A Sun Tzu Companion

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A Psychological

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Traitors and Spies

Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all rewards none more liberal than those given to secret agents; of all matters none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations.
- Sun Tzu

An army without secret agents is exactly like a man without eyes or ears.
- Chia Lin

It might be imagined that in a society where loyalty is held in high esteem, treason and betrayal would be uncommon. But while the protagonists of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, All Men are Brothers, and Records of the Grand Historian, regularly speak of loyalty as a virtue, treachery is surprisingly common, often prompted by ill treatment from a superior, kind treatment from an adversary, ambition, the likelihood of execution for failing to accomplish a task (a procedure that seems tailor-made to inspire treason), or some combination of these.

In many cases commanders and their men seem no more troubled about changing sides than a 15th Century Italian condottieri whose pay is late.

In addition to the natural perversity of human nature, one reason for this easy side-switching may be that it was not always clear to whom one owed allegiance. Many of these incidents occurred during times of turmoil, when authority had broken down and there were several aspirants to power, all with questionable claims to legitimacy.

Ch'en Teng Betrays an Army

While a unit under Ch'en Kung and some allied bandits guarded Artemisia Pass against a powerful army, Lü Pu, Ch'en Kung's warlord, marched toward the pass to help him.

But then Lü Pu's advisor, Ch'en Teng, offered to scout ahead. And unfortunately for Lü Pu, who agreed to the proposal, Ch'en Teng was a traitor.

Ch'en Teng rode off, contacted Ch'en Kung at the pass, and said that Lü Pu was angry that he hadn't advanced against the enemy army. (Apparently Ch'en Teng wanted Ch'en Kung to attack a vastly superior army and be defeated.)

Ch'en Kung, was more concerned about the size of the enemy army than with Lü Pu's supposed annoyance, and wisely wouldn't budge.

Then Ch'en Teng, on pretext of doing a little more scouting, climbed a height overlooking the opposing army and shot three arrows with three messages (presumably duplicates in case one or more were lost) into the camp. Then he hurried back to Lü Pu and said the bandits who were helping Ch'en Kung guard the pass were about to switch sides and turn the pass over to the enemy.

So Lü Pu hurried toward the pass while Ch'en Teng rode on ahead, saying he would arrange a joint attack on the bandits with the commander at the pass.

Instead he told Ch'en Kung that the enemy had found a way around the pass, outflanking his unit and threatening the city to his rear. Commander Ch'en Kung hastily abandoned the pass, retreating toward the city in the night.

So the situation was this: Ch'en Kung was quickly retreating from the pass because he thought the enemy had gotten behind him, while Lü Pu was quickly advancing toward the pass to assist Ch'en Kung and prevent what he feared was the imminent fall of the pass.

The two units of the same side met, with a predictable result. Ch'en Kung thought he had encountered the enemy that had gotten behind him, while Lü Pu thought he had encountered enemy troops who had broken through the pass. The battle between the two units of the same army lasted until dawn, when they discovered the trick.

When Ch'en Kung abandoned Artemisia Pass, Ch'en Teng somehow notified the enemy army that the pass was now all but abandoned. (Perhaps he lied to Ch'en Teng, telling him he needed to light a signal fire to tell Lü Pu they were retreating from the pass). However it occurred, the enemy army got the message and advanced, scattering the poorly-disciplined bandits and seizing the pass.

In the morning, after discovering they had been mistakenly fighting each other, Lü Pu and Ch'en Kung returned together to their city, Hsüchou, only to find it in the hands of one of Ch'en Teng's fellow traitors. (At Ch'en Teng's earlier suggestion Lü Pu had moved his family and supplies further to the rear, just in case the city fell. Apparently, with them gone, the inhabitants were pleased to follow another leader.)

With Hsüchou fallen, Lü Pu headed for another of his cities, but on the way encountered the garrison of that city coming to meet him.

They told Lü Pu that Ch'en Teng had reached the town first and told the commanders that Lü Pu was surrounded and needed their help. So they abandoned the city to rescue him.

