Wei Yan 魏延 was the Major to Zhuge Liang and was usually given important positions by him. Wei Yan is most noted for two things: one, his "treason" after Zhuge Liang's death which resulted in his own execution; and two, his plan to take Chang'an in 228 A.D., which has been argued to be the most viable option for Shu-Han defeating Wei.


At some point when Liu Bei was in Jing province, Wei Yan chose to follow Liu Bei and joined the Shu-Han forces. Wei Yan fought in several battles for Liu Bei and was promoted to General of the Standard for his exploits.[n 1]

In 219 when Liu Bei established himself as King of Hanzhong, he promoted numerous officers serving him to important positions; one of the more important positions was who was going to safeguard the Han river. At the time, the general consensus was the Zhang Fei, one of Liu Bei's most trusted officers, would get the position. But Liu Bei promoted Wei Yan to General Who Maintains Distant Lands in Peace with command as Chief Controller and Grand Administrator of Hanzhong[n 2]; so the entire army was shocked.[1]

At one of Liu Bei's feasts, his ministers asked Wei Yan: "Our lord has entrusted you with an important office, how would you respond should some situation arise?" Yan replied: "Even if Cao Cao brought all his forces against me, I would tell our great king to repel him; if 100,000 dissatisfied masses came, I would tell our great king to invite them in." Liu Bei was pleased with his words and promoted Yan to General Who Maintains the North in Peace.

In 223 A.D., he was also ennobled as Marquis of a Chief Village. And in 227 A.D., Zhuge Liang garrisoned at Hanzhong. Zhuge Liang had Wei Yan appointed Commander of the Front Divisions, Major to Zhuge Liang and Inspector of Liang province.[n 3]

Battle of JietingEdit

By 228 A.D., Xiahou Mao had been appointed General Who Gives Tranquility to the West and stationed at Chang'an to oversee the west. At the time, Zhuge Liang was discussing strategy with the generals in Nanzheng (南鄭) the capital of Hanzhong. Wei Yan suspected that Xiahou Mao had earned his position because he was familiar with the Wei Emperor and his father had also performed valuable service for Cao Cao, not on his own merits.

Wei Yan said to Zhuge Liang: "I am told that Xiahou Mao is a son-in-law of the Wei Emperor; he is fainthearted and without counsel. If I am given 5,000 troops and another 5,000 to carry provisions, to march straight out of Baozhong eastward along the Qingling mountains, and then turn west from the Ziwu highway, I shall be at Chang'an in ten days at most. When he hears of my sudden arrival, Xiahou Mao is sure to leave the walled city and take to flight. In Chang'an itself there will be no one to defend it but the Imperial Secretary and the Grand Administrator of Jingzhao. The provisions in the storehouse at Guangmen and those left behind by people who scatter in flight will suffice to feed us. It will take some twenty days more to unite with our forces from the east, and by taking Yegu route Your Excellency will also be able to reach the place. In this manner the region west of Xianyang will be conquered with a single stroke."[2][3][n 4]

However, Zhuge Liang thought Wei Yan's plan too risky, that they should take the open roads and first pacify the region west of the Long mountains (隴右), and use that as the staging area for attacking eastwards. After all, should the city not immediately fall, the advance force would be stranded and easily picked off.

Having not followed Wei Yan's plan of using a surprise attack, Zhuge Liang initiated his first campaign north, bringing the Shu-Han army to Mt. Qi (祁山). At that time, Generals Wei Yan, Wu Yi and other veteran generals were all volunteering to command the vanguard, yet Zhuge Liang elected to employ Ma Su. Ma Su was defeated at Jieting and the entire campaign ended.[4]

In the latter part 230 A.D., Zhuge Liang sent Wei Yan to Nan'an to meet with the Qiang tribes in an attempt to drum up support in future northern campaigns. While up north, Wei Yan was attacked by Wei officers Guo Huai and Fei Yao at Yangxi (陽谿).[5][6] Wei Yan dealt the enemy forces a great defeat and returned to Hanzhong. Yan was promoted to General-in-Chief Who Subdues the West and Commands the Vanguard, bestowed the Staff of Authority and enfeoffed as Marquis of Nanzheng (南鄭).

