In Romance of the Three Kingdoms
After defeating Gongsun Zan and absorbing many of his forces, Yuan Shao intended to invade the capital, Xuchang, which was in Cao Cao's possession at that time. Tian, along with Ju Shou objected to Yuan's plan. However Shen Pei and Guo Tu objected to Tian and Ju and advised on launching the attack. Yuan refused to heed Tian's advice and imprisoned him on pretext of lowering the troops' morale.
Tian is proven to have analyzed the situation correctly. In the field, Yuan failed to do anything due to his indecisiveness while his commanders were too busy with the hostilities among themselves.
After hearing that Cao Cao diverted his troops to invade Liu Bei, Tian urged Yuan Shao to invade Xuchang. However, Yuan did not want to raise the troops since his son was sick. Disappointed, Tian exclaimed "It is such a pity! Just as a unique opportunity presents itself, everything is spoiled by the illness of a child."
When Liu Bei was defeated, Yuan Shao wanted to attack Cao Cao for the second time. Tian tried to stop Yuan, reasoning that the golden opportunity had passed. For his advice, he was imprisoned again. The resulting battle between Yuan and Cao was known as the Battle of Guandu. This decisive battle resulted in Yuan's disastrous defeat.
Upon hearing Yuan Shao's defeat, the warden on the prison thought that Yuan will come to his senses and free Tian because his wise words proved to be correct. However, Tian said "The Imperial Protector (Yuan Shao) appears liberal on the outside but is small-minded and insecure on the inside; he is jealous and forgetful of honest advice. Had he been victorious, he might have pardoned me. Now that he has been defeated and put to shame, I do not hope to live." Yet again, he was correct. When Yuan returned, he was told by another advisor Pang Ji (who disliked Tian) that Tian had been laughing at Yuan's defeat and overly prideful of his predictions earlier. Yuan was furious and ordered Tian to be executed. Tian was told of his fate and chose to commit suicide.
Before Tian committed suicide, he said "An able person born into this world who does not recognize and serve the right lord is ignorant. Today I die, but I am not deserving of pity."
- Luo Guanzhong; tr. Roberts Moss (1995). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Foreign Language Press. ISBN 7-119-00590-1.
- Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-3467-9.