Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign

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Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign
Part of the wars of the Three Kingdoms period
花戏楼 木雕 诸葛亮征南蛮.jpg
Wooden diorama in Huaxilou, Bozhou, Anhui depicting Zhuge Liang's campaign against the Nanman
DateSpring – Autumn 225
Nanzhong (covering present-day Yunnan, Guizhou and southern Sichuan), China
Result Shu Han victory
Shu Han Shu rebels,
Commanders and leaders
Zhuge Liang
Ma Zhong
Li Hui
Yong Kai 
Zhu Bao
Gao Ding
Meng Huo Surrendered
Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign
Traditional Chinese諸葛亮南征
Simplified Chinese诸葛亮南征
War of Pacification in Nanzhong
Traditional Chinese南中平定戰
Simplified Chinese南中平定战
Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign

Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign, also known as the War of Pacification in Nanzhong, was a military campaign which took place in 225 during the early Three Kingdoms period (220–280) of China. It was led by Zhuge Liang, the Imperial Chancellor of the state of Shu Han, against opposing forces in the Nanzhong region (covering parts of present-day Yunnan, Guizhou and southern Sichuan). The campaign was a response to rebellions started by local governors in the Nanzhong region and intrusions by the Nanman (literally: "southern barbarians").


In October 222,[1] Liu Bei, the founding emperor of Shu, lost the Battle of Xiaoting against Shu's ally-turned-rival state Wu. He died in Baidicheng (in present-day Fengjie County, Chengdu) in June 223.[2]

Yong Kai's rebellion[edit]

Yong Kai (雍闓), a descendant of Yong Chi (雍齒) and a tribal chief active in the Nanzhong region, heard about Liu Bei's death and started a rebellion against Shu rule. He killed Zheng Ang (正昂), the Shu-appointed Administrator of Jianning Commandery (建寧郡; around present-day Qujing, Yunnan), and took Zheng Ang's successor Zhang Yi hostage. The Shu general Li Yan wrote a total of six letters to Yong Kai to dissuade him from rebelling, but Yong Kai arrogantly replied: "I heard that the sky cannot have two suns and the land cannot have two rulers. Now, from a distance away, I see that the Empire has been divided into three, so I am fearful and confused and do not know whom to pledge allegiance to."[3]

Under urging from Shi Xie and the Wu general Bu Zhi, Yong Kai agreed to pledge allegiance to Wu and he sent Zhang Yi as a captive to the Wu emperor Sun Quan to express his sincerity. In return, Sun Quan appointed him as the Administrator of Yongchang Commandery (永昌郡; covering parts of present-day western Yunnan), which was then guarded by the Shu officials Lü Kai and Wang Kang (王伉). When Yong Kai showed up to take control of Yongchang, Lü Kai and Wang Kang refused to recognise his legitimacy and led both the local government and civilians alike to resist Yong Kai and prevent him from entering Yongchang. Yong Kai then repeatedly wrote letters to them in an attempt to convince them that he was the rightful Administrator, but Lü Kai refuted Yong Kai's claims and managed to retain control over Yongchang because the people of Yongchang highly regarded and trusted him.[4]

Rebellions by Gao Ding and Zhu Bao[edit]

Around 223, as Shu was still mourning Liu Bei's death, Zhuge Liang, the Imperial Chancellor and regent of Shu, decided to focus on domestic policy to promote stability and accumulate resources before using military force to quell the uprisings in the Nanzhong region. At the same time, he also sent Deng Zhi and Chen Zhen as diplomats to Wu to meet Sun Quan and convince him to make peace with Shu and rebuild the Shu–Wu alliance against their rival state, Wei.[2]

