Three Kingdoms - Read along (Vol IV)

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Three Kingdoms - Read along (Vol IV)

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Nov 23, 2008, 6:06pm

With snow falling outside my window, the final volume of the Three Kingdoms, Volume IV (ch. 95-120), is upon us - and it starts with a clash of titans: Zhuge Liang vs. Sima Yi.

For earlier volumes, see the following threads Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III.

Spoiler alert: The chapter under discussion will be indicated, so don't read further if you like a spoiler-free world. Please also refrain from discussing events beyond the chapter, as I intend to keep my veil of ignorance regarding the plot and characters. Feel free however to enlighten me regarding Chinese customs, history etc.

Chapter 95 1:0 Sima Yi

Wei finally stirs. The big showdown between Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi starts with a k.o. punch to Zhuge Liang's weak flank. His whole northern invasion is crushed. Sima Yi sends Zhang He against Jietling on the supply line to Hanzhong. Its capture would trigger the loss of all of Zhuge's previous northern gains. Zhuge Liang's defense sees Ma Su at Jietling with 25,000, supported by the cautious Wang Ping. North-East, he positions Gao Xiang with 10,000. Behind Jietling as a last ditch defense, Wei Yan. Sending out Zhao Zilong and Deng Zhi as skirmishers, Zhuge Liang moves with his remaining force against Mei.

Jietling's intersection is too big for Ma Su's force to cover. He establishes a flanking position on a hill. Wang Ping is not happy with it, as the position contradicts Zhuge Liang's order of placing them astride the road and lacks a water supply. Ma Su gives in to Wang Ping's desire to place at least part of his force in the valley ten li away (essentially beyond supporting distance) - further weakening his position (Braxton Bragg made a similar mistake of splitting his forces prior to the battle of Chattanooga to get rid of the insubordinate general Longstreet.).

Sima Yi orders Zhang He to block Wang Ping, encircles Ma Su on his hill. Wang Ping tries to rescue him, but is pushed back. Ma Su breaks out and retreats behind Wei Yan who in turn pushes Zhang He back until he is engulfed by northerners himself. Wang Ping rescues him and the two retreat to Gao Xiang, before they are surrounded once again. They break out and retreat to Willow Rows - where Guo Huai awaits them. The Westerners retreat to Yangping Pass. Sima Yi advises Cao Pi to let Zhuge Liang escape and capture Xicheng instead (thus bagging the three previously lost districts).

Meanwhile, Zhuge Liang receives a note from Wang Ping about Ma Su's faulty dispositions. Zhuge Liang orders the army to return south (taking all their allies and turncoats with them). Guan Xing and Zhang Bao should provide flank cover while Zhuge Liang with 5,000 men tries to hold Xicheng itself. Ordering half of his force to help with the evacuation, only 2,500 troops remain. Zhuge Liang opts for a bluff: Opening the city gates, he calmly plays his zither atop the city gate.

Sima Yi is impressed with Zhuge Liang's coolness. Having crushed his opponent, he declines to risk his forces in what might be a trap (he also knows that he will bag Xicheng without loss of blood after Zhuge Liang retreats). Sima Yi retreats and is ambushed on his way by Guan Xing and Zhang Bao (a silver lining to this sorry affair). Zhao Zilong also hands in a repeat performance of Changban, valiantly covering the retreat ("Zhao Zilong stands here!"). Having evicted the Westerners, Sima Yi returns to Chang'an.

Has Zhuge Liang found his match in Sima Yi? Will he be able to recover? Will Sima Yi be more prudent than Cao Cao in his advance? Like Robert E. Lee in his later campaigns, Zhuge Liang is desperately short on good generals, relying on a bunch of old warhorses and youngsters.

Nov 30, 2008, 6:03pm

Chapter 96 Respite for Zhuge

Wei stops the pursuit of the routed Riverlanders and redirects their forces against Wu. Zhuge Liang finds a convenient scapegoat in Ma Su and sheds croco tears at his execution (Ma Su's dispositions might have been faulty, but not criminally. Execute Pickett for Longstreet's crooked assault at Gettysburg?). Like Robert E. Lee, Zhuge Liang hands in his resignation, which is refused, and accepts a token demotion in rank.

