A Sun Tzu Companion

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A Psychological

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The Baited Trap

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The Baited Trap

Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him.
- Sun Tzu

The fish that covets bait is caught; troops who covet bait are defeated.
- Mei Yao-Ch'en

Sometimes an enemy commander will not bring his army out to fight. In the West it was Fabius, or "Fabius the Delayer," as he was called, who realized Hannibal as a superior general and wisely refrained from engaging him. In the East it was Ssuma I, who after repeated defeats adopted the stand-off approach, ultimately foiling his foe, K'ung-ming.

But when that happened, clever commanders offered their opponents a supposed advantage to do so - bait, in other words.

In these cases they would take into consideration not only the terrain and other tactical factors, but primarily the temperament of the opposing commander, and the opinion he held of them. Then they set out bait that was specially designed for their quarry, options that appeared to be both appealing and safe to their opponent. Appealing they were, but never safe.

Following are seven examples of fish that took the bait.

Chang Ho Falls Into a Fury and a Trap

K'ung-ming had to retreat from his attack on the Kingdom of Wei because of a report that Wu had attacked Shu.

Ssuma I, nervous of K'ung-ming's ability, was afraid to pursue K'ung-ming's army too closely, wisely knowing his liking for ambushes.

And this was completely correct, because K'ung-ming had indeed placed in ambush near Chienko, on the Wooden Gate Road.

To convince Ssuma I that he should pursue, K'ung-ming made an ostentacious display in Chienko, one of the towns he held, placing banners on the walls and setting fires throughout the town as though it was on fire. Apparently, he hoped Ssuma I would be convinced he was abandoning the city. Since leaving banners was a common ploy to persuade an enemy that an army was still in a city, perhaps he hoped that Ssuma would "see through" the ploy. The smoke, perhaps, was to convince him that the town had been set on fire by the retreating army, and that therefore his suspicions about the banners being a ruse were correct.

In any case, Ssuma I sent spies to check if the town was really empty, and they returned, saying it was.

Convinced by this display, Ssuma I authorized his army to move out, with the vanguard led by Chang Ho, the main body just behind and himself commanding the rear. He warned Chang Ho, however, that K'ung-ming would leave an ambush at every possible location.

Chang Ho advanced about 30 li (9.3 miles) toward Chienko, when he suddenly encountered a body of K'ung-ming's troops led by Wei Yen. He attacked and the two units fought, then Wei Yen broke off and fled, not back along the road, but to the side.

Ho advanced further, encountering Kuan Hsing; they fought and Kuan Hsing fled, pursued by Chang Ho, until he came to a densely wooded area, where he hesitated and had his men search for an ambush. Finding none, Chang Ho again advanced, unexpectedly encountering Wei Yen, who had come around by a side road to again face him.

This continued, with Chang Ho successively attacking and chasing away Wei Yen and Kuan Hsing, and Wei Yen and Kuan Hsing repeatedly working their way around by side roads to get in front of him.

As they approached the city in the gathering dark, Chang Ho was in a growing fury and blindly attacked Wei Yen, who abandoned his armor and horse and fled down the Wooden Gate Road.

Chang Ho, anxious to finally strike down Wei Yen, rode recklessly after him, when suddenly an avalanche of stones and logs blocked his way.

A shower of arrows followed, killing Chang Ho and many of his men.

The main army, just behind, came up. But realizing but it was too late, turned back.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 434-435

K'ung-ming Plays Sissy

In many battles, the character of the opposing commander was of far more importance than the number of his troops.

In this instance K'ung-ming had learned that Chang Jên, the commander in charge of the city he was beseiging, was "a man to be avoided."

"Then before we can get the city we must capture Chang," said K'ung-ming.

To do so, he examined the area around the city. On the east side, apparently out of arrow shot from the city wall, was a bridge across a river, which apparently ran approximately in a north-south direction. Running along the east side of the river was apparrently a ridge of hills.

With the geography in mind, K'ung-ming set his ambush. Hidden near the bridge he placed a troop of men, with orders to destroy the bridge as soon as Chang Jên had crossed over, and block any attempt by Chang Jên to ride north along the river.

Hidden to the east, facing the bridge, was the main body of his army in two large units. Five li (1.5 miles) south along the river K'ung-ming hid two companies of men in a stand of sedge and reeds, one on either side of the road. One company was armed with spears and the other with swords. The men with spears were told to attack only the horsemen. Then, while the riders were attempting to protect themselves, the company armed with swords would attack from the other side, hamstringing the horses. Finally, in the hills near these two companies, he hid a unit led by the terrifying Chang Fei.