When Lü Pu, now joined by the garrison, got to the city, he found an enemy flying column had seized it during the garrison's absence. (Perhaps this was also arranged by Ch'en Teng's arrow-letter.)

In anger, Lü Pu began an assault on the city, but was immediately attacked in the rear by enemy troops commanded by Ts'ao Ts'ao, who had been following closely behind. Pu was forced to flee with the rag-tag remnant of his army.

RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 195-197

Ts'ao Ts'ao Steals a Foe

Ts'ao Ts'ao was at the gates of Nanch'eng, but a relief army commanded by P'ang Tê was camped nearby, about 10 li from the city.

In a one-on-one skirmish between P'ang Tê and one of Ts'ao Ts'ao's champions, Ts'ao Ts'ao was highly impressed with P'ang Tê and wanted to win him over to his side.

Ts'ao Ts'ao and his advisors knew that a subordinate of P'ang Tê would accept a bribe to slander P'ang Tê to his superior, but they had to figure out how to get to the subordinate, since he was inside the city. They came up with this plan:

In the next battle with P'ang Tê, Ts'ao Ts'ao's forces would pretend to be beaten, would retreat and let him occupy Ts'ao Ts'ao's camp. Then, at night, Ts'ao Ts'ao would attack and chase P'ang Tê into the city, along with an agent disguised as one of P'ang Tê's men, who would be able to slip into the city in the confusion.

So Ts'ao Ts'ao sent the agent to a point along the road where P'ang Tê's troops would pass on their retreat to the city. Then he set two groups of men in ambush just outside his own camp, on the side facing P'ang Tê's approach.

Then Ts'ao Ts'ao's troops approached and challenged P'ang Tê's army. P'ang Tê attacked and Ts'ao Ts'ao's men retired before them, abandoning their richly stocked camp to P'ang Tê's army.

But that night Ts'ao Ts'ao's main army attacked one side of the camp and the two bodies of troops set in hiding attacked the other side of the camp, driving P'ang Tê out and back along the road (where the spy joined the retreating troops) and into the city.

The spy approached P'ang Tê's subordinate and gave him a gold breastplate. The subordinate accepted the bribe and told P'ang Tê's superior that P'ang Tê had intentionally allowed himself to be defeated because he had been bribed. General P'ang Tê was summoned and threatened with death, but was finally given a chance to redeem himself with another encounter with Ts'ao Ts'ao.

At the next encounter Ts'ao Ts'ao's men retreated and P'ang Tê pursued, and fell into an ambush. P'ang Tê's men fell into ditches and Ts'ao Ts'ao's men captured him with hooks and ropes. Because P'ang Tê was already furious at his superior, it was easy to persuade him to switch sides.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 71-73

K'ung-ming Besieges One City and Captures Two

K'ung-ming's army was besieging the town of Nanan, though he wasn't particularly interested in capturing it.

Though he wasn't very interested in the town for itself, he decided to use it to capture another city, Anting.

K'ung-ming ordered brush and wood piled against the walls of Nanan, and threatened to burn it down. The defenders, however, just mocked his attempt.

However, the Prefect of Anting, Ts'ui Liang, was frightened when he heard that K'ung-ming was besieging Nanan, and worked on the defenses of his own city, preparing his 4,000 men for a long defense.

Then a man came to Anting, pretending he was one of the soldiers of the besieged Nanan, and told Liang that the city was hard pressed by K'ung-ming. He said they had been raising signal fires in hopes the men of Anting would come to their rescue. Then he gave Liang a letter, supposedly from the commander of the besieged Nanan.

Then the man left, saying he must also go to the town of T'ienshui to get help.

Two days later Liang received a rider who said he was from T'ienshui. He said the troops there had already started for Nanan, and he urged the soldiers from Anting to also go to the aid of the city.

So Liang marched toward Nanan, and as they approached he and his troops saw the fires, and when they came within 50 li, they heard the drums of the attackers.

