Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.
He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.
- Sun Tzu
In the history of warfare, attacking and defending has often been a straightforward and bloody exercise, simply charging ahead or digging in and resisting. But the brilliant generals in both East and the West have been more creative, preferring to use their knowledge of the enemy to gain their victories, instead of the bodies of their men.
Hsiahou Tê Follows the Rules
Hsiahou Tê, who guarded the graneries of his army from a hilltop defensive position, watched the approach of his opponent with amusement.
He could see Huang Chung knew little about warfare, otherwise he would not be so foolish as to rush into an attack after just completing a long, tiring march. Confident of victory, Hsiahou Tê sent out three companies under Han Hao to defeat Huang Chung.
But Huang Chung was tougher than Hsiahou Tê figured, and killed Han Hao. This so discouraged the companies commanded by Han Hao that Huang Chung's men were able to push them back up the hill. Hsiahou Tê sent additional units to support them.
With many of his men engaged, Hsiahou Tê suddenly spotted a huge red glow coming from behind the hill. Apparently fearing that someone was burning the army's stores, he hastily gathered the men about him and marched toward the blaze, only to be attacked by a unit that Huang Chung had ordered to slip behind the hill before he began marching toward Hsiahou Tê. The unit had carried bales of brush to create the blaze.
Hsiahou Tê was killed and the unit came around the hill and attacked Hsiahou Tê's men from the rear. They broke and ran.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 112-113
K'ung-ming's Special Source of Supply
Chou Yü, an advisor and general high in the government of the Kingdom of Wu, was very jealous of K'ung-ming, a fellow adviser.
K'ung-ming, who was far more skillful than Chou Yü, was on loan to the Wu from warlord Yuan-tê. But Chou Yü was jealous and decided to do away with K'ung-ming.
But just to murder him would be unacceptable; and he feared his military opponent, Ts'ao Ts'ao, would laugh at him.
So he set a trap. Summoning all the officers of his army, he asked K'ung-ming what the best weapons would be for a battle on the water.
"On the great river arrows are the best," K'ung-ming replied.
And Chou Yü agreed, then asked K'ung-ming to supply him with 100,000 arrows.
K'ung-ming asked when he would need them by, and Chou Yü (who planned to withhold the materials he would need to make the arrows) said 10 days would be fine.
No, K'ung-ming replied, a battle could be expected before then, so he would have them in three days.
Chou Yü was delighted, seeing he would have an ideal excuse to execute K'ung-ming when he failed to produce the arrows. But taking every precaution, Chou Yü ordered the workmen to delay the work as much as possible.
But instead of approaching the workmen, K'ung-ming secretly spoke with a friend, one of the naval commanders, asking him to have 20 ships ready in three days, covered with cotton screens and bundles of straw.
In the foggy darkness on the morning of the third day, K'ung-ming set sail with his 20 ships toward Ts'ao Ts'ao's naval camp, where the sailors beat drums and shouted.
Ts'ao Ts'ao's commanders, suspecting an ambush in the fog, decided not to engage K'ung-ming's small flotilla, but instead sent six companies of archers to the bank and began shooting at the ships.
K'ung-ming ordered his ships closer, so more arrows struck them and stuck in the straw and cotton.
Then with the sun rising and burning off the fog, the flotilla sailed off, shouting out, "We thank you, Sir Minister (Ts'ao Ts'ao), for the arrows."
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 481-485
Chuko Hsü Hurries Home
Chiang Wei was retreating and trapped, with a force that had slipped behind him holding the bridge on his line of retreat, and another force in pursuit of him.
But Chiang Wei had a clever subordinate, who suggested he pretend to march against Yungchou, thereby threatening the headquarters of Chuko Hsü, who commanded the force holding the bridge. Because the bridge was so strongly held, he reasoned, the town must be weakly held.
Chiang Wei liked the idea, and began marching towards Yungchou.