In the meantime, Gao Ding (高定; or Gao Dingyuan 高定元), the chief of the Sou tribe (叟族) in Yuexi/Yuesui Commandery (越巂郡; around present-day Xichang, Sichuan) heard about Yong Kai's rebellion and decided to join, so he killed Jiao Huang (焦璜), the Administrator of Yuexi/Yuesui appointed by the Shu government. While Zhuge Liang was planning for a military campaign against the rebels, he appointed Gong Lu as the new Administrator of Yuexi/Yuesui and sent him there to make preparations in advance. However, Gong Lu ended up being killed by Gao Ding.[2]

Around the same time, Zhuge Liang also sent an official, Qi Xing (頎行), to conduct an investigation in Zangke Commandery (牂柯郡; around present-day Guiyang or Fuquan, Guizhou). Upon arriving in Zangke, Qi Xing detained all the lower-ranked officials for questioning. Zhu Bao (朱褒), the Shu-appointed Administrator (太守) of Zangke, had heard of the rebellions in the neighbouring Jianning and Yuexi/Yuesui commanderies, so he killed Qi Xing and joined the rebels.[2]

Involvement of Meng Huo and the Nanman[edit]

After failing to capture Yongchang Commandery from Lü Kai and Wang Kang, Yong Kai turned to the Nanman tribes for help but they were unwilling to listen to him. Yong Kai then sought help from Meng Huo, a local leader with much influence and popularity among the Nanman. Meng Huo lied to the Nanman that the Shu government had made unreasonable demands from them and successfully incited them to rebel against Shu rule.[2]

Pacifying Nanzhong[edit]

In the spring of 225, after Shu rebuilt its alliance with Wu against their rival state Wei, Zhuge Liang, the Imperial Chancellor of Shu, personally led Shu imperial forces south to pacify the Nanzhong region and quell the rebellions. Wang Lian, Zhuge Liang's chief clerk, attempted to dissuade him from participating in the campaign, but Zhuge Liang insisted because he was worried that the Shu generals might not be competent enough to deal with the rebels on their own.[5]

Ma Su, a close aide of Zhuge Liang, suggested that they focus on psychological warfare (i.e. winning the hearts of the people in Nanzhong) rather than conventional warfare, so as to prevent rebellions from breaking out again. Zhuge Liang readily accepted Ma Su's advice.[6]

The Shu emperor Liu Shan awarded Zhuge Liang a ceremonial axe and held a grand ceremony to see him off on the campaign: attendants bearing parasols made of feathers walked in front of and behind him, an entourage of 60 huben imperial guards escorted him, while drums rolled and trumpets blared in the background.[7]

The Shu army travelled along a water route from Anshang County (安上縣; present-day Pingshan County, Sichuan) to Yuexi/Yuesui Commandery and entered the Nanzhong region. In response, Gao Ding and Yong Kai constructed several forts in Maoniu (旄牛; present-day Hanyuan County, Sichuan), Dingze (定筰; present-day Yanyuan County, Sichuan) and Beishui (卑水; southeast of present-day Zhaojue County, Sichuan) counties. Zhuge Liang then led the Shu army to Beishui County, where he hoped the rebels would converge so that he could defeat all of them in one battle. During this time, Gao Ding's subordinate(s) killed Yong Kai.[8] Zhuge Liang then used the opportunity to strike back and defeated Gao Ding.

Zhuge Liang then ordered Ma Zhong to lead troops southeast from Bodao County (僰道縣; present-day Yibin, Sichuan) to attack Zangke Commandery, and Li Hui to lead troops southwest from Pingyi County (平夷縣; northeast of present-day Bijie, Guizhou) to attack Jianning Commandery. When Li Hui reached Kunming, he lost contact with Zhuge Liang and ended up being surrounded by the rebels, who had twice as many men as he did. Li Hui then lied to the rebels, saying that he actually wanted to join them. Just as the rebels believed him and lowered their guard, he used the opportunity to strike back and move south to Panjiang (槃江) to meet up with Ma Zhong, who had just defeated Zhu Bao's rebel forces and recaptured Zangke. Ma Zhong and Li Hui's units rendezvoused with Zhuge Liang's main army[9] and prepared to attack Meng Huo, who incorporated the remnants of the rebel forces into his own.[10]

