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Z: Zhuge Liang

A statue of Zhuge Liang

Ask a few Chinese for their view on the smartest guy in history and the chances are that the responses would be unanimous: Zhuge Liang. The military strategist and statesman is so well-known that even students with a lesser knowledge of history have heard of him. Zhuge has become synonymous with intelligence in Chinese culture and he is also seen as the embodiment of many core Confucian virtues.

Who was he?
Zhuge was born in the year 181 when the Han empire (206 BC-220 AD) was crumbling. From the wreckage emerged three kingdoms and a gaggle of competing warlords. As a result, the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) became one of the bloodiest chapters in Chinese history. Life expectancy fell to as low as 26 and three-quarters of the Middle Kingdom’s population would perish.

Yet centuries later the struggle between the warring kingdoms was turned into a tale that became a national favourite. The era’s more heroic figures were deified and their legends passed on from generation to generation.

For example, Guan Yu, a general under the warlord Liu Bei and the kingdom of Shu Han, is still worshipped by many Chinese today as the god of righteousness and loyalty.

Zhuge Liang, Liu’s chief of staff, is another of the legendary figures from the period. Many temples in Sichuan, where Liu’s Shu Han kingdom was founded, still worship him too.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Much of the folklore about Zhuge stems back to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s four great works of classical literature. It was penned by Luo Guanzhong some 1,300 years after Zhuge had died.

According to the novel, every warlord at the time wanted his help. But he decided to back Liu, one of the weakest figures, because he believed him to be the legitimate heir to the Han throne.

During Zhuge’s first encounter with Liu, he predicted that the nation would split into three and advised Liu to take control of Shu Han so that he could become a contender for power. Zhuge then helped him do precisely that and thanks to his strategic counsel, Liu won all of his major battles, despite starting out with little money and territory, and no proper army of his own.

Zhuge was head and shoulders above all others when it came to predicting future events, as well as how rivals and allies would react in critical moments. Romance of the Three Kingdoms also depicts him as a technological genius who invented lethal weapons. He could even predict the weather conditions (and sometimes alter them) to put his troops in a more favourable position. In other words, he was almost superhuman in his know-how and influence.

How does Zhuge Liang fare in official history?

The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms, written by Chen Shou in the third century (about a thousand years before the novel the Romance of the Three Kingdoms was published), is a more recognised official history of the period. Yet Zhuge Liang was highly rated by Chen as a politician as well. Why? Shu Han was the weakest of the three kingdoms. Yet as chancellor Zhuge was able to turn the mountainous region into a thriving economy, which provided the resources for the kingdom to confront its stronger rivals of Wei (in the north) and Wu (in the east), and to stay competitive for nearly half a century.

In fact, Chen’s imperial masters (ergo employers) were rivals of Zhuge who had fought against him for decades. That being the case, Chen could only give Zhuge restrained praise in his official history. As such, many of the legends about Zhuge started among the more appreciative people of Shu Han and were spread through word-of-mouth. These tales became folklore across China more widely, and were increasingly exaggerated as they passed from genetation to generation. Zhuge and his most important sidekick Guan Yu became almost godlike figures.

Many idioms that are still used today are attributed to Zhuge and his genius. One example: “To borrow arrows with a thatched boat” refers to a ruse in which he sent a boat towards his enemy ahead of the Battle of the Red Cliff. Low on arrows, he knew enemy archers would bombard it as it sailed towards them. Having padded it with thatch, the boat collected their arrows, which he then gave to his own troops. Nowadays the expression is dropped into conversations among business bosses debating how to source capital from others.

A lasting legacy

Far fewer people have read The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms than the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or at least its most celebrated chapters. That means that the novel has been much more influential. Nurhaci, the key Manchurian chieftain who laid the groundwork for the foundation of the Qing empire (he reigned between 1616 and 1626), was said to have learned his military strategies by reading about Zhuge Liang, for instance. And stories of the warring kingdoms also live on today, including as analogies for the rivalry between the ‘BAT’ giants of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, who have battled it out for dominance from their respective kingdoms of online search, e-commerce, and social media and gaming.


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