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Zhuge Liang (Kong Ming)
The Original "Hidden Dragon"... This article focuses on Zhuge Liang (Pinyin spelling, spelled Chu-ko Liang), a famous military advisor to Liu Bei, the founder of the Shu Han Dynasty (221-263/264 AD). Zhuge Liang (ZGL) was considered by historians to be the most accomplished (and feared) strategist in China's turbulent era of Three Kingdoms. He was also known as a contemporary of Guan Yu, the patron saint of martial arts.
Historically, Zhuge Liang was also known as Zhuge Kong Ming (ZKM). He was nicknamed "The Hidden Dragon" due to the fact that people around him underestimated his capacity to achieve great things. Other translations of his nickname were "Crouching Dragon" and "Sleeping Dragon."
In modern China, Zhuge Liang is considered to be the most popular statesman and strategic general in Chinese history. (His ranking is similar to having a master in public administration.) Most people learned of the historical achievements of Zhuge Liang through the many stories and plays written about him.
From Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War, leadership is one of five major attributes that determine the strategic success of a nation. Due to Zhuge Liang's emphasis on strategic leadership, Liu Bei's "Shu Han" state became one of the last three surviving kingdoms during that chronological period of the Three Kingdoms.
Zhuge Liang was born in 181 AD (the last years of East Han Dynasty), in the Yang-tu, Shantung province, China. Historically, he was known as a great statesman, an engineer, and a military strategist in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD). As mentioned earlier, he was also the hero of the novel San Guo Yan Yi (Popular Accounts of the Three Kingdoms, also commonly known as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms).
Stories say that Zhuge Liang's forefathers were prominent servants of the state, but he was orphaned early in his youth. As a child, he was forced to flee his home province of Shantung during the slaughter of 400,000 civilians by Cao Cao, the powerful warlord of the Wei state.
The origin of his knowledgebase in "science, statecraft, and art" is unknown to many. It has been said that much of his learning was through his own process of researching and self-teaching. Other stories have Zhuge Liang learning from Pang De Gong (a famous educator-thinker of that era).
For a while, he dwelled in a thatched cottage in Longzhong (a district in the Wo Long Gung ridge near a town called Xiang Yang), quietly choosing to farm his land in obscurity and making friends extensively with celebrities, while preparing for the time for displaying his strategic knowledge. Legend states that Liu Bei, then a distant descendent of a royal Han house of minor military distinction, heard of Zhuge Liang's great wisdom and came three times to his home, requesting that he become his military advisor.
After a long discussion, Zhuge Liang was touched by Liu Bei's sincerity as well as Liu Bei's adoption of his plan for setting up a kingdom in the west and allying with the state of East Wu at the same time. He immediately pledged his service to Liu Bei and left his home to join Liu Bei's army. This became a major turning point for Liu Bei. At that time, Zhuge Liang was 26 and Liu Bei was 47 years old. Together they later established the Shu Han kingdom in the province of Sichuan.
Throughout his life, Zhuge Liang vowed to resist the Wei (the kingdom founded by his antagonist Cao Cao) and maintain the independence of the Shu, though the state of Wei had several times more land and people than that of the Shu. He later served as prime minister of Shu Han for Emperor Liu Bei (161-230 AD) and his son Liu Chan (207-271 AD).
Zhuge Liang (also known as Kong Ming) wearing his trademark "Taoist Priest" outfit and carrying his trademark "White Fan" (He was also known as a renaissance man who enjoyed the playing of the lute and the building of various mechanical devices).
One of his famous exploits was advising Liu Bei to ally himself with Sun Quan, allowing him to win the principal battle of Chibi (Red Cliff). Together the armies of Liu Bei and Sun Quan dealt a lethal blow to Cao Cao's plan to conquer China. As part of the spoils of war, Liu Bei captured the territories of Jingzhou.
His military victories were vast and ingenious. Like all geniuses, Zhuge Liang faced a major setback at the hand of his arch nemesis, Sima Yi (senior military leader of the Wei state), when Sima Yi prevented Zhuge Liang from capturing Luoyang (an important area in China). This would have assisted Liu Bei's goal of restoring the Han Dynasty.
At his deathbed, Liu urged his son Liu Chan to depend on Zhuge Liang's advice and also urged his prime minister to ascend the throne himself if the prince was unable to rule.
