Those who use fire to assist their attacks are intelligent; those who use inundations are powerful.
- Sun Tzu
Water can isolate an enemy but cannot destroy his supplies or equipment.
- Sun Tzu
The attack by fire was deemed so important by Sun Tzu that he devoted an entire chapter to it in his classic Art of War. He also felt that water could be a helpful tool, though his assertion that it cannot destroy an enemy's supplies or equipment was apparently intended as a general - not absolute - rule, as shown by the story below entitled: "Kuan Yü Creates Aquatic Animals."
Han Hsin Isolates an Enemy
Facing one another across the Wei River were the army of Han, and on the other side, the combined armies of Ch'i and Ch'u.
Lung Chü, commander of the Ch'u forces, held Han Hsin, commander of the Han army, in low regard. So Han Hsin decided to take advantage of his opponent's disdain.
One night Han Hsin sent troops upstream with 10,000 sand bags, ordering them to dam the river.
Then, with the water then reduced to a trickle, Han Hsin attacked across the river, engaged the enemy, then retreated as if he had been beaten.
Lung Chü, confirmed in his belief that Han Hsin was a coward, counterattacked, crossing the trickle and coming up on the Han side of the river with part of his army.
Then Han Hsin ordered the dam broken, and the water level suddenly rose dramatically, cutting off the vanguard of Lung Chü's army from the main body on the far side of the river. Then Han Hsin attacked the portion of the army isolated on his side of the river, defeating it badly and killing Lung Chü.
RH, pg. 189
K'ung-ming's Flaming Ambush
K'ung-ming, an adviser to Yuan-tê, expected Hsiahou Tun's massive ten-legion army to invade Yuan-tê's territory. Facing Hsiahou Tun he had a puny force of less than a legion.
However, K'ung-ming knew both his opponent and the terrain, so he set an ambush near the town of Powang, and awaited Hsiahou Tun's arrival.
In front of Powang K'ung-ming placed a force commanded by Chao Yün, with orders to attack Hsiahou Tun when he approached, then to fall back and entice Hsiahou Tun to advance.
To the hills on one side of Powang, K'ung-ming sent Kuan Yü and a company of men, telling Kuan Yü to quietly let Hsiahou Tun's forces pass, then to attack his baggage train when he saw a fire in the south.
On the other side of Powang, in a valley behind some woods, K'ung-ming sent a unit under Chang Fei, with orders to remain hidden until he saw flames in the south, then to attack and burn an old supply depot in Powang (which K'ung-ming apparently expected would be used by Hsiahou Tun's army).
Close behind Powang, K'ung-ming placed a small force commanded by Liu Pei in an ambush that was intentionally feeble, designed to further entice Hsiahou Tun to press on recklessly toward his objective of Hsinyeh.
Finally, furthest behind Powang, K'ung-ming sent Kuan P'ing and Liu Fêng, each with half a company. There, on a downward slope, they were to wait until the enemy arrived at about dusk, then, K'ung-ming told them, they were to ignite the grass and brush.
K'ung-ming's dispositions were approximately as follows: two units were hidden on either side of the town of Powang; a weak force was placed in front of Powang, between the town and Hsiahou Tun's advancing army; a feeble unit was placed in ambush behind Powang; and the two units were placed on a downward slope along a narrow road far to the rear of Powang.
Hsiahou Tun's army approached, with half preparing to attack Powang and half guarding the baggage train. As the units approached Powang they encountered Chao Yün's unimpressive force. Hsiahou Tun laughed at this miserable-appearing force, which appeared to justify his opinion by resisting feebly, then conducting a fighting retreat about 10 li (3.1 miles).
As Hsiahou Tun advanced he was warned by subordinates of the possibility of an ambush. But he just laughed, "With such antagonists as these I should not fear a score of ambushes."
And at that moment a signal bomb went off and Liu Pei attacked. Hsiahou Tun merely laughed and pressed back this second force as well. Becoming ever more careless, he predicted he would reach the town of Hsinyeh, his objective, by evening.
