Due to the limited historical records, many facts about Zhao Yun's life remain unclear or unknown. The original records in Chen Shou's are only a couple of hundred words long. Pei Songzhi's annotations provide a relatively clear, though still incomplete picture of Zhao Yun's life.
Zhao Yun was born in the Zhending county of Changshan province around the year 168 AD. He joined the warlord Gongsun Zan around the end of 191 or the beginning of 192 as commander of a small group of county volunteers. In 192 he was placed under the authority of Liu Bei, who at the time held only the rank of a major under Gongsun Zan, as a commander of Liu Bei’s cavalry forces. Liu Bei had a contingent of several thousand Wuhuan cavalry and Zhao Yun was put in charge of this force. Zhao Yun left Gongsun Zan and Liu Bei to attend his elder brother’s funeral soon after.
He rejoined Liu Bei in 200, when Liu Bei was defeated by Cao Cao and fled to Yuan Shao. Evidently Zhao Yun had an extremely close friendship with Liu Bei. ''Records of Three Kingdoms'' says that they slept in the same bed during the time the two were together in the city of . Around the same time, Liu Bei sent Zhao Yun to secretly recruit more men to reinforce Liu Bei’s then small army under Yuan Shao. From then on, Zhao Yun followed Liu Bei in his sojourns throughout northern China.
In Jing province
In 202, Zhao Yun participated in the Battle of Bowang against Xiahou Dun, a general serving under Cao Cao. During the battle, Zhao captured Xiahou Lan . Zhao Yun and Xiahou Lan were from the same hometown, and they had known each other since childhood. Zhao Yun went to Liu Bei and pleaded for Xiahou Lan’s life. He suggested to Liu Bei since Xiahou Lan was an expert in law, he could be appointed as an army judge. Liu Bei gave him the consent. However, Zhao Yun never kept Xiahou Lan close to him, so as to separate personal relations from official matters.
In 208, Zhao Yun distinguished himself at the Battle of Changban. When Liu Bei was fleeing in the chaos, he left his family behind. Then Zhao Yun disappeared to the north, prompting suspicion that Zhao Yun had surrendered to Cao Cao. When someone reported that to Liu Bei, Liu Bei angrily threw a handaxe and said "Zilong would never desert me". Sure enough, Zhao Yun came back with Liu Bei's infant son Liu Shan in his arms, also bringing back his wife Lady Gan. With this, Zhao Yun was promoted to General of the Standard .
After the Battle of Red Cliffs, Zhao Yun played a major role in conquering territories of Jiangnan for Liu Bei. He was named a major-general and was appointed the Grand Administrator of , replacing Zhao Fan. Zhao Fan had a widowed sister in-law, , whose tremendous beauty supposedly could ruin countries and cities. He proposed her to Zhao Yun. However, Zhao Yun politely turned Zhao Fan down, “I share the same surname as you. Therefore I consider your brother my brother.” Many people thought it would be a great match and suggested to Zhao Yun that he should take Lady Fan as his wife. Zhao Yun explained to them, “Zhao Fan surrendered only recently. His intentions are not yet clear. Besides, there are plenty of women in this world.” In the end, he did not marry Lady Fan. His worries turned out to be true; Zhao Fan later fled from Guiyang.
When Liu Bei entered the , he appointed Zhao Yun as the main officer to oversee his base in Gong'an . Liu Bei’s wife then was , Sun Quan’s sister. Emboldened by her brother’s power and influence, she and her militia often ran wild, breaking many laws. Liu Bei considered since Zhao Yun was serious, firm and unwavering, he must be able to bring everything under control and maintain order. Therefore, Liu Bei gave Zhao Yun the special authority to oversee the internal affairs of Gongan . Soon after Liu Bei left the Jing province, Sun Quan secretly summoned his sister back. Lady Sun decided to bring Liu Shan along with her, but Zhao Yun and Zhang Fei managed to stop her in time on the Yangtze River and rescued the young lord.
Later in 214, Zhao Yun accompanied Zhang Fei and Zhuge Liang into Shu. He held separate command, marching from Jiangzhou via Jiangyang and Jianwei to Chengdu. Zhao Yun was named General Yijun after Liu Bei claimed Chengdu. Around that time some people made suggestions to Liu Bei that all the generals should be awarded estates/plantations around Chengdu so they could settle in. Zhao Yun argued that it was more suitable to return these properties to the local people. Liu Bei accepted his advice.