After Liu Bei's death, Zhuge Liang assisted his successor in governing the country for the next four years. He roused himself for vigorous efforts to make the country prosperous and was strict and fair in meting out rewards and punishments. Under Zhuge Liang, the Shu Kingdom became more prosperous and militarily stronger. This was due to Zhuge Liang's defeat of the attacks of the seven armies that were initiated by Cao Pi. He also subdued the southern barbarian king Meng Huo and then led six expeditions against the state of Wei in an attempt to fulfill Liu Bei's wish of restoring the Han Dynasty.
At the age of 54, Zhuge Liang passed away on the plains of Wuzhangyuan during a military campaign (234 AD), while attempting to re-conquer the land that was occupied by the kingdom of Wei. Before he even began this northern expedition, Zhuge Liang was sick and exhausted from the stress and the overwork created by his rival, General Sima Yi, and the ineffective leadership of Liu Chan. By the time Zhuge Liang reached the battlefield he was dead. His death immediately marked the downfall of the Shu Kingdom.
He once remarked himself as "to bend myself to a task and exert the life to the utmost." Even his rivals could not help admiring his great talent and his devotion to the country.
Zhuge Liang's Achievements
Upon his death, much of his writings on building military organizations and strategies were supposedly stolen or destroyed. The Way of the General is one of the few writings survived to be read today.
It has been rumored that that Zhuge Liang created Eight Dispositions (Ba Xing), battle tactics for military strategic and tactical deployment. The Eight Dispositions battle tactics are army formations that are said to be based on his reading of the I-Ching (Book of Changes).
The technical attribute of the Ba Gua (eight trigrams) is supposed to be the essence behind Zhuge Liang's Eight Dispositions (Ba Xing) Battle Tactics.
Other stories described him as a mechanical engineering genius, credited with the invention of a multi-firing crossbow and a mechanical wooden ox (a four-legged wheel barrow with a shell of an ox) for transporting grain.
Much of his exploits can be found in the San Kuo Chih Yen-i (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), the great 14th century historical novel, where Zhuge Liang is one of the principal characters. As mentioned earlier, some of those events can be found in popular Chinese operas and plays where he is usually described as a favored character that fought against evil.
Those same plays also portrayed him as a Daoist magician who possessed many supernatural powers, from controlling the wind to foretelling the future.
Much of his ability was based on his vast but confidential knowledge of military strategy, mechanical engineering, mathematics, geology, meteorology, and behavior psychology. He understood the key to connecting the non-obvious dots of information into one Big Tangible Picture.
After Zhuge Liang passed on, stories about his wisdom (for example, Review in Longzhong, Borrowing the Eastern Wind, and Strategy of the Vacant City) were played out as Chinese opera stories. These have also been used as a learning guide for budding professional strategists. To many past and present scholars of China's history, he is considered to be the quintessence of embodied wisdom and intelligence.
Zhuge Liang Non-military Achievements
Besides his military and engineering achievements, as the Prime Minister of the Shu Han kingdom Zhuge Liang rigorously pushed for law enforcement, adopted strict disciplinary measures, and meted out impartial rewards and punishments. This effected new development of its agriculture and handicraft industries, thus increasing the strength of the kingdom.
Another engaging quality of Zhuge Liang was his sincere belief in having a quality relationship with the people around him.
"Opportunistic relationship can hardly be kept constant. The acquaintance of honorable people, even at a distance, does not add flowers in times of warmth and does not change its leaves in times of cold: it continues unfading through the four seasons, becoming increasingly stable as it passes through ease and danger."
My favorite quality of Zhuge Liang was his constant emphasis on the importance of self-cultivation of the people around him. Also his devotion to his duty endeared him to Liu Bei and people around.
Those qualities and his numerous achievements made Zhuge Liang the embodiment of wisdom and intelligence to Lui Bei, his countrymen, and many generations of Chinese scholars.
Other Zhuge Liang Trivia
Zhuge Liang was also known as Marquis Wu or Zhuge Wu Hou
Before a battle was fought, Zhuge Liang would visit the proposed area of combat years before any battle had even transpired
During the visit, he would investigate the physical features and the natural timing for that terrain and the disposition and the power of both sides at that terrain. If a battle was fought, understanding the way to advance and withdraw from that terrain, determining what are the resources of both sides at that time.