Hsiahou Tun cheerfully herded his opponents back towards Hsinyeh, but as dusk drew near the evening breeze came up, and coming upon a narrow spot in the road, he was finally persuaded of the danger of an ambush by fire. But it was too late, for at that moment the troops K'ung-ming positioned there lit fires, which ran quickly up the slope around Hsiahou Tun's troops, fanned by the evening wind. At the same time the troops that had been retreating before Hsiahou Tun turned and attacked. With the fire and attack, Hsiahou Tun's troops fled, trampling each other in their attempts to escape.
Meanwhile, near Powang, Kuan Yü and Chang Fei saw the flames and emerged from from hiding to attack. Kuan Yü assaulted the baggage train, chasing away its guards, who were undoubtedly already on edge, having seen the fire in the south, and Chang Fei attacked toward the supply depot in Powang, striking Hsiahou Tun's fleeing troops in the process.
Hsiahou Tun barely escaped being killed, and his battered army had to retreat to its own territory.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 414-416
Ts'ao Jên Finds a Warm Reception
Expecting that his opponent, Ts'ao Jên, would soon launch a massive invasion across the White River and toward his base city of Hsinyeh, K'ung-ming prepared a combination ambush and escape plan to give his army a new base.
First, he sent Kuan Yü and a detachment, carrying empty sand bags, to the White River, upstream from where he expected Ts'ao Jên's army to cross.
Next he positioned a unit under Chang Fei near a ferry across the river, downstream from where he expected Ts'ao Jên's army to cross.
Then he sent Mi Fang and Liu Fêng and a company of men to march to and fro with banners behind the ridge of a slope directly in the path of Ts'ao Jên's army and about 30 li (9.3 miles) in front of the city of Hsinyeh.
Then K'ung-ming gave Chao Yün three companies divided into four units, one to cover each of the four gates of the city of Hsinyeh.
Finally, K'ung-ming ordered that the roofs of the buildings in Hsinyeh be covered with combustibles.
As Ts'ao Jên's ten-legion army advanced across the White River and toward the city of Hsinyeh, the men saw in the distance a myriad of banners moving about, and imagined a large army directly ahead of them. Of course it was only Mi Fang and Liu Fêng with their two companies and hundreds of banners.
Ts'ao Jên paused, then advanced cautiously and found that the what he had supposed to be an army had disappeared. But the flagmen had accomplished their purpose, to delay Ts'ao Jên's advance.
At that moment Ts'ao Jên heard music and found it came from the top of a steep hill. On looking up he saw his enemies K'ung-ming and Liu Pei relaxing under umbrellas, drinking, and surrounded by the banners that had delayed his army's advance.
Angry, Ts'ao Jên ordered an attack, but it was driven back by logs and stones. As he could find no way up the hill and it was late in the day, he resumed his march toward Hsinyeh, hoping to occupy the city and have a place for his army to rest for the night.
As he approached the city, he found the gates open and the town deserted. "This shows they are done," one of the commanders said. "They have all run away, people and all." Ts'ao Jên's army occupied the city and his soldiers scattered about obtaining food from the houses and cooking it in the deserted kitchens, too tired and anxious for dinner to carefully inspect the buildings.
Then K'ung-ming's archers began shooting flaming arrows into the city, and the combustibles on the roof tops caught fire. At first Ts'ao Jên thought careless soldiers had let sparks fly about in their cooking, but soon the entire town was aflame and soldiers outside the city began shouting to add to the confusion. Ts'ao Jên's troops began dashing around in confusion, seeking a way out of the flaming trap. However, three of the city gates were blocked by Chao Yün's troops. Only the east gate was free. The trapped men rushed madly to that gate, and many were trampled. Then, as they fled from the city by the apparently unguarded exit, Chao Yün's fourth unit attacked, and drove the disorganized mob into a mad retreat toward the ford on the White River where they had crossed.
As they massed at the crossing, Kuan Yü, who had dammed the river upstream, heard the men and horses and ordered his troops to tear down the dam. A flood descended on Jên's army, drowning many.