Zhuge Liang knew that Meng Huo was popular and respected among the locals in the Nanzhong region, so he wanted to let him live. After Meng Huo was captured, Zhuge Liang showed him around the Shu camp and asked him what he thought. Meng Huo replied: "Before this, I knew nothing about your army, which was why I lost. Now that you have shown me around your camp, I know the conditions of your army and will be able to defeat you easily." Zhuge Liang laughed, released him and allowed him to return for another battle. The same cycle repeated for a total of seven times. On the seventh time, Meng Huo surrendered and told Zhuge Liang: "Sir, you have shown me Heaven's might. The people of the south will never rebel again." Zhuge Liang then led his forces towards Dian Lake in triumph.[11][12]


After pacifying the four commanderies of Yizhou (益州; a.k.a. Jianning 建寧), Yongchang (永昌), Zangke (牂柯) and Yuexi/Yuesui (越巂), Zhuge Liang reformed the administrative divisions to create another two commanderies, Yunnan (雲南) and Xinggu (興古), to improve the quality of the local governments in the Nanzhong region. He wanted to allow the people to self-govern those lands instead of appointing non-locals as the governors. He pointed out the problems with leaving non-locals in charge: The people in Nanzhong had recently lost their loved ones in the battles and might still harbour bitter feelings towards the Shu government; if they had non-locals to govern them, they might feel even more resentful and choose to rebel again; if non-locals were put in charge, the Shu government would need to station troops in the area to protect them.[13][14]

Before completely withdrawing all Shu soldiers from the Nanzhong region, Zhuge Liang told Meng Huo and the other local leaders that he only required them to pay tribute to the Shu government in the form of gold, silver, oxen, warhorses, etc. He appointed locals such as Li Hui (from Jianning Commandery) and Lü Kai (from Yongchang Commandery) as commandery administrators. These commandery administrators were different from their predecessors in the sense that they only served as representatives of the Shu government in the region; the locals were governed by their respective local leaders and tribal chiefs.[15]

The people in Nanzhong never rebelled against Shu rule again for as long as Zhuge Liang was still alive.[16]

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms[edit]

Although historical records mentioned that Zhuge Liang captured and released Meng Huo a total of seven times throughout the campaign, no details were provided. The 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which romanticises the events before and during the Three Kingdoms period, spends a total of about four-and-a-half chapters (87 to 91) fleshing out the details of each of the seven battles. It includes numerous fictional characters associated with Meng Huo, such as Lady Zhurong (Meng Huo's wife), Meng You (Meng Huo's brother) and other Nanman chieftains such as King Mulu and King Duosi. Apart from this, in the novel, the Shu generals Zhao Yun, Wei Yan and Ma Dai actively participate in the campaign, even though historically there is no mention about their involvement.