Instead of following up on their success, Wei attacks Wu (although the historical chronology is unclear to me: In the notes, Roberts refers to the fact that Sima Yi was stationed opposite Wu not Shu, thus remote from being bluffed by Zhuge Liang. I think that Shu and Wu were at war with Wei at the same time, which also explains why Wei had to scramble for soldiers.) with three armies under Sima Yi, Cao Xiu and Jia Kui, while giant Hao Zhao guarded Chencang against Shu.

In the South, Lu Xun awaits them: Zhuge Jin blocks Sima Yi, while Lu Xun lures Cao Xiu into an ambush (with a little help from a traitor who sacrifices his hair to convince Cao Xiu of his sincerity). The Southerners seek to renew their alliance with Shu ...

Dec 8, 2008, 7:29am

Chapter 97 Northern Invasion Part Two

An ulcer removes defeated Cao Xiu from play. Losing battles is not good for your chi ... While the Southerners and Riverlanders plan their alliance, the last tiger general dies: Zhao Zilong is no more. His two sons (who might be in their thirties?) first inform Zhuge Liang, then their Emperor. The Emperor receives a CYA memorandum from Zhuge Liang: Given the balance of power, the success of the next invasion is doubtful. Given this information, Zhuge Liang really should have rethought his approach and at least coordinate his attack with the Southerners. He sends his 300,000 men, the vanguard under Zhuge Liang's frenemy Wei Yan, against Chencang.

The Northerners send a nine-span champion with a bearlike waist and a tigerlike back (wouldn't it make more sense turned around, bears having girth and tiger slender backs?), Wang Shuang with the title Tiger-Fearsome General. Cao Zhen with 150,000 men follows.

Zhuge Liang orders Wei Yan to besiege Chencang who fails after several days to complete the task (for which Zhuge Liang has him nearly executed - a touchy superior). A volunteer then tries to parlay the garrison commander into surrender but fails as well. Zhuge Liang orders a full scale assault with 100 siege towers - which are burned by the garrison's fire arrows. Next battering rams - failed again. Next a tunnel- thwarted again. Has Zhuge Liang lost his magic?

Northern reinforcements arrive and relieve the garrison. Wang Shuang crushes the Riverland champs. Jiang Wei proposes a new plan with one force defending while Zhuge Liang goes on a flanking march. Cao Zhen receives a message from Jiang Wei about his (re)defection and offers a plan to trap Zhuge's forces.

Northern general Fei Yao marches into Ye Gorge and is engaged by Riverland forces. Fei Yao and Zhuge Liang trade insults, before Fei executes Jiang Wei's planned fake withdrawal. Seeing fire on the hill, he reverses course and attacks - only to be trapped in turn by Guan Xing and Zhang Bao. Fei Yao cuts his own throat rather than surrender. The Riverlanders push on to Qishan.

Now, we are in the same position as a few chapters back. Cao Rui again calls on the services of Sima Yi. Unless he receives help from the South, it looks like a repeat performance. Where are the Southerners?

Dec 12, 2008, 8:17am

Chapter 98 Back and forth

Sima Yi knows Zhuge Liang's limits. Denying him the supply route through Chencang reduces his incursion to a temporary nuisance. Sima Yi stays on defense to check any move by Sun Quan. Cao Zhen doesn't read the memo. He prepares to lure the Riverlanders into an ambush of a fake supply train.

Zhuge Liang still has a one-month supply. As Wei has assigned to bold a commander to guard the supply train, Zhuge Liang sees through the ruse and in turn plans to surprise his opponents. The Wei army is routed. Still Cao Zhen guards Chencang, choking Zhuge Liang's supply of grain. Withdraw, he must. Wei Yan guards the rear - pursued by Wang Shuang who falls in an ambush. Despite the novel's praise, the renewed northern campaign ended in utter failure. Zhuge Liang is back where he started.

Sun Quan is declared Emperor. Zhuge Jin's son, Zhuge Ke, apparently a giant of seven spans with a horseface, becomes principal guide of the crown prince. The other Zhuge branch is set to prosper in the next generation. Old dove Zhang Zhao convinces Sun Quan to refrain from war and dashes off a note to the Riverland. This causes a diplomatic pickle regarding the Emperor thingy. Zhuge Liang's answer is pragmatic: He has his Emperor send gifts, expecting soldiers against Wei in return. Lu Xun only fake complies with a token gesture of assistance.

