Biography (SGYY): Zhuge Ke (Yuanxun)

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Zhuge Ke (Yuanxun)
諸葛恪 (元遜)
(AD ?–253)

Sanguo yanyi Officer Biography
Author Notes in Blue
Authored by Sam Wrest

Zhuge Ke (Yuanxun)

Zhuge Ke, styled Yuanxun, was the son of Zhuge Jin and nephew to Zhuge Liang. Ke stood at seven spans tall and was unusually intelligent; he had great skill in repartee and quickly became close friends with the south’s ruler, Sun Quan.

On one occasion, Zhuge Ke accompanied his father to a royal feast at the tender age of six, at which Sun Quan observed that Ke’s father had an elongated face. Quan had a donkey led in to the banquet and chalked the words “Zhuge Jin” on the animal’s nose, whereupon all those present burst into laughter. Seeing his father mocked, Zhuge Ke moved to the donkey, took the chalk from Sun Quan’s hand and added, “’s donkey,” to what Quan had previously written. The assembly was astonished at his intellect, and Sun Quan was so amused and impressed that he presented the donkey to Zhuge Ke as a personal gift.

Another day at a feast for the officials, Zhuge Ke was asked by Sun Quan to pass the wine around to those present. Upon reaching Zhang Zhao, Zhao refused the alcohol offered by Ke, saying, “This is not the proper form for the ceremony of nourishing an elder.”

After learning of his refusal, Sun Quan quite simply said to Zhuge Ke, “Get Zhang Zhao to drink for me.”

Wine in hand, Zhuge Ke ventured back to Zhang Zhao’s seat and said, “Long, long ago the great counselor Jiang Ziya—at the age of ninety—grasped the signal banner, steadied the battle-axe, and never once called himself ‘old’. On days of trial by arms, you are always in the rear; on days of banqueting, you are always in the front. What do you mean, ‘I have failed to nourish an elder?”

At a loss for words, Zhang Zhao consented and accepted the wine offered by Zhuge Ke. After this incident, Sun Quan prized Zhuge Ke more than ever and consequently made him the guide to his heir apparent, Sun Deng.

By AD 251, both Zhuge Ke’s father, Jin, and Lu Xun had since passed away, and Zhuge Ke was thus left to operate all matters in the south, whether small or large. The heir apparent, Sun Deng—who Ke had been left to guide—as well as Sun He, had also passed away, leaving Sun Liang next in line for the throne. In the fourth month of the following year, Sun Quan himself became gravely ill and called Zhuge Ke to his bed. Arriving with chief commanding officer Lü Dai, Ke knelt at Quan’s bedside and was instructed by Quan to handle the government in the future. After he finished speaking, Sun Quan fell silent and died. Following his death, Zhuge Ke had Sun Liang installed as Emperor; a general amnesty was proclaimed, and the reign year was changed to Jian Xing, year one.

In AD 251/2, reports came of an invasion being made by the northern kingdom of Wei, separated into three field armies commanded by Wang Chang, Hu Zun and Guanqiu Jian who were respectively marching on Dongxing, Wangcheng and Wuchang. Upon hearing of it, Zhuge Ke called all of the south’s military personnel to a conference to discuss repelling the attack. During which, General Who Pacifies the North Ding Feng said, “Dongxing is a vital point. If we lose it, Wancheng and Wuchang could fall.”

“I agree fully,” Zhuge Ke replied. “My lord, take three thousand marines from our river forces. I’ll send three armies after you in support—Lü Ju, Tang Zi, and Liu Zan each with ten thousand horse and foot. A string of bombard shots will signal their onset. I myself will follow up in force.”

Zhuge Ke then ordered Ding Feng to set off and carry out his instructions. Some time after Ding Feng departed with his marine force, Zhuge Ke led the bulk of the southern army onto Wei’s position to find that the army had already been routed as a result of Ding Feng’s successful carrying out of his ploy. After rendezvousing with Feng, Zhuge Ke rewarded all troops and addressed the commanders: “Sima Zhao has returned north in defeat. It is time for an advance on the heartland.”

Zhuge Ke later penned a letter to Shu’s General-in-Chief, Jiang Wei, to solicit the Riverlands cooperation in an attack on the north, promising to divide the conquered kingdom with the west. Ke also mobilised two hundred thousand troops in preparation of the invasion.

Before Zhuge Ke’s army began its march, Ke noticed a whitish trail of vapour emanating from the ground, blanking out the road his armies were to take. One of his advisors, Jiang Yan, said, “This vapour is a white rainbow, and it signifies the loss of troops. Imperial Guardian, you should return to court. You should not attack Wei.”