  1. First battle: Zhao Yun leads his troops to attack Meng Huo and defeats his army. Wei Yan captures Meng Huo and brings him before Zhuge Liang. When Meng Huo complains that he was captured through trickery, Zhuge Liang releases him and allows him to return for another battle.
  2. Second battle: Meng Huo builds a series of fortifications across a river and taunts the Shu forces to attack him. Ma Dai cuts off his supply route and kills Jinhuan Sanjie, Meng Huo's subordinate who was protecting the river fortifications. Ahuinan and Dongtuna, two of Meng Huo's subordinates, betray their master, capture him and hand him over as a prisoner to Zhuge Liang. Like before, Meng Huo complains that he had did not have a chance to fight the enemy fair and square. Zhuge Liang then shows him around the Shu camp before releasing him.
  3. Third battle: Meng Huo's younger brother Meng You pretends to surrender to Zhuge Liang and lure Meng Huo into a trap. However, Zhuge Liang knows it is a ploy so he also pretends to play along, captures both of them in the trap, and releases them again.
  4. Fourth battle: When Meng Huo hears that the Shu army is planning to retreat, he gathers all his troops and attacks the Shu camp. He falls into the pit traps in the camp and ends up being captured again. Zhuge Liang releases him once more.
  5. Fifth battle: Meng Huo, having learnt his lesson from his previous defeats, adopts a more defensive stance. He lures the Shu forces into the poisonous marshes around the caves of his ally, King Duosi. However, Zhuge Liang manages to avoid the dangers of the marshes with the help of Meng Jie, Meng Huo's elder brother who does not participate in Meng Huo's rebellion against Shu. The Shu forces then defeat and kill King Duosi and capture Meng Huo again. Like before, Zhuge Liang releases Meng Huo again.
  6. Sixth battle: Meng Huo's wife Lady Zhurong joins the battle and captures the Shu generals Ma Zhong and Zhang Ni. Ma Dai defeats Lady Zhurong later and captures her. Zhuge Liang releases Lady Zhurong in exchange for Ma Zhong and Zhang Ni. Meng Huo then turns to his ally King Mulu for help. King Mulu has the ability to control wild animals and direct them in battle. However, the Shu army is prepared for this and they use fire-breathing contraptions (referred to as juggernauts in some translations) to scare away the animals. King Mulu is killed in battle and Meng Huo ends up being captured again, but Zhuge Liang releases him once more.
  7. Seventh battle: Meng Huo turns to another ally, Wutugu, for help. Wutugu's soldiers wear a special type of armour made of rattan which can deflect sharp blades and arrows. Zhuge Liang comes up with a plan for Wei Yan to lure Wutugu and his army into a trap in a valley, where explosives and fire traps have been set. The flammable rattan armour catches fire easily and Wutugu and his army completely perish in the valley. Meng Huo is captured once more. This time, he feels ashamed of himself and decides to surrender to Zhuge Liang and swear allegiance to Shu for the rest of his life.

In popular culture[edit]

A popular legend tells of how Zhuge Liang invented the mantou, a kind of steamed bun, during this campaign. It probably rose from the fact that the name mantou (馒头; 饅頭; mántóu) is homonymous with mantou (蛮头; 蠻頭; mántóu; "barbarian's head"). The story tells that, on the way back after the campaign, Zhuge Liang and the Shu army came to a swift-flowing river which defied all attempts to cross it. Locals informed him that the he must sacrifice 50 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river deity, who will then allow them to cross. As Zhuge Liang did not want to cause further bloodshed, he ordered buns shaped roughly like human heads – round with a flat base – to be made and thrown into the river. After a successful crossing, he named the bun "barbarian's head", which evolved into the present-day mantou.

The southern campaign has been reenacted in a number of video games, including Koei's Dynasty Warriors series and Sangokushi Koumeiden. Both follow the events described in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the player can defeat Meng Huo up to seven times. A whole chapter (out of five) is dedicated to this campaign in Sangokushi Koumeiden.