Zhuge Liang is lucky. The commander at Chencang dies and Shu forces manage to capture the city in the command vacuum. Zhuge Liang uses the momentum to push on to San Pass. Having captured it, he sends troops to mop up the cut-off Wei forces in the rear at Yin Ping and Wu Du. Zhuge Liang is back in a promising position in the West above the Wei river.

Bad news for Wei. A new Emperor in the South and troubles with Zhuge Liang. Sima Yi advises to ignore Lu Xun's soldiers and concentrate on Zhuge Liang. Sima Yi assumes command from ill Cao Zhen - reluctantly (as manners dictate). The big showdown dawns ...

Does Zhuge Liang really expect a different outcome? His numbers are inferior, he has but a handful of generals, a difficult supply route - and is now faced with a unified opposing force. If the South had any strategic sense, it would use this opportunity to conquer the Riverlands in a lightning campaign.

Dec 14, 2008, 1:38pm

Chapter 99 Groundhog Day

Zhuge Liang conquers Wudu and Yinping, and easily defeats the forces sent to their relief. Unfortunately, Zhang Bao inures his head in a riding accident (of which he dies later, another key commander gone). Zhuge Liang is promoted again to prime minister (despite not having achieved much to merit it - it restores the de facto hierarchy).

Sima Yi knows that he only has to keep his army in being and deny access to Chang'an to win. His commanders cry for aggressive action. So he lets them charge Zhuge Liang - who defeats them in style. He cuts Sima Yi's vanguard off and assures its destruction by threatening cautious Sima Yi's base. Tactically a win for Zhuge Liang, strategically, his invasion is stopped again. This time, it's Zhuge Liang's body to suffer for failure. Ill Zhuge Liang is evacuated to Chengdu.

The Northerners fail to profit and commit a terrible blunder. They send a huge invasion army into the hills which starves due to bad weather and logistical constraints. Size is not an advantage in mountain territory: The constricted front allows for few soldiers to fight at a time (Thermopylae). Miserable and costly transport as well as the scarcity of local provisions necessitate huge logistical tails and excellent planning - absence of which will result in starvation (Suvorov in the Alps). The Northerners retreat - and we are back again where we started (minus Zhang Bao).

Dec 21, 2008, 11:33am

Chapter 100 Thou knowest not how to make use of victory

Zhuge Liang starts another drive north, sending half his army towards Winnow Basket Gorge, half into Ye Gorge to rendez-vous at Qishan hills. Sima Yi covers Winnow Basket Gorge, Cao Zhen Ye Gorge. Sima Yi tries to instill Cao Zhen with vigillence but inadvertently offers him an incentive not to notice the Shu army.

Sima Yi goes mystery shopping among his soldiers, discovers a grumbling officer and has him executed "pour encourager les autres". On the other side, Zhuge Liang also has troubling subordinates. His grumbling commanders are ambushed and crushed at Winnow Basket Gorge. One push thwarted, Zhuge Liang himself sends his troops silently into the hills above Ye Gorge (similar to the Chinese attacks on the US troops in the Korean War).

Cao Zhen is not vigilant. His commander guarding the approach is surrounded and killed. Zhuge Liang's troops disguise themselves with the captured uniforms and rout Cao Zhen's camp. Cao Zhen flees and is rescued by Sima Yi. Cao Zhen takes sickness leave - and dies after receiving an insulting letter of Zhuge Liang.

Having completed the first phase, Zhuge Liang executes the bold but unsuccessful commander of the thwarted advance (and also as a convenient Wei Yan proxy). On the banks of the Wei river, Zhuge Liang and Sima Yi join battle. First showing off their prize formations and skills. Sima Yi loses ninety men in Zhuge Liang's Eight Hexagram formation before the real battle starts - which ends in a Cannae for Sima Yi (who barely escapes). Zhuge Liang is a tactical genius (but not a strategic thinker, similar to R.E. Lee)

Zhuge Liang can not exploit his victory, as a turncoat, whom he has whipped earlier (Has there ever been a whipping which did not lead to defection?), spreads false rumours in Chengdu leading to the recall of Zhuge Liang. He again pulls off a successful retreat by feint.

Another Shu advance thwarted with no gains. When will Zhuge Liang suffer from strategic exhaustion? Where are the Southerners?