Worried about what this omen could do to his troop’s morale, Zhuge Ke angrily said, “How dare you speak of ill omens and lower the men’s fighting spirit?”

Zhuge Ke then ordered his guards to have Jiang Yan executed, but after a number of his commanders urged Ke to desist, he instead had him demoted to commoner status. After this incident, Zhuge Ke then gave the order for advance. In a conference with his commanders, Ding Feng said, “Xincheng guards the main avenue into Wei. If we take it, Sima Shi will lose all will to fight.”

Zhuge Ke was delighted with the proposal and had his army march on to the town. Upon arriving, Xuncheng was sealed tight by its defender, Zhang Te, and Zhuge Ke immediately ordered his troops to lay siege.

After besieging Xincheng for several months without success, Zhuge Ke issued an order to his commanders: “Attack in full strength. Slackers will be executed,” and so the southern army attacked the town with renewed energy; so much so that the northeast corner began to buckle. Some time later, Zhuge Ke was met by a representative of Zhang Te who bore a census register and various documents. The man said to Ke, “It is our practice in Wei for a town under siege to defend itself for one hundred days without aid. After that the commander may surrender without his family being incriminated in his disgrace. Your siege has lasted more than ninety days. If you can maintain it a few more days, my master will lead all his soldiers out to surrender. Here are the census register and other documents, which I tender now ahead of time.”

Zhuge Ke believed the envoy’s words and ordered the attack on Xincheng to temporarily cease.

Several days after speaking with Zhang Te’s representative, Te himself appeared on the town’s wall. Believing the man had come to offer his surrender, Zhuge Ke left his command tent to see the Wei commander. The man shouted from the wall, “We still have six months’ grain. Would we ever surrender to the Southland dogs? All-out war can’t hurt us now!” (1)

1: Zhang Te had sent the representative to Zhuge Ke only to allow time to fix the northeast corner, which Ke’s army had nearly penetrated, and had never planned on surrender.

Outraged at Zhang Te’s deceit, Zhuge Ke ordered a fresh assault on Xincheng and personally led the attack himself. But from the town’s walls, volley upon volley of arrows rained down on Ke’s troops—one hit Zhuge Ke square in the forehead and he tumbled from his horse. Ke’s commanders rushed to his aid and escorted him back to camp, but his wound was wide open and streaming with blood.

After some time, Zhuge Ke’s wound began to heal and he immediately proposed another attack on Xincheng to his commanders. One minor officer told him, “The men are too sick to fight.”

Roused to anger, Zhuge Ke said, “The next to speak of sickness dies!”

The commanders present were silent after this statement. Several days later, it was reported that a score of soldiers, as well as Field Marshall Cai Lin, had defected to Wei. Shocked by the news, Zhuge Ke made a personal inspection of his camps: the faces of his troops bore the marks of severe illness and were extremely pale. Fearing for their health, Zhuge Ke had his army withdraw back to southern territory, but in their retreat, the southerners were attacked by enemy General Guanqiu Jian and lost many.

In the Southland, Zhuge Ke was too humiliated at his failed expedition to appear in court, and instead feigned illness and stayed at his home. The south’s ruler, Sun Liang, as well as civil and military officials, visited Ke regularly to pay their respects and offer their company. Fearful of public censure, Zhuge Ke made a thorough investigation of all offences committed in the south—minor offenders were sent to the border, while major offenders were dually executed to set an example. Zhuge Ke also appointed Zhang Yue and Zhu En, two of his most trusted commanders, to direct the royal guard and had them use it as his personal police force. These moves paralyzed the ranks of officialdom with fear. (2)

2: At this point, Zhuge Ke’s mental condition was becoming poorer by the day, and he often had trouble concentrating.

One day, Zhuge Ke left his house and entered his courtyard to find a man garbed in hemp and wearing white mourning cloth. Because the man was trespassing, Zhuge Ke questioned him harshly, but the man was too shocked at Ke’s appearance to respond. After being taken for interrogation, the stranger said, “I have come to find a Buddhist monk to perform a memorial service for my father, who has recently passed away. I saw the temple and went in, never dreaming it was the imperial guardian’s residence—I have no idea how I came to be here.”

Angrily, Zhuge Ke summoned his gate guards and questioned them. “There are several dozen of us,” one said. “We carry spears and secure the gates. We are never away from them, not for a moment. We never saw a single person come through.”

Zhuge Ke was furious at this lapse in security and had his entire guard executed, as well as the man who had been dressed in white.

