Li Yan (died 234), courtesy name Zhengfang, also known as Li Ping, was a military general of the state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period. He climbed to the zenith of his career when he was asked by the Shu emperor Liu Bei to be the military paramountcy and co-regent along with the chancellor Zhuge Liang for his son and successor, Liu Shan. However, during Zhuge Liang’s Northern Expeditions, Li Yan was assigned to handle logistics, and he was unable to follow Zhuge Liang’s instruction to deliver supplies in a timely manner. After his attempt to fraudulently cover his inability to follow commands, Li Yan was stripped from positions and power.
During his youth, Li Yan worked as a civil clerk in Jing Province (covering present-day Hubei and Hunan) under the provincial governor Liu Biao, and had earned himself a reputation of being competent. When the northern warlord Cao Cao launched a campaign in 208 to seize control of Jing Province, Li Yan became one of the refugees who escaped the province, and entered Yi Province (covering present-day Sichuan and Chongqing), which was under control of Liu Zhang.
Liu Zhang appointed Li Yan as the Prefect of Chengdu, and once again, Li distinguished himself on his new post. Later, when the warlord Liu Bei invaded Yi Province, Li Yan was assigned as an army controller after initial resistance proved futile. Li was supposed to repel the invading army at Mianzhu, a strategic stronghold that laid before Yi Province’s capital Chengdu; however, Li led his subordinates to surrender to Liu Bei when the latter arrived. For his timely defection, Li Yan was granted the position of “Assistant General”.
After Liu Bei conquered Yi Province, Li Yan was appointed as the “Administrator of Jianwei” (犍為太守) and as “General of Initiating Career” (興業將軍), as a follow-up solidification of the new regime. Even being a new comer, Li Yan was invited to constitute the “Shu Ke” (蜀科, the law code for Shu region) with Zhuge Liang, Fa Zheng, Yi Ji, and Liu Ba kids soccer t shirts.(Shu Ke would be the most important guidance on the legal system of future Kingdom of Shu Han). Li continued to prove his talent as a local administrator — several major civil projects were initiated and conducted under his leadership: a tunnel was dug through mount Tianshe, roads along rivers were repaired, infrastructures within his jurisdiction were decorated and rebuilt. Residents under Li Yan’s rule were pleased. However, he started to reveal his weak intra-bureaucratic relationship with his peer. Yang Hong, Li Yan’s official chief assistant, opposed one of Li’s reconstruction projects — the relocation of the Administrator’s residency. Li would not listen to Yang’s suggestion, and Yang resigned after repetitive opposition to Li’s plan. Wang Chong, General of Standard under Li Yan, was recorded to flee to Wei because he had a major fall-out with his supervisor.
In 218, while Liu Bei was wrestling control with Cao Cao over the Hanzhong region, the bandit leaders Ma Qin (馬秦) and Gao Sheng (高勝) rebelled. The rebels controlled Zizhong County and gathered several tens of thousands people to join their cause. Since the majority of the mobile forces were deadlocked in the Hanzhong frontline, Li Yan could only muster 5,000-strong local defensive forces in Jianwei refillable glass bottles, where he successfully suppressed the revolt. The leader of the Sou (叟) tribe, Gao Ding, also took this opportunity to attack Shengdao County (新道縣), but Li Yan deftly led his unit to relieve the county and repelled Gao’s aggression. For his effort, Li Yan was promoted to “General Who Assists Han” (輔漢將軍).
In 222, Liu Bei suffered a devastating defeat to the eastern warlord, Sun Quan, at the Battle of Xiaoting, and died unwillingly at Baidicheng. On his death-bed, Liu Bei specifically asked Li Yan to be a co-regent with Zhuge Liang to take care of his son, Liu Shan, and appointed Li to be the “Central Commandant” (中都護) to handle all military matters — both imperial guards and standard armies were supposed to be under his command. According to Liu Bei’s dying wish, Li Yan should be the military paramountcy within the Shu regime, but latter political development would strip him off from such a position.
When a local leader of Nanzhong, Yong Kai, rose up and claimed independence from Shu Han regime, Li Yan tried to utilize his personal influence to dissuade the former from doing so, and a total of six letters were sent, however, with no positive result. Gao Ding and Meng Huo also fanned the uprising and the campaign became a major revolution, which prompted Zhuge Liang to retaliate militarily.
