A Qing Dynasty block print of Xu Shu
|Official of Cao Wei|
|Courtesy name||Yuanzhi (Chinese: 元直; pinyin: Yuánzhí; Wade–Giles: Yüan-chih)|
|Other names||Shan Fu (simplified Chinese: 单福; traditional Chinese: 單福; pinyin: Shàn Fú; Wade–Giles: Shan Fu)|
Xu Shu's original family name was "Shan" (單) and his original given name was "Fu" (福). He was a swordsman in his early life and he once helped someone take revenge by killing another person. To avoid being recognised, he covered his face with white chalk and let his hair run wild. He was later arrested by an official, who asked him for his name, but he did not reply. The official then tied him to a cart and had him paraded through the streets, asking for any person who could identify him, but no one came forth. Xu Shu was later rescued by his fellows. He was so grateful to be saved that he gave up his life as a swordsman and became a scholar.
When Xu Shu first attended school, his schoolmates ostracised him because of his background, but he remained humble and hardworking. He woke up early, cleaned the school alone, and paid great attention to his schoolwork. He met Shi Tao (石韜; also known as Shi Guangyuan 石廣元) and they became close friends. In the early 190s, when wars broke out in central China, Xu Shu and Shi Tao moved south to Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan), where they met Zhuge Liang and befriended him. During his time in Jing Province in the late 190s to the early 200s, Xu Shu was close friends with Zhuge Liang, Shi Tao and Meng Gongwei (孟公威) and they would travel around and study together.
Serving Cao Cao
When the warlord Liu Bei garrisoned at Xinye (present-day Xinye County, Nanyang, Henan), Xu Shu visited him and was held in high regard. Xu Shu recommended Zhuge Liang to Liu Bei and told him that Zhuge cannot be invited to meet him, and that he must personally visit Zhuge. Zhuge Liang later came to serve Liu Bei after the latter visited him thrice and consulted him on the affairs of their time.
In 208, Liu Biao, the Governor of Jing Province, died and was succeeded by his younger son Liu Cong. Later that year, the warlord Cao Cao invaded Jing Province and Liu Cong surrendered and much of northern Jing Province came under Cao Cao's control. Liu Bei led his forces and a large number of civilians on an exodus south to Xiakou (夏口; in present-day Wuhan, Hubei), which was independent of Cao Cao's control and where Liu Biao's elder son Liu Qi was based. Xu Shu accompanied Liu Bei on his journey towards Jiangxia. Cao Cao sent 5,000 riders to pursue Liu Bei and they caught up with him, leading to the Battle of Changban. Xu Shu's mother was captured by Cao Cao's men during the chaos, so Xu decided to leave Liu Bei to reunite with his mother. Before leaving, he pointed at his heart and told Liu Bei, "I wanted to join you, General, in making great achievements. This is my purpose in life. Now that I've lost my mother, I've also lost my sense of direction. This isn't going to be helpful. Now I bid farewell to you." He then went to join Cao Cao. Shi Tao also followed him and both of them came to serve Cao Cao.
Service in Cao Wei
Xu Shu continued serving in the state of Cao Wei (founded by Cao Cao's successor Cao Pi) after the fall of the Han Dynasty and the start of the Three Kingdoms period. In the 220s, during the reign of Cao Pi, Xu Shu served as a "Right General of the Household" (右中郎將) and an Imperial Secretary (御史中丞).
During the reign of Cao Rui (Cao Pi's successor), Zhuge Liang (who had become chancellor of the state of Shu Han, founded by Liu Bei in 221) led a series of campaigns to invade Wei. When Zhuge Liang heard that Xu Shu and Shi Tao had become wealthy and famous officials in Wei, he remarked, "There are some many talents in Wei. Why aren't the talents of these two men put to good use?" Xu Shu died of illness in Wei several years later. A tombstone with his name on it was found in Pengcheng (present-day Xuzhou, Jiangsu) and it still exists today.
Xu Shu is featured as a fairly prominent character in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which romanticises the historical events before and during the Three Kingdoms period. Xu Shu appeared mainly in chapters 35 and 36 of the novel, in which he played an important role as Liu Bei's strategist before Zhuge Liang came along.