Wei Yan and Yang YiEdit

Wei Yan was a fierce soldier but he was also conceited and arrogant. While others would tolerate him, only Yang Yi would not bear his behaviour, which made Yan loathe him. The pair were like water and fire, whenever they were in the same place they would argue constantly; Military Protector of the Palace Fei Yi would often feel forced to sit between them and remonstrate with the pair. At one time, Wei Yan even drew a knife on Yang Yi causing Yang Yi to break down in tears.[7]

The animosity between the two had even reached as far as the state of Wu. While Fei Yi and Dong Hui were sent to Wu as envoys. Emperor of Wu Sun Quan had become intoxicated and said to Fei Yi: "Yang Yi and Wei Yan are low fellows, no better than shepherds. Although they were once useful in the management of affairs of the time by their howling and barking, one cannot neglect the fact that they have been entrusted with some power. Should one day there be no Zhuge Liang, they are sure to make trouble. You gentlemen of Shu-Han, muddle-headed, do not think of taking precaution at this point; can you be said to have left your plans to your descendants?"[8][9]

Fei Yi was startled and did not know how to respond, but Dong Hui looked at Yi and said: "The disagreement between Yang Yi and Wei Yan is simply a matter of private antipathy; their disposition is not like that of Qing Bu and Han Xin, who could not be bridled. At present, we are exterminating the powerful rebel and unifying China; achievements are accomplished and works extended by men of talent. To discard them as precaution against some eventuality would be like not using boats because one would prepare against a storm. This is not a farsighted counsel."[10][11]

Zhuge Liang was of a similar opinion as Dong Hui; he valued Yang Yi's competence in an advisory capacity and relied on Wei Yan's valiance during combat; he regretted that the two were so disharmonious, yet could not bear to lose either.[12]

In 231 A.D., Wei Yan participated in Zhuge Liang's fourth northern campaign. Yan was among the Shu-Han forces that defeated the numerically superior forces of Sima Yi at Lucheng (鹵城). The battle was very successful for the Shu-Han forces and they collected 3,000 helmets, 5,000 pieces of armour and 3,100 crossbows.[13]

The Retreat From WuzhangEdit

Zhuge Liang had always greatly respected Wei Yan, but the feeling was not entirely mutual; Yan would often say Liang acted too cowardly and that his talents were being underutilised. Whenever Yan followed Liang, he would also request a separate command of 10,000 soldiers and suggest they meet up at Tong Pass (潼關), as Han Xin had done in the past; but Liang would not allow it.

In 234 A.D., the Shu-Han army had marched north under Zhuge Liang for the fifth time. Zhuge Liang had set up camp near the mouth of Xie Valley (斜谷) and Wei Yan had his camp 5 km forward of that position.

One night, Wei Yan had a dream that he had a horn upon his head; he went to Zhao Zhi and asked him to divine the meaning of his dream, Zhao Zhi dishonestly said: "Unicorns have horns, yet they use them not; here, we have no opportunity to battle and the bandits want to defeat us that way. That is the meaning." Yet when Zhi left, he told many people it was in fact an inauspicious omen, akin to a sword hanging above his head.

By autumn, after a long stalemate, Zhuge Liang fell ill; he summoned his officers Yang Yi, Fei Yi, Jiang Wei et al. and gave them instructions for after his death. Liang wanted the army to immediately retreat, with Wei Yan and Jiang Wei commanding the rearguard; and if Wei Yan were to refuse to leave, to simply leave him behind.

When Zhuge Liang died, Yang Yi had his death kept secret and ordered Fei Yi to talk with Wei Yan and surmise his intentions. Yan said to him: "Even if the Prime Minister dies, I am still here. The officials belonging to the Prime Minister may carry his mortal remains to be buried. I on the other hand ought to command the various troops and strike at the rebels. Because of the death of one man, must we neglect the business of the world? Besides, who am I, Wei Yan, that I should be commanded by Yang Yi to serve as general of the rear guard?"[14][n 5]

Wei Yan talked Fei Yi into a covenant, that they should share control and remain to fight Wei; he had Fei Yi pen a letter announcing their intentions to the other generals, which both signed. But Fei Yi was acting falsely, he deceived Wei Yan saying: "I had better go back on your behalf and make Chief Clerk Yang Yi understand. The Chief Clerk is a mere civil official with little experience in military matters, and will certainly not disobey you."[15]

So Wei Yan saw Fei Yi off. But as Fei Yi was galloping off, Yan began to regret letting him go and went to pursue him, but by then it was too late. Wei Yan dispatched people to spy on Yang Yi and the others, to see whether Fei Yi had indeed been truthful, but the various camps were already preparing to leave. Yan was furious that Fei Yi had deceived him, both with the covenant and notice of Zhuge Liang's death.

Wei Yan quickly packed up his camp and rushed south, at that time, Yang Yi had yet to leave so Yan burnt the plank bridges that had been used to make Baoye Road traversable. Yang Yi quickly followed suit, packing up his camp and pursuing Wei Yan; he soldiers hewed trees in order to fix the road, and double-marched day and night in order to catch Yan's forces.

Both sides had sent memorials to the throne, each claimed the other had revolted and both arrived at the same time. Shu-Han Emperor Liu Shan asked his attendants, Dong Yun and Jiang Wan, what to make of these events. Both doubted Wei Yan's account and stood behind Yang Yi's. Jiang Wan was quickly dispatched to resolve the troubles of the north, but he had not gone more than several dozen li when he received news of the outcome of events.

