Li Dian 李典 was a man with scholarly interests and a general who served the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 during the Three Kingdoms era.


Both Li Dian's father, Li Qian 李乾, and brother, Li Zheng 李整, had served Cao Cao until their deaths. Qian's troops had been passed down to Zheng, and then down to Dian. At that time, Li Dian relocated to Yinling (陰令) and was given the rank of General of the Gentlemen of the Household on top of control of Zheng's forces.

Dian was less interested in military matters and more interested academic pursuits; he studied the 'Zuo's Commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annals' (Chūnqiū zuǒshì chuán 春秋左氏傳) and various other books. Cao Cao was pleased by Dian's attitude and examined him on government and politics; Cao Cao was suitably impressed and appointed Grand Administrator of Lihu (離狐).[2]

Fight Against the YuansEdit

In 200 A.D. when Cao Cao was in stalemate with Yuan Shao 袁紹 at Guandu (官渡), Li Dian led his clan and transported silk and grain for Cao Cao's army. When Shao was defeated, Dian was appointed Major-General and stationed at Anmin (安民). Cao Cao then went on to attack Shao's sons, Yuan Tan 袁譚 and Yuan Shang 袁尚, at Liyang (黎陽). Cao Cao tasked Dian and Cheng Yu 程昱 with taking boatloads of supplies up to the northern army. On the river, Dian encountered Grand Administrator of Wei commandery Gao Fan 高蕃; Shang had sent him to camp on the river and obstruct any supplies. Cao Cao's had ordered, that should the river be blocked, that they were to leave the boats and go by land instead. However, Dian said to the other officers:

"Only a few of Gao Fan's soldiers are wearing armour and are merely relying on the river for protection. They are complacent and unprepared, if we attack we can certainly overcome them."

Cheng Yu agreed with him, so they attacked and defeated Gao Fan.

Battle of BowangEdit

In the 8th month of 203 A.D.[3], Cao Cao sent Xiahou Dun 夏侯惇 and Yu Jin 于禁 to lead a small force and attacked Liu Biao 劉表 in Jing province. Liu Bei 劉備 was sent from Xinye (新野) to intercept Dun at Bowang (博望).[4] The day after the two sides met, Liu Bei burned his camp and fled south; Dun ordered a pursuit, but Li Dian reproached him, saying:[n 1]

"The enemy had no reason to run away, and I am sure they will lay an ambush. The road to the south is narrow and the trees and bushes are thick. You should not follow him."[5]

Xiahou Dun would not heed Dian's advice and he and Yu Jin pursued anyway, Dian remained behind to act as a support force. Dun's forces were indeed caught in an enemy ambush and defeated. Seeing his allies in danger, Dian led the support forces forward; seeing reinforcements arriving, Liu Bei abandoned the attack and withdrew.[6][n 2]

Service to Cao CaoEdit

Li Dian then returned northwards and joined Cao Cao in numerous campaigns: the seizure of Ye city (鄴); the seige of Yuan Shao's nephew, Gao Gan 高幹, at Hu Pass (壺關)[7]; and the attack on Guan Cheng 管承 at Changguang (長廣)[8]. For his achievements during the campaigns, Li Dian was promoted to General Who Arrests Caitiffs and ennobled as Marquis of a Chief Village.

By this time, the Dian clan's dependents in Chengshi had exceeded 3,000 families, so Li Dian petitioned that they be resettled in Wei commandery. Cao Cao laughed and said:

"Sir, do you desire to emulate Geng Chun?[n 3]"

Li Dian thanked him but replied:

"I am but incompetent, cowardly and slight of merit, yet have been profoundly favoured with nobility; it is only right that I should raise my clan as a show of strength. In addition, the turmoil has not yet ceased and it is necessary the foundation of your state be strong so as to govern in all directions. Thus it is not that I try to emulate Geng Chun."

Thereupon, over 13,000 people were relocated to Ye city. Li Dian was then promoted to General Who Smashes Caitiffs, and sent to garrison Hefei (合肥) alongside Zhang Liao 張遼.

