It is interesting to compare the descriptions of battles in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, All Men are Brothers, and Records of the Grand Historian with the descriptions of early Western battles.
As in early Western history, many of these battles were initiated by - and often decided by - individual heroes. The well-known story of Goliath challenging the army of Israel to send forth a champion to fight him is played out again and again in these stories, even down to the general advance by the army of the victorious champion.
But the differences are equally notable.
While histories of Western battles often describe the type of troops involved (infantry or cavalry), their disposition on a particular battlefield, whether one flank was weighted more heavily than another, if the troops advanced in echelon, etc., the descriptions here give very few of these details, and in some cases it is not even clear whether an action involves primarily cavalry or infantry.
This is not because battlefield tactics were unknown. Author Lo Kuan-Chung makes several allusions to a complex philosophy of field formations in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but he expresses little interest in them and gives almost no detail about them. Nor do these formations seem to have played an important role in battlefield decisions.
Instead, these stories show the importance of military psychology. Throughout these works is a pervasive emphasis on using an opponent's character flaws against him.
Is a foe headstrong? Lure him into a trap. Is he timid? Even a hollow threat against his camp or supply line will cause him to retreat. Is he fresh and eager for action? Avoid him at all costs. Is he easily angered? Taunt him into a foolish attack. Is he tired and discouraged? Attack.
This psychological focus naturally led commanders to encourage weaknesses in the opposing general or army. Thus a commander might feign timidity and cowardice, even loosing battles intentionally, to make an opponent overconfident. Or a general might try to force an opponent to repeatedly fight and march, thereby inducing weariness and discouragement.
This tactic of causing an opponent to become weary and discouraged was apparently a favorite, judging from the number of times it appears in these writings. The initial step in these fight-and-march operations was just to get the enemy army moving. The method used to accomplish this may seem uninspired; often a fake retreat, a night attack, an attack by fire, or some equally pedestrian movement.
But that was just the beginning. Once the enemy was forced or tempted to move, he would encounter battle after battle, or fall into ambush after ambush, none of them designed to completely destroy his army, but rather to increasingly disorganize, wear out and whittle away at his forces, making them easier and easier prey for each subsequent attack.
Further, the idea was never to corner an opponent, who might thereby find the courage of desperation, but to always leave a way of escape, even if it was completely ephemeral.
Despite the emphasis on clever military operations in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Lo Kuan-Chung's conclusion seems to be that morality is of far more importance than superb generals, well disciplined troops, the most skilled sailors, the best defensive terrain, or the largest population.
He shows that the three kingdoms, Wei, Shu and Wu, each had its own material advantages. Wei had the largest population. Wu had the broad Yangtze River for a northern border, plus an excellent river navy. Shu had mountainous and easily defendable terrain and the most brilliant of the military commanders, K'ung-ming.
But all these advantages, he shows, were for nothing. All the genius, lost lives, spent money and destroyed supplies led only to an extended, bloody stalemate.
What finally decided the issue was the morality of the three rulers. Throughout most of the Three Kingdoms period all three countries had fairly competent rulers, but at the close of the era only Wei had an emperor who maintained just rule throughout the kingdom and good discipline in the army.
The emperor of Shu, on the other hand, had become a lover of pleasure with no interest in wise government. And the emperor of Wu was worse. Not only was he addicted to expensive sensual pleasures, but he was cruel and suspicious as well.
In the face of this degeneracy, Wei attacked Shu, which surrendered after its pleasure-loving emperor failed to pay the slightest attention to the successive defeats of his army.
After Shu's defeat, Wei attacked Wu, which collapsed even more quickly. Many Wu military units considered Wei a welcome change from their own government, so they surrendered after just a pretence of resistance.