When we think of generals, we usually think of someone that leads. We don't see General MacArthur charge in front of his soldiers to personally slaughter thousands of regular troops. In fact, even one regular soldier probably has more dexterity, shooting skills, and can fight better than a typical general.

Yet The Romance of the Three Kingdoms describes generals like Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun performing personal combat and killing thousands.

What's going on?

Did people like Wei Yan and Yan Liang become generals because they really were Bruce Lee or because they knew how to command troops?

  • 1
    The real hero in the book is Zhuge Liang, because he "knew how".
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 17:57
  • 7
    Why do you compare those three kingdom generals to McArthur? Alexander of Macedonia also fought with his own hands, even was wounded. His time is closer to three kingdoms than McArthur's time.
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 19:48
  • 3
    It was quite common in Europe for kings or generals to lead the troops to the fight.
    – Anixx
    Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 21:02
  • 2
    Wars fought in the era of ROTK were fought with different strategy and different goals than today. The role of the officer class is very different today.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 12:59

4 Answers 4


Sort of.

Chinese Histories are not without records of generals who can really fight. For instance, in the Records of the Three Kingdoms (not romance), Chen Shou states "黃忠趙雲強摯壯猛 並作爪牙 其灌滕之徒歟". He notes specifically Huang Zhong and Zhao Yun's fighting prowess, and compares them to earlier examples such as Guan Ying and Xiahou Ying, who were said to be fierce fighters under Emperor Gao.

At the same time, military treatises such as Wuzi specifically warns against the general depending on his fighting ability in his Chapter on Generals.

"凡人論將 常觀於勇 勇之於將 乃數分之一爾" ("The ordinary man would think a general's value is in bravery, but bravery is only a minor portion of his skills.")

He then goes on to talk about the importance of understanding the terrain, knowing the ability of his soldiers, the usage of spies, and the discipline of the army. He devotes no other words to the general being able to fight.

However, as Wu Qi notes, this isn't what the common man sees as important in Generals, so in entertainment fiction like the Romance, what the common man sees ("bravery, fighting prowess") is artificially inflated to make for a more popular novel.

You should also note that even MacArthur was a crack shot at the pistol. Commanders do need to be able to fight on par with a soldier to gain their respect (which is why modern officers also go through boot camp). This is why Wu Qi lists is as a part, but only a minor part, of the General's toolbox.

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    +1 for pointing out that even Generals can (not necessarily do) fight.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 12:42
  • Speaking as a modern officer who cannot shoot at all, I must disagree; the situation is much more complicated. My job as an (Naval) officer is completely unrelated to my skill with a pistol (I would be more dangerous to my own troops than to the enemy). Air Force is even more complicated than Navy. Modern enlisted are perfectly capable of fighting; my job is to make sure that their ability to fight is not constrained by ammunition, food, supplies, transport, reinforcements, intelligence or any other factor. They are the best at their job; I can't compete.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 13:04
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    @MarkC.Wallace when talking about a modern, professional army, I mostly agree. If we go back to the age of close combat and/or not so well trained troops, sometimes getting into the thick of the action was the only way to strenghen a failing line. Many leaders threw themselves in the fights (often with banners or other important symbols to ensure that the soldiers would follow them). And yes, losing a well trained commander was a high prize, but sometimes it had to be paid.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 18:01
  • Truth. I don't have enough experience in Asian history to make credible statements, but in order to fully answer OP's question, we have to address the changing nature of warfare. Warfare changes dramatically over time - first with the invention of professional soldiers, then again when we shift to total war. I suspect the evolution is more complex in Asia (there is probably a change when mass levy is substituted for heroes), and the answer would also address ROTK as both mythology and history.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 18:08
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    @MarkC.Wallace Fighting is more than just shooting pistols, though. The idea I'm trying to convey (and probably failed at) is that commanders have to be seen just as capable as those they command. In the modern navy where enemies don't even see each other half the time, small arms shooting is much less valuable of a skill, no? Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 18:43

It is not so long ago that Jean Lannes, Duc de Montebello, inspired his troops into the breach once more at the Siege of Ratisbon by grabbing a scaling ladder and exclaiming

I was a grenadier before I was a marshal, and am still one.

Lannes had to be physically restrained from advancing forward to the breach, but his men took heart and, advancing into the breach for a fourth time, finally forced it and opened a gate for the remaining French forces to storm the city.

Four weeks later, May 22, 1809, Lannes was struck by a spent cannon ball during the Battle of Aspern and had to have both legs personally amputated by Napoleon's Surgeon General, Dominique Jean Larrey. He died eight days later from these wounds.

Likewise Julius Caesar won the Roman Civic Crown, its second-highest military honour, as a young man.

Leadership in combat is about inspiring one's followers to believe in victory; more strongly than the opponent's followers so believe, and there are likely as many ways to do so as there have been successful commanders through history. However dying, or even being seriously injured, in combat is not generally successful as one such technique.

Although not historical, Homer's Iliad tells us much of how the ancient Greeks viewed, and wished to be seen as viewing, their combat heroes and leaders. Achilles is the prototypical commander who leads through prowess in combat, but his hubris in that regard contributes to his death by the hands of Paris. in contrast Odysseus, renowned rather for his wiles, rhetoric, and archery, survives and eventually leads the Greeks to victory and eventually back to their homelands.

Yet as Homer relates the tale, the Greeks would have lost early without the combat skill of Achilles and Ajax, and late without the wiles of Odysseus. I believe this is a fair assessment of combat leadership. A successful army, even from the time of Homer until the modern day, required both types of leadership - by example in combat as well as by wiles and strategy behind the lines. Modern armies, much more numerous than ancient ones, have specialized these two roles into respectively Sergeants and Lieutenants for the former, Colonels and Generals for the latter.