Yang Yi's fast pace had allowed the pursuit force to catch Wei Yan by exit of Baoye road. Yang Yi assigned Wang Ping to lead the vanguard and deal with Yan's forces. Ping scolded Yan's soldiers saying: "His Excellency so lately died that his body in not yet cold; how dare you people act this way?"[16] The soldiers felt ashamed by their actions so they all quickly dispersed. Without support, Yan fled to Hanzhong, along with his sons and several others.

Yang Yi dispatched Ma Dai to pursue and behead Wei Yan. Yan's head was sent back to Yang Yi, who kicked it saying: "Slave, can you do your wicked deeds any more?"[17] Forthwith, Yang Yi had Wei Yan's family exterminated to three degrees.


From the beginning, Wei Yan's intentions were motivated by personal grudges and ambition, not from treachery. He had wanted to get rid of Yang Yi and his supporters, not defect to Wei; and he had hoped he would be Zhuge Liang's successor. His death, and the death of his family, was also motivated by similar feelings; Yang Yi's private grudge with Yan had provided the cause to wipe out Yan's family.[n 6] Had he desired to defect to Wei, he would have simply headed there from Wuzhang, not fled southwards; a sentiment later expressed by Yang Yi, resulting in his execution.[18]

Wei Yan excelled at taking care of his troops and was especially valiant and fierce, yet he was also arrogant, boastful, and did not get along well with other officers.

Fact vs. FictionEdit


  • ...Wei Yan never harboured any desire to defect to Wei.
  • ...Zhuge Liang did not tell Liu Bei to execute Wei Yan, nor did he distrust Wei Yan. Wei Yan was always assigned important tasks by Zhuge Liang.
  • ...Zhuge Liang also had no involvement with Wei Yan's death, it was the result of a private feud with Yang Yi.
  • ...Wei Yan did not murder Han Xuan and then surrendered to Liu Bei with Huang Zhong. Han Xuan surrendered to Liu Bei.
  • ...Wei Yan was not a general under Han Xuan or Liu Biao, but just a common soldier who rose to the rank of general under Liu Bei.
  • ...Wei Yan did not slay the fictional character Cao Zun.
  • ...There is no record that Wei Yan slew Wang Shuang.[n 7]


  1. There's not much detail on where Wei Yan was at this point. Considering he was from Xiangyang, he may have even joined Liu Bei as early as 208 A.D. when Liu Bei had fled south past Xiangyang, after that time, northern Jing was in the hands of Cao Cao, so there wasn't much of an opportunity to join Liu Bei after that.
  2. Wei Yan's SGZ says Grand Administrator of Hanzhong, Liu Bei's says Chief Controller
  3. Contrary to depiction in literature, Zhuge Liang actually had a great deal of respect for Wei Yan's abilities, and so Wei Yan was highly decorated.
  4. Wei Yan is proposing taking troops along dangerous routes in an attempt to surprise the city. Hoping for a quick capitulation, or failing that scaling the walls, Wei Yan wants to occupy the city so that it can be used as a stronghold for the subjugation of Liang province.
  5. I have slightly altered this from the original translation, Yang Yi keeping the death secret means Wei Yan would not yet know.
  6. There is also an account in the Wei Lue regarding these events, but it is dismissed by Pei Songzhi as being Wei propaganda. The account says Wei Yan had kept Zhuge Liang's death secret and let the army retreat. And having exited Baoye road, only then informing others of the death as well as the desire to defect to Wei; and so Yang Yi had attacked him.
  7. Wang Shuang's death is noted in Zhuge Liang's SGZ: "Wei General Wang Shuang led cavalry in pursuit of [Zhuge] Liang, Liang engaged him in battle, defeated Shuang, Shuang was beheaded.


  1. SGZ: Biography of Liu Bei.
  2. Fang. Chapter 9 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  3. SGZ: Wei lüe quoted in the Biography of Wei Yan.
  4. SGZ: Biography of Ma Liang.
  5. SGZ: Biography of Liu Shan.
  6. SGZ: Biography of Yang Xi.
  7. SGZ: Biography of Fei Yi.
  8. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  9. SGZ: Biography of Dong Hui quoted in the Accounts of the Elders of Xiangyang in the Biography of Dong Yun.
  10. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  11. SGZ: Biography of Dong Hui quoted in the Accounts of the Elders of Xiangyang in the Biography of Dong Yun.
  12. SGZ: Biography of Yang Yi.
  13. SGZ: Chronicles of Han and Jin quoted in Biography of Zhuge Liang.
  14. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  15. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  16. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  17. Fang. Chapter 15 in The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms
  18. SGZ: Biography of Yang Yi.