The Seven Captures of Meng Huo

Today’s history post is a blend of fact and legend. When we last left our narrative, much of the northern and western portions of what is now Yunnan province, including what would become modern-day Kunming, had come under the control of the Han Dynasty shortly before 100 AD.  But some 300 years later, the Han Dynasty was in disarray, and three separate states: Cao Wei, Shu Han, and East Wu, all claimed their leaders to be the legitimate Han emperor.  And one of the local leaders in Yunnan saw this as an opportunity to assert independence.

This period of time, referred to as the Three Kingdoms Period, gets its name from these three states. It  was one of the bloodiest times in Chinese history, but it has been glorified and romanticized in Chinese art and literature, most notably by a famous romance of the same name, written in the 14th century by the revered Ming Dynasty author Luo Guanzhong.  Luo’s work is still the most widely read historical novel in China; it occupies a similar place in Chinese culture as the Thousand and One Nights does in Arabian, Don Quixote in Spanish, or Shakespeare in English.

Today’s story comes directly from this literary masterpiece, and concerns two main characters:

  • Meng Huo, a rebellious local leader of the Nanzhong region which includes much of modern-day Yunnan province and part of southern Sichuan as well.
  • Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of Shu Han, sent by the Shu Han king to bring him to heel.

A Qing-era drawing of Zhuge Liang

Zhuge Liang was an orphan who rose to prominence through academic brilliance; there is an account of how the Shu Han king shows his humility by visiting Zhuge Liang in his hut three times to beg that he take leadership in the Shu Han government.  So between Zhuge Liang’s natural ability and the superiority of the forces he was able to bring to the conflict, the eventual outcome is never in doubt.  What makes it an interesting story is not what he accomplishes, but how…

In the very first meeting of their forces, Zhuge Liang is able to capture Meng Huo and five hundred of his retainers through an artful bit of subterfuge that played upon the enthusiasm of his own subordinates.  Meng is brought before prime minister Zhuge, who asks if he will submit.  Men replies “No, I fell afoul of your tricks on a narrow mountain trail. Why should I submit?”.  But instead of killing him as was within his rights, Zhuge asks Meng what he would do if set free.  Meng replies “I shall reorder my forces for another trial at arms, but if you capture me again, I shall submit”.

A Ming-era drawing of Meng Huo

So Zhuge sents Meng free. This makes his subordinates very unhappy, enough so that they questioned their leader’s decision (understand that this is no small thing in traditional Chinese culture). Prime minister Zhuge replies “I can capture him again at ease whenever I choose to. But pacification of his kingdom requires that we win the hearts of the people.”  As by now you have deduced, Zhuge succeeds in capturing Meng again and again, usually through some cleverly thought out subterfuge.

After the second capture, Zhuge gives Meng a tour of inspection, letting him see not only the size of his army but the extent of his provisions.

After the third capture, Zhuge gives Meng tactical advice so that he can do a better job leading his army against the prime minister.

 

And so the story goes, until the seventh and final capture.  Having so thoroughly embarrassed Meng Huo by beating him time and again, Zhuge Liang does not have him brought forth again, but allows Meng to save face by sending a messenger instead to set him free and order his troops for yet another battle.  Thus defeated not only by arms but by courtesy, Meng Huo finally submits and swears fealty.  And in response, Zhuge Liang not only allows him to keep his role in vassal to Shu Han, but actually seeks his advice on further adventures.

This is as thoroughly a Chinese tale as any I have ever come across, and speaks worlds about how the Chinese see themselves, and the ideal of behavior that they aspire to.  It continues to serve as a model of behavior into this day and age. During WWII, when Chairman Mao was leading armies against the Japanese, he explicitly evoked the seven captures of Meng Huo as the reasoning behind his order that Chinese troops captured fighting for the Japanese be set free instead of killed. In explaining his reasoning to Communist leaders, Mao says:

In principal, whether they are officers or soldiers and no matter what social background they come from, no puppet troop captives are to be killed. Even those elements who have a deep hatred for us and come back to fight us again after being released may be spared execution. That is, the method of repeated capturing and releasing is better than killing, and its impact is greater. In releasing captives, there should be absolutely no posting of bail, and they should not be made to vow that they will never be puppet soldiers in the future. But they can be required to swear that they will not really help the Japanese oppose the New Fourth Army in the future. And if they do actually violate their oath and help Japan fight us, then we should still patiently carry out the policy of “seven times capturing Meng Huo.”

