Zhuge Liang, the Chancellor of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (221-280 AD) in China, is one of the better known military strategists in the country’s history. The story of Zhuge’s Empty Fort Strategy is one of his most famous exploits.
After the Shu were defeated by Wei, another of the Three Kingdoms, in the Battle of Jieting, Wei’s next target was Xicheng. If Xicheng fell, Shu would be in a dire situation. But left with only a handful of soldiers in the city, there was little chance of withstanding the Wei army.
Knowing that Wei’s commander Sima Yi was a cunning and suspicious man, Zhuge ordered the soldiers to open all the gates in Xicheng and dressed them in ordinary clothes. They were told to pretend to clean the streets at each entrance gate. When the preparation was complete, Zhuge sat high up on the city walls calmly playing an instrument. Leaving no detail unattended, he made sure sticks of incenses were burning.
When the Wei commander Sima Yi approached the fort with his army, he was baffled. Having personally witnessed a series of Zhuge’s strategies for ambush and deception, Sima assumed that the city’s empty appearance could only be a ploy to draw his troops into an ambush. He quickly ordered his troops to retreat.
The lesson? If you’re going to bluff, bluff big. But it might not work for ever. Think Bernie Madoff and his Empty Fund Strategy.
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