Jan 4, 2009, 2:12pm

Chapter 101 Ahab

Zhuge Liang dresses down his Emperor for the untimely recall and purges his entourage. He returns to Hanzhong. To ease his supply problems, he will advance with only half his army and later rotate it with the half left behind (a plan which resembles Wei Yan's strike force). Zhuge Liang advances towards the Qishan Hills.

Sima Yi directs Zhang He to defend Qishan Hills with 40,000 men, while the main army protects the harvest. It doesn't take long for Zhuge Liang to show up. Startled to see Sima Yi there, Zhuge Liang first takes a bath and then has three dummies of him made on identical carriages with identical black garbed bodyguards. While 30,000 men prepare to harvest, Zhuge Liang plays "hedgehog and hare" with Sima Yi, popping up on all fronts until Sima Yi retires. The harvest is not safe yet: Sima Yi plans to attack Zhuge Liang at Lucheng who sets up an ambush. Sima Yi marches into the trap and barely escapes with his life.

Defeated again, Sima Yi sends for reinforcements and plans to cut Zhuge Liang's supply line at Saber Gateway - at an unfortunate moment for Zhuge Liang: His forces are in the midst of a troop rotation. Zhuge Liang's troops appeal to stay longer and crush Sima Yi's arriving reinforcements. Again he is prevented from profiting from the victory, as a note warns of a negotiation between Wei and Wu. Zhuge Liang dictates a withdrawal and returns to Chengdu. Pursuing Zhang He is killed in an ambush by crossbowmen.

Zhuge Liang's recall again was unnecessary. A bureaucrat sent the letter about the negotiations to ease his supply constrictions. This he achieved, but wreck the campaign, he did as well. For three years, Zhuge Liang manages to control his invasion itch, before he ask the Emperor for a final push. The Emperor is quite content with the status quo, and is supported by the historian Qiao Zhou.

Why does Zhuge Liang expect a different result without changing the equation? He needs either Wu support or an internal revolt in Wei to actually win a campaign (as opposed to a battle).

Jan 15, 2009, 6:22pm

Red Cliff II opened in Asia last week (Wikipedia; Variety plug here). Thanks to the power of the internets I have already managed to watch it, as the two-in-one version for the foreign devils has no release date yet (Finland is out in front on IMDB).

The second part is much better than the first. As most of the plot's elements have been moved into position in the first part, the film doesn't have to rush. Still, the cast is much too large and unfocused. The rivalry between Zhuge and Zhou is well played. Cao Cao is confusingly cast as a hero at first who then turns into arch villain (despite receiving what he wanted, a major plot hole). The unhistorical female roles do only distract, in a visually pleasing way though, from the plot. The ending deviates from the novel in a way I didn't like.

Overall, the film features splendid scenery and mass scenes, good pyro effects. The average screen play, no character development, rather wooden acting and a weak double ending make it a tough sell for European audiences (as the film expects you to root for the characters out of prior knowledge). Nevertheless, I hope the film to arrive here soon, as it merits a big screen showing.

Back to the novel itself.

Chapter 102 Once more unto the breach

Historian/astronomer Qiao Zhou see only bad omens for an attack, against which Zhuge Liang finds no good arguments. He offers prayers for this final push, vowing his life. He moves to Hanzhong only to receive the first bad news: Guan Xing died of illness - Zhuge Liang and the Emperor are the sole links to Liu Bei (and Zhuge Liang's future seems doomed.). Five armies of 340,000 are on the move.

Sima Yi enlists the help of the Xiahou clan. Again, he employs a Fabian strategy, blocking Shu at the Wei river and bridging it at nine points. Guo Huai and Sun Li are to dig in in Longxi.

Zhuge Liang has his army in a diamond formation (also preferred by Napoleon) with a heavily protected supply line back to Ye Gorge and Saber Gateway. Zhuge Liang plans to feint against Guo Huai with a night attack and strike at Sima Yi. Zhuge Liang's overcomplicated plan (a bridge to far?) results in a stunning defeat in detail.

Zhuge Liang sends a letter to Wu to ask for assistance. Sun Quan promises to attack along the Xiang River (helpful, but hardly the overwhelming threat Zhuge Liang needs to unbalance Sima Yi). Sun Quan also warns about Wei Yan's reliability (the poor man, does he deserve this bad press?). An intermezzo with a fake surrender ends with a revenge defeat for Sima Yi.

To ease his supply problems, Zhuge Liang has wooden bulls and horses (large and small wheelbarrows) manufactured, some of which he lets Sima Yi's men capture. They promptly build many themselves - to be captured in a demonic ambush.