But suddenly Liang found his way blocked by a troop led by one of K'ung-ming's generals, and then another of K'ung-ming's units came up behind his army.

Attacked in front and rear, Liang's army disintegrated, but he managed to cut his way through and return to his city. But when he came up to the walls he was greeted by a flight of arrows.

While Liang was on the march, another of K'ung-ming's commanders had approached the city in the evening, pretended to be some of Liang's soldiers, and were let in, taking over the town.

Liang, then rode toward T'ienshui, but was captured by K'ung-ming, who anticipated he would go there when he discovered his own town had fallen.

Though knowing Ts'ui would betray him, K'ung-ming asked him to persuade one of his friends in Nanan, Yang Ling, to capture the commander of that city.

Ts'ui pretended to agree.

Ts'ui went to Nanan and told Ling and the commander of the city what K'ung-ming said, and they decided to open the gates of the city, as if betraying the town, but then ambush K'ung-ming's troops as they entered.

Ts'ui then returned to K'ung-ming and told him that Ling did not have enough men to capture the commander of the town.

K'ung-ming suggested that 100 of Ts'ui's captured men, and two of his own disguised captains enter the town. These troops, he said, could be explained to the commander of the city as rescuing troops who had managed to get through K'ung-ming's lines from Anting.

Ts'ui agreed, planning to kill K'ung-ming's captains when they reentered the city, then to start a fire to signal K'ung-ming that it was all right to enter, then kill him as well when he entered.

But K'ung-ming chose two of his most ferocious captains, and gave them secret instructions.

When the men approached the wall at night, they were challenged from the wall, and responded that they were rescuers who had slipped through from Anting.

The men were let in, with K'ung-ming's captains following Ts'ui closely. When Ts'ui's friend, Ling, approached to greet them, one of K'ung-ming's captains suddenly cut off his head, while the other speared Ts'ui. The defenders fled at this sudden attack and the captains went up to the wall, lit a fire and opened the gate to K'ung-ming's troops

His men occupied the town, and the commander fled out the back gate, where he fell into an ambush and was captured.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 337-340

Chang Wei Tricks a Trickster

Têng Ai, commander of the Wei forces, sent half a legion under Wang Kuan, pretending to desert to Chiang Wei, commander of the Shu army.

Wang Kuan, coming to Chiang Wei, said he and his men wanted to desert because of his hatred for the Wei commander, who, he said, had killed his uncle. He asked to be sent against the Wei forces to take his vengeance upon them.

Chiang Wei said that first his army most needed grain, and asked Kuan to transport some from a supply town to the army. If he did that, Chiang Wei said, the army would be in position to attack the Wei forces. He also told Wang Kuan to leave two of his five legions behind to act as guides for his attack on the Wei forces.

Wang Kuan agreed, seeing that Chiang Wei was falling into his trap.

But Chiang Wei had not fallen into his trap. He didn't believe that Wang Kuan was related to the Wang Ching who had been murdered.

Chiang Wei kept the deserters under surveillance, and intercepted a letter from Wang Kuan to Têng Ai saying he was diverting the convoy he was escorting to the Wei camp. He asked for additional men to meet him at Yünshan on the 20th of the month

The intercepted message was re-written and the date was changed from the 20th to the 15th. It was sent along by a Shu soldier dressed as a Wei soldier.

Then transport wagons were loaded with flammables and the two Wei companies that remained behind were ordered to escort it toward Yünshan.

Then Chiang Wei placed his army in ambush around Yünshan, and sent three units to attack the Wei camp.

As Têng Ai approached Yünshan with five legions to meet the convoy escorted by Wang Kuan, he was cheered by seeing a long line of wagons escorted by men in Wei uniforms. But he hesitated to approach, noticing how gloomy and dangerous it appeared. But then two horsemen rode up, saying Wang was being pursued by Shu troops and needed help immediately.

Têng Ai pressed on in the moonlight, through the convoy to face the enemy whose shouting he could hear at the rear of the convoy. But as he neared the rear of the convoy, Shu men sprung from ambush.

Têng Ai started to retreat, but then the wagons filled with combustibles were ignited. At the signal of the blazing wagons, Shu forces appeared from both sides of the road and the Wei forces were badly defeated.

Wang Kuan, hearing from a messenger that the trick had been discovered, set fire to the real convoy and fled, but was pursued and destroyed by Shu forces.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 560-562

T'sao Chên Believes a False Traitor

A man made his way to T'sao Chên, commander of the army of Wei, saying that a former general of Wei who was now serving Shu, Chiang Wei, had a message.

The messenger said Chiang Wei had only changed sides because he was captured, but that he really wanted to return to the side of Wei.

The message urged T'sao Chên to attack, and if he encountered resistance, to retreat. But when T'sao Chên retreated, Chiang Wei wrote, he would set fire to the supplies of the Shu army. And at that signal the Wei army could return to the attack, catching the Shu army between his own force and the army of Wei.

T'sao Chên fell for the trick, for so it was, and sent his commander Fei Yao and his troops towards the Shu army.

At the same time scouts reported that the Shu army was advancing through the valley toward the Wei army, but as the Wei troops moved toward it, the Shu army retreated.

But, cautious of the skill of the opposing commander, K'ung-ming, the Wei army halted, wary of falling into an ambush. Then, as they stopped, the Shu forces advanced again, forcing the men of Wei to form up for battle again. But when they did, the Shu forces retreated again.

Three times over a day and a night the Shu army repeated this maneuver, tiring the Wei forces and preventing them from preparing food.

Then, with the Wei forces tired and hungry, K'ung-ming's forces attacked, and Fei Yao ordered the Wei forces to retreat, waiting for the flames to jump up behind the Shu forces. Then they came, flames rising in the back of the Shu army. And Fei Yao attacked, expecting the Shu army would be frightened at seeing their supplies burning, and surprised to be caught between his own forces and those of Chiang Wei, whom he supposed were about to change sides.

As Fei Yao attacked the men of Shu retreated. As Fei Yao and his men approached the fires they could see that the supplies were not on fire, and that they had been tricked. Chiang Wei had not switched sides.

At that moment, two units of Shu forces appeared from ambush and stones and arrows rained down of the Wei troops.

Unable to stand against this unexpected attack, the Wei forces first retreated, then as their confusion increased, fled for their lives. Many were killed and many more surrendered.

RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 393-395

Liu Tai Believes a Real Traitor

Chang Fei could not persuade Liu Tai to come out of his camp and fight, so he held a court martial at which he pretended to be intoxicated. The soldier he accused of a breach of discipline was severely flogged, and Chang Fei told him he would be sacrificed prior to a surprise attack on Liu Tai that night. Since Chang Fei was frequently drunk and frequently harsh, this was completely in character.

But Chang Fei made sure that the soldier he found guilty was allowed to escape. As he predicted, the man made his way to Liu Tai's camp and warned him of the night attack.

Seeing the marks of his beating, Liu Tai believed the man's story and prepared an ambush around his camp.

That evening Chang Fei sent 30 men to run directly into Liu Tai's camp and set it on fire. He also sent two larger units to attack the camp from either side when they saw the fire well under way. He led the rest of his men to cut the road in the rear of Liu Tai's camp.

When the 30 soldiers set Liu Tai's camp on fire, the men in ambush rushed out to attack them, but suddenly found themselves under attack from either side.

Confused and frightened, Liu Tai's army scattered and Liu Tai retreated with a company of men down the road behind his camp, only to encounter Chang Fei, who captured him.

RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 237-238

Chu Jan Lured Into an Ambush

Of two armies of Wu, one, commanded by Sun Huan, had been defeated by the troops of Shu and was on the defensive. The other, close enough to support Sun Huan's army if needed, was commanded by Chu Jan. It was in good shape.

The commanders of the Shu troops decided on a trick to batter Chu Jan's army as well.

