In the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this campaign is memorable for at least two famous incidents: one where the previously unknown Guan Yu slays the established warrior Hua Xiong; the other where Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei battle Lü Bu — the mightiest warrior in the novel. The two scenes are often reenacted in the Chinese opera, along with other famous scenes from the novel.
Upon settling himself in the imperial court, Dong Zhuo enticed Lü Bu to slay his master Ding Yuan, another warlord summoned to Luoyang by the late He Jin, and defect. Thus Dong Zhuo grasped control of all troops in the capital.
In 190, Dong Zhuo deposed the young emperor Liu Bian and placed in the throne the younger Liu Xie as Emperor Xian. He also made himself the Chancellor of State (相國), a post abolished almost two hundred years ago. Later, in March 26, Dong Zhuo ordered the death of Liu Bian and his mother Empress Dowager He.
Dong Zhuo was an authoritarian ruler and would see fit to demolish any and all opposition. Already, Yuan Shao, once trusted by Dong Zhuo, fled the capital after a disagreement about deposing the emperor. Fearing that the powerful and resourceful Yuan would revolt, Dong heeded his advisors and named Yuan as the Grand Administrator of Bohai (勃海郡) to appease him.
At this time, Qiao Mao, the Grand Administrator of Dongjun (東郡), forged letters of accusations against Dong Zhuo and sent them around as if they were sent by the officers in the capital. Han Fu received one and decided to join Yuan Shao in his cause. Many other regional warlords east of Luoyang also joined Yuan Shao in February 190, forming the Guandong Coalition (關東聯軍, lit. Coalition East of the Pass), so named because all participants were east of Hangu Pass. The participating warlords include:
The rebel forces encamped in several places east of Luoyang, effectively surrounding the capital from the east. The whereabouts of the warlords are as follows, in relation to Luoyang:
The rebels appeared to be ready to move on the capital of Luoyang; however, the rebels were disorganized in reality, and despite Yuan Shao's title as their leader, he did not have effective command of the entire rebel force. The rebels were also hesitant to directly confront Dong's elite forces.
In Suanzao, Cao Cao took this opportunity to lead his men west to attack Dong Zhuo's forces. Followed by a detachment of Zhang Miao's soldiers led by Wei Zi (衛茲), Cao Cao's men met the enemy led by Xu Rong in the Battle of Xingyang. There, Cao Cao's soldiers were defeated, his own horse wounded, and himself hit by a stray arrow. Cao Hong offered his horse to Cao Cao while he followed Cao Cao on foot, only thus was Cao Cao able to escape. Xu Rong thought of pursuit, but decided that an attack on Suanzao would be too difficult, so he withdrew his forces as well.
Once back in Suanzao, Cao Cao proposed to have the coalition move forward so as to further threaten Dong Zhuo's forces and show the world that they are actually on the move, but Zhang Miao and the others rejected his plan. Dispirited, Cao Cao made a levy of troops and went to Yuan Shao in Henei with Xiahou Dun. Soon after Cao Cao's departure, the forces in Suanzao ran out of food and dispersed. Liu Dai, who long held a grudge with Qiao Mao, took the opportunity to kill Qiao.
Around this time, Dong Zhuo sent reputed men Han Rong (韓融), Yin Xiu (陰修), Humu Ban (胡毋班), Wu Xiu (吳修), and Wang Gui (王瑰) to Yuan Shao in an attempt to negotiate an armistice; however, Yuan Shao had all but one of them captured and murdered, leaving only Han Rong to escape because he was known for his virtue.
In the winter of 190, Dong Zhuo sent a force of some ten thousands to attack Luyang. At the time, Sun Jian's men were having a drinking party, but Sun did not stir upon hearing the news; instead, he calmly continued to pass his wine around while his troops gathered into formation. Seeing such discipline, Dong Zhuo's men turned around and retreated.
