Chinese Idioms: Pass Five Gates and Kill Six Generals (過五關斬六將)
The phrase “過五關斬六將 (guò wǔ guān, zhǎn liù jiàng),” “to pass five gates and kill six generals” is often used to describe how strong competitors continually defeat stronger rivals, thereby upgrading their levels or becoming champions.
It originated from legends about the famous Chinese general Guan Yu, who is sometimes regarded as the “god of martial arts or war.” This story is part of the famous Chinese classic novel The Three Kingdoms, which is one the four greatest works of Chinese literature.
According to the story, Guan Yu, Liu Bei, and Zhang Fei became sworn brothers, dedicated to each other in battle and in life.
Before Liu Bei became the king of the state of Shu [Han], he was defeated in battle, and escaped with Zhang Fei to a remote region to wait for the opportunity to rise and fight again. Guan Yu was separated from them and couldn’t find them.
Cao Cao, the head of the Wei state, admired Guan Yu’s skills and righteous character. He tried all kinds of ways to win Guan Yu over and have him pledge fealty to Wei.
Guan Yu helped Cao Cao win some battles, but his heart remained loyal to his sworn brothers. He took care of Liu Bei’s two wives, who had been abducted by Cao Cao, and he never stopped trying to find Liu Bei and Zhang Fei.
As soon as he learned of Liu Bei’s whereabouts, Guan Yu left Wei, taking the two women with him to reunite them with their husband.
Cao Cao was reluctant to let Guan Yu go; however, he didn’t want the reputation that would come from killing the most famously loyal hero of the era. So, he didn’t send troops after Guan Yu, leaving his generals who guarded the forts in the remote regions to deal with him instead.
On a journey of 1,000 li (a Chinese mile) to join his brothers, he was riding alone as escort and protector of Liu Bei’s two wives. He had to pass five major, gated forts on the way to Liu Bei and Zhang Fei.
Guan Yu fought bravely and single-handedly defeated six generals who guarded the gates of the five forts. Eventually, after an arduous journey, he joined his battle brothers, reuniting them with family.
This heroic journey and the battles along the way, as well as Guan Yu’s many other warrior legends, provided inspiration for thousands of years for several popular Chinese idioms, as well as for famous stage dramas.
Today, these idioms are integrated into everyday Chinese language and widely used in daily life, news reports, and sports events to convey the idea that one must fight bravely and overcome all difficulties on the way to success.