Battle of Hanshui
In 219, Liu Bei and Cao Cao were battling over the control of Hanzhong. Cao Cao had huge supplies of rice stocked up near the North Mountain. Zhao Yun sent his soldiers with Huang Zhong, one of Liu Bei’s great generals, to attack Cao Cao’s army and to take the supplies. Huang Zhong did not return on time. Zhao Yun along with a dozen men, went out of camp to look for Huang Zhong. Cao Cao’s main force was marching at that time; Zhao Yun ran into Cao’s vanguards. Not soon after the two sides commenced to engage in battle, Cao Cao’s main force arrived. The situation became very perilous for Zhao Yun, as he and his men were greatly outnumbered. He decided to attack the frontline of Cao Cao’s army. Cao Cao’s men were surprised by the attack and momentarily dispersed. However, they soon regrouped and surrounded Zhao Yun. Zhao Yun fought his way out toward his own camp. When he found out his lieutenant general Zhang Zhu was wounded and fell behind, he went back to rescue him.
Cao Cao's army pursued Zhao Yun to his camp. At that time, the Administrator of Mianyang , , was at Zhao Yun’s camp. Zhang Yi thought it best to have all the gates closed in order to defend the camp. However, upon entering the camp, Zhao Yun ordered all banners to be dropped and hidden, all drums to be silenced, and the gates to be left open completely. Suspicious of an ambush, Cao Cao and his army hastily retreated. Zhao Yun ordered his drummers to beat drums as loudly as they could, and his archers to rain down arrows on Cao’s men. The stunned army was completely routed. Attempting to escape, Wei soldiers rushed toward the , and in confusion and panic many were pushed into the river and drowned.
The day after the battle, Liu Bei arrived to inspect the battlefield. He exclaimed, “Zilong has valor through and through.” He ordered a celebration, complete with wines and music until late that night, in honor of Zhao Yun. From then on, Liu Bei’s army called Zhao Yun “The General with the Might of a Tiger” .
In 221 Liu Bei proclaimed to be the Emperor of Shu Han. At the same time he declared war on Sun Quan out of revenge for the death of Guan Yu and loss of Jing province. Zhao Yun made an attempt to dissuade Liu Bei from entering the war, and to attack Cao Wei first. Liu Bei refused to heed the advice and subsequently waged war against Eastern Wu. He left Zhao Yun behind to be in command of Jiangzhou. After Liu Bei was defeated in the Battle of Yiling, Zhao Yun’s troops advanced to Yong'an. At that time, the Wu army had already retreated.
Liu Bei died in 223, and his son Liu Shan succeeded the throne. That year, Zhao Yun was named General who Conquers the South , and Central Military Commander . He was also bestowed the title Marquis of Yongchang Ting . Soon after, he was promoted to General who Guards the East . In 227, Zhao Yun followed Zhuge Liang into Hanzhong to prepare for the first of the . The next year, Zhuge Liang sent Zhao Yun to Jigu as a decoy against the main force of Wei led by Cao Zhen. Zhuge Liang’s main force suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Jieting. At the same time and against a far superior force, Zhao Yun was also unable to muster a victory. However, he was able to limit the loss to a minimum by gathering his men immediately and defending his positions steadfastly. He was demoted to the General Who Maintains Peace in the Army .
In 229 AD, Zhao Yun died at Hanzhong and this was much grieved in the Shu army. He received the posthumous appellation of Shunping Marquis from Liu Shan in 261. Liu Shan’s order to have Zhao Yun honored said, “When Zhao Yun was serving the late Emperor Liu Bei, his contributions were already remarkable. When I was young, I relied on his loyalty to save me from great danger. That’s why I am bestowing him the honour.” Only twelve Shu officials were awarded noble titles posthumously. It was considered a great honour by Shu people at that time.
Zhao Yun had two sons, Zhao Tong and Zhao Guang . The younger son was a subordinate of Jiang Wei, and died in combat in Tazhong .
In ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms''
Many of Zhao Yun's actual exploits were highly dramatized in Luo Guanzhong's novel ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms''. In the novel, Zhao Yun is described as being almost perfect, possessing unparalleled physical power as well as unwavering loyalty to his master, tremendous courage, keen intelligence and serene charisma. These traits have often been reflected in almost all modern material regarding Zhao Yun to date. The novel portrays him as a courageous, loyal, and heroic warrior, and show him surviving insurmountable odds, many times single-handedly.