Jan 18, 2009, 3:40pm

Chapter 103 Like a candle in the wind

A close escape for Sima Yi after his recent defeat costs him his golden helmet. He resumes his defensive stance. Meanwhile in the South, the three pronged attack is easily crushed. Zhuge Jin is ambushed at Lake Chao and withdraws his troops. Lu Xun's plans are captured by the enemy. He too withdraws via Xiang Yang. Thus ends the Great Invasion (tm) with whimper.

Back at Qishan Hills, Zhuge Liang still faces the problem of luring Sima Yi into a trap. With an elaborate setup, Zhuge Liang finally manages to trap Sima Yi in a burning gorge - but the gods are unkind! Rain extinguishes the fire and Sima Yi escapes back to his waiting game.

Zhuge Liang sends Sima Yi a maiden's dress; Sima Yi shrugs it off and just asks about Zhuge Liang's deteriorating health. After all, clothing can be changed, health hardly recovered. Poor Zhuge Liang collapses after being informed of the Southerner's defeat. The stars signal bad omens too.

To test his fate, Zhuge Liang sets up an elaborate arrangement of lamps protected by 49 guards. If the the main lamp is extinguished within the next seven days, Zhuge Liang's life is up. Six days, despite spitting blood and tearing his hair, all is well. On the seventh day, Wei Yan - of all people! - rushes in, turns over the lamp, informing Zhuge Liang of an Wei attack. Will Jiang Wei, Zhuge Liang's padawan, slay his master's tormentor?

Southern support was truly lukewarm. Given their disparity in scale, the Southerners should have done the heavy lifting (see Red Cliff) with the Westerners offering support. Instead, we see the Westerners struggling with a token of support by Wu.

Jan 30, 2009, 11:31am

Chapter 104 Slain Dragon

Zhuge Liang hands his collected works to his spiritual heir, Jiang Wei, then gives directions regarding his impending death, dealing with the assumed treachery of Wei Yan and retreating from the Wei forces. He also writes a farewell letter to the Emperor. We hear for the first time that Zhuge Liang has children (and a parcel of land to provide for them). Zhuge Liang arranges for his corpse to be placed in a box, in a sitting position, to be transported back with the retreating army. Finally, he passes away, 54 years old.

Sima Yi notices Zhuge Liang's death in the sky. He starts the pursuit. Wei Yan is charged with covering the Shu army's rear. He is quite affected in not being given command and starts plotting with Ma Dai. Uncertain of his loyalties, Jiang Wei assumes charge of the rear. Cautious Sima Yi is fooled by one of Zhuge Liang's wooden effigies on his war buggy. "A dead Zhuge puts live Sima to flight". The joke is on Zhuge, though as Sima Yi has foiled all his plans. The last man standing wins.

Back in Shu territory, the army sees an approaching force.

The death of Zhuge Liang might be a good time for an assessment. On the positive side, he was a splendid diplomat, he masterminded Liu Bei to conquer defensible Sichuan and he was a masterful tactical planner rising to the challenge at the battle of Red Cliff. On the negative side, his strategic thinking was flawed. He wasted several years in the side-show southern campaign (and probably ruined his health there). His northern campaign was crippled by a lack of resources and coordination with Wu. The mismanagement of the relations with Wu and his inability to control the warlord Lord Guan in a critical moment doomed his ventures. He also failed to attract and develop subordinates of sufficient caliber, underutilizing Liu Bei's champions and never grow his own batch.

As far as the novel is concerned, I am curious how the story continues, as a dead protagonist leaves us only with antagonists and minor characters. Who will pick up the story for the remaining 200 pages?

Feb 1, 2009, 4:50pm

Chapter 105 Changing the Horses

The fight for Zhuge Liang's position starts with a flurry of letters to the Emperor by both Yang Yi and Wei Yan claiming to be the rightful successor. The Emperor, while showing a certain aversion to Wei Yan, vacillates. The issue is decided by battle. Wei Yan loses and retreats from his blocking position on the Chengdu road to besiege Jiang Wei in Nanzheng. Jihe internal obstacle to the succession removed, Zhuge Liang's bier can be laid to rest in the capital. He is buried on Mount Dingjun and a shrine is built at Mianyang (a Sichuan city that suffered heavily during the 2008 earthquake).

