Three Kingdoms History: Way of the General

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The Way of the General

Translator’s Introduction

Authored by Zhuge Liang (Kongming)
Translated by Thomas Cleary

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Translator’s Introduction
Zhuge Liang, commonly known by his style, Kongming, was born around the year 180, the son of a provincial official in the later days of the Han dynasty. At that time, the dynasty was thoroughly decrepit, nearly four hundred years old and on the verge of collapse. For most of his adult life, Zhuge Liang was to play a major role in the power struggles and civil wars that followed the demise of the ancient Han.

Orphaned at an early age, he and his younger brother were taken in by an uncle, a local governor in southern China. When this uncle was replaced with another officer, he and his charges went to join an old family friend, a member of the powerful Liu clan who was currently a governor in central China. The imperial house of Han was a branch of the greater Liu clan, which as a whole retained considerable wealth, prestige, and influence even after the passing of the Han dynasty itself.

Zhuge Liang’s uncle died during his sojourn in central China. Then in his twenties, Zhuge stayed there, supporting himself by farming. According to Record of the Three Kingdoms, at this early age Zhuge Liang was aware of his own genius, but few took him seriously; he was, after all, an orphan and subsistence farmer. His fortunes took a turn, however, when the great warrior Liu Bei, founder of the kingdom of Shu in western China, garrisoned in the area where Zhuge Liang was living.

A member of the influential Xu clan, which produced many outstanding Taoists of the early churches, recommended Zhuge to the warrior chief. According to Record of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge’s friend said to Liu Bei, “Zhuge Kongming is a dragon in repose - would you want to meet him?”

Liu Bei said, “You come with him.”

The friend said, “It is possible to go see this man, but you cannot make him come to you. You, General, should go out of your way to look in on him.”

The record states that Liu Bei finally went to see Zhuge Liang, adding that he had to go no fewer than three times before the young genius agreed to meet the warrior chieftain. When at length they were together, the record continues, Liu Bei dismissed everyone else so that he could be alone with Zhuge Liang. Then he said, “The house of Han is collapsing; treacherous officials are usurping authority; the emperor is blinded by the dust.” The warrior lord went on to solicit Zhuge’s advice.

Zhuge Liang told Liu Bei: “Ever since the beginning of the current power struggle for what is left of the Han empire, many prefectures and districts have been taken over by such men. If you compare current contenders for national power, one of them - the notorious Cao Cao - was once an unknown with a small force, yet he was able to overcome another warlord with a much large following. The reason the weaker was able to prevail over the stronger is not simply a matter of celestial timing, but also of human planning. Cao Cao now has a million followers; he controls the emperor and gives orders to the lords - he can not really be opposed.”

“Another warlord, in control of the area east of the river, is already the third generation hegemon there. The territory is rugged and the people are loyal to him; the intelligent and capable serve in his employ. He would be a suitable ally, but he cannot be counted on”

“Here there is ease of communications and transport. It is a land suitable for military operations. If its ruler cannot keep it this would seem to be a boon to a general. Do you have any interest in it? To the southwest are precipitous natural barriers beyond which lie vast fertile plains. That land is called the heavenly precinct, and it is where the Han dynasty really began.”

“Now the governor of that region is ignorant and weak. To the north is the stronghold of the independent Taoist cult of Celestial Masters. The people are robust and the land is rich, but they do not know how to take care of it. Men of knowledge and ability want to find an enlightened leader.”

“General, you are a descendant of the imperial family, and are known everywhere for integrity and justice. You gather heroic men and eagerly seek the wise. If you occupy this whole region, guard the crags and defiles, establish good relations with the foreign tribes to the west and south, make friends with the warlord east of the river, and work to perfect internal organization, then when there is a upheaval in the total political situation and you mobilize your armies, the common people will surely welcome you with food and drink. If you can really do this, hegemony can be established, and the house of Han can be revived.”

Liu Bei agreed, and it turned out as planned.

Zhuge became one of his top strategists since then.

The intrigues of the era of the Three Kingdoms are too complex to detail here; indeed, they fill the one hundred chapters of the massive neoclassic historical novel Tales of the Three Kingdom. Suffice it to say here that the time was one of constant turmoil, tension, and strife. In the midst of unending warfare among the three kingdoms, Zhuge Liang was appointed to positions of highest responsibility in both civil and military leadership.

When Liu Bei died, his heir was still young, so Zhuge Liang also served as the de facto regent for the new king as well as a top general and strategist. He never fell in battle, but he did die on a campaign, garrisoned in the field. Carrying burdens enough to kill two men, Zhuge Liang succumbed to illness at the age of fifty-four. Immortalized in literature for his intelligence and humanity, he was greatly admired as a warrior and administrator. His last will and testament, addressed to the young ruler of Shu, illustrates the thought and character of this remarkable individual: “It seems to me that I am a simpleton by nature. Having run into the troubles of the times, I mobilized an army on an expedition north. Before being able to achieve complete success, I unexpectedly became mortally ill, and now I am on the brink of death.”

“I humbly pray that the ruler will purify his heart, minimize his desires, restrain himself and love the common people, convey respect to the former ruler, spread humanness through the land, promote conscientious individualists in order to get wise and good people into position of responsibility, and throw out traitors and calumniators in order to make the manners of the people more substantial.”

“I have eight hundred mulberry trees (MD: actually they are silkworm-feeding trees) and eight acres of thin fields, so my children and grandchildren are self-sufficient in food and clothing. I am abroad, without any particular accoutrements; I wear government-issue clothing and eat government-issue food, and do not have any other source of income for my personal use. When I die, do not let there be any extra cotton on the corpse, or any special burial objects, for which I would be indebted to the nation.”

As this testament shows, there is a strong undercurrent of Taoist thought in Zhuge Liang’s attitude toward life and work. This undercurrent is even more evident in his letter of advice to his nephew and his son. To this nephew he wrote: “Aspirations should remain lofty and far-sighted. Look to the precedents of the wise. Detach from emotions and desires; get rid of any fixations. Elevate subtle feelings to presence of mind and sympathetic sense. Be patient in tight situations as well as easy one; eliminate all pettiness.”

“Seek knowledge be questioning widely; set aside aversion and reluctance. What loss is there in dignity, what worry is there of failure?”

“If your will is not strong, if your thought does not oppose injustice, you will fritter away your life stuck in the commonplace, silently submitting to the bonds of emotion, forever cowering before mediocrities, never escaping the downward flow.”

To his son, he gave him this advice: “The practice of a cultivated man is to refine himself by quietude and develop virtue by frugality. With out detachment, there is no way to clarify the will; without serenity, there is no way to get far.”

“Study requires calm, talent requires study. Without study there is no way to expand talent; without calm there is no way to accomplish study.”

“If you are laze, you cannot do thorough research; if you are impulsive, you cannot govern your nature.”

“The years run off with the hours, aspirations flee with the years. Eventually one ages and collapses. What good will it do to lament over poverty?”

Finally, Zhuge’s own motto illustrates a central quality for which he is especially honored, the quality of sincerity. Zhuge’s honesty and integrity in public and private life are legendary, and his writings on social and political organization show that he considered sincerity fundamental to success in these domains. He formulated the rule of his life in this motto: “Opportunistic relationships 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, becomes increasingly stable as it passes through ease and danger.”

The following essays on leadership and organization are taken from a collection of works by and about Zhuge Liang, Records of the Loyal Lord of Warriors, as preserved in the Taoist canon.

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Authored by Zhuge Liang (Kongming)
Translation Copyright © Thomas Cleary