One of the most powerful warlords of his time, Yuan Shao spearheaded a coalition of warlords against the tyrannical Dong Zhuo, who held Emperor Xian hostage in the capital Luoyang, but failed due to internal disunity. In 200, he launched a campaign against rival warlord Cao Cao but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Guandu. He died of sickness two years later in Ye. His eventual failure despite his powerful family background and geographical advantages was commonly blamed on his indecisiveness and inability to heed the advice of his advisors.
When Yuan Shao was young, he participated in saving some of the "partisans" from death or other terrible fates during the second Disaster of Partisan Prohibitions. After he entered into government service, Yuan Shao initially served as an aide to General-in-Chief He Jin and was heavily trusted by the latter. After the death of Emperor Ling in 189, He Jin and Yuan Shao jointly plotted to execute the powerful eunuch faction but the empress dowager was against the move. He Jin then summoned Dong Zhuo to lead troops into the capital Luoyang to lay pressure on the empress dowager. Meanwhile, however, He Jin was assassinated by the eunuch faction, which was then involved in a bloody clash with Yuan Shao and other followers of He Jin. The resulting power vacuum provided an excellent opportunity for Dong Zhuo to seize control of the capital when he arrived.
Dong Zhuo then discussed with Yuan Shao about his plan to depose the young successor to Emperor Ling in favor of Emperor Xian, but Yuan Shao disagreed. Relationship between the two deteriorated sharply and Yuan Shao fled the capital to Ji province (冀州, present day southern Hebei). Fearing the many connections the influential Yuan family had, Dong Zhuo then assigned Yuan Shao to governor of Bohai Commandery (勃海, in the vicinity of present day Cangzhou, Hebei) in a bid to appease the latter.
During this time, Yuan Shao and Han Fu had intended to boost the righteousness of the coalition by making Liu Yu, governor of You province (幽州, present day northern Hebei), the emperor. However, believing that it would be faithless to Emperor Xian for him to accept, Liu Yu declined the offer. By 191, the confrontation with Dong Zhuo had largely turned into a stalemate and the disunited leaders of the coalition soon disbanded.
In subsequent years, Yuan Shao achieved considerable success in consolidating his domain and absorbing the smaller powers around him. In 196 his prominent position in northern China was recognized by Emperor Xian, who granted him the position of General-in-Chief and the title of Marquis of Ye, but Yuan Shao turned them down. In 198 Yuan Shao advanced against Gongsun Zan and encircled his remaining force at Yijing (易京, present day Xiongxian County, Hebei). By early 199 Gongsun Zan had been defeated for good at the decisive Battle of Yijing and Yuan Shao held absolute power over the four provinces north of the Yellow River. Despite warnings from his advisor Ju Shou that the move could sow seeds for future trouble, Yuan Shao insisted on sending his first-born Yuan Tan away to govern Qing province (青州, present day eastern Shandong). Then, after establishing alliance with the Wuhuan tribes on the northern frontier, Yuan Shao eventually turned his attention to Cao Cao, who had been consolidating his power south of the Yellow River.
Both sides made preparations for a decisive battle, which would come to be known as the Battle of Guandu. Towards the end of 199 skirmishes were already being fought at Liyang, a major crossing point of the Yellow River. Cao Cao prepared his defenses around Guandu (官渡, northeast of present day Zhongmu County, Henan), slightly south of the river. Heavily outnumbering Cao Cao and holding large cavalry force, Yuan Shao's initial attacks almost overwhelmed his enemy's positions. A strike at Yuan Shao's supply lines in late 200, however, brought the northern army to a collapse. As many of his generals defected, Yuan Shao fled north across the Yellow River with his sons.
His first major defeat was also a decisive one. Thereafter, Yuan Shao lost the initiative and never regained it. In 202, he was again defeated, this time at Cangting (倉亭, in the vicinity of present day Yanggu County, Shandong). He died shortly after. His first wife, so filled with jealousy, killed his other five consorts and disfigured their faces to prevent them from meeting him in the underworld. True to Ju Shou's previous warning, Yuan Shao's legacy was left to contention between his eldest and youngest sons, Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang. Cao Cao was able to manipulate this internal rivalry, and by 207 had defeated both.
It is said that Cao Cao paid respect to Yuan Shao's tomb after his total annexation of his former countries, Cao Cao was showing remorse in front of his generals and made a comment that it was unavoidable for turning his former friend into an enemy.
Some believe Yuan Shao's defeat was caused by senility. They argue that it would explain how a man who managed to become for a good period of time the dominant force in China could suddenly fail so completely. It is highly likely that it was a combination of senility, inability to listen to advice and his unfortunate luck in finding such a cunning foe that was Yuan Shao's downfall.
Cao Cao had once analysed Yuan Shao before the Battle of Guandu. Cao Cao said: Yuan Shao will be defeated during the war.
These reasons Cao Cao noted were indeed true, Yuan Shao was defeated not long after this analysis.