When Chuko Hsü saw Yungchou was threatened, he marched quickly to protect his headquarters, leaving just a small force at the bridge.
Suddenly, Chiang Wei turned about and marched quickly back to the bridge, pushed aside the small guarding force, and continued his retreat unhampered.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 578
K'ung-ming Cooks up a Plan
To mislead Ssuma I, who expected him to retreat, and to prevent a pursuit during his retreat, K'ung-ming decided to rearrange his cooking stoves.
K'ung-ming decided to retreat a fifth of his army at a time, but to increase each day the number of stoves in the abandoned camps to make it appear that the strength of his army was being increased instead of decreased.
Suspecting one of K'ung-ming's ambushes, Ssuma I was wary when he heard some of K'ung-ming's camps were empty. He and a small reconoitering party examined the camps and counted the stoves.
Later he scouted the camps again, but this time counted 10 percent more stoves. He suspected that when his scouting parties left, the camps were being reoccupied by Shu troops, and that there were more men than before.
Ssuma assumed it was one of K'ung-ming's many stratagems, and refused to pursue, allowing the Shu army to escape without loosing a man.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 425-426
Yuan-tê's Three-Point Attack
Ts'ao Ts'ao was determined to take the town of Chingchou. Therefore he strengthened his army at nearby Fanch 'êng to three legions and put Ts'ao Jên in command.
After sending out spies (and apparently receiving their report) two of Ts'ao Jên's subordinates warned him that their opponent was strengthening his forces at Hsinyeh, preparing an attack.
They asked for a small force to attack Hsinyeh. But instead of using the bulk of his force to ensure a victory, Ts'ao Jên gave them a half legion, which was placed under the command of Lü K'uang.
However, scouts reported the advance of Lü K'uang's force and the enemy commander, Yuan-tê, was able to prepare for its coming.
Yüan-tê divided his forces into three parts. The main unit, under his command, advanced directly, meeting the enemy at the border. Two other units circled around the enemy on either flank.
When the two forces met, one of Yuan-tê's captains killed Lü K'uang in single combat, then Yuan-tê attacked and forced the enemy army (now under the command of Lü Hsiang) into retreat. As it fell back, suddenly one of the flanking units attacked from the side, killing half the retreating men and forcing them to flee rapidly. About 10 li (3.1 miles) down the road, the fleeing troops ran into the second flanking force, which attacked, further devastating the retreating army and killing Lü Hsiang.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 374-375
K'ung-ming's Lute Defense
One of K'ung-ming's most brilliant exploits was brought about with just his lute, a few street sweepers, and the too-clever conclusion of his opponent.
In desperate straits, with his army in retreat and the town of Hsich'êng almost without defenders, K'ung-ming gave his orders. He commanded all the army banners removed from the walls of the town, for each of the few soldiers remaining in the city to keep absolute silence, for the gates to be flung open and for 20 of his troops to be dressed in common clothes and set to work sweeping the streets.
With these preparations complete, K'ung-ming sat on the wall of the city, smiling and playing his lute in front of a stick of incense with a couple of boys in attendance.
When his scouts reported this sight, Ssuma I, the commander of the Wei troops, rode forward to inspect the city.
Ssuma I, knowing K'ung-ming's reputation for subtle and complex ruses, was suspicious and concluded it was another of his clever tricks, so he withdrew his army.
When a subordinate asked why, he replied: "Chuko (another name for K'ung-ming) is always most careful and runs no risks. Those open gates undoubtedly mean an ambush, and if our men enter the city they will fall victims to his guile. How can you know? No; our course is to retire."
K'ung-ming laughed and clapped his hands as he saw his opponent retreating. Later he explained that while Ssuma I's assessment that he did not run risks was correct, "this time there was no help for it."
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 372-373
Li Kuang's Bluff
Having stumbled upon a unit of several thousand Hsiung-nu horsemen with his troop of 100 cavalry, General Li Kuang was in a tight spot.