 

 

A modern, anime-style rendition of Zhuge Liang

I have found this kind of long-term thinking an essential part of the Chinese mindset; it puts the Chinese focus on relationships on full display, and contrasts sharply with the more western focus on direct, short-term, and measurable results. Personally, I discern no clear superiority in either way of thinking.  But whether it is working day-to-day with your Chinese colleagues or trying to understand the seemingly inexplicable actions of the Chinese government, the impact of this mindset needs to be understood.

Sources

As usual, I used Wikipedia for times, dates, and other background, as well as for the drawing of Meng Huo. An excerpt from a dissertation by Konrad Lawson provided the links to Mao’s policies. The Qing era drawing of Zhuge Liang comes from history.cultural-china.com, while the modern one comes from sanguoguide.com, which is a fabulous guide to the classic novel and its subsequent adaptations.

The story itself comes directly from the English-language version of The Three Kingdoms that I picked up the last time I was in China.

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Historical Kunming Part 5: Zhang Qian and the Opening of the Silk Road

We left our narrative of the history of Kunming and Yunnan province in 109 BC, when the Dian Kingdom was conquered by the armies of the Han Dynasty, and brought within the fold of Imperial China.  As one of the first orders of business after this conquest, the Han emperor ordered one of his most important generals, Tang Meng, to Yunnan.  His instructions were to extend the “Five Foot Way” – a famous trade road of the time, from Sichuan into Yunnan.

Han Dynasty, just after to the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian

There were many reasons for this instruction. Roads in China were first and foremost a means of efficient troop movement, even the Great Wall was far more useful as a way of transporting troops quickly over very rough terrain than it ever was as an actual physical barrier.  The Kingdom of Dian was newly conquered and could rebel at any time, so the ability to get troops there quickly was of paramount importance.  But another key reason was trade.  Not with the Dian Kingdom itself; the Han people considered the local residents to be crude barbarians. Hang Teng even named the Yunnan extension of the Five Foot Way the “Southwest Barbarian Way”.  The real value of Yunnan to the Han empire lay in its location; it was seen as a potential gateway to what was called at the time the “Sendhuk” valley.  Now it is called the Indus valley; the Han dynasty wanted to open a trade route with India.  But how did the Han rulers know about India, and why did they think it was important to establish trade routes there?

The answer lies not in the south of China but in the north.  The Han dynasty was plagued by a loose confederation of nomadic tribesmen whom they knew as the Xiongnu; several centuries later, Europe would encounter them and call them the Huns.  About 20 years earlier than the conquest of the Dian Kingdom, spies of the Han emperor Wudi (the same emperor whose death precipitated the Discourses on Salt and Iron referred to in history post 2) reported to Emperor Wu that King Chanyu of the Huns had recently killed the king of a tribe known as the Da Yuezhi, and had his skull made into a drinking goblet.  The Da Yuezhi tribe was previously unknown to the Han dynasty, but sensing an opportunity, the sent a detachment of about 100 troops to find this tribe and seek an alliance with them.  The officer appointed to lead this detachment was a mid-level noble named Zhang Qian.

Zhang Qian sets out on his embassy

The expedition did not meet with great success.  Zhang, his guide Ganfu (a captured Xiongnu prisoner of war), and their detachment of troops were captured by the Xiongnu and held as hostages against further Han incursions.  Zhang and his guide were held captive by the Zhiongnu for almost over ten years, during which he took a Xiongnu wife, who in turn bore him a son. But eventually, having gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader, Zhang was able to escape, and fled west across the Gobi desert with his guide wife, and son.  And ten years after his departure from China, he finally managed to make contact with the Da Yuezhi.  But though the Yuezhi welcomed Zhang and treated him with honor, they had no desire to enter into an alliance against the Xiongnu.  The Yuezhi felt that the distance between their home (which lies in what is now Tajikistan) and the Chinese Empire (whose military might was centered in their capital of Chang’an, which is now modern-day Xi’an) was too great for an alliance to be effective.  And the murder of their king notwithstanding, the Yuezhi were content to raise their flocks and make due against the occasional Xiongnu raid.

