Ma Su
A Qing dynasty illustration of Ma Su
Administrator of Yuexi (越嶲太守)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Prefect of Chengdu (成都令)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Prefect of Mianzhu (綿竹令)
In office
? (?)–? (?)
MonarchLiu Shan
ChancellorZhuge Liang
Personal details
Yicheng, Hubei
Died228 (aged 38)[1]
OccupationGeneral, strategist
Courtesy nameYouchang (幼常)

Ma Su (190–228),[1][2] courtesy name Youchang, was a military general and strategist of the state of Shu Han in the Three Kingdoms period of China. Ma Su had conspicuous talent in military theories and was admired by the Shu chancellor Zhuge Liang. However, a tactical blunder by Ma Su at the Battle of Jieting resulted in Shu being dealt a huge defeat by Zhang He, a general of the rival state of Wei. He was a younger brother of Ma Liang.

Much dramatisation shrouds the death of Ma Su. According to his biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms along with Pei Songzhi Annotations to Records of the Three Kingdoms and Xi Zuochi's comment, Ma Su was executed on Zhuge Liang's order. Most of the cultural's depictions follow this version such as the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms as well as the Peking opera Loss of Jieting. However, in the biography of Ma Su's close friend Xiang Lang, Ma Su was said to actually attempt to escape after his defeat at Jieting, but was captured, and he may have eventually died of illness in prison before the ordered execution could be carried out.

Early life

A local of Yicheng, Xiangyang (present-day Yicheng, Hubei), Ma Su was one of the five brothers in the family, all of whom were renowned for their intellects and commonly known as the "Five Changs" as their style names all contained "Chang". Though Ma Su's elder brother Ma Liang was deemed to be the most talented among them all.[3] Together with Ma Liang, Ma Su began his service under Liu Bei around 205, when Liu Bei was still a guest of Liu Biao in Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan). In 214, when Liu Bei started his campaign against Liu Zhang into Yi Province, Ma Su followed him with the army and served as a military advisor along with Pang Tong and Fa Zheng. Ma Su must have done well since after Liu Bei's victory, he was named as the Magistrate of Mianzhu and Chengdu the capital of the recently conquered province.[4]

Since the start, Liu Bei's chief advisor Zhuge Liang had been impressed by Ma Su's expansive knowledge in military strategy.[5] At some point before 219, Ma Su was transferred to Yuexi, a troubled commandery in the south as his Administrator. Yuexi was home to numerous indigenous tribes, many of whom refused to accept Liu Bei’s authority. It was the site of a significant tribal revolt led by Gaodingyuan in 218. With help from Li Yan who bent Gaodingyuan in a battle in 218, Ma Su did well in keeping order in the commandery.[6] However, before Liu Bei died in 223, he warned Zhuge Liang that Ma Su was not as talented as he seemed and should not be given important appointments.[7] Still, Zhuge Liang did not heed the warning, and Ma Su was made a personal military consultant to Zhuge soon after Liu died. The two were very close and would often hold discussions from dawn to dusk.[8]

Southern Campaign

Main article: Zhuge Liang's Southern Campaign

During the campaign against Meng Huo, Ma Su went several tens of li to see Zhuge Liang off. Zhuge Liang told Ma Su: "It's been years since we strategized together, now I ask for your help with your wise and skilled planning." Ma Su answered to Zhuge Liang as such:

"Nanzhong relies on the distance from the capital and its difficult access, if we submit them and leave, tomorrow they would rebel again. Now that you lord are about to engage the whole state and army for a Northern Expedition against the powerful rebels. And so, the Nanzhong rebels when they learn that the authority of the government is weak while you are occupied in the north then they will immediately rebel again. However, if all the tribes with their kinds are exterminated to end future worries... That would be innhumane as this is not the way of the benevolent man and moreover, it would take a lot of time. I learned that, in the way of using troops: attacking the heart is the wisest, attacking cities is worst; psychological warfare is best, and armed warfare is the worst I hope that you my lord will focus on subduing their hearts.”