With his men in place, K'ung-ming rode a little four-wheeled carriage across the bridge, leading a group of disorderly troops and playing with a hand fan while a few horsemen capered about. He demanded the city surrender.

But Chang Jên despised K'ung-ming's effeminate manner and his sloppy troops. K'ung-ming's reputation, he decided, was highly overrated. With a troop of cavalry, Chang Jên charged out of the city against him.

K'ung-ming got on a horse and retired to the far side of the bridge.

When Chang Jên pursued, he was suddenly attacked by two strong bodies of troops. He turned to retreat, but the bridge had already been destroyed. He tried to turn to the north, but the troops who had destroyed the bridge blocked his path.

Forced to the south and apparently pursued by K'ung-ming's troops, Chang Jên took the road into the sedge. Here the spearmen attacked while the swordsmen hamstrung the horses.

Chang Jên, with very few men left, decided to take the road that forked off into the hills. (Perhaps he decided there were ambushes along the river, or that he had too few men to fight in the more open area along the river, or that it would be easier to escape through the hills than along the river.) Whatever the reason, he encountered the final ambush in the hills. Chang Jên's last few men were scattered and he was captured.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 37-38

Chou Yü Uses a Wound to Win a Victory

Warned by his physician not to become angry lest a serious wound reopen, Chou Yü ignored his doctor's advice and used his condition to ambush his opponents.

He marched to the gate of his camp, where his opponents from the city of Nanchün came daily to mock and challenge Chou Yü's men to battle.

Pretending to be upset by the mockery of the Nanchün men, Chou Yü sent one of his champions out to battle a champion of Nanchün. But before the two had exchanged any blows, Chou Yü cried out and fell from his saddle, bleeding from the mouth. (How he managed the bleeding is not apparent.)

At that the men of Nanchün surged forward and a battle raged around the body of Chou Yü, but he was safely carried to his tent, where he told his commanders it was a ruse.

At his direction the commanders in the tent broke out wailing, and the soldiers outside the tent who heard the cries, guessed their general had died and took up the lament.

Then Chou Yü sent a few men to desert to the enemy army and say Chou Yü had died of his wound, a story that was easily believed since Chou Yü was known to be wounded and had been seen falling from his horse in agony.

As Chou Yü expected, Ts'ao Jên, the commander of the opposing army, decided to mount a night attack on Chou Yü's camp. (Apparently the object was to attack while Chou Yü's men were still discouraged at the loss of their commander and before the new commander had firmly established control.)

As Ts'ao Jên approached the camp at night, a signal bomb went off and Chou Yü's men, hidden on all sides, attacked and completely defeated Ts'ao Jên's raiding party.

RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 534-535

Chang Fei Uses His Reputation

General Chang Fei was angry. He had just beaten Chang Ho's army using a combined attack from front and rear. Now Ho would not come down from his heavily fortified hilltop camps. He just sat there relaxing, raging, drinking wine, listening to music, and watching his soldiers box - a mockery to Fei.

For more than 50 days Fei's troops exchanged insults with Ho's men, but they stayed in their strong stockade.

Finally Fei built a stockade of his own near Ho's camp and in Ho's view spent his days drinking himself half senseless.

Perhaps Ho thought Fei was attempting to mock him in return by relaxing in front of his face. But he, and everybody else, knew that Fei had a weakness for alcohol, and he thought Fei's mockery might give him an opportunity.

K'ung-ming, hearing of Fei's drunkenness, realized it was a ruse, and sent carts full of wine, each flying a flag on which were written in large characters that the wine was a gift for Fei and his army.

Fei accepted the wine, then sent units into hiding on either flank, ready to attack toward the camp when a red flag was displayed.

Fei's behavior was well known in Ho's camp.

"He despises me too much," Ho said, apparently thinking Fei and his army had become reckless and would probably be stone drunk before the day was out. So he prepared a night attack on Fei's camp.

As he approached the camp, he could see Fei on a couch. He rode forward and stabbed him with a spear. But it was a maniquin.

At that moment the real Fei attacked him. And at the same time Ho's reinforcements had been driven back and Fei's units had occupied Ho's three camps on the hill.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 104-106

Ssuma I is Saved by a Storm

Ssuma I, justly cautious of K'ung-ming's ability, would not be tempted into battle from his fortified position.