The rescue of Liu Shan in Changban
The novel portrayed Zhao Yun quickly and single-handedly slaying numerous enemy generals as he rode his horse from group to group during the Battle of Changban, asking fleeing Shu soldiers where Lady Gan, Lady Mi, and Liu Shan had disappeared. As proof of his resolve, he stated that he would search through heaven and hell to find them and if he could not, he would die on the battlefield. One of the many generals that fell to Zhao Yun was Xiahou En, who carried one of Cao Cao's prized swords, the "Qinggang" , which Zhao Yun took with him. Upon finally finding Lady Mi and Liu Shan near an old well, Lady Mi, who was injured in the leg, gave the child to Zhao Yun and refused to go with him stating that she would only slow them down. With enemy soldiers approaching, the two argued until Lady Mi threw herself into a nearby well, killing herself. Zhao Yun then placed the child inside his breast armor and proceeded to fight his way out through overwhelming encirclement of enemy soldiers, using only his lance and the newly acquired Qinggang sword. Zhao Yun's valor impressed even Cao Cao, who ordered his men not to use archers on Zhao Yun, but capture him alive instead in the hope that Zhao Yun would surrender to his side. Throughout the battle, Zhao Yun charged seven times in and out of Cao Cao's troops, and killed over fifty enemy commanders.
When Zhao Yun fought his way to the Changban Bridge he met up with Zhang Fei, who stayed behind to stop the incoming Wei troops. When Zhao Yun finally returned to Liu Bei's side, he felt very guilty over his failure to bring back Lady Mi. Liu Bei threw Liu Shan to the ground, saying his infant son was not worth risking his great general's life. Zhao Yun barely caught him.
Zhao Yun rescues Ah Dou from Lady Sun
In Chapter 61 , Lady Sun , who married to Liu Bei to secure an alliance between the two factions, returned to her homeland to visit her sick mother. However, the sickness was a lie to lure Lady Sun to bring along Liu Shan, who would then be used as a hostage to exchange for the Jing province with Liu Bei. When Zhao Yun learned of her departure, he rushed down to the quay, where Lady Sun had already boarded the boat manned by Zhou Shan , whom Sun Quan sent to fetch her sister.
Grabbing hold of a small fishing boat, Zhao Yun caught up with the larger boat and leapt onto it. Soldiers from the Kingdom of Wu were not able to stop him. Although Zhao Yun was able to forcibly retrieve Liu Shan from his stepmother, he was not able to get off the boat, which was speeding down the river back to Wu lands. Fortunately, the boat was intercepted by a fleet led by Zhang Fei. When Zhou Shan tried to resist, Zhang Fei slew him. The two generals then brought the only son of Liu Bei safely back while Lady Sun returned to her mother.
Zhao Yun has become a popular figure in Chinese culture, having been featured prominently in literature, art, anecdotes, etc. Already a relatively well-known hero from the Three Kingdoms period through tales told for centuries, Zhao Yun became a household name after the wide success of the novel ''Romance of the Three Kingdoms'' .
Recently Zhao Yun’s popularity has moved well beyond Asia and into the Western world through various media including the Internet and video games. Zhao Yun is often portrayed as being youthful and handsome, fearless and invincible, calm and intelligent, genuine and selfless in today’s operas, novels, games, comics and plays.
A film titled ''Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon'' features Andy Lau as Zhao Yun, and another film titled " " features Hu Jun as Zhao Yun.
The manga and anime series Ikki Tousen features a character named Chou'un Shiryuu, who is based on Zhao Yun.
In video games
Zhao Yun has been a central character in the ''Dynasty Warriors'' video game series developed by Koei. He is usually placed in a prominent position on the manual/cover of each title and is the character most often used by the developers in screenshots and promotional materials for upcoming releases. Because of this, Zhao Yun is widely perceived as the "face" of the ''Dynasty Warriors'' series, and is now instantly recognisable to those familiar with the titles. In ''Dynasty Warriors 6'' he has a new silver armour and a longer spear called "Dragon Spike".
Zhao Yun also appears in ''Warriors Orochi'' where he is captured by Orochi's forces at the beginning of the game. He is later rescued by Zuo Ci, Shimazu Yoshihiro and Xing Cai. He then goes on a quest to find and free Liu Bei and aligned himself with Sanada Yukimura who he felt was his match and shared the same beliefs he did. Together with Yukimura as well as other allies, he was successful in saving him. Although his character in the game is essentially the same as it was in Dynasty Warriors 5, he is also given a new, somewhat quirky sense of humor.