When leading a field army to the battle site, he would always ride in a four-wheeled carriage
Stories tell of Zhuge Liang viewing a battle and calling out the tactical movements of his army from the top plateau of a very high mountain
Zhuge Liang was said to always dress as a Daoist hermit, carrying a white feathered fan. It has been said that there were old Chinese benevolent associations that would honor the memory of Zhuge Liang by nicknaming their advisor the "White Fan"
The area where Zhuge Liang trained his army can still be found in the Chongqing region of Fengjie County.
In the Strategy of the Vacant City story, Zhuge Liang, dressed in his Taoist outfit, played the lute and burned incense while waiting for the army of General Sima Yi to attack them from the open gates
In the end Simi Yi backed out from the attack, thinking that Zhuge Liang concealed an army somewhere in the Vacant City and was waiting for him to make the mistake of attacking them through the open gates. Realistically, Zhuge Liang did not have an army large enough to defend against Sima Yi. This deception won the respect of Zhuge Liang's men and his peers, but embarrassed his rival General Sima Yi.
Honoring Zhuge Liang Through the Chengdu Temple
At the end of the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 AD) a temple honoring Zhuge Liang was built by Li Xiong, king of the Zhen (Han) kingdom in Shaocheng of the Chengdu city.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368), the prime minister of Shu Han moved the Zhuge Liang temple to another part of the city and combined it with the temple to Liu Bei (Emperor of Shu Han), where Liu Bei was buried.
In 1672, an additional hall of Zhuge Liang was built along with it. This site contains the statues of Zhuge Liang, as well as his sons Zhuge Zhan and Zhuge Shang.
In 1984, the Chengdu Wuhou Temple Museum was founded as a historical research center to collect the materials about Zhuge Liang and the Three Kingdoms. Here a budding scholar can find many tablets containing quotations, poems, and accounts of the life of Zhuge Liang.
The following is a poem from Du Fu, the great poet of the Tang Dynasty, praising Zhuge Liang:
His Excellency's shrine, where would it be found?
Past Damask Town, where cypresses grow dense.
Its sunlit court, gem-bright greens—a spring unto themselves.
Leaf-veiled, the orioles' sweet notes to empty air.
Thrice to him Liu Bei sued, keen to rule the realm:
Two reigns Kong Ming served—steady old heart
To die, his host afield, the victory herald yet to come
Weep, oh heroes! Drench your fronts, now and evermore.
--translated by Moss Roberts
Yet another Du Fu poem eulogizes Zhuge:
Zhuge's mighty name hangs proudly on the upper sphere;
Stern and grand, the royal liege man's likeness claims respect.
In the tri-part world below he spun deep schemes.
In the age-old realm of cloud, one single plume unites our gaze.
Who rank his peers? Yi Yin and Jiang Ziya;
In command he was more sure than Xiao or Cao.
But the stars had turned; he could not save Han's reign,
Toiling to the end, body broken, will unbroken.
--translated by Moss Roberts
With so many accolades, Zhuge Liang was made a Confucian saint by the government of the Ching Dynasty in 1724.
Zhuge Liang's Writings
A translation of Zhuge Liang's The Way of General can be found in the Thomas Cleary book Mastering the Art of War. This book clearly delineated Zhuge Liang's thoughts on strategy, organization, and leadership. Some of the topics range from how to successfully develop an organization to running a state. Cleary's book also includes Liu Ji's (another famous Chinese statesman-general) serious commentary on the original framework of Sun Tzu principles, then extends the parameters. His explanations include stories from various historical periods, showing how they were wisely used by ancient martial strategists. Basically this book is an in-depth study of The Art of War, detailing the practical applications of waging war both materially and mentally, with a focus toward leadership and strategic thinking.
Those readers who enjoy books on strategy, organization, and leadership, will find that Zhuge Liang did a superb job of explaining the technical specifics of Sun zi's military principles.
Zhuge Liang's "The Way of the General"
The following are some quotes from of Zhuge Liang's book The Way of the General:
"To overcome the intelligent by folly is contrary to the natural order of things; to overcome the foolish by intelligence is in accord with the natural order. To overcome the intelligent by intelligence, however, is a matter of opportunity. There are three avenues of opportunity: events, trends, and conditions. When opportunities occur through events but you are unable to respond, you are not smart. When opportunities become active through a trend and yet you cannot make plans, you are not wise. When opportunities emerge through conditions but you cannot act on them, you are not bold. Those skilled in generalship always achieve their victories by taking advantage of opportunities."