So K'ung-ming settled his men in the territory he had occupied, setting them to work with the farmers in their fields and making as if he planned a long stay.

Ssuma I confined himself to raids on K'ung-ming's transports, repeatedly capturing supply convoys and becoming increasingly confident. From one of the prisoners captured from a convoy, he was told K'ung-ming had moved his headquarters to Shangfang Valley from Ch'ishan, the main position, and was collecting a huge store of grain there.

Hearing this, Ssuma I decided to launch an attack on the Ch'ishan camp to force the troops in Shangfang to reinforce it, then with Shangfang denuded of troops, to quickly lead a unit there and burn the supplies K'ung-ming was collecting.

As the Wei troops approached Ch'ishan, Shu men came up to reinforce the camp, and Ssuma I thought he had succeeded in attracting the men from Shangfang. He turned off and headed for Shangfeng Valley, chasing off a small Shu force that appeared in his way.

As Ssuma I entered the valley, he sent scouts ahead, who reported seeing nothing but a few straw storehouses. Encouraged, Ssuma I rode into the valley. But when he was well inside, there arose a shout from the hills and flaming arrows and torches came down the hillsides, setting fire to the storehouses, which were actually filled with combustibles, and igniting land mines, which exploded around them.

But at that moment a storm arose and the rain doused the flames and mines, enabling Ssuma I to break through the Shu force that had blocked the entrance to the valley and return toward his camp, but found it had been occupied by a Shu force.

He retreated across the Wei River, and when his force attacking Ch'ishan heard of his defeat, it was discouraged and chased across the Wei River at great loss by the defending Shu troops.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 454-456

Li Mu Defeats the Barbarians

The Hsiung-nu, horsemen from the steppes, persistently raided into the Kingdom of Chao, but Li Mu, the commander of the frontier forces, never allowed himself to be drawn into a battle, preferring to withdraw into his fortifications each time they crossed into Chao territory.

With a system of spies and pickets giving him excellent advance warning, he was always able to retreat into his forts without loss, leaving the Hsiung-nu with nothing to capture and nobody to defeat.

After several years of these tactics, the Hsiung-nu became convinced that Li Mu was timid and unwilling to accept battle.

Then Li Mu set a trap. When his troops were well trained and he was prepared, he set out cattle and herdsmen on the pastures, where a small Hsiung-nu raiding party encountered them. When the Hsiung-nu approached, Li Mu withdrew his troops as if frightened, abandoning thousands of people and cattle to the raiders.

When the Hsiung-nu ruler heard of this easy victory, it confirmed his low opinion of Li Mu and he quickly assembled a huge horde of men and carelessly sent them into Chao. But Li Mu was ready for them, and they fell into many ambushes.

He killed more than 100,000 Hsiung-nu, defeated several barbarian tribes and established peace along the border for more than 10 years.

FLWSB, pg. 35

Pang Chuan Draws Fire

When the kingdoms of Wei and Chao made a joint attack on the Kingdom of Han, Han turned to the Kingdom of Ch'i for help. Ch'i obliged, sending General Tien Chi, with his advisor, Sun Pin, on a march straight toward Ta-liang, the capital of Wei.

With its capital threatened, the Wei army promptly abandoned its invasion of Han and rapidly countermarched to protect the capital.

Though he was responding to a bold stroke by the Ch'i army, the Wei commander and his men nevertheless held the Ch'i troops in contempt.

So Sun Pin decided to use Wei's low opinion of Ch'i to defeat the Wei army.

He ordered the Ch'i army to light 100,000 campfires the first night it entered the Kingdom of Wei, 50,000 on the second night as it moved further into the country, and 30,000 on the third night, after advancing even deeper into Wei territory.

General Pang Chuan, the Wei commander, was now in close pursuit. He watched each night as the number of fires in the Ch'i camp dwindled, and his low opinion of the Ch'i army was reinforced. Pang Chuan reasoned that the threat of an encounter with the seasoned troops of Wei had frightened the Ch'i troops, so they were deserting in large numbers. "I knew the men of Ch'i were cowards," he said.

Thus emboldened, Pang Chuan left his infantry behind and with just his light cavalry, pressed recklessly in pursuit.

