The Art of the General: Strategic War in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by John Owen Theobald


Early in the 3rd Century, China’s powerful Han Dynasty collapsed. The tumultuous aftermath is explored in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which follows the struggles of the now fragmented kingdoms (Shu, Wei, and Wu) and their many opportunistic warlords. Known as one of the ‘Four Great Classical Novels’ of Chinese literature, Three Kingdoms is as significant to China as Homer is to Europe. Very complex and incredibly long – the most recent English translation runs to four volumes and 2339 pages[1] – one clear constant runs throughout this epic work: great achievements are borne from cunning and strategy as often as from military might.


Written centuries after the events portrayed, the details are drawn from historical sources such as Chen Shou’s Records of the Three Kingdoms (3rd Century) and Liu Yiqing’s A New Account of Tales of the World (430 AD).[1] There is also a healthy injection of legend and myth, including ordinary folk volunteering to quell the rebellion, oaths of eternal brotherhood sworn in peach orchards, beautiful seductresses sacrificing themselves for the greater good, and swashbuckling heroes embarking on escapist adventures. Most of all, they are stories of the cunning schemes, clever ploys, and brave ruses of these historical figures. Chapter titles include, “Jiang Gan Victim of a Ruse,” “Zhunge Liang Talks Cunningly to Lu Su: Zhao Yun, By a Ruse, Captures Yang Kui,” “Zhang Song Turns the Tables on Yang Xiu.” This is war as strategy, and the generals are the masters.

The major conflict of the novel is between Liu Bei, portrayed as the legitimate successor of Han, and the powerful northern warlord Cao Cao, seen as the usurper. Upon losing an early battle to Cao Cao, Liu Bei makes an emotionally charged but tactical decision. He retreats, but withdraws together with his people. When his generals fear the danger of such an action, Liu Bei responds, “The human factor is key to any undertaking. How can we abandon those who have committed themselves to us?” (Ch 41). Showing such benevolence toward his soldiers would soon reap great benefits.

The decisive meeting between the two sides takes place on the bank of the Yangtze River (208-9 AD). This confrontation sets the allied forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan (50,000 men) against the numerically superior forces of Cao Cao (220,000 men). The battle is greatly romanticized in Three Kingdoms (and elsewhere)[2] for the strategies employed by the opposing generals.

A spy is unearthed in the camp of the southern warlords, but instead of taking direct action, Liu Bei and Sun Quan devise a plan. One of their top generals is dragged before the camp and ruthlessly beaten. The spy duly reports this scene across the water to Cao Cao. Later, when Cao sees the humiliated general’s ship sailing toward him, he is expecting a defector, not an explosive-laden ship that sets much of his fleet on fire and scorches the very cliffs: “It seemed as if the universe was filled with flame” (the conflict is known as the Battle of the Red Cliffs).[3]


Panic strikes the northern warlord’s camp. Though his army is vastly larger, Cao’s men suffer heavily from disease and low morale (70,000 or so were impressed troops from previously conquered armies; he also has not earned Liu Bei’s moral legitimacy, at once point even heard to cry out, “Better to wrong the world than have it wrong me!”). The disaster of the fleet becomes a tipping point for the army.

Cao Cao flees, but uses a bold strategy even in his retreat. When his men ask him why he chooses to escape along the trail that shows evidence of smoke (and therefore enemy soldiers), he answers: “The Book of War says that hollow as solid and solid as hollow. That Zhunge Liang is very subtle and has sent men to make those fires so that we should not go that way. He has laid an ambush on the high road. I have made up my mind and I will not fall a victim to his wiles” (523).


Cao Cao falls victim to the double-bluff. Before long, Liu Bei’s best warrior, Lord Guan, rides down the southern warlord and his final 300 men. Surrounded and unable to muster the strength to fight, the soldiers instead put forth a plan to their leader.

‘How can we fight?’ Chang Yu said, “Lord Guan is known to disdain the high and mighty but show compassion towards the humble. He defies the strong but never beats the weak […] In the past, Your Excellency showed him great kindness. If Your Excellency in person negotiates with him, we might still escape. (Chapter 49)

Cao Cao agrees, and when Lord Guan approaches, he bows respectfully.

‘Don’t you remember that you slew my commanders at five gates? Heroes value morality. You know the Annals of Spring and Autumn so well. You must remember the story of Yugongzhisi?’

6-theobaldAppealing to the warrior’s compassion, Cao reminds him of his past kindnesses and the commanders he has slain. But his check-mate move is to invoke the celebrated Chinese tale.

The story of Yugongzhisi tells of the eponymous famous archer, who was ordered to hunt down the master archer, Zizhuoruzi. Once he does, he finds Zizhuoruzi seriously ill and unable to fight back. Yugongzhisi removes the arrowhead from his arrow, takes aim, and shoots Zizhuoruzi with a headless arrow. Declaring the mission complete, he leaves.

The strategy came from his men, but it was Cao Cao who thought to add the story, appealing to the warrior’s sense of heroism, honour, and compassion. With a deep sigh, Lord Guan lets his enemy escape.

Thus the generals return to their drawing boards, and the fate of the kingdom rests in the balance.

This is the seventh installment in the year long series War and Literature in the Western World by John Owen TheobaldJohn, originally from the East Coast of Canada, holds a PhD from the historic University of St. Andrews and now lives in London, England. 


All images courtesy of Wiki Commons 1) Three Brothers; 2), Sacrificing to heaven and earth, the oath at the peach garden, 1591;  3) Photo of the traditional site of Chibi, south of Wulin. Taken by Yeu Ninje, 2003; 4) Portrait of Pang De; 5) Zhuge Liang, one of the greatest strategists of post-Han China, image published 1921.

[1] The Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng wrote that the novel was 70% fact and 30% fiction. Roberts (trans), Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel (1991), 980. See also Three Kingdoms and Chinese Culture, Kimberly Besio and Constantine Tung, eds. (2007), xix-xx; 53-69.

[2] The battle served as a basis for both the first Chinese film ever made – The Battle of Dingjunshan, 1905, and the most expensive Chinese film ever made – Red Cliff, 2008 (US$80 million).

[3]  Romance of the Three Kingdoms, C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (1970),  517.




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