Military authority, directing the armed forces, is the matter of the authoritative power of the leading general.
If the general can hold the authority of the military and operate its power, he oversees his subordinates like a fierce tiger with wings, flying over the four seas, going into action whenever there is an encounter.
If the general loses his authority and cannot control the power, he is like a dragon cast into a lake, he may seek the freedom of the high sea, but how can he get there?
Man from Nobility, Grand Administrator of Bohai
Yuan Shao was last great rival of Cao Cao in Northern China. He was a classic example of the Man from Nobility. Prior to the fall of the Han Empire, the Yuan family had held the highest offices of state for generations and their network of allies and clients extended across the empire. He held immense authority and prestige, and would prove to be one of Cao Cao’s greatest nemesis.
The Guandong Coalition
In AD190, after Dong Zhuo seized power and controlled the Han Empire, his tyrannical ways angered many officials throughout the Empire. In response, many regional warlords formed the Guandong Coalition, 關東聯軍. There were numerous participating warlords in the Coalition including Sun Jian, Cao Cao, Zhang Miao, Yuan Shu and Han Fu.
As the regional warlords gathered, they had to choose a chief to lead them. Here, Cao Cao spoke ‘For four generations, the highers offices of state have been filed by members of the Yuan family and their clients and supporters are everywhere. As a descendant of ancient ministers of Han, Yuan Shao is a suitable man to be our chief lord.’
Thus was Yuan Shao elected as the chief of the Guandong Coalition.
Battle of River Si Pass
Sun Jian, the then Governor of Changsha offered to lead his army of 20,000 men and challenge Dong Zhuo's forces at River Si Pass. Upon realizing the peril he faced, Dong Zhuo sent Hua Xiong, commanding approximately 10,000 men to do battle with Sun Jian.
Sun Jian was a valiant warrior and assisted by his capable generals, Huang Gai, Cheng Pu, Hang Dang and Zu Mao, they overwhelmed and forced Dong Zhuo’s forces to retreat back to the River Si Pass. Here, Dong Zhuo’s men led by Hua Xiong were too well entrenched and attacked via arrows and hail of stones which forced Sun Jian’s army to retreat back to their camp at Liangdong.
A report of victory was sent back to Yuan Shu, who was responsible for supplying food to the Coalition. With sufficient supplies, it would only be a matter of time before Sun Jian crushed Dong Zhuo’s army at River Si Pass and head directly for Luo Yang.
Alas! At this very moment, a counselor said to Yuan Shu, ‘This Sun Jian is a veritable tiger in the east. Should he take the capital and destroy Dong Zhuo, we should have a tiger in place of a wolf. Do not send him grain. Starve his troops, and that will decide the fate of that army.
Yuan Shu, jealous of the Sun Jian's achievements gave ears to the detractor and sent neither grain nor forage.
Without food, Sun Jian’s starving army was disgruntled and morale diminished rapidly. Taking advantage of this, Hua Xiong led his men and ambushed Sun Jian’s camp at night. Taken by surprise, Sun Jian’s army was thrown into confusion and fled in disorder. Although Sun Jian escaped with his very life, the Coalition had lost a golden opportunity to defeat Dong Zhuo.
Yuan Shao was the overall leader of the Coalition. Yet, he failed in the simplest of task, by appointing his incompetent brother, Yuan Shu as Chief of the Commissariat. His failure in choosing the right person for the job was the decisive factor in the Coalition's defeat at the River Si Pass. A golden opportunity to defeat Dong Zhuo and restore the Han Empire was forever lost, merely due to petty squabbles and internal rivalry.