But Sun Pin knew Pang Chuan was coming, and calculated he would reach Maling about dusk, where the path was narrow and ideal for an ambush.

There he stripped the bark of a tree and wrote on the trunk, "Under the tree shall Pang Chuan die!" and stationed 10,000 crossbowmen on either side of the path, with orders to shoot when they saw a flame on the path.

As Pang Chuan approached, he saw the bark peeled away and writing on the tree trunk. Unable to make out the words in the darkness, he called for a light.

Seeing the flame, the crossbowmen began shooting, killing Pang Chuan and routing the Wei army.

TCL, pgs. 13-15

A Subordinate Overrules Ssuma I's Good Judgement

Ssuma I, commander of the Wei army, was smart enough to know he wasn't as clever as K'ung-ming, and therefore adopted a Fabian strategy, refusing to be tempted into an open battle.

So K'ung-ming decided to draw him out of his strong position by retreating. First he removed his camp 30 li (9.3 miles) to the rear.

Though Chang Ho, Ssuma I's subordinate, said K'ung-ming was probably withdrawing for lack of food and should be attacked, Ssuma I didn't believe K'ung-ming faced a food shortage.

And when scouts found the new camp nearby, Ssuma I was convinced K'ung-ming was not retreating but just attempting a trick.

Ten days later K'ung-ming retreated another 30 li, and again encamped.

Still Chang Ho insisted K'ung-ming was withdrawing, though slowly. He begged to be allowed to attack, and Ssuma I finally let him take three legions and attack. Ssuma I said he would follow behind with five legions to support him, if necessary.

So Chang Ho marched out, camping halfway to the Shu forces.

But K'ung-ming knew of his opponent's movements and guessed that one enemy unit (Chang Ho's) would press directly against the Shu troops, apparently in an attempt to fix their position, then a second (Ssuma I's) would attempt to work its way around the Shu army to cut off its retreat.

So K'ung-ming gave a legion each to two of his commanders, Wang P'ing and Chang I, and told them to hide along the road Chang Ho's troops would take in their attack on the Shu troops. Then, when Chang Ho's legions had passed, they were to attack them in the rear. And if Ssuma I came up behind Chang Ho, K'ung-ming instructed, one of the commanders was to hold him off while the other was to continue attacking Chang Ho.

Then K'ung-ming gave sealed instructions to a third subordinate, with orders for him to watch his colleagues, Wang P'ing and Chang I, from a nearby hill, then open his sealed instructions when they were in dire straits.

Next he told four captains to face Chang Ho's troops, retiring if the enemy seemed confident, until they spotted Kuan Hsing and Chang Pao, at which time they should join them in a counterattack.

He told Kuan Hsing and Chang Pao to hide until they saw a red flag, then attack.

So K'ung-ming's dispositions were as follows (Units renamed for simplicity):

Chang Ho's Wei troops then attacked and the Shu troops in front of them fought briefly and retired, again and again, refusing to defend a single position.

In the hot weather the Wei troops pursued for 20 li (6.2 miles), until the retreating soldiers approached their reserve units. At this point K'ung-ming, who was watching from a hill, signaled with a red flag to Kuan Hsing and Chang Pao, whose fresh Shu soldiers joined the fight, stopping the advance of the tired Wei troops.

Soon Chang Ho's exhausted men had to retire. But as they started back they were cut off by Wang P'ing and Chang I, who blocked the retreat road.

But the Wei commander, Ssuma I - who now had to rescue his subordinate instead of executing a flanking move - was coming up from behind to support Chang Ho, so Chang I turned from attacking Chang Ho and blocked Ssuma I.

The fighting continued throughout the day, with units from both sides surrounded on two sides. Chang Ho's troops were caught between Shu troops to their front and rear, but the Shu troops to their rear were also surrounded, caught between the retreating Chang Ho and advancing Ssuma I. Consequently, the two Shu commanders cutting off Chant Ho's retreat, Wang P'ing and Chang I, were in a dangerous position.

Seeing Wang P'ing and Chang I in desperate straits, the two commanders watching from the hill opened their sealed orders, which instructed them to go and attack Ssuma I's camp. As they marched toward his camp, Ssuma I heard from messengers the direction they were headed, was frightened, and retreated in disorder toward his camp.

Meanwhile, Chang Ho's remaining men fled into the hills and the Shu troops that had been attacking him joined Chang I in routing Ssuma I's retreating army.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 409-412

© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.

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