His mission unsuccessful, Zhang spent a further year in central Asia, documenting and establishing relations with different tribes and kingdoms in the area, and then set off for the return journey to China.  Anxious to avoid recapture, Zhang  and his party took a different route on their return, skirting the southern edge of the Tarim basin, where they had gone around the northern edge on their way out.  But this caution was to no avail, for Zhang and his party were once again captured by the Xiongnu.  This time however, Zhang was lucky in that he became a pawn in a civil war within the Xiongnu tribe, and was able to secure his freedom in less than a year, in exchange for bearing messages from one of the rival factions to the Han emperor.

Zhian Qian

Despite having failed to secure an alliance, Zhang was wildly popular in court upon his return, and prepared detailed reports on over 36 different tribes and nations he had intercourse with over the years of his journey.  And through all the places he had traveled there was a common thread: rich and exotic goods from a great civilization rumored to lie to the southeast, a kingdom known as the Sendhuk.  And having proven his capability, Zhang was sent out two more times to try and find this fabled kingdom, and the first of these original journeys went through Sichuan and the Dian Kingdom that is now Yunnan Province.

Zhang never did find India, but he studiously wrote about every place he did make it to, and though not all of the political alliances he was dispatched to establish came to fruition, he is regarded in China in much the same light we in the west regard Marco Polo, as one of the first great travelers and travel writers.  And over the century following his death, China did succeed in establishing relations with these tribes and kingdoms of central Asia.  These trade agreements started the caravans flowing, and the routes they established formed the very Silk Road that Marco Polo would follow, all the way to Kunming, some 1300 years later.

Historical Kunming Part 4: The Dawn of Kunming

Now that we have a rough framework of dynastic history upon which to hang our tale, we can now tell the story of the dawn of Kunming.

Yuanmou Man

Kunming sits at the northern tip of Lake Dian. Lake Dian has been a home to people as long as there have been people.  The fossil record includes lufang ramapithecus from 8 million years ago and yuanmou man from 1.7 million years ago, and archaeological finds show that modern man has been living there continuously for at least 30,000 years.  But Kunming itself has its origins in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

 

 

One of the main states that gave the Warring States Period its name was the kingdom of Chu.  Chu started as a fief of the Zhou dynasty, and was ruled by a viscount, who ruled from a city in what is now Henan Province.  In 977 the Zhou ruler died; the dynasty started neglecting it southern holdings, and Chu started growing more and more autonomous.  By 703 BC, the ruler of Chu was openly styling himself King, openly asserting an independence that was not contested.  Chu grew in size and power (as well as in corruption and bureaucracy) until, by the time the Zhou dynasty had completely dissolved, Chu was one of the leading states of China, and a contender for imperial aspirations.

Our story starts towards the end of the Warring States Period, about 70 years before the establishment of the Qin dynasty.  Chu was looking to expand, and the logical direction was south.  Qin, though not yet an imperial power, was already the most powerful state in China, lay just to the west.  Wei and Qi to the north less powerful as Chu, but either could weaken Chi enough to make it a target for Qin.  But even more than that, the south offered control of valuable trade routes with Burma and India.  So in 280 BC the king of Chu deployed an army led by a general named Zhuang Qiao with orders to conquer the territory that is now Yunnan province.

Seal from the Kingdom of Dian

Over the next ten years General Zhuang was able to fulfill his orders, and succeeded in placing most of the region under his control. But then something happened that changed the situation entirely: Chu was invaded by Qin.  The Qin armies marched across the south of Chu towards the coast; General Zhuang and his army were cut off from their capital.  But as far as we can tell, the general saw this not as a problem but an opportunity.  Zhuang declared that the territory he had conquered was now the Kingdom of Dian, and named himself as its King.  His army married and assimilated with the local tribes, and settled themselves on the land surrounding the lake.  And General Zhuang established his capital at what is now Kunming.

Belt ornament from the Dian Kingdom

This small independent kingdom survived for well over a century, outlasting the rise and fall of the Qin dynasty.  In 109 BC the great conqueror of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu of Han (who also appears in the earlier post Historical Kunming 2: Discourses on Salt and Iron), conquered the neighboring states of Laoshan and Mimo, and the king of Dian decided to submit to Han voluntarily rather than be conquered.  This submission was rather more in name than substance though; Dian routinely raided Han trading missions.  And in 109 BC, after Dian massacred a Han trading party passing through with gifts intended for the far away nation of Bactria, Emperor Wu decided he had had enough.  He emptied the jails in his capital city of Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), declared amnesty for any fugitives who would turn themselves in, and formed these into an army that finally brought Dian into submission and joined it to the empire.

So there you have it, the story of how Kunming was founded, and came to be part of China.