"... an enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him; he worries about not knowing people. He worries not about outsiders not knowing insiders, but about insiders not knowing outsiders. He worries not about subordinates not knowing superiors, but about superiors not knowing subordinates. He worries not about the lower classes not knowing the upper classes, but about the upper classes not knowing the lower classes."
"Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered; those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus the wise win before they fight, while the ignorant fight to win."
(Zhuge Liang, circa 200 AD, The Way of the General)
Sixteen Strategies of Zhuge Liang
This book discusses the concepts of how a king should govern a country, how to establish a harmonious relationship between the king and subjects, how to discern good advice, how to deploy troops, and the importance of using reward and punishment to win the trust of people.
I recommend this book to those in business management who would like to possess the understanding of both the importance of leadership and human resource management in running any strategic organization. I believe any of Zhuge Liang's writings is still applicable to our current society.
The following is an abstract outline of his Sixteen Strategies:
Governing a country
- Be as "unerring as the North Star"
- Let respect and loyalty become the only set of links between the ruler and his subjects.
- Be a leader with a good strategic understanding of the situation at hand. Keep your mind on the game and your eye on the target.
- Be receptive and kind to other people's ideas.
- Be perceptive of all details (large and small) and make a clear distinction between the attribute of right and wrong.
- In order to win people over to your side, educate them.
- Seek the worthy and employ the talented.
- Promote the praiseworthy and dismiss the average performers and producers.
- Play the game effectively and win by sound strategy development.
- While you reward those who deliver a clean, efficient administration, you should punish those who do not.
- Do not make decisions via emotion.
- Be careful when handling a chaotic situation.
- Rectify oneself first when issuing orders.
- Act decisively to eliminate the cause of chaos.
- Be farsighted and cautious when planning.
- Commit one's self to strive only for success.
Quotes from Zhuge Liang
The following are some of more of my favorite Zhuge Liang quotes:
"Nothing is harder to see into than people's nature.
The sage looks at subtle phenomena
and listens to small voices.
This harmonizes the outside with the inside
and the inside with the outside."
(from the Records of the Loyal Lord of Warriors)
"Detach from emotions and desires; get rid of any fixations."
"The loss of any army is always caused by underestimating the enemy. Therefore gather information and watch the enemy carefully."
"Good generals select intelligent officers, thoughtful advisors, and brave subordinates. They oversee their troops like a fierce tiger with wings."
"You are harmed by decadence when judgment is based on private views, when forces are mobilized for personal reasons. These generals are treacherous and immoral."
# I believed that the essence that made Zhuge Liang the consummate strategist can be found in his quote on the "five skills and four desires:"
"The five skills are skill in knowing the disposition and power of enemies, skill in knowing the ways to advance and withdraw, skill in knowing how empty or how full countries are, skill in knowing nature's timing and human affairs, and skill in knowing the features of terrain.
The four desires are desire for the extraordinary and unexpected in strategy, desire for thoroughness in security, desire for calm among the masses, and desire for unity of hearts and minds."
- Zhuge Liang in The Way of the General
Those who want to be great strategists, should heed to the meanings behind the "five skills and four desires."
For most insights on Zhuge Liang exploits, read The Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel and other Zhuge Liang related strategic titles.
Zhuge Liang is still loved by the people of modern-day China for his intelligence, loyalty, wisdom as a military mind and statesman and his emphasis on self-cultivation that has enlightened and encouraged people long after his death.
This item was originally published at Jade Dragon in 2001. It has been mildly revised for this post.
Click here for our Feb 2014 post on a superb translation of Zhuge Liang's essay- The General's Garden (aka. Way of General) and an in-depth analysis of Zhuge Liang's history by Dr. Ralph Sawyer. We highly recommend it.
Click here for a 2013 post on Zhuge Liang's Way of General (Cleary's translation).
Many hardcore strategists have always admired Zhuge Liang for his various skills. The commonality between Zhuge Liang and other elite strategists (Jiang Tai Gong, Zhang Liang, etc.) was having a concealed arcade of unique strategic and tactical skills and reliable resources that enabled them to see the Big Tangible Picture. It also allowed them to complete their objectives with ease.
Besides the occasional posting of a serious strategic topic. we have already staged 28+ various posts on a myriad of strategic topics on the blog's queue. ...