But strangely, when the Hsiung-nu saw him and his men, they quickly rode for a defensive position on a nearby hill, apparently believing Li Kuang's unit was just an advance guard, or bait for a trap.
Li Kuang's men urged him to order a quick retreat, but he realized they could not escape and would be quickly overtaken and killed. Instead, he ordered his unit to advance within two li (.62 mile) of the Hsiung-nu, dismount and remove the horses' saddles.
The Hsiung-nu, even more suspecting a trap, sent out a scout, but Li Kuang and about ten men mounted their horses and chased the scout. They killed him, then returned, removed the saddles, let the horses loose and lay on the ground.
With darkness coming on, the Hsiung-nu decided the Han army, which they still thought must be nearby in hiding, was planning a night attack, so they withdrew and Li Kuang and his men escaped.
RGHC, Vol. 2, pgs. 142-143. Also: ACL, pgs. 124-125
Ssuma I's Army Fails a Technology Test
Copying without knowing exactly what you are copying can sometimes be dangerous, as this clearly fictional account suggests.
Clever K'ung-ming had invented a species of mechanical wooden oxen and horses to transport supplies for his army. The advantage of these "animals" was that they apparently ran without fuel or even supernatural assistance.
Be that as it may, K'ung-ming intentionally let some of these animals fall into the hands of his opponent, Ssuma I.
Ssuma I promptly set his men to work and made a couple thousand of the wooden animals during the next 15 days, creating his own wooden transport service.
With Ssuma I's transport train in operation, K'ung-ming sent a company of men disguised as enemy soldiers to mingle with the Wei soldiers in charge of the wooden horses and oxen.
The disguised men went to meet an enemy convoy and pretended to be an escort to lead the supply wagons on to the camp. After they had mingled with the men of Wei, they suddenly attacked and drove them away, then headed the convoy towards the Shu camp.
A party of Wei soldiers then set out to retrieve the convoy, but as they approached, the disguised Shu soldiers flipped the tongues of the wooden animals over - turning them off - then ran away.
The Wei soldiers did not pursue, but busied themselves trying unsuccessfully to get the animals started again.
In the midst of their perplexity, two troops of Shu soldiers burst out of hiding, attacking and driving the Wei men back and recapturing the wooden animals, activating them and turning them again toward the Shu camp. Seeing the supply train getting away, the Wei commander, Kuo Huai, attacked again.
But then smoke blew out of the woods and another group of Shu soldiers, these dressed with terrifying masks and beastly costumes, burst out at the Wei soldiers. Frightened by these "supernatural" foes, the men froze and didn't dare attack.
Hearing that Kuo Huai was in trouble, Ssuma I hurried to his aid, but fell into a Shu ambush along the road and barely escaped. And the convoy, of course, proceeded placidly to the Shu camp.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 446-449
K'ung-ming's Last Defense
Even in death K'ung-ming was a powerful general.
Anticipating that he would die and that his army would have to retreat in the face of an aggressive pursuit, K'ung-ming planned an escape.
Upon his death, the army of Shu quietly crept out of its positions, moving toward the rear, with Chiang Wei covering the retreat.
Learning of K'ung-ming's death, Ssuma I fell upon the Shu camp, only to find it deserted.
But thinking K'ung-ming dead, he no longer feared the Shu army, and pursued boldly. But suddenly, a signal bomb exploded, a shout rose from the rear guard of the retreating army, and it turned to face Ssuma I.
And there, riding his little carriage, with his feather fan in his hand, sat K'ung-ming.
And Chiang Wei shouted, "Do not try to run away, O rebel; you have fallen into one of the minister's traps."
Ssuma I and the army of Wei, easily believing they had indeed fallen into another of K'ung-ming's ambushes, ran in terror. And the soldiers of Shu continued their retreat in peace, taking their wooden statue of K'ung-ming with them.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 468
© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.