The next succession problem are the relations with Wu which has gathered large forces at the border. A diplomat called Zong Yu is sent to Sun Quan to smooth the transition. Sun Quan pledges perpetual peace in the name of his family's life. I wonder if that isn't too risky. Better never say never ... The second succession problem resolved, the action turns to palace quarrels. The Emperor appoints Jiang Wan prime minister and Jiang Wei general (Is there a distant Jiang family connection?). Disappointed Yang Yi is pushed into suicide. The new men in Shu are in charge.

Meanwhile, Cao Rui catches the building bug, constructing palaces and halls right and left. Even the court members are required to participate in the building process. Grumblers are executed. A miraculous statue is ripped out and transported to a new place in Luoyang, infuriating the people and the gods. Little signs of future doom. Cao Rui does not stop at refurbishing the environment: He grants his Empress the permission to take her own life.Out goes Empress Mao, in Lady Guo.

The domestic bliss is disturbed by the news that Gongsun Yuan is in revolt.

Feb 7, 2009, 6:46pm

JC--Do you think Zhuge Liang had intentions to usurp the throne, once he conquored Huabei? The book fairly wooden in most portrayals, but we can guess from our own knowledge of human behavior can't we?

Remember Liu Bei, on his death bed, suggested that if Liu Shan was not up to snuff as Second Emperor, Zhuge Liang should take power. Zhuge Liang fell to his knees in fear and denied any desire to takeover.

Feb 8, 2009, 1:08pm

No, Zhuge Liang must have known that his pedestrian ancestry, his lack of a fortune and especially his lack of followers (Jiang Wei is his only groupie) prevented any chance of a successful usurpation. The what-if I find entertaining is switching the Zhuge brothers: What if Zhuge Liang were chief adviser to Sun Quan?

Zhuge Liang managed to battle Wei to a draw. With three times the resources, he might have reunited China (if the Southerners for once managed to stay healthy in the North) ...

Chapter 106 A rebel killed, a rebel born

The rebellion of Gongsun Yuan is apparently due to a hick-up in client management. Sima Yi comes to the rescue once again. A lightning campaign bottles up the rebels in Xiangping, before the rain in turn threatens Sima Yi. He endures (and chops off the heads of dissenters). Wanting to spare his men's blood, he opens an escape route for Gongsun who is bagged and beheaded. His whole clan is also wiped out. Case closed. Sima Yi fills his coffers from the city's gold. Is he the novel's new protagonist?

Meanwhile, the health problems in the Cao family continue. Cao Rui is dying at age 36 (too much partay?). His child heir Cao Fang is to be supported by Sima Yi and Cao Shuang. Cao Shuang usurps the power. Corruption and vice reign for ten years, while Sima Yi lies low. Cao Shuang sends a spy to look after the well being of Sima Yi who, showing great acting skills, plays an old drooling fool. Cao Shuang feels relieved - while Sima Yi plots Cao Shuang's assassination.

Feb 10, 2009, 4:45am

The entire Shu Han military was under his control, what groupie would he possibly need to take over the throne, should Ah-Dou, the Second Emperor, prove weak--and he is weak.

Feb 14, 2009, 7:05am

Zhuge Liang could easily have overthrown his Emperor. But why should he? There is very little upside and a large potential downside. As Emperor, he would enjoy better hunting, a more varied sex life and could knock himself out architecturally. He could no longer lead from the front, a practice Zhuge Liang very much enjoys, as Emperors are expected to be sheltered from real life.

Would a coup succeed? He would have to overcome internal and external enemies. Internally, he would have to gain acceptance from the Chengdu bureaucracy, overcome/neutralize the Liu clan, keep aspiring warlords in check (think Wei Yan) as well as prevent potential uprisings in the South.

Externally, a coup offered a good pretext for invasion to both Wu and Wei. Sun Quan would have to avenge the death of his "relative", Wei could send forces to subdue the rebels.

Thus, I think Zhuge Liang was well advised not to start a coup. Chapter 107 shows how a real coup is done.

Feb 14, 2009, 7:58am

Chapter 107 A capital mistake

The Cao clan foolishly goes on a collective hunting trip, leaving the capital unguarded. Sima Yi quickly establishes control over the imperial household, the armory and seals the gates. The underlings have to choose sides: Confucius or Machiavelli? Sima Yi wins the first round.

