From 206 BC to 220AD, Imperial China was united under the rule of the Han Dynasty, considered by many to be a golden age. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the Han People, in reference to this time of unity and strength.
Dian Wei, as he appears in the Beijing Opera
Yet, if there is one universal truth in history, it is that empires don’t last forever, and often their decline is marked by turmoil. Such was the case from 189AD onward, as Han dominance waned. These years sparked numerous conflicts, and would eventually lead to the Six Dynasties period (222-589) wherein three separate kings and five different emperors took turns to try and reunify the country, with mixed results.
The years leading up to the Six Dynasties period were hard, and appropriately, they bred hard men. Perhaps the hardest of them all was a warrior said to have been gifted with superhuman strength – Dian Wei (典韦). Twin halberds were his weapons of choice (each weighing over 20 kilograms) and he used them to strike terror into the hearts of his enemies – assuming he hadn’t already cut their hearts out.
Dian Wei first distinguished himself as an all-around force of nature when serving under the warlord Cao Cao (曹操), in a campaign against the enemy general Lü Bu (吕布). In the midst of the battle, Cao Cao’s position was suddenly charged, and the warlord himself came under threat. Not a guy to take things lying down, Dian Wei reacted accordingly.
Gathering a group of men about him, Dian and his troops discarded their shields and outfitted themselves with two layers of armor. Taking up spears and halberds (Dian’s favorite) they rushed to the rescue of their beleaguered warlord.
Dian Wei has entered popular culture. Here's how he appears in the video game Dynasty Warriors.
Legend has it that as they ran across the battlefield, enemy soldiers harried Dian with arrows, but under the protection of his double-layered armor, he just kept his head down and carried on. This made it somewhat difficult to see, however, so he ordered one of his men to tell him when the enemy was ten paces away, then five paces away, then as his terrified comrade shouted “They’re here!” Dian loosed the ten or twelve spears he was holding, each one finding its quarry.
Unsurprisingly, Cao Cao was rather impressed by Dian’s ability to insert spears into enemy soldiers. He promoted Dian to Chief Commander (督尉 dūwèi) and put him in charge of his personal bodyguard.
To say that Dian took the role seriously would be an understatement. He stood guard outside Cao Cao’s tent every single day, and even when he slept, he was never far away. Supposedly, he rarely returned to his own quarters. At a dinner party with Zhang Xiu (张绣), governor of Wancheng, Dian Wei stood sentinel over Cao Cao as the warlord feasted – holding an axe with a blade over 13 inches in length (even in Imperial China, that was surely impolite). It’s said that he struck such an intimidating figure that when the other guests (all of them hardened soldiers) raised their glasses in toast, they didn’t dare look at him.
Matters took a turn for the worse when Cao Cao (quite reasonably) decided to take Zhang Xiu’s widowed aunt as a concubine. Oddly enough, Xiu was less than happy with the arrangement and plotted to take revenge. When Cao got wind of his host’s displeasure, he in turn schemed to have Xiu killed. Xiu discovered the plan and promptly declared war on his guest, beginning the Battle of Wancheng.
It would seem that Cao Cao’s ability for reacting to surprise attacks was roughly on-par with his dinner table etiquette, because Xiu’s (not at all predictable) backlash caught him unawares. Vastly outnumbered, Cao Cao retreated to the fortifications of his camp and prepared to flee. His escape needed to be covered, however.
Dian Wei stepped up.
Placing himself at the entrance to the camp, and assisted only by a few select men, Dian barred the way against the hordes of enemy soldiers. Wielding either one long halberd, or his preferred dual-halberds (sources vary) Dian took the would-be assassins head on. His fellow defenders died quickly, but the vastly outnumbered Dian continued to fight. At least twenty foes were cut down beneath his axe(s), and when he couldn’t kill with his weapons, he went ahead and grabbed two men and crushed them to death under his arms, before going on to use their bodies as weapons.
Quickly realizing that to attack Dian from the front was tantamount to suicide, the enemy sent a detachment to sneak around and attack him from behind. The bodyguard was soon surrounded, but even then he fought on. It took ten wounds to finally down him, and legend has it that he was still swearing like a madman even as breathed his last.
The Dian Wei mask, as used in the Beijing Opera
At first, Xiu’s forces refused to approach Dian’s body, for fear that he might still be alive. It took quite a while before any of them dared come near to take his head. By the time they stormed the camp, Cao Cao was long gone. Fighting against overwhelming numbers, Dian Wei had almost singlehandedly ensured his warlord’s escape.
The tale of Dian Wei should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s quite likely that the annals have exaggerated his strength and prowess, turning him into a quasi-mythical hero rather than a historical figure. His portrayal in the fictional epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms is certainly guilty of as much. Nonetheless, the legends had to come from somewhere, and if the real life Dian was even half as incredible as the sources write, he can most certainly be held up as China’s ultimate hard man.
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