Zhuge Liang was greatly impressed and followed Ma Su's advice, many times he forgave Meng Huo in order to gain the trust of the people of the South. And so, until the end of Zhuge Liang’s life, the South did not rebel again.[9]

Performance in Jieting

Main article: Battle of Jieting

In 228, Zhuge Liang launched his Northern Expeditions against Wei, Ma Su also proposed a plot to remove Sima Yi from command by causing discord within Wei by spreading rumors that Sima Yi intended to rebel and Cao Rui then removed him from command.[citation needed] Many suggested appointing either Wei Yan or Wu Yi (吴懿) as the vanguard commander, but Zhuge Liang chose the callow Ma Su instead.[10]

Ma Su's forces encountered Zhang He's forces at Jieting. It was here that Ma Su made a serious tactical blunder. He had camped on top of a hill, believing the vantage point would provide him with a more advantageous position in terms of observation and a place of attack. The veteran general Wang Ping advised against Ma Su's decision, arguing that their water supply might be cut off and their forces surrounded. While his good counsel was rejected, Ma Su allowed Wang Ping to take 1,000 men and camp nearby the source of the Shu forces' water supply.[11]

As Wang Ping predicted, Zhang He took advantage of Ma Su's mistake by striking at the Shu camp's water supply. Scattering Wang Ping's much smaller force, he succeeded in cutting off the enemy's water supply. The parched soldiers of Shu were easily defeated when Zhang He then launched an offensive on the main camp itself. Wang Ping with only a handful of soldiers did his best to keep the retreat organized and ordered his soldiers to beat their drums loudly to create the impression that reinforcements had arrived. Zhang He believed this to possibly be a sign of an ambush and so he did not pursue. When Zhuge Liang arrived, he attempted to defeat Zhang He however he didn't find a way to take a position and so the Shu army had to retreat to Hanzhong.[12]

Records on Ma Su's death

Kongming shedding tears as he subjects Ma Su to execution
Kongming shedding tears as he subjects Ma Su to execution

Though he survived the battle, Ma Su's army was nearly annihilated (Wang Ping was able to regroup some scattered forces), so he was soon arrested and sentenced to execution by a reluctant and tearful Zhuge Liang.[13][a] As a way to soothe the masses.[14] Before his execution Ma Su wrote a letter to Zhuge Liang:

"You wise lord regarded me like a son and myself looked upon you as a father. I dearly hope that this is the righteousness of the execution of Kun leading to the rise of the state of Yu (禹). May our whole life's relationship not be reduced by this. Though I shall die, I shall bear no resentments against the yellow earth."[15]

Many among the army wept greatly for Ma Su's death.[16]

When Jiang Wan later visited Hanzhong, he spoke with Zhuge Liang on this matter: "In the past, when the kingdom of Chu killed Dechen(得臣) then the joy of the Duke Wen of Jin was great. Today, the Empire has yet to be unified, however you put a man of wise counsel to death. Is it not regretful?" Zhuge Liang, in tears, answered: "The reason why the kingdom of Sun Wu (孫武) was able to end the war through the empire was that he was clear in application of laws. Thus, it was because Yang Gan(楊干) had brought confusion to laws that Wei Jiang put his charioteer to death. Now that the 'four seas' are still divided and split and war has just begun. If we again abandon the laws, then by what means shall we quell the rebels?"[17]

Xi Zuochi commented on this event and harshly criticized Zhuge Liang for Ma Su's death, he said:

"Wasn't it appropriate that Zhuge Liang failed to unify the realm? When Xun Linfu(荀林父) was defeated by the army of Chu, the Duke of Jin refused to execute him knowing his latter success would allow him to win the war. While when the King Cheng of Chu executed Dechen(得臣) ignorant of all he was doing for his country and brought his defeat. Now, Shu is situated in a remote location with less population and talent than the central plains they executed their outstanding men and have to fall back and employed lesser men. To be so severe with the talented and not apply the "principle of three defeats" while wanting to realize great enterprises, isn't that difficult? Moreover Liu Bei warned him that Ma Su shouldn't be employed in important matters. Why choose Ma Su rather than someone else? Zhuge Liang heard his warning but didn't follow it. Surely he wasn't able to refuse Ma Su. However Zhuge Liang was the chief minister of his empire and wanted to gather more resources yet he didn't evaluate the ability of each to make the correct appointments and assigned people thanks to their talent. His judgement was wrong and he ignored his lord's brilliant advice. Hence he failed and killed a man who had something to offer. After this, It seems hard to include him when speaking of the wise."[18]

Li Sheng and Zhang Xiu were also put to death with Ma Su but not Wang Ping. To the opposite, for his efforts in minimizing casualties and for trying to prevent Ma Su's actions. He was promoted to General Who Attacks Bandits. While Zhuge Liang sent a memorial to the Emperor Liu Shan requesting for him to be demoted which he was.

