Gan Ning (died around 220) was a military general serving under the warlord Sun Quan during the late Han Dynasty period of Chinese history. He was born in Linjiang, Ba Commandery (present-day Zhong County, Chongqing).
Early life as a pirateEdit
As a youth, Gan served under the warlord Liu Yan but revolted when the latter died. After his rebellion failed, he led a band of bandits carrying bows and crossbows to wander the lands. They wore bells about their waists and bone ornaments in their hair as a mark, causing commoners to either run or hide when they heard the ring of bells. He kept looting, robbing and killing until he decided to pursue scholarly arts in his twenties. After reading some literary texts by different philosophers, Gan sought the warlord Liu Biao's patronage, but was rejected for his background.
Service under Huang ZuEdit
Instead, he went to join Liu Biao's general Huang Zu, who was a local gentry and warlord of Jiangxia. Huang did not trust him and gave him an unworthy position. In an attack against Huang by Sun Quan's general, Ling Cao, at the Battle of Xiakou, Huang was nearly killed, and amidst the chaos and disarray, Gan fired a stray arrow that killed Ling, resulting in the safe retreat of Huang. However, the embarrassed Huang did not reward him nor respect him.
Su Fei, Gan's friend, was a trusted servant of Huang Zu, so he recommended Gan to Huang on several occasions. However, Huang refused Su's recommendation, primarily based on Gan's past, and even enticed his men to abandon Gan. Nevertheless, Gan was aware of the situation and was apprehensive, so Su asked the chieftainship of Zhu prefecture for Gan, and Huang did appoint Gan as the chief, which enabled Gan to cross the border from Zhu prefecture to join Sun Quan with several hundreds of his men.
Battle of JiangxiaEdit
Upon arrival at Sun Quan's camp, Gan was recommended by Zhou Yu and Lü Meng to meet Sun face to face. During the ensuing meeting, Gan detailed the reasons why Sun could overcome Huang Zu, and even debated with Zhang Zhao, a senior official who held a different opinion than he did, to persuade Sun to march west to destroy Huang Zu once and for all. Sun finally heeded the advice of Gan, and brought the latter with him (Gan was a staff rather than a military personnel at the time) during the Battle of Jiangxia. Even though the battle was far harder won than estimated by Gan, Huang Zu was indeed captured, and Gan was finally given a military post after the victory.
Gan then asked amnesty for Su Fei when Sun Quan specifically ordered the heads of Huang Zu and Su. Being determined to save his friend, Gan even told Sun to exchange Su's head by his in the case that Su would attempt to flee; Sun was moved by Gan's words and granted his request.
Battles against Cao Cao's forcesEdit
Historically, not many generals under Sun Quan were involved in the Battle of Red Cliffs, but Gan was definitely a participant. After a complete victory in the battle, he followed Zhou Yu to launch a campaign on Nan commandery. During the war, he told Zhou that he could lead a light force to occupy Yiling in anticipation to secure the entrance to Yi Province. He succeeded his mission, but the enemy commander, Cao Ren immediately sent five to six thousand strong cavalry to Yiling, and had him surrounded inside the city. When the Wu force got news of Gan being sieged, nearly everyone told Zhou that there were not enough men to spare as relief force. However, Lü Meng stood up and claimed Gan should be saved, and that he guaranteed Ling Tong could guard the main camp on his own for at least ten days. Thus, Gan was saved due to Lü Meng's suggestion and Ling Tong's honorable action.
Afterwards, Gan acted as the vanguard for Sun Quan to attack Wan, a city then under Cao Cao's control. Being the first one to climb the city wall, he also personally defeated the governor of Wan, Zhu Guang, with an iron chain, who was then captured. Thus, he was given the title of Rank-Breaking General, second in credit to Lü Meng for accomplishment in this battle.
Guan Yu's shallowEdit
When Lü Meng and Ling Tong took three commanderies of southern Jing Province from Guan Yu, Gan stationed his troops in Yiyang in anticipation for Guan's counterattack. Moving down from Jiangling, Guan was intercepted by Gan and Lu Su who were waiting there, then Gan told Lu Su that Guan would not even dare to engage them as long as he was present, and that he could capture Guan if he had 800 soldiers in command; on the other hand, Guan was leading 30,000 soldiers at the time, so Lu Su gave Gan 1,000 men, which he led to challenge Guan to a battle right away. Indeed, Guan did not dare to accept Gan's challenge, and because of that, the location of the incident is still called "Guan Yu's Shallow" today. After some skirmishes in southern Jing, Liu Bei received intelligence that Cao Cao was considering an invasion into Hanzhong, which was the northern gateway for Yi Province, home base of Liu. Therefore, Liu requested a border treaty with Sun, who agreed and led troops to dilute Cao's forces.
Night raid with 100 ridersEdit
Later, Sun Quan was held off by Cao Cao's general, Zhang Liao when attacking Hefei from Ruxu, and, hearing that Cao had personally come to the city's aid with a 400,000 strong army (Cao Cao's claim), Zhang Zhao, the chief staff of Sun, proposed raiding the camps of Cao's army in order to lower their morale. Gan then volunteered to perform a night raid with only 100 horsemen. Covered by the night, Gan snuck into Cao's camp, set fire everywhere, and attacked randomly. In chaos, Cao's soldiers were not sure the size and location of their opponent, so the defenders were unable to perform an effective couterattack. After generating a great chaos in Cao's main camp, Gan then returned to the camp with all 100 men. Sun Quan, pleased with his exceptional success, granted him one thousand pieces of silk and a hundred sharp swords for his 100 horsemen, and exclaimed, "Mengde (Cao Cao's style name) has Zhang Liao, and I have Xingba (Gan Ning's style name)!"
Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms provided a fictional account of Gan Ning's death during the Battle of Xiaoting, where he was killed by an arrow fired by the barbarian king Shamoke, who was Liu Bei's ally. His cause and time of death are not found in historical sources.