The same night that he had the guards and trespasser killed, Zhuge Ke was unable to sleep. Dead into the night, Ke heard peals similar to thunder in the main hall and went to inspect their cause. He found that the main beam of his house had been split in two and, startled, returned to his bedchamber. A freezing gust of wind blew by as he entered, and he could see the man in white and all his guards standing before him, heads in hands, chiding him for having them executed. Zhuge Ke, profoundly frightened by the scene, fainted and revived only in the morning. Once he awoke, he immediately headed to his basin to wash himself, but the scent of blood emanated from the water. Ke insisted that his maids change the water and had them do so dozens of times, but the odour still remained. Zhuge Ke thereon became tormented with fear and perplexity every day.

Some time later, an envoy from Sun Liang arrived summoning Zhuge Ke to a royal banquet. Ke ordered his carriage readied, but before he left his home, a tawny dog gripped his clothing with its teeth and yelped as if it were in tears. “Is this dog trifling with me?” he said angrily and ordered the animal driven off. Zhuge Ke then mounted his carriage and set off for the palace, but as he was travelling, a white rainbow similar to the one he had seen on his campaign against Wei appeared. As Ke was observing the spectacle, his commander Zhang Yue arrived and whispered into his ear, “This banquet in the palace—who knows what it bodes? Perhaps it would be wiser for Your Lordship not to go.”

On this advice, Zhuge Ke decided to turn his carriage back, but he had only made a few dozen paces when Sun Jun and Teng Yin rode up beside him. “Why has the imperial uncle turned back?” they asked.

“My stomach began to ache suddenly,” Zhuge Ke replied. “I cannot enter the Son of Heaven’s presence.”

“Since the army’s return,” Teng Yin said, “the court has yet to hear your account of events. A grand banquet is therefore being held for you during which matters of state will also be taken up. Although you may feel some discomfort, Imperial Guardian, still you should force yourself to make the trip somehow.”

Zhuge Ke consented and, accompanied by Zhang Yue, followed Sun Jun and Teng Yin into the palace. Arriving there, Zhuge Ke presented himself to the Southland’s present ruler, Sun Liang, and performed the prescribed ritual. Zhuge Ke then took his seat at the table, but when offered wine declined out of suspicion of it being poisoned, saying, “My health is not good enough.”

“Imperial Guardian,” Sun Jun said, “you often take medical wine at home. Would you like to have some brought?”

Feeling at ease again, Zhuge Ke agreed and had some of the medicine fetched from his home, which he drank without worry. After the wine had gone around several times, Sun Liang rose claiming to have business to attend to. As he did, Sun Jun approached Zhuge Ke with a knife in hand. “The Son of Heaven has issued an edict to execute a rebel traitor!” he shouted. Zhuge Ke panicked, flung down his cup and attempted to draw his sword, but before he could defend himself, Sun Jun stabbed and killed him. (3) Ke’s corpse was wrapped in reed mats, carted away, and thrown into the unmarked burial pits of Stone Ridge. Zhuge Ke’s family, young and old alike, were also executed that same week. It was winter, the tenth month of the second year of Jian Xing, AD 253.

3: Sun Jun bore a grudge against Zhuge Ke for having him replaced as the head of the Royal Guard. Teng Yin, who had also played a part in Ke’s death, did so because he had always been at odds with Ke.

When Zhuge Ke’s father, Zhuge Jin, was still alive, he had observed that Ke was a man who let his brilliance show too completely, and he had sighed as he reflected, “This is not a son who will preserve the clan.”

Zhang Qi, who was a palace director serving the kingdom of Wei, had also once said to Sima Shi, “Zhuge Ke will not live long.” When asked why, Qi explained, “His prestige constitutes a threat to his lord—how long can he survive?”

In Zhuge Ke’s death, both of these predictions had proven all too true.

In AD 256, Sun Jun died of illness and his paternal cousin, Sun Chen, took on his position and responsibilities. Both were revered as traitors by those in the Southland, while the memory of Zhuge Ke always lived on as one of loyalty despite the grounds of Sun Jun’s executing him. In AD 258, Sun Chen deposed Sun Liang and placed Sun Xiu on the throne. In that same year, Sun Chen was assassinated by Xiu and Ding Feng for treason, and Sun Jun’s corpse was dug up and mutilated for the same reasons. Zhuge Ke’s body, as well as those of his family, was reburied in a newly constructed tomb to commemorate his loyalty to the south, and thus Ke was never considered as a traitor to Wu.

Copyright © 2005 Sam Wrest
Based on the novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong