yu arrived with reinforcements, lifting the siege.

In 214 A.D., Sun Quan launched an attack against Wan (皖) city.[n 1][n 2] Lü Meng recommended Gan Ning lead a small contingent and scale the walls of the city while he led a support force. At dawn, Lü Meng commenced the attack on the city. Gan Ning and his men used grapnels attached to silk ropes to scale the city walls, Gan Ning was the first over the walls. The city fell before breakfast and the Grand Administrator of Lujiang captured.[18] Gan Ning's merits were second only to Lü Meng's; Gan Ning was promoted to (折衝) General.

In 215 A.D., Liu Bei conquered Yi province and Sun Quan requested that Jing province be returned to Wu but Liu Bei refused. Lü Meng was sent to retake the southern commanderies and Lu Su was given 10,000 troops and sent to Yiyang (益陽) to resist Guan Yu, Gan Ning went with him.[19]

Guan Yu had brought 30,000 troops with him, 5,000 of those he handpicked and led to the northern river bank, 5 km upstream of Yiyang, and was planning to cross during the night. Lu Su was discussing with his generals how to combat this threat; Gan Ning spoke up, saying: "If my command is increased to 500 troops I can oppose him. I guarantee once Guan Yu hears me, he will not dare ford the river. He would only ford if I was killed." Lu Su accepted Gan Ning's request and increased his command to 1,000. Gan Ning took his forces to the river shallows and bade his time until Guan Yu arrived. Gan Ning made sure Guan Yu would hear him and Guan Yu, fearing there be an ambush waiting for him, refused to ford the river, instead he set up a camp there. The crossing became known as "Guan Yu shallows" Sun Quan was most pleased by Gan Ning's exploit and appointed him Grand Administrator of Xiling (西陵) with authority of Yangxing (陽新) and Xiazhi (下雉) counties.

In 215 A.D., Sun Quan launched an attack on the fortress at Hefei (合肥). Despite overwhelming odds, the battle got off to a rough start as Zhang Liao utterly demoralised the Wu forces with a vicious assault upon their arrival. Gan Ning's command had additional problems as his men were suffering from some illness.[n 3] Sun Quan withdrew from Hefei commanding the rearguard himself, along with Lü Meng, Jiang Qin, Ling Tong, Gan Ning and 1,000 elite soldiers. Zhang Liao was waiting for such an opportunity and because Sun Quan's main forces had already advanced a great distance, there was no chance of reinforcements.

Zhang Liao destroyed the bridge at Xiaoyao (逍遙) Crossing to isolate Sun Quan and sent his forces rushing against them. Gan Ning took his bow and fired at the enemies, fighting for his life alongside Ling Tong and the others. Gan Ning yelled for the drums to be beat louder to rouse the spirits of the fighters and strengthen their resolve, Sun Quan later praised him for that. The Wu forces were badly defeated again but managed to escape.

Gan Ning and Ling Tong were rarely in the same place, Ling Tong held great enmity towards Gan Ning for Gan Ning killed Ling Tong's father, Cao, back in 203 A.D. At a feast at Lü Meng's residence, Ling Tong had gotten intoxicated and drew his sword and started performing a knife dance; in response, Gan Ning rose from his seat and said: "I can perform a double-halberd dance." Lü Meng realised they were ready to kill one another[n 4] and interceded, saying: "Although I'm sure you can Ning, you are not as skillful as I." Lü Meng drew his own weapon and put himself between the two men. Sun Quan had previously asked Ling Tong not to pursue his feud but realised Ling Tong would be unable to drop the issue, as a result Gan Ning had been stationed at Banzhou (半州) so they would not cross paths.[20]

In 217 A.D., Cao Cao attacked Ruxu (濡須)[n 5]. Gan Ning was given 3,000 soldiers and appointed to be leader of the vanguard with the duty of attacking the camps established by Cao Cao's vanguard units.[n 6] Sun Quan had gifted Gan Ning with a feast of meat and wine, Ning picked out 100 brave men and had them join him. After eating, Gan Ning poured himself two cups of wine, then poured another for his Chief Controller. The Chief Controller bowed to him, but refused to drink. Gan Ning took out a blade and laid it in his lap, then said to him: "I do not hesitate to die, why do you alone fear to die?" The Chief Controller saw Gan Ning was annoyed and immediately took the wine. Each of Gan Ning's men drank one cup of wine and departed.

At second watch, Gan Ning's men crept towards Cao Cao's camp; they scaled the abatis surrounding the camp and slew men by the dozens. Cao Cao's camp was in an uproar, alarms were raised and torches lit, but by that time, Gan Ning's men had already fled and returned to their own camp and were celebrating. Sun Quan was most pleased, he said: "Your actions were enough to terrify Laozi, I'm glad I was able to bear witness to your valour!" Sun Quan bestowed upon Gan Ning: 1,000 bolts of silk, 100 blades and increased his command to 2,000 men. Sun Quan said: "Cao Cao may have Zhang Liao, but I have Gan Ning! Thus we are evenly matched."[n 7] There was no battle for more than a month and Cao Cao decided to withdraw.[21]


In 220 A.D., Gan Ning died. Gan Ning may have been uncultured and bloodthirsty, but he was also openhearted and often presented good strategies. He didn't care much for wealth, venerated scholarly men and could fully utilise the brave men under his command.

At one time, when Lü Meng was still alive, a kitchen hand had run afoul of Gan Ning, and the boy had run off to seek shelter with Lü Meng; Lü Meng feared Gan Ning would kill the boy, so Lü Meng gave him refuge. Some time after, Ning visited Meng's mother to show his respect, and Meng brought the boy out to Gan Ning. Ning promised that he would not harm the boy. However, before he left, Ning tied the boy to a tree and shot him with an arrow, then went to sleep on his boat. Meng was furious, he gathered his soldiers and hurried in pursuit of Ning. When Ning heard, he stayed below deck to avoid Lü Meng's ire.

When Lü Meng's mother heard what had transpired, she rushed out barefooted to intercede. She admonished her son, saying: "Thy lord extends honour to you as though you were his own flesh and blood, and as his vassal you are tasked with great duties. How can you have this personal grudge and want to harm Gan Ning? If Ning dies this day, even if thy lord disregards it, you would still be a minister violating your duty." Lü Meng was filially pious, so he obeyed his mother's words; he called out to Ning saying he had forgiven him and that his mother had prepared him food. Gan Ning was most apologetic and he returned with Lü Meng to see his mother, and they feasted for the rest of the day.



  • Gan Gui (甘瑰) - Exiled because of a crime.


  1. Cao Cao had attempted to order the population north of the Yangzi river to relocate north, as a result all but Wan city fled to Wu.
  2. Gan Ning's SGZ has this event occurring after Guan Yu's attack, but Lü Meng and Sun Quan's SGZ both say it occurred beforehand.
  3. No illness is mentioned in the accounts of any other officer involved at Hefei, so this illness was probably not wide-spread and localised only to the small forces Gan Ning had.
  4. The sword dance at a feast as a means of assassination occurs frequently, originating from the Hongmen Banquet
  5. Gan Ning's SGZ is not in good chronological order. Cao Cao launched two attacks on Ruxu, one in 213, one in 217. The SGZ would put this at about 215 A.D. before the famous attack on Hefei. But because of one of Sun Quan's remarks, written in the Accounts from South of the Yangzi commentary comparing Gan Ning to Zhang Liao, I've put this at 217 A.D.
  6. Accounts from South of the Yangzi in Gan Ning's SGZ says Cao Cao's forces numbered 400,000, the camps established by his vanguard would contain some portion of this maybe several tens of thousands.
  7. This remark presumedly occurs after the failed attack on Hefei in 215 A.D., when Zhang Liao becomes famous; that would mean it would be said after 215 A.D. and date Gan Ning's efforts at Ruxu to be 217 A.D. Of course, this presumes the statement was said after the battle at Ruxu, it could have been said after the loss at Hefei as a way to mitigate the threat of Zhang Liao, or may not have been said at all.

Fact vs. FictionEdit


  • …Gan Ning did not kill Yue Jin.
  • …Gan Ning was not killed by Shamoke.
  • …Gan Ning's cause of death is not mentioned in historical sources.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 de Crespigny (2007). A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, page 239.
  2. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  3. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  4. SGZ: Records of Heroes and Champions in Biography of Liu Yan.
  5. SGZ: Biography of Liu Yan.
  6. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  7. SGZ: Biography of Sun Quan.
  8. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  9. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  10. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section C
  11. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section C
  12. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section C
  13. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section G
  14. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  15. de Crespigny. Chapter 65 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 13, section G
  16. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  17. SGZ: Biography of Zhou Yu.
  18. SGZ: Biography of Lü Meng.
  19. SGZ: Biography of Sun Quan.
  20. SGZ: Book of Wu quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.
  21. SGZ: Accounts from South of the Yangzi quoted in Biography of Gan Ning.