History Lessons

Zhao Kuo

The failed military strategist

Zhao Kuo

The battle of Changping

Zhao She was a well respected general in Zhao, one of the seven states in the Warring States Period. His son, Zhao Kuo, started learning Sun Tzu’sThe Art of War during his childhood and knew the strategies inside and out. Even though he’d never fought a war, Zhao Kuo believed that his superior knowledge of military strategies made him unbeatable.

His father privately told his wife he would not let their son command an army, “To win a war takes more than just learning the theories. Kuo knows all the strategies and thinks he can win a war easily. I hope our state never appoints him as a commander. If so, he will surely lead our troops to doom.”

In 259 BC, the army of Qin invaded Zhao, and the two armies met at Changping (today’s Shanxi). By that time Zhao She had died so the King of Zhao ordered Lian Po to take command of Zhao’s army. Despite the Qin’s army being superior, Lian managed to establish a strong defensive position. The battle soon turned into a stalemate that lasted for three years.

To break the deadlock, Qin sent a spy over to Zhao to spread a rumour saying that the only thing that Qin feared was Zhao Kuo taking charge.

Upon hearing this, the King of Zhao quickly replaced Lian with Zhao Kuo as the commander. Zhao, disregarding Lian’s defensive strategy, immediately launched an attack against the Qin. The result? As his father had predicted, Zhao Kuo lost. The state of Zhao never regained prominence after defeat at the Battle of Changping.

The story of Zhao Kuo became a popular Chinese idiom, that warned against “Fighting a Battle on Paper.”

The lesson: there is no substitute for real experience. Beware, perhaps, the strategy of a thousand Powerpoint presentations. In today’s world, Zhao Kuo might have been conducting classes as a business school professor.

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