They sent false deserters to Chu Jan's army, saying they had been mistreated and telling him that the Shu army planned a night raid on Sun Huan's battered army. Then they set an ambush along the road between Chu Jan and Sun Huan's armies.

Chu Jan sent a messenger to Sun Huan to tell him of the raid and prepared to march to his aid.

But, as planned, the messenger was captured and Chu Jan never received the news.

That night, as a legion of Chu Jan's army marched to aid Sun Huan, the men of Shu attacked Sun Huan's camp and drove off the remnant of his army.

The men marching to help Sun Huan could see the fire in Sun Huan's camp and marched quickly and fell into the ambush.

The remnants of Chu Jan and Sun Huan's armies were forced into the town of Iling and besieged.

RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 229

Chang Liao Suspects a Ruse

Hou Ts'ao was bitter towards Chang Liao, his commander, because of a punishment he had suffered at Chang Liao's orders. He decided to avenge himself by killing Chang Liao and betraying the city to the enemy.

Hou Ts'ao and his brother decided to light a bonfire of straw in the city at night and cry out, "Treachery! Treachery!"

"That will throw all into confusion and will give a chance to Kill Chang Liao," Hou Ts'ao said.

But it didn't.

Chang Liao was unimpressed. "A whole city cannot be traitors," he said. He decided the brothers were just trying to frighten his soldiers. After catching them and asking a few perfunctory questions, he had their heads chopped off.

But then he heard drums and shouts outside the gate and decided the cries of "Treachery!" on the inside of the city were part of a plan to cause an uproar and let the enemy soldiers in the gate.

So Chang Liao had his soldiers light torches and take up the cry of "Treachery." Then he stationed them around the city gate, and opened it.

Thinking the plot was going well, the enemy soldiers rode confidently through the gate, only to be shot down by archers stationed nearby.

They fled out the gate, pursued by the Chang Liao's soldiers.

RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 555-556

Wu Yung Plants a Spy

Sung Chiang wanted to introduce a spy into the city of Tung P'ing to take a message to a prisoner, telling him when he could expect an attack to free him, and what he could do to help.

To get her into the city, Sung Chiang's advisor, Wu Yung took 500 horsemen and attacked a small, nearby town. The people, as he expected, fled to Tung P'ing, and in the confusion the spy, dressed in tatters like an old beggar, joined them and walked into Tung P'ing without difficulty.

AMB, Vol. 2, pgs. 1241-1242

The Han Inspire Treachery

Due to an effective peace treaty, the Han Chinese and barbarian Hsiung-nu were on friendly terms, despite their historical antagonism.

But then an influential citizen of the city of Ma-i named Nieh Weng-i suggested to the Han emperor that the Hsiung-nu could be tricked into an ambush and destroyed. The emperor agreed, so Nieh Weng-i went to the Hsiung-nu leader, pretending to be displeased with the leaders of Ma-i.

If it pleased the Hsiung-nu, Nieh Weng-i said, he could murder the governor and leading officials of Ma-i and open the city gates to them.

The thought of obtaining the wealth of Ma-i did indeed please the Hsiung-nu leader, so Nieh Weng-i returned to Ma-i, had some convicted criminals executed and hung their heads on the city walls as if they were the heads of the city officials.

Persuaded that Nieh Weng-i had kept his side of the bargain, the Hsiung-nu marched toward Ma-i with 100,000 men, unaware that there were 300,000 Han troops in hiding in and around the city, ready to attack when they entered Ma-i.

But as the army drew within about 30 miles of Ma-i, the Hsiung-nu leader became suspicious. Though there were many animals in the fields, he didn't see any people.

So he attacked a signal station nearby and captured an official who knew about the ambush. Hearing from him of the trap, the Hsiung-nu leader and his men retreated safely, then resumed the raiding that had virtually ended while the peace treaty was observed.

RGHC, Vol. 2, pgs. 136-138, 176-177

© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.

“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah 40:31