  • "Dying or even being seriously injured, in combat is not one such technique" [to achieve victory]. I believe that Swiss Arnold Winkelreid deliberately impaled himself on Austrian spears so that his men would seize victory from the resulting confusion. Adrmiral Daniel Callahan won a strategic victory in the naval battle of Guadalcanal by starting "brawl" with a superior Japanese force that cost him his life, but dissuaded the Japanese from bombarding Henderson's Field.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:13
  • @TomAu: All rules have exceptions - but exceptions are tough to rely on. The opposite effect is vastly more numerous in occurrence, even given that the claim of intent is accurate. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 21:16

This in the context of the period broadly covered in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (184-280). In the novel, generals fight not just alongside their troops, but also in duels with the opposing general.

Historically, generals who fought alongside their troops were fairly common. A couple of examples from the Record of the Three Kingdoms:

Zhang Liao against Sun Quan at Hefei:


At dawn, [Zhang] Liao put on his armour and grasped his halberd. He charged into the enemy formation, killing tens of people and slaying two generals. He shouted his name and charged forth towards [Sun] Quan's banner.

Huang Zhong during Liu Bei's invasion of Yizhou:


[Huang] Zhong was often the first to charge into the enemy formation, and his valour was foremost within the 3 armies.

As for duels, they were a dime a dozen within the novel but fairly rare historically. One of these featured Lü Bu (noted as the strongest warrior and duellist in the novel) against Guo Si outside Changan. This account is from the Records of Heroes and is one of the annotations on Lü Bu's biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms:


Guo Si was at the north of the city. [Lü] Bu opened the gates and led his troops to face Si, saying "Forget troops, let victory and defeat be determined between us." Si and Bu duelled, and Bu's spear stabbed Si. The horsemen behind Si came forth to rescue Si. Si and Bu both ceased combat.

In the early years of this period, China was fragmented and warlords controlled limited territory. Hence, the armies they could maintain were smaller and the military engagements they fought were smaller. In such a situation, the contribution of a powerful individual like Dian Wei (who started as a footsoldier and only made it to colonel before being killed) or Xu Chu could be decisive. These two men, who served Cao Cao not only in battle but also as bodyguards, were successfully promoted on the basis of their kill record in battle, with no mention made in their biographies of their abilities as commanders. That Xu Chu reached the rank of general on his individual might alone is uncommon in the period and perhaps reflects both his impact in a time of smaller armies and the fact that he spent much of his time in close proximity to Cao Cao. A mixture of both martial prowess and the ability to command was more commonly sought in generals, and when Cao Cao memorialised the throne to seek promotions for Yu Jin, Yue Jin and Zhang Liao, he praised both their martial prowess and their tactical ability. And of course, nepotism meant that a person need not have much ability in either to have independent command (Xiahou Mao is perhaps the best example).

Finally, it should be noted that the rank of general did not necessarily mean that a person actually had an active command. Liu Bei's early followers Jian Yong, Mi Zhu and Sun Qian all eventually attained ranks of general despite their solid records as civil officers both before and after their appointments.


What you said about a typical soldier being a better fighter than a general often isn't always true.

First of all, most generals (other than say, a member of the royal family), were soldiers once. They may not have started at the bottom as "buck" private, but they were junior officers such as second lieutenants, who worked their way up the ranks. Only a very highly placed person, such as the Marquis de Lafayette (or higher) would start in the military as a general.

The other thing that you need to know is that generals come in two varieties. One is the type you mention, thinker, planner, strategist, whose fighting skills may be no better than average. But the other type of general got there by being the bravest or most capable soldier among his peers. This type of General (e.g. America's William Dean) might be the best "soldier" in his whole unit. It is worth noting the most generals did come from "privilege," which is to say that they were better fed and educated than their peers, even as children.

So generals sometimes did personally lead troops in combat, and (some) Chinese generals were no exception. One of them was Yue Fei. "Before his adulthood, he could draw a bow of 400 pounds, and a crossbow of 1200 pounds [force]." They would place themselves in places where they could encourage their troops,but without taking undue risks. And they had "bodyguards" to protect them, usually the best troops in the army.

  • ?? In what culture?? Might be true in China, but in most class based societies, there is a huge difference between officer class and enlisted class. Quite the opposite is true - "mustangs" experience discrimination throughout their careers for the crime of having risen from the ranks.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 18:30
  • @MarkC.Wallace: I may have "implied" something misleading without actually saying it. It's true that low born people who are outstanding fighters don't often make it to general. In the U.S. Army, Sgt. York never became a commissioned officer, even though he single-handedly captured 120 Germans, doing the work of a whole company or even battalion, and should have been promoted to captain or major. But among high born people, "good fighters" such as William Dean or George Patton make it to the top that way. The other high born generals are the "Mark Clarks" of the army.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 18:36
  • OK - the phrase "most generals (other than say, a member of the royal family), were soldiers once." misled me.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 18:55
  • @MarkC.Wallace: I think it's a logical asymmetry. "Most generals were soldiers once" is true. But the converse, "most soldiers become generals is false. You work in the Pentagon, do you?
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 19:01
  • Once upon a time. I think the logic holds, but quite apart from the class distinction, the functions of the two are different. I am a (retired) officer; I would never have been so arrogant as to try to do the work of a sailor; I wouldn't be comfortable being called a sailor. As one of my brother officers exclaimed in surprise, "They work!".
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 19:25

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