Gongsun Zan 公孫瓚 was a the magistrate of Beiping commandery during Later Han. He was a student of Lu Zhi 盧植 once, along with his friend Liu Bei 劉備. He became a rival of Yuan Shao during the 190's and frequently engaged in battles wih him.


Gongsun Zan’s hometown was Liaoxi commandery in You province. Gongsun Zan’s birth was controversial as his father came from an important family whilst his mother was of common origin. He was considered good looking and was skilled in debate having received a good education from Lu Zhi (where he met Liu Bei) and Liu Kuan. Zan held a local appointment in Liaoxi commandery and came to the attention of the Grand Administrator Hou and he married his daughter. He then travelled for his aforementioned education before taking up another local post as a Reporting Officer.

The new administrator fell out of favour with the court, however Zan remained loyal to him. He accompanied Liu Ji to the imperial court in Luoyang and made sacrifices in the hops of his restoration to post. However Liu Ji was exiled to Rinan commandery. Rather than be tarnished by his association with Liu Ji this bolstered his local reputation for loyalty. This led to him being recommended as a Filially Pious and Incorrupt candidate.(1)

This was the most common route of entry in to the Higher echelons of the Imperial Government. This appointment meant that Gongsun Zan spent a period of time as a Gentlemen Cadet as a ceremonial guard to the Emperor. This meant that the Emperor personally met all those who would be serving in the higher offices of his court and allowed him to assess their abilities and whether they should be trusted with a post. However by this time it was largely just ceremony and virtually no-one was rejected after serving their time as a candidate.(2)

Following Zan’s time with the Emperor he returned as an assistant magistrate of a county in Liaodeng. The county was troubled by Wuhuan and Xianbi raiders and so Zan led a force against them. This cavalry army was famously made up off archers riding on white horses. He was sacked from his post when he lost many of his force in an attack where he was heavily outnumbered. However his reputation survived amongst his enemies where he was feared and this led to them stopping their raids. According to legend they used his image as target practise in training.(3)

Service under Meng YiEdit

Gongsun Zan was recalled to service as a magistrate in Zhuo.(4) However in 187AD Zan was appointed a Cavalry commandment and given a force of 3,000 Wuhuan men from Youzhou to help suppress Han Sui’s rebellion in Liangzhou. Zhang Chun (prefect of Zhongshan) was angry at being overlooked for the position. So before Gongsun Zan could take part in the campaign Zhang Chun rebelled along with Zhang Ju (Prefect of Tiashan) and Qiuliju who was a tribal leader of the Wuhuan. They seized control of Youbeiping and Liaoxi. With a force of over 100,000 men Zhang Ji declared himself Emperor and Chun the King of Anding.

In response to this threat the Imperial Court redirected Gongsun Zan to fight against the rebels and appointed Meng Yi above him as a General of the Gentlemen of the Household. The early skirmishes in 188AD went in Yi and Zan’s favour and they drove them deep into Xianbei territory.(5)

It appears that with just his own initial 3,000 man cavalry force made up of Wuhuan who stayed loyal Gongsun Zan continued to advance. However he pursued them too far and was surrounded in a fort in Liaoxi. Meng Yi subsequently disappears from history and it would seem possible that he was also under attack during this time and died.(6)

After about 200 days Zan was able to escape however he suffered heavy losses (thought to be between 50-60% of his force(7) in the process. Despite this he was promoted to Colonel, had his command increased to 10,000 men and was made Marquis. His reputation amongst the Wuhuan tribes for bravery ferocity was enhanced by these events.(8)

Liu Yu’s appointment and peace with the WuhuanEdit

The Imperial Court appointed the scion of the Imperial House Liu Yu as the Inspector of Youzhou with a brief to pacify the northern border. Liu Yu decided to pursue a peaceful approach and offered Qiuliju an amnesty in return for Zhang Chun’s head.(9) Gongsun Zan disagreed with this approach and argued his point to Liu Yu however he was ignored.(10) Yun speculates that this may have been because he wanted revenge against the Wuhuan for his earlier losses(11).

After Liu Yi dismissed his objections Zan took drastic action and had the emissary from Qiuliju assassinated before he could meet Liu Yu. However despite these attempts to derail the peace process Qiuliju submitted to the court.(12) However Liu Yu realised what happened and with the permission of the court withdrew all the forces from the border other than Gongsun Zan’s now personally loyal force of 10,000 men.(13) Soon after Dong Zhuo seized power in the capital and made Liu Yu Grand marshal and promoted Gongsun Zan to the rank of General and gave him Marquis of a larder territory in Guanyang which was south of Youbeiping the capital of the You province.(14) In 189AD Zhang Chun was murdered by one of his house guests called Wang Zheng whilst Zhang Ju fled further north and was never heard of again.(15)