After his successful southern subjugation and repair of the Wu-Shu alliance, Zhuge Liang, utilising his huge bureaucratic power and influence, carried out a series of human resource rearrangement. After prescribing several officers as palace attendants for the young emperor, Zhuge continued to spend considerable effort in strengthening the tie with Sun Quan, the powerful eastern warlord. Chen Zhen, a close associate of Zhuge Liang double glass bottle, was chosen by the latter as the ambassador to congratulate Sun Quan’s enthronement. Before his departure, Chen told Zhuge that “Li Yan has scales in his stomach” but Zhuge replied that he would rather praise Li Yan than to attack him because the situation had not been settled. Around 216, Zhuge Liang attempted to replace Wei Yan, the area commander of Hanzhong assigned by Liu Bei, with Li Yan. Li was the acting area commander of the eastern front at the time, so such a move transferred him form the east to the north without technically changing his rank; however, Li Yan would not perceive thus. On the other hand, Li Yan suggested Zhuge Liang to create a new province with five commandaries of Ba region, and recommended himself to be the Inspector of the province. Zhuge Liang did not listen to Li Yan’s advice neither. In the following years, Li Yan and Zhuge Liang shared a competitive, yet cooperative relationship. Li Yan once sent a letter to Zhuge Liang, stating the latter should receive the nine bestowments, and suggested Zhuge to ascend kingship; Zhuge Liang replied that he would do so after Shu’s rival state Cao Wei was destroyed.
In August 230, the Wei general Cao Zhen launched a punitive campaign against Shu in retaliation to Zhuge Liang’s previous attacks. Li Yan was urged by Zhuge Liang to lead 20,000 soldiers to Hanzhong for the defense. However, Li Yan did not want to leave his home-base and work under Zhuge Liang, so he told the latter that he should have the right to open an office (just like Zhuge) as a co-regent. Zhuge Liang denied Li Yan’s request, but appeased him that his son, Li Feng, would replace him as the eastern commander should he go to the north. Li Yan finally went to Hanzhong under persuasion and pressure from Zhuge Liang.
Wei aggression came to a cessation after continuous rainfall had encumbered its advance. However, Li Yan was not acquitted to go back to the east; instead, Zhuge Liang included Li Yan as a member of his cabinet, granting the latter access to the chancellor office to help prepare for future expeditions against Wei. Thus, Li Yan changed his name to “Li Ping”, compromised on Zhuge Liang’s war plan, and accepted the role of a logistic officer for Zhuge’s fourth northern expedition.
As the fourth expedition dragged on for months, Zhuge Liang and the Wei general Sima Yi had been having a series of battles around Mount Qi, and both sides needed backup supplies. However, the great shower around the area rendered the transportation line impassable, and Li Yan failed to provide supplies to Zhuge Liang’s camp. Instead of informing Liu Shan of the situation, Li Yan attempted to cover up his failure. Li Yan sent a letter to Zhuge Liang, informing the commander of the logistic problem, and asked the latter to return. When Zhuge Liang got back to Hanzhong, Li Yan purposefully told Zhuge that the food supply was ready and questioned why Zhuge Liang had retreated. At the meantime, Li Yan sent Liu Shan a memo which says “the army feigned retreat in order to lure the enemy to do battle” in hope that Zhuge Liang would resume the war so his failure to transport ration would go unnoticed.
However, Zhuge Liang absolved himself from the campaign, and returned to Chengdu to deal with Li Yan. On the way back to Chengdu from Hanzhong, Zhuge Liang did not reprimand Li Yan, but the former secretly preserved the latter’s letter. When the returning officers greeted the emperor at the imperial palace, Zhuge Liang showed Liu Shan the handwritten letter of Li Yan, so the defendant could not deny his fault. Then, Zhuge Liang asked Liu Shan to strip Li Yan off all of his prestige titles and official posts and exile Li to Zitong commandery. There, Li Yan lived the rest of his life as a civilian until he heard the news of Zhuge Liang’s death at 234, wherein he fell ill and died goalkeeper clothing.