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Lu Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, is replete with traditional virtues and morality in its dramatic depiction of the historical episodes and heroic figures from the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280). The names and deeds of characters such as the benevolent nobleman Liu Bei, the loyal and righteous warrior Guan Yu, or the shrewd warlord Cao Cao, have been remembered and passed down from generation to generation.

But in the 120 chapters of the Three Kingdoms, the star shining throughout is neither Cao Cao, who unified northern China and commanded thousands of top generals and ministers of all kinds; nor is it Liu Bei, who rallied behind him the five bravest warriors of the land. Neither was it the illustrious Sun Quan, a man otherwise destined for greatness in his lordship over the Chinese southeast. The eponymous three monarchs were ultimately overshadowed by the famed Zhuge Liang, who served Liu Bei as an invaluable advisor and strategist.

The Three Kingdoms introduces Zhuge Liang, also known by his courtesy title Kongming (Clearly Enlightened), rather late, in the 37th chapter. Liu Bei, determined to restore the ousted Han Dynasty, visited Zhuge Liang three times before gaining his allegiance. Once he is introduced, his role expands to eclipse that of the other heroes. Thirty-five of the book’s chapters deal with Zhuge Liang’s many stratagems and battles, and he wins many titles and designations, such as “Grand Chancellor” or “Crouching Dragon.”

The Empty City Stratagem is one of the most famous episodes from Zhuge Liang’s story. To stall for time to protect their main force on the retreat, Zhuge Liang led a rear guard of elderly soldiers and young students to open the city gates and wait for the arrival of the pursuing enemy. While facing the advancing infantry, Zhuge made no defensive preparation but simply played a musical instrument while sitting leisurely atop the city walls. Convinced that Zhuge Liang was luring them into a deadly trap, the enemy stopped their advance and even began to retreat.

Zhuge Liang’s genius was of such repute that he was known as “Crouching Dragon” even before he became Liu Bei’s military advisor. In ancient China, only emperors qualified for the title “Dragon,” but Zhuge Liang received his title while living in relative seclusion. Sima Hui, the cultivator who recommended Zhuge Liang to Liu Bei, compared Zhuge to the ancient ministers Guan Zhong and Yue Yi, both prominent leaders during the Spring and Autumn Warring States eras, as well as the greatest statesmen of antiquity, Jiang Ziya and Zhang Liang. Jiang Ziya aided two kings of the of Zhou Dynasty, which lasted 800 years. Zhang Liang (262-189 B.C.) was a chief military strategist, minister, and advisor to Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty. The 400 years of the Han Dynasty saw the first peak of Chinese civilization.

Statue of Zhuge Liang in Baidi City, China. (Public Domain)

Aside from his keen strategic mind, Zhuge Liang also possessed a commendable sense of honor. Once, when Liu Bei’s warrior Guan Yu captured enemy warlord Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang convinced Guan Yu to let him go in order to repay a debt: Cao Cao had once released Guan Yu after taking him prisoner in a previous battle. In decades of serving Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang demonstrated great wisdom, benevolence, bravery, justice, and the pursuit of simplicity and candidness. When he died during the Battle of Wuzhang Plains, even his enemies paused to pay their respects to this hero, whose end Luo Guanzhong described as “the fall of the brightest star.”

Zhuge Liang had defended Liu Bei’s southwestern Chinese kingdom for decades against the armies of the north. His passing marked the beginning of the end of the Three Kingdoms era.