The remnant worked their way down river to the ferry crossing, but it was guarded by Chang Fei, who promptly attacked and chased Ts'ao Jên's army back up-river while Kuan Yü, now joined by K'ung-ming, attacked down river. Placed between the two forces and unable to cross the river, the remnant of Jên's army was forced in the only direction it could go, back toward burned-out Hsinyeh, where Ts'ao Jên was finally able to reestablish control.
But at the same time all of K'ung-ming's troops moved up river to a spot were boats and rafts had been assembled. The army crossed the river, burned the boats and rafts to hamper pursuit, and made its new headquarters in the city of Fanch'êng.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 424-427
K'ung-ming Turns a Ruse Around
Knowing the Shu army under K'ung-ming's command was short of supplies, Sun Li, a commander for the Kingdom of Wei, devised a plan to allow K'ung-ming to capture a train of carts disguised as a supply convoy of grain, but actually filled with combustibles - reeds and wood laced with sulphur and niter.
Sun Li explained, "The men of Shu will surely seize the convoy and take it to their own camp, when we will set fire to the carts. When they are blazing, our hidden men can attack."
(Although Sun Li is reported as saying this, it may be an error as the rest of the narrative shows this was not the plan. Instead, it appears Sun Li planned to surround the Shu troops and set fire to the supply train as soon as they had seized the carts and were mingled among them. Then, seeing the blaze, the main body of Wei soldiers would sally forth from their forward-most camp and attack the Shu camp while the Shu raiding party was being destroyed.)
But when K'ung-ming heard about the "supply" convoy and the skill of his opponent, he guessed Sun Li's plan, and decided to turn the trick against him.
First, K'ung-ming sent three units to the enemy's fake supply train, one was told to approach the wagons openly, and the other units to approach quietly from different directions, hiding nearby, then attack toward the supply train when they saw it on fire.
K'ung-ming also sent two units into hiding near the forward-most camp of the Wei army. And finally, he hid two units near the Shu camp with orders to let any Wei soldiers pass on their way toward the Shu camp, but to stop them when they tried to retreat.
That night, the Shu raiding party set off toward the fake supply train. As they came near, they saw the wagons all set in a circle. And when the wind came up, they set fire to it.
Sun Li, with his men in ambush around the wagon train, saw the blaze and assumed it was his own side giving the signal, so he attacked. (Presumably he was the one who was supposed to give the signal to light the fire, but seeing the fire must have decided that regardless who had lit it, he had better attack immediately.)
But as the surrounding Wei units began to move in toward the Shu troops, suddenly the other two Shu units which had been in hiding appeared and began to attack the Wei forces from behind. Then the Shu troops who started the blaze attacked as well. Caught between these forces, the Wei soldiers broke and ran.
But seeing the blaze, the men in the forward Wei camp thought it was their signal and marched toward the Shu camp. But as soon as they left, the Shu unit in hiding nearby walked into the empty camp.
When the Wei troops arrived at the Shu camp they found it empty. Confused, they started to return to their own camp, but were blocked by the two Shu units ordered to cut off their retreat. They fought their way through but when they arrived at their own camp they were met by a flight of arrows from the Shu troops who had seized it in their absence.
The battered army then retreated to its main headquarters, where the commanders reported their defeat to Ts'ao Chên, who decided K'ung-ming was too clever for him and that he should therefore remain on the defensive.
But having won a victory, K'ung-ming quickly, quietly and unexpectedly retreated before the lack of food became severe and before additional Wei reinforcements made retreat impossible.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 397-399
Kuan Yü Creates Aquatic Animals
Kuan Yü noticed that his opponent, Yü Chin, was camped along a swift river in a narrow valley. And it was the time of the August rains.
Kuan Yü camped upstream from Yü Chin and as it began to rain he started damming up the river and building rafts, intending to release the waters suddenly and turn all his enemy's soldiers "into aquatic animals."
After the rains had swollen the river and filled his dam, Kuan Yü broke the dam one night and let a 10-foot wall of water that sounded like "ten thousand horses in stampede" down on the opposing army.
When the raging waters subsided, Kuan Yü's men floated down the river on rafts and attacked the remnant of Yü Chin's army.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 152-153
© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
– Isaiah 53:6