Another record from the biography of Xiang Lang stated that Xiang, as a close friend of Ma Su, assisted the latter in escaping by covering up Ma's jailbreak.[19] Regardless, Ma Su was deemed by Zhuge Liang to hold major responsibility for the failure of the first Northern Expedition. However Ma Su's wife and children were spared and have been well taken care of by Zhuge Liang after Ma's death. Zhuge Liang also offered personally sacrifice to Ma Su's grave.[20]

See also


  1. ^ Although the text simply says that Ma Su died (wugu 物故), the implication is clearly that he was executed.


  1. ^ a b c Ma Su's biography in Records of the Three Kingdoms stated that he died at the age of 39 (by East Asian age reckoning) in 228. (... 謖年三十九。) By calculation, his birth year should be around 190.
  2. ^ de Crespigny, Rafe (2007). A biographical dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD). Brill. p. 649. ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0.
  3. ^ (馬良字季常,襄陽宜城人也。兄弟五人,並有才名,鄉里為之諺曰:「馬氏五常,白眉最良。」良眉中有白毛,故以稱之。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  4. ^ (良弟謖,字幼常,以荊州從事隨先主入蜀,除綿竹成都令,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  5. ^ (才器過人,好論軍計,丞相諸葛亮深加器异,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  6. ^ (越希太守。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  7. ^ (先主臨薨謂亮曰:“馬謖言過其實,不可大用,君其察之!”) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  8. ^ (亮猶謂不然,以謖為參軍,每引見談論,自晝達夜。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  9. ^ (襄陽記曰:建興三年,亮征南中,謖送之數十里。亮曰:「雖共謀之歷年,今可更惠良規。」謖對曰:「南中恃其險遠,不服久矣,雖今日破之,明日復反耳。今公方傾國北伐以事彊賊。彼知官勢內虛,其叛亦速。若殄盡遺類以除後患,既非仁者之情,且又不可倉卒也。夫用兵之道,攻心為上,攻城為下,心戰為上,兵戰為下,願公服其心而已。」亮納其策,赦孟獲以服南方。故終亮之世,南方不敢復反。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  10. ^ (建興六年,亮出軍向祁山,時有宿將魏延、吳壹等,論者皆言以為宜令為先鋒,而亮違眾拔謖,統大眾在前,) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  11. ^ (与魏將張邰戰于街亭,為邰所破,士卒离散。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  12. ^ (亮進無所据,退軍還漢中。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  13. ^ (謖下獄物故,亮為之流涕。良死時年三十六,謖年三十九。) Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  14. ^ ((亮)戮謖以謝眾。) (literally (Zhuge) Liang had to execute (Ma) Su as an apology to the citizens.) Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 35, Biography of Zhuge Liang.
  15. ^ (襄陽記曰:謖臨終與亮書曰:「明公視謖猶子,謖視明公猶父,願深惟殛鯀興禹之義,使平生之交不虧於此,謖雖死無恨於黃壤也。」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  16. ^ (于時十萬之眾為之垂涕。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  17. ^ (蔣琬後詣漢中,謂亮曰:「昔楚殺得臣,然後文公喜可知也。天下未定而戮智計之士,豈不惜乎!」亮流涕曰:「孫武所以能制勝於天下者,用法明也。是以楊干亂法,魏絳戮其僕。四海分裂,兵交方始,若復廢法,何用討賊邪!」) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  18. ^ (習鑿齒曰:諸葛亮之不能兼上國也,豈不宜哉!夫晉人規林父之後濟,故廢法而收功;楚成闇得臣之益己,故殺之以重敗。今蜀僻陋一方,才少上國,而殺其俊傑,退收駑下之用,明法勝才,不師三敗之道,將以成業,不亦難乎!且先主誡謖之不可大用,豈不謂其非才也?亮受誡而不獲奉承,明謖之難廢也。為天下宰匠,欲大收物之力,而不量才節任,隨器付業;知之大過,則違明主之誡,裁之失中,即殺有益之人,難乎其可與言智者也。) Xi Zuochi's annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.
  19. ^ (朗素與馬謖善,謖逃亡,朗知情不舉,亮恨之,免官還成都。). Chen Shou. Records of Three Kingdoms, Volume 41, Biography of Xiang Lang. The quote can together with other sources be interpreted as saying that Ma deserted his army earlier, but was captured and sent to jail.
  20. ^ (亮自臨祭,待其遺孤若平生。) Xiangyang Ji annotation in Sanguozhi vol. 39.