In March 191, Sun Jian moved his camp north to Liangdong (梁東), but he was outnumbered by Xu Rong there. With several dozen men, he broke through the encirclement. Seeing that his red scarf could easily identify him, Sun Jian gave it to his trusted general Zu Mao, whom Xu Rong's soldiers chased while Sun Jian escaped. Zu Mao later hung the scarf onto a half-burnt pillar, and hid himself in the tall grasses nearby. The enemies surrounded the pillar and approached cautiously till they realized they had been fooled, whereupon they retreated.
Gathering his scattered armies, Sun Jian went forward to camp in Yangren (陽人). This time, Dong Zhuo sent Hua Xiong, Hu Zhen, and Lü Bu with 5000 men to attack Sun Jian. However, Lü Bu, in charge of cavalry, was not in good terms with Hu Zhen and quarrelled with him. Sun Jian seized the opportunity to attack them, and Dong Zhuo's forces were defeated in a rout. Hua Xiong was captured by Sun Jian and was promptly executed.
At this time, someone told Yuan Shu that if Sun Jian defeated Dong Zhuo and took over the capital, he would not be controllable anymore. The doubtful Yuan Shu then ceased the food supply to Sun Jian. Sun Jian rode the hundred odd li from Yangren to Luyang in the night to see Yuan Shu, whereupon he said to the latter, "I put myself to danger in battle, first to remove the rebel (Dong Zhuo) for the country and second to avenge the deaths of your kinsmen (Yuan Shu's uncle was killed by Dong Zhuo). I have no personal grudge against Dong Zhuo. Yet you could believe slanderous talks and suspect me!" The words put Yuan Shu to shame and he immediately ordered the food supply to be delivered.
Fearing Sun Jian, Dong Zhuo sent his officer Li Jue as an emissary to seek peace and cement an alliance. Li Jue also promised Sun Jian government positions for his sons. To this, Sun Jian replied, "Dong Zhuo opposes Heaven and defies the law. Until I have killed you and all your clan, and shown your heads to the four seas, I shall not be able to die in peace. How can there be alliance with you?"
Sun Jian then led his forces to Dagu Pass (大谷), a fortified pass guarding Luoyang to the south, 90 li away from Luoyang. Dong Zhuo himself came out to fight amongst the Later Han tombs, but he was defeated and fled to Mianchi and Shan (陝), west of Luoyang. Sun Jian then continued to march into Luoyang, where he met and routed the forces of Lü Bu. Settling in, Sun Jian ordered his men to reseal the tombs of former emperors that were excavated by Dong Zhuo. It was said in the Book of Wu (吳書) by Wei Zhao that Sun Jian found the lost Imperial Seal in a well south of Luoyang and kept it for himself.
Sun then sent part of his force forward to Xin'an and Mianchi to threaten Dong Zhuo's defense positions. Dong Zhuo now sent Dong Yue (董越) to camp at Mianchi, Duan Wei (段煨) to camp at Huayin (華陰), and Niu Fu to camp at Anyi (安邑). His other commanders were spread out among the counties to block any attack from the east of the mountains. After these arrangements, Dong Zhuo led his own troops away to Chang'an.
Having repaired the imperial tombs, Sun Jian led his army back to Luyang as the ruined Luoyang was vulnerable to possible counterattacks by Dong Zhuo. The former capital of Luoyang was now abandoned by both contending forces.
Eventually, the warlords turned their attention from Dong Zhuo back to themselves: instead of uniting together to fight against a common enemy, the warlords bickered among themselves and plotted to expand their own territories.
First, Han Fu, in charge of provisions, became jealous of Yuan Shao's leadership role and gradually stopped transporting supplies to the coalition, hoping the coalition would break apart. However, Han Fu's officer Qu Yi rebelled and defeated Han Fu. Qu Yi then joined Yuan Shao. Because of this incident, Yuan Shao saw the need to secure his supply source and plotted to seize Han Fu's territory. He made a secret pact with Gongsun Zan, where Gongsun would attack Han Fu while Yuan Shao brings his soldiers into Han Fu's territory. Unsure of Yuan Shao's intentions, the frightened Han Fu handed his ownership of Ji province over to Yuan Shao.
Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, though they are half brothers (or cousins, depending on the source), did not trust each other. Eventually, Yuan Shao sent Zhou Ang (周昂) to attack Sun Jian, who was returning to Yuan Shu from Luoyang. In the Battle of Yangcheng, Zhou Ang surprised Sun Jian's camp in Yangcheng (陽城) and captured it, to which Sun sighed: "Together we raised loyal troops to save the nation. Now the rebels and bandits are almost destroyed, and yet each can act like this. Whom can I work with?"
Yuan Shu sent Gongsun Zan's half-brother, Gongsun Yue, to help Sun Jian retaliate against Zhou Ang. Although the battle was won, Gongsun Yue was hit by a stray arrow and died. Gongsun Zan held Yuan Shao responsible for his death, and declared war against Yuan Shao, leading to the Battle of Jieqiao soon afterwards.
By now the coalition had fallen to internal strife, and continued to exist in name only.
Since attacks from the east had ceased, Dong Zhuo returned to his tyrannical rule in the court. He had installed all members of his clan and relatives by marriage in high-ranking offices, even his infant sons were given ranks as marquises and played with gold seals and purple tassels. Dong Zhuo had also grown more intolerant to dissent; his officers would be killed on the spot at the utterance of the slightest offense. Eventually, court officials Wang Yun, Huang Wan (黃琬), Shisun Rui (士孫瑞), and Yang Zan (楊瓚), feeling insecure, plotted to assassinate Dong Zhuo. They managed to persuade Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo's foster son and bodyguard, to join their cause, because Dong Zhuo once threw a hand-axe at him, but more importantly, because he had an affair with one of Dong's chambermaids. (In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the chambermaid is Wang Yun's foster daughter, Diao Chan.)
In 22 May 192, Dong Zhuo was on the way to an assembly in his lavish chariot when Li Su stepped up and stabbed Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo cried out for his son, but saying "This is an imperial order," Lü Bu delivered the fatal blow. Dong Zhuo's relatives were subsequently executed while Dong Zhuo's body was left hanging in the streets. The official guarding the corpse lit a wick in Dong Zhuo's navel and it burned for days on the fats of the corpse.
Shortly after his death, many loyalists of Dong Zhuo, such as Fan Chou, Guo Si, Li Jue and others escaped, believing that their loyalty will be considered treason. Hearing of their appeal for pardon, Wang Yun, who took control of the government, said, "Of all the people who should be forgiven, these are the exceptions". Feeling outraged, they waged war with Wang Yun, only to have the Imperial Army and Lu Bu foiling them, after many defeats, the loyalists decided to change their tactics in battle.
In one battle, Fan Chou and Li Jue were diversions to subdue Lü Bu into fighting, and then all the other loyalists would take over the castle. The plan worked, as Lü Bu retreated soon after the castle was breached, and Wang Yun was killed.
Soon power turned for the loyalists, but they all were in a power struggle, just like the courts before them. Soon, all of China was again engulfed in a major civil war.
Cao Cao first borrowed from Wang Yun the Seven Gem Sword (七星劍) with the promise that he would personally assassinate Dong Zhuo. Then, on the next day, Cao Cao brought the precious sword along to see Dong Zhuo. Having much trust in Cao Cao, Dong Zhuo received the guest in his bedroom. Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo's foster son, left the room for the stable to select a fast horse for Cao Cao, who complained about his slow ride. When Dong Zhuo faced away, Cao Cao prepared to unsheath the sword. However, Dong Zhuo saw the movement in the mirror and hastily turned to question Cao Cao's intention. At this time, Lü Bu had also returned. In his desperation, Cao Cao knelt and pretended that he wanted to present the sword to Dong Zhuo. He then rode away with the excuse of trying out the new horse, and headed straight out of the capital before Dong Zhuo, who grew heavily suspicious, could capture him.
The novel has a slightly different list of participants in the coalition:
With eighteen warlords participating in the novel, the campaign is thus popularly known as "Eighteen Warlords campaign against Dong Zhuo" (十八路諸侯討董卓).