  1. ^ Sima (1084), vol. 69.
  2. ^ a b c d e Sima (1084), vol. 70.
  3. ^ (都護李嚴與闓書六紙,解喻利害,闓但答一紙曰:「蓋聞天無二日,土無二王,今天下鼎立,正朔有三,是以遠人惶惑,不知所歸也。」其桀慢如此。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  4. ^ (... 而郡太守改易,凱與府丞蜀郡王伉帥厲吏民,閉境拒闓。闓數移檄永昌,稱說云云。凱荅檄曰:「天降喪亂, ... 惟將軍察焉。」凱威恩內著,為郡中所信,故能全其節。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  5. ^ (時南方諸郡不賔,諸葛亮將自征之,連諫以為「此不毛之地,疫癘之鄉,不宜以一國之望,冒險而行」。亮慮諸將才不及己,意欲必往,而連言輒懇至,故停留者乆之。) Sanguozhi vol. 41.
  6. ^ (漢諸葛亮率衆討雍闓,參軍馬謖送之數十里。亮曰:「雖共謀之歷年,今可更惠良規。」謖曰:「南中恃其險遠,不服久矣;雖今日破之,明日復反耳。今公方傾國北伐以事強賊,彼知官勢內虛,其叛亦速。若殄盡遺類以除後患,旣非仁者之情,且又不可倉卒也。夫用兵之道,攻心為上,攻城為下,心戰為上,兵戰為下,願公服其心而已。」亮納其言。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.
  7. ^ (詔賜亮金鈇鉞一具,曲蓋一,前後羽葆鼓吹各一部,虎賁六十人。事在亮集。) Zhuge Liang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  8. ^ (及丞相亮南征討闓,旣發在道,而闓已為高定部曲所殺。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  9. ^ (先主薨,高定恣睢於越嶲,雍闓跋扈於建寧,朱襃反叛於䍧牱。丞相亮南征,先由越嶲,而恢案道向建寧。諸縣大相糾合,圍恢軍於昆明。時恢衆少敵倍,又未得亮聲息,紿謂南人曰:「官軍糧盡,欲規退還,吾中間乆斥鄉里,乃今得旋,不能復北,欲還與汝等同計謀,故以誠相告。」南人信之,故圍守怠緩。於是恢出擊,大破之,追犇逐北,南至槃江,東接䍧牱,與亮聲勢相連。) Sanguozhi vol. 43.
  10. ^ (漢諸葛亮至南中,所在戰捷。亮由越巂入,斬雍闓及高定。使庲降督益州李恢由益州入,門下督巴西馬忠由牂柯入,擊破諸縣,復與亮合。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.
  11. ^ (漢晉春秋曰:亮至南中,所在戰捷。聞孟獲者,為夷、漢所服,募生致之。旣得,使觀於營陣之間,曰:「此軍何如?」獲對曰:「向者不知虛實,故敗。今蒙賜觀看營陣,若祇如此,即定易勝耳。」亮笑,縱使更戰,七縱七禽,而亮猶遣獲。獲止不去,曰:「公,天威也,南人不復反矣。」遂至滇池。) Han Jin Chunqiu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  12. ^ (孟獲收闓餘衆以拒亮。獲素為夷、漢所服,亮募生致之,旣得,使觀於營陳之間,問曰:「此軍何如?」獲曰:「向者不知虛實,故敗。今蒙賜觀營陳,若祇如此,卽定易勝耳。」亮笑,縱使更戰。七縱七禽而亮猶遣獲,獲止不去,曰:「公,天威也,南人不復反矣!」亮遂至滇池。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.
  13. ^ (南中平,皆即其渠率而用之。或以諫亮,亮曰:「若留外人,則當留兵,兵留則無所食,一不易也;加夷新傷破,父兄死喪,留外人而無兵者,必成禍患,二不易也;又夷累有廢殺之罪,自嫌釁重,若留外人,終不相信,三不易也;今吾欲使不留兵,不運糧,而綱紀粗定,夷、漢粗安故耳。」) Han Jin Chunqiu annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 35.
  14. ^ (益州、永昌、牂柯、越巂四郡皆平,亮卽其渠率而用之。或以諫亮,亮曰:「若留外人,則當留兵,兵留則無所食,一不易也;加夷新傷破,父兄死喪,留外人而無兵者,必成禍患,二不易也;又,夷累有廢殺之罪,自嫌釁重,若留外人,終不相信,三不易也。今吾欲使不留兵,不運糧,而綱紀粗定,夷、漢粗安故耳。」) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.
  15. ^ (亮於是悉收其俊傑孟獲等以為官屬,出其金、銀、丹、漆、耕牛、戰馬以給軍國之用。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.
  16. ^ (自是終亮之世,夷不復反。) Zizhi Tongjian vol. 70.