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Gongsun Zan

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Gongsun Zan
A Qing dynasty illustration of Gongsun Zan
Inspector of You Province (幽州刺史)
In office
193 (193) – March 199 (March 199)
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
General of the Vanguard (前將軍)
In office
192 (192) – March 199 (March 199)
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
General of Uplifting Martial Might
In office
MonarchEmperor Xian of Han
Personal details
BornBefore 161
Qian'an, Hebei
DiedApril or May 199
Yi County, Hebei
ChildrenGongsun Xu (公孫續)
  • Gongsun Yue (公孫越) (cousin)
  • Gongsun Fan (公孫範) (cousin)
OccupationMilitary general, politician, warlord
Courtesy nameBogui (伯珪)
PeerageMarquis of Yi (易侯)
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Gongsun Zan (pronunciation) (before 161[1] - April or May 199[2]), courtesy name Bogui, was a Chinese military general, politician, and warlord who lived during the late Eastern Han dynasty.


Little is known of Gongsun Zan's early life. He and Liu Bei studied under the tutelage of Lu Zhi. At the time, the administrator of his home commandery appreciated Gongsun Zan's impressive looks and booming voice, so he arranged for his daughter to marry him. Gongsun Zan was deployed by He Jin to quash rebellions in the north which he did successfully. Following a misunderstanding with his lord, Liu Yu, Gongsun attacked Liu and killed him, thus winning control of the surrounding areas. However, contrary to popular belief, he was never formally appointed as a commandery administrator. During this time, his former classmate Liu Bei came to serve him and was allocated the city of Pingyuan to defend.

Zhao Yun displays valour in front of Gongsun Zan

To the south, the two brothers Yuan Shao in the north and Yuan Shu in the south vied for supremacy over central China. Gongsun Zan formed an alliance with Yuan Shu and sent his second cousin, Gongsun Yue, to help Yuan Shu's general, Sun Jian, retake Yangcheng. However, Gongsun Yue died in the campaign. Using this as a pretext, Gongsun Zan attacked Yuan Shao after his initial plan to gain Han Fu's lands went awry. However, Gongsun Zan was defeated by Yuan Shao at the Battle of Yijing. He committed suicide through self-immolation, after killing his sisters, wife and children.[3]


  • Gongsun Yue (公孫越), Gongsun Zan's younger second cousin. Gongsun Zan sent him with 1,000 troops and supplies to assist the warlord Yuan Shu, who was in a proxy war with his half-brother Yuan Shao. Gongsun Yue died after being hit by a stray arrow during the Battle of Yangcheng in 191 while fighting alongside Sun Jian (Yuan Shu's proxy) against Zhou Yu (Renming) (Yuan Shao's proxy). Gongsun Zan used Gongsun Yue's death as an excuse to declare war on Yuan Shao.
    • In the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Gongsun Yue is Gongsun Zan's younger brother. Gongsun Zan sends Gongsun Yue as a messenger to demand that Yuan Shao keep his promise by dividing Ji Province between him and Gongsun Zan after seizing it from Han Fu, but Yuan Shao refuses. While Gongsun Yue is on his return journey, Yuan Shao orders his men to pretend to be Dong Zhuo's soldiers and then ambush and kill Gongsun Yue. Gongsun Zan sees through Yuan Shao's ruse and subsequently declares war on him.
  • Gongsun Fan (公孫範), Gongsun Zan's younger second cousin. He leads troops from Bohai Commandery (勃海郡) to join Gongsun Zan. He also fought in the Battle of Jieqiao alongside Gongsun Zan against Yuan Shao.
  • Gongsun Xu (公孫續), Gongsun Zan's son. During the Battle of Yijing (198–199), Gongsun Zan sent him to seek reinforcements from the Heishan bandits led by Zhang Yan. They returned too late as Gongsun Zan had already been defeated by Yuan Shao and had committed suicide along with the rest of his family. Gongsun Xu later met his end at the hands of the Tuge (屠各), a Xiongnu tribe.

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms[edit]

Gongsun Zan is a character in the 14th-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which romanticises the events before and during the Three Kingdoms period of China. He leads an elite cavalry unit called the "White Riders" and has served on the northern and eastern frontiers of the Han Empire by defending the borders from incursions by various non-Han Chinese tribes. In 191, Gongsun Zan joins the coalition against Dong Zhuo, the warlord who seized power in Luoyang and holds the figurehead Emperor Xian hostage. After the coalition breaks up, he gets into a rivalry with Yuan Shao over the territories in northern China and engages him in a series of battles throughout the 190s, starting with the Battle of Jieqiao and ending with his defeat and death at the Battle of Yijing.

In the novel, Gongsun Zan is nicknamed "White Horse General" because the elite cavalry unit he leads is made up completely of horses of pure white. The reason for doing so is that he knows that the non-Han Chinese tribes consider white horses sacred animals so they will run away when they encounter an enemy unit riding white horses in battle.

In Records of the Three Kingdoms[edit]

Gongsun Zan's white horse volunteers (白馬義從) have a historical basis, and appear in the historical records as an elite mounted unit on white horses which formed the core of his fighting force. The Records of Three Kingdoms describes how their "flags and armour lit up Heaven and Earth" at the Battle of Jieqiao.

In popular culture[edit]

Gongsun Zan is one of the main playable characters of the video game Total War: Three Kingdoms, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega.[4]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ According to Liu Bei's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms, Gongsun Zan was older than Liu Bei, and Liu Bei treated Gongsun Zan like an elder brother. Since Liu Bei was born in 161, Gongsun Zan's birth year must be earlier. (瓒年长,先主以兄事之。) Records of the Three Kingdoms, vol. 32
  2. ^ According to Liu Xie's biography in the Book of the Later Han, Yuan Shao occupied Yijing (with Gongsun Zan dying in the siege) in the 3rd month of Jian'an 4. This corresponds to 14 Apr to 12 May 199 on the Julian calendar. ([建安]四年春三月,袁绍攻公孙瓒于易京,获之。) Houhanshu, vol.09
  3. ^ (紹設伏,瓚遂大敗,復還保中小城。自計必無全,乃悉縊其姊妹妻子,然後引火自焚。) Book of the Later Han vol. 73.
  4. ^ "Total War Three Kingdoms: Who are the warlords?". IGN Nordic. June 2019. Retrieved 29 January 2023.