After the warlords swore allegiance to the coalition, they insisted to have Yuan Shao as the commander-in-chief, a role which Yuan Shao reluctantly accepted. Yuan Shao then made Yuan Shu in charge of provisions, and Sun Jian as the vanguard to attack Sishui Pass.
Alerted by the death of Hua Xiong, Dong Zhuo had Li Jue and Guo Si guard Sishui with 50,000 men while he himself went to Hulao Pass with Lü Bu with a force of 150,000. Seeing this, the coalition then turned around to attack Hulao Pass, hoping to strike Dong Zhuo directly.
Eight coalition leaders were sent to confront Lü Bu at his camp in front of Hulao Pass. Wang Kuang was the first to strike, and Lü Bu led three thousand men to meet Wang Kuang. Fang Yue, Wang's officer, rode out to duel Lü Bu but was soon killed by him. Lü Bu continued on, dashing Wang's army apart. Mu Shun, under Zhang Yang, and Wu Anguo (武安國), under Kong Rong, and Gongsun Zan himself also attempted to subdue Lü Bu without any success.
Riding forth on his Red Hare, his halberd in hand, Lü Bu taunted for more challengers to duel him. Wielding his Serpent Spear, Zhang Fei galloped out to fight Lü Bu. Neither could gain an advantage over the other for more than fifty bouts. Then Guan Yu, brandishing his Green Dragon Crescent Blade, dashed out to assist his oath brother. The three fighters were engaged in another thirty bouts or so when Liu Bei, holding up his Dual Swords, also joined the battle.
Like a merry-go-round, the three brothers galloped in a circle caging Lü Bu inside. Unable to face the combined efforts of his three opponents, Lǚ Bù then made a feign at Liu Bei and retreated through the resulting gap back to the pass gate. The trio chased after Lü Bu but due to the speed of Red Hare, his horse, they could not keep up with him. However, they abandoned the chase after they spotted Dong Zhuo and chased him unsuccessfully.
The coalition then proceeded to Luoyang, where Sun Jian immediately ordered his men to put out the fire while the warlords settled in Luoyang. Cao Cao proposed to chase Dong Zhuo's retreating men, but Yuan Shao denied him, saying that the soldiers need rest. Cao Cao ignored Yuan Shao's words and led his officers in pursuit of Dong Zhuo.
In Xingyang, Cao Cao met the forces of Lü Bu and while they were fighting, Dong Zhuo's generals Guo Si and Li Jue came from behind and surrounded Cao Cao. Cao Cao's forces were eventually overwhelmed and retreated. As Cao Cao's men were preparing to settle for the evening, Xu Rong surprised and scattered Cao Cao's camp. During his escape, Cao Cao was shot in the shoulder by Xu Rong and his horse was slain; however, thanks to the heroics of Cao Hong, Cao Cao returned safely to the coalition headquarters. Xu Rong chased Cao Cao in pursuit, but Xiahou Dun intercepted and killed Xu Rong on the spot. Dong Zhuo's remaining forces left Xingyang to follow Dong to Chang'an.
Unfortunately for Sun Jian, one of his soldiers went and told Yuan Shao about it, and he was heavily rewarded. At the meeting on the next day, Sun Jian cited health problems for an excuse to return to Changsha with the seal, but Yuan Shao questioned him about the seal, which Sun Jian was stunned to hear. After rounds of accusations and denials, Yuan Shao and Sun Jian's men each drew swords. They were halted by the rest of the alliance, and Sun Jian quickly rode away from Luoyang with his men. Angrily, Yuan Shao sent Liu Biao of Jing province (荊州) a letter asking him to stop Sun Jian which led to the death of Sun Jian.
The next day, Cao Cao returned to the main camp from his defeat in Xingyang. He lamented at the lack of motivation within the alliance, and left the alliance as well. Gongsun Zan told Liu Bei, "Yuan Shao is an incapable leader, and together there shall be strife, we should return", and so he and Liu Bei also pulled their forces from the alliance and returned to the north. Seeing everyone had dispersed, Yuan Shao dismantled the camps and led his soldiers back to his base.