Gongjin did not reply to the question, but his sombre expression betrayed his thoughts.
Sun Jian’s greatest quality - and his greatest weakness - was his
fearlessness. The ‘Tiger of Jiangdong’ was willing to take risks that made his
contemporaries balk, and his first famous act - repelling a small band of
pirates single-handedly with a bluff - actually preceded his military career;
it came as no surprise, therefore, when he showed similar ‘recklessness’ during
the Yellow Turban campaign. Sun Jian and his initial allies - of whom the most
notable were the noble Huang Gai, the cautious Cheng Pu, the plain-speaking Han
Dang and Sun’s self-appointed bodyguard, Zu Mao - relieved the Yellow Turbans’
siege of Wan City in Jing Province in such a short time that people wondered
whether Sun Jian - who breached the city alone and at night to open the gates -
was sent by the heavens. The victories continued, but the rewards were slow to
materialise: ‘The men of the north’, Cheng Pu often remarked, ‘look down on the
south, so we should not hope for much’. Sun Jian was given other pacification
assignments in the wake of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, however, and gained his
first dedicated adviser in the wise Zhu Zhi as he travelled. It seemed to be
inevitable that Sun Jian would one day become a national icon - but then the
Liang Province Rebellion began.
The Imperial court had long been controlled by a small clique of elevated eunuch servants that were known as the ‘Ten Attendants’: they were corrupt and endlessly ambitious, and they had ensured that most senior roles were occupied by an ally or a person that was willing to pay their bribes. As a consequence, the rebellion in the northwest - which had, itself, resulted from local government corruption - was ‘managed’ by sending a succession of corrupt, inept or underqualified administrators and military leaders to confront the mixture of Qiang tribespeople and disaffected Han Chinese peasants.
Sun Jian should have been called upon to lead an army, but he was made a military consultant and assigned to a contemptuous Han official that ignored all of his advice. To make matters worse, Sun Jian was fighting alongside a Liang Province general that had full autonomy and was playing both sides for personal gain: his name was Dong Zhuo, and within three years he would be the self-appointed Chancellor of State and an infamous tyrant that wielded the powerless boy emperor as a puppet and a tool.
“What worries me now is ‘Excellency of Works’ Cao Cao’s future intent,” Lü
Fan admitted. “Is he the new Dong Zhuo, or is he simply misunderstood…?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about Cao,” Bofu suggested. “After all, isn’t Yuan Shao going to challenge him…? With an army that size, Cao’s a dead man… in which case, we’d be better off worrying about what kind of man Yuan Shao is, and after being a slave to his brother for most of my life, I can’t say I’m hopeful.”
“Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu are as different as they are similar,” Gongjin said. “I do not think that Yuan Shao would dare to risk his inherited place in society. But I also start to seriously doubt his ability to defeat Cao Cao, since he was none too effective against Dong Zhuo.”
“True enough,” Bofu sighed.