Xu Shu was singing on the streets of Xinye (present-day Xinye County, Nanyang, Henan) when Liu Bei noticed him and suspected that he was either the "Crouching Dragon" or the "Young Phoenix" that Sima Hui spoke of, but Xu Shu told Liu Bei that he was neither of them. He agreed to become Liu Bei's strategist and helped Liu counter an invading army led by Cao Cao's general Cao Ren. Cao Ren deployed his troops in an "Eight Gates Golden Locks Formation" (八門金鎖陣) outside Xinye, but Xu Shu pointed out the weaknesses in the formation and instructed Liu's general Zhao Yun on how to break it. Zhao Yun led his men to attack the formation and succeeded in breaking it, defeating Cao Ren. Xu Shu also accurately predicted that Cao Ren would launch a surprise attack that night after his defeat, and Liu Bei defeated Cao Ren again in that battle, forcing Cao Ren to retreat.
Cao Cao was impressed when he heard about Xu Shu and he was eager to recruit the latter as an adviser, so he invited Xu Shu's mother to his place and asked her to write a letter to her son, requesting that her son come and serve him. Xu Shu's mother refused and denounced Cao Cao as a villain and threw an ink stone at him. Cao Cao was furious and ordered Xu Shu's mother to be executed but refrained when Cheng Yu reminded him that Xu Shu would be more determined to help Liu Bei oppose him if he killed Xu's mother. Cao Cao then had Xu Shu's mother detained and asked Cheng Yu to pretend to be Xu Shu's sworn brother and win the trust of Xu's mother. After some time, Cheng Yu got close to Xu Shu's mother and learnt to mimic her handwriting. He wrote a letter to Xu Shu in the handwriting of her latter's mother, telling Xu that she was in trouble and urging him to come to the capital Xu (許; present-day Xuchang, Henan) quickly. Xu Shu was a filial son and he immediately left Liu Bei for Xu after reading the letter.
Xu Shu left in a hurry but he turned back halfway and recommended Zhuge Liang to Liu Bei before leaving again. When he arrived in Xu, he was shocked to discover that he had been tricked. His mother was furious over her son's failure to discern between truth and deception, and she committed suicide in frustration. Xu Shu remained by Cao Cao's side, but he swore never to give advice to Cao Cao.
- (魏略曰：庶先名福，本單家子，少好任俠擊劒。中平末，甞為人報讎，白堊突靣，被髮而走，為吏所得，問其姓字，閉口不言。吏乃於車上立柱維磔之，擊鼓以令於市鄽，莫敢識者，而其黨伍共篡解之，得脫。於是感激，棄其刀戟，更踈巾單衣，折節學問。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (始詣精舍，諸生聞其前作賊，不肯與共止。福乃卑躬早起，常獨掃除，動靜先意，聽習經業，義理精孰。遂與同郡石韜相親愛。初平中，中州兵起，乃與韜南客荊州，到，又與諸葛亮特相善。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (魏略曰：亮在荊州，以建安初與潁川石廣元、徐元直、汝南孟公威等俱游學，三人務於精熟，而亮獨觀其大略。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (時先主屯新野。徐庶見先主，先主器之，謂先主曰：「諸葛孔明者，卧龍也，將軍豈願見之乎？」先主曰：「君與俱來。」庶曰：「此人可就見，不可屈致也。將軍宜枉駕顧之。」由是先主遂詣亮，凡三往，乃見。) Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (曹公以江陵有軍實，恐先主據之，乃釋輜重，輕軍到襄陽。聞先主已過，曹公將精騎五千急追之，一日一夜行三百餘里，及於當陽之長坂。先主棄妻子，與諸葛亮、張飛、趙雲等數十騎走，曹公大獲其人衆輜重。) Sanguozhi vol. 32.
- (先主在樊聞之，率其衆南行，亮與徐庶並從，為曹公所追破，獲庶母。庶辭先主而指其心曰：「本欲與將軍共圖王霸之業者，以此方寸之地也。今已失老母，方寸亂矣，無益於事，請從此別。」遂詣曹公。) Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (及荊州內附，孔明與劉備相隨去，福與韜俱來北。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (至黃初中，韜仕歷郡守、典農校尉，福至右中郎將、御史中丞。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- (逮大和中，諸葛亮出隴右，聞元直、廣元仕財如此，嘆曰：「魏殊多士邪！何彼二人不見用乎？」庶後數年病卒，有碑在彭城，今猶存焉。) Weilue annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
- Sanguo Yanyi ch. 35-36.
- Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi).
- Luo Guanzhong. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi).
- Pei Songzhi. Annotations to Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi zhu).