Hailing from the west,
Ma Chao was Ma Teng's eldest son. He was gallant upon the battlefield
and earned the name "Dignified Ma Chao". At the age of 17,
he joined his father on a campaign to expel two of Dong Zhuo's unrelenting
adherents, Li Jue and Guo Si. Although Ma Chao fought valiantly, the
Ma army was forced to abandon the mission due to a lack of supplies.
The Ma clan reigned over Xiliang in prosperity.
They gained such influence that even Cao Cao felt intimidated by them.
Eventually Ma Chao's father and two brothers, Ma Xiu and Ma Tie, were
slain by Cao Cao. Ma Chao swore revenge and won the help of Han Sui,
who had been conspiring with Ma Teng to overthrow Cao Cao. Pang De supplied
the plan by which they surrounded Cao Hong in Changan for days. Finally,
Ma Chao took possession of Tong Pass, a vital northern pathway through
Cao Cao led a counterattack at the pass,
but Ma Chao fought with indomitable force. In a desperate attempt to
escape, Cao Cao tore off his distinctive robe, slashed off his beard,
bound his head in a banner and fled into the hills. Meanwhile, Cao Hong
diverted Ma Chao's pursuit. In a battle much later, Ma Chao cornered
Cao Cao on the banks of the Wei River. Once again, Cao Cao escaped,
this time with the help of Xu Chu. Jia Xu, from Cao Cao's camp, knew
that Ma Chao relied on Han Sui. Therefore, he master-minded a way to
drive them apart. By distributing contrived letters, dissension soon
grew between the two. Before Ma Chao could put a plan into action, he
fled further west and joined the nomadic clan Qiang. He captured many
of their districts, thus gaining their respect and fear; they called
him "Majestic General". However, Yang Fu resented Ma Chao
and ordered Xiahou Yuan to attack. He fled to Hanzhong where he found
refuge with Zhang Lu.
By this time Ma Chao had but one dependent
left in his family, Ma Dai. By and by Liu Bei came threatening at the
border of Hanzhong. At Zhang Lu's decree, he tried to intercept him.
Ma Chao dueled with Zhang Fei day and night but neither had an advantage.
When he was visited by Li Hui, he decided to submit to Liu Bei, as Ma
Teng had in the past. Liu Bei's men quickly took hold of the city in
Yizhou, defended by Liu Zhang. To avoid senseless bloodshed, Ma Chao
and Ma Dai pleaded with Liu Zhang and won a peaceful surrender for Liu
In Jingzhou, Guan Yu heard about Ma Chao's
meritorious deeds and suspected he was a potential rival. He wrote to
Zhuge Liang with many questions about his power. Zhuge Liang promptly
replied to protect Ma Chao from Guan Yu. He wrote, "Ma Chao has
mastered both arts of the pen and the sword, and is one of few remarkable
warriors. He is a worthy rival for Zhang Fei, but he could never compete
against you, Duke of the Beautiful Beard". The comparison pleased
Guan Yu very much.
Ma Chao wore a lion helmet, and his belt
was clasped with the shaggy head of a wild beast. His breastplate was
silver and his robe of white. As his dress and bearing were so extraordinary,
so were his abilities superior. In Shu, he was responsible for guarding
the northern border between Wei and Hanzhong. He died of illness in
his last duty, guarding the Shu-Wei border.