Battle of HefeiEdit

In the 8th month of 215 A.D.[9], Sun Quan 孫權 led 100,000 men against Hefei; at that time, a mere 7,000 men were garrisoned at Hefei. Cao Cao had left orders that should Wu attack, Zhang Liao and Li Dian were to go out and attack. Many generals were hesitant about going to battle, but Zhang Liao said:[10]

"Our lord is on campaign far away, and by the time help comes the enemy will surely have destroyed us. This letter is to remind us that if we attack them before they have surrounded the city, we shall reduce their early strength and raise the morale of our own troops. Then we can hold out. Victory or defeat depend on this one battle. If you are all so hesitant, I shall settle it alone."[11][12]

Zhang Liao did not get along well with the other generals and he feared they would not obey his orders. But Li Dian put aside personal feelings and said:

"This is a great affair of state. When I see you planning like this, how can I maintain a personal grudge and neglect the public good? I beg to follow you in the sortie."[13]

The following morning, Li Dian, and 800 other brave souls, followed Zhang Liao out of Hefei and attacked the abundant Wu forces.[14] For his bravery, Li Dian's fief was increased by 100 households to a total of 300.


Li Dian died at the age of 36. Dian was a knowledgeable and noble scholar and he did not fight with other generals to earn merit. Dian venerated great scholars as he sincerely believed he was not their equal.

When Emperor Cao Pi took the title of Emperor, he wanted to further reward Li Dian's actions at Hefei, so he posthumously canonised Li Dian as (mǐn 愍) Lord as his fief increased by 100 households. Li Dian's other son was also ennobled as a Secondary Marquis and given a fief of 100 households.

Translation of the SGZEdit

Li Dian, styled Mancheng, was a man of Juye, Shanyang. He and his father, Li Qian, had heroic qualities and being host to about a thousand families, lived in Cheng Shi. In the middle of (the reign of) Chuping (A.D. 190–193), Li Dian along with many went to follow the Grand Ancestor (Cao Cao), breaking the Yellow Turbans at Shouzhang. And again, he was involved in the attack against Yuan Shu and the conquering of Xuzhou.



  • Li Qian 李乾 - A follower of Cao Cao's. Was killed by Lü Bu's men because he would not defect.



  • Li Zhen (李禎) - Li Dian's heir.
  • Unnamed son - Was ennobled as a Secondary Marquis by Emperor Cao Pi.

Fact vs. FictionEdit


  • ...


  1. There's a contradiction of accounts relating to this event. Li Dian's account says Liu Biao ordered Liu Bei to attack She county and Cao Cao's forces went to repel him. On the other hand, Liu Bei's account says he was ordered to resist Cao Cao's forces at Bowang Slope by Liu Biao. Cao Cao also comments that although Liu Biao has Liu Bei, he will not use him (in battle); also stated in Liu Bei's SGZ. Cao Cao's SGZ also never mentions any attacks from Liu Bei/Liu Biao. As the territory is in Jing province, Liu Biao's domain, it must mean Cao Cao is the aggressor.
  2. No information of this event in Xiahou Dun or Yu Jin's SGZ.
  3. In 23 A.D., Geng Chun met Liu Xiu and, seeing him to be a lord of unique virtue, pledged support to him. When the throne of the Emperor was being usurped and Liu Xiu forced to flee, Geng Chun led over 2,000 of his clan's dependents to receive Liu Xiu. At that time, many were surrendering to the usurper so, fearing disloyalty from his clan, Geng Chun had their residences torched. When Liu Xiu asked why he would do such a thing, Geng Chun replied that it was to ensure his clan remained and did not desert in order to go home.


  1. de Crespigny. A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, biography of Li Dian.
  2. SGZ: Book of Wei quoted in Biography of Li Dian.
  3. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  4. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei.
  5. de Crespigny. Chapter 64 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 7, section I
  6. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei.
  7. SGZ: Biography of Yuan Shao.
  8. SGZ: Biography of Yue Jin.
  9. SGZ: Biography of Cao Cao.
  10. SGZ: Biography of Zhang Liao.
  11. de Crespigny. Chapter 67 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 20, section L
  12. SGZ: Biography of Zhang Liao.
  13. de Crespigny. Chapter 67 in To Establish Peace Vol 2, Jian'an 20, section L
  14. SGZ: Biography of Zhang Liao.


  • de Crespigny, Rafe. To Establish Peace. Vol. 2. Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 1996. 2 vols.