A Qing dynasty illustration of Yan Liang
|General of Yuan Shao|
Little is known about Yan's life. The only historical records about him could be found in Chen Shou's Records of Three Kingdoms, in the biographies of Yuan Shao, Guan Yu, and Cao Cao. It was implied that Yan was one of the higher-ranking generals under Yuan Shao.
In 200, Yuan mustered an army boasting 100,000 in strength and declared to march on Xuchang, the new capital and base city of Cao Cao. To ensure a safe crossing of the Yellow River, he intended to send Yan to attack Boma (northeast of present-day Huaxian, Henan) and set a foothold on the southern bank of the river, but advisor Ju Shou's counsel that Yan was too frivolous to handle the responsibility alone. Thus, Guo Tu and Chunyu Qiong were sent to oversee Yan's operation. Before Ju was stripped of power, he was responsible for the whole army. Yuan later divided Ju's command into three hands: Ju, Guo Tao, and Chunyu were appointed military commanders.
In a counter-tactic, Cao Cao moved his main force westwards along the Yellow River, diverting Yuan Shao's army in the same direction, but sent Guan Yu and Zhang Liao east to relieve the attack on Boma. During the ensuing battle, Yan's chariot was identified by Guan, and was subsequently killed by the latter, his severed head was also brought as a token.
In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Yuan Shao gave high praise to Yan's prowess in battle. Faced with the indomitable enemy Hua Xiong, Yuan lamented, "If I had either Yan Liang or Wen Chou here, I would have nothing to fear."
This comment foreshadows the first appearance of Yan in chapter 25, where he was deployed by Yuan Shao as commander of a vanguard force to take Boma in a conflict with rival warlord Cao Cao. Cao quickly drew a light force and came to its defense. True to his lord's compliments, Yan slew two of Cao's generals, Song Xian and Wei Xu, and injured Xu Huang on the first day of encounter.
As suggested by his advisor Cheng Yu, Cao then summoned Guan Yu, whose service he had for the time being. The next day, as Yan's army lined up on the battlefield, Guan sat with Cao on a hilltop and looked down. From afar he saw Yan sitting on a chariot under the army standard. Leaping onto the Red Hare, Guan galloped straight into the enemy ranks, which broke before him like waves before a swift vessel. Before Yan could fight back, he was struck down by Guan. Guan severed Yan's head, tied it to the neck of his steed, and rode back unhindered.
- Chen Shou (2002). San Guo Zhi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7-80665-198-5.
- Luo Guanzhong (1986). San Guo Yan Yi. Yue Lu Shu She. ISBN 7-80520-013-0.
- Lo Kuan-chung; tr. C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (2002). Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-3467-9.