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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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.