The response by Cao Shuang is weak. He declines to retreat to Xuchang. He resigns, handing in his signs of office. He returns to the capital and is given home arrest. A little later, Cao Shuang and his whole clan are executed. The rule of the house of Cao was short indeed. A bizarre van Gogh incident: A Cao widow, in order not to be remarried, cuts off her ear, and later her nose. She is rewarded for her loyalty by getting a child to adopt so that the Cao name will live on.

The ship of state is firmly in the hand of the house of Sima now (controlling the puppet Cao Fang). Xiahou Ba, a family member of the close Cao allies, defects to Shu. He also informs Shu about Sima's two new paladins: Zhong Hui and Deng Ai. Jiang Wei (we never learn what he has been doing during the last ten years) uses the occasion to start another campaign against Wei.

Jiang Wei sends two generals with 15.000 men to hold two forts - which are quickly besieged by Wei and forced into starvation. Jiang Wei and Xiahou Ba try to relieve them but are blocked and outgeneraled by Wei. Jiang Wei flees and is pursued by Sima Yi's son Sima Shi, the mole man. Zhuge Liang's multiple bolt shooter saves Jiang's life.

Ten years later, Wei under new management, Jiang Wei has not learned from Zhuge Liang's defeat. This time, he is faced with the Sima family in charge under a unified Wei command.

Feb 28, 2009, 3:05pm

Chapter 108 Successions, sieges and a little coup

The offense thwarted, both sides return to base. Sima Yi passes away, Sima Shi takes up the baton, his brother Sima Zhao is appointed Cavalry General.

Finally, succession becomes an issue in the South: Sun Quan dies after a long successful and relatively peaceful reign (no tribute in the book). Sun Quan's first two heirs having died, it is young Sun Liang's turn under the "protection" of another Zhuge, Zhuge Ke. Sima Shi sends three armies under Sima Zhao against Wu. The first strike is against the Dongxing defense on Lake Chao in the East, besieging two forts. Zhuge Ke sends a 3.000 marines commando to relieve the siege. The Southerners raid the Wei camp. The Northerners flee (again, a shocking display of the Northerner's lack of trained troops).

Zhuge Ke decides to strike back against Xincheng (and asks for Shu support). The omens are not good, though. Xincheng is invested. Sima Shi concentrates his forces in defense against Shu, letting General Hunger defend Xincheng. Zhuge Ke's attacks whittle down the garrison which offers a surrender in ten days. The garrison uses the lull in the fighting to reinforce and repair the city walls. Angry Zhuge Ke resumes the attack - but is wounded himself. The besiegers lose morale. Only the draconian rule of Zhuge Ke holds them together. When a field marshal defects, Zhuge Ke accepts defeat and retires south.

Back in the South, Zhuge Ke purges his command and takes over the palace guard. A coup? The Sun clan fights back and convinces Sun Liang to issue a secret assassination order. Zhuge Ke, meanwhile, battles with his internal demons and executes his entourage, ignores all warning signs to attend his last supper. At the last moment, he tries to return home, but is prevented by the conspirators. In the presence of Sun Liang, he concentrates on not drinking tampered wine, while the conspirators prepare to decapitate him. When Sun Liang retires, Sun Jun kills Zhuge Ke and wounds Zhuge's right hand man. The whole Zhuge clan is rounded up and executed. Sun Jun is appointed prime minister.

In Chengdu, Jiang Wei prepares another invasion. A slow learner?

Mar 2, 2009, 6:46pm

Cao Shuang's pathetic death reminded me of Saddam Hussein and his 2 sons-in-law, who sought assylum in Jordan after attempting a coup (?) Once Saddam said, Come home, all is forgiven, the 2 idiots went home with their wives. They were executed soon after their return.

Mar 3, 2009, 6:22pm

Exile might not be much safer (cf. the recent Russian mob assassinations abroad or the fate of the Russian revolutionaries after Stalin's rise). A license to kill transcends borders ...

Cao Shuang's twin mistakes were leavening the unprotected capital behind for the family hunting trip and showing leniency towards Sima Yi earlier (the novel teaches ruthless extermination of rivals - quite a contrast to the current (unhistorical) "team of rivals" vogue in the US).

Cao Shuang probably expected reciprocal leniency from Sima Yi, retirement in a monastery resort. Underestimating peril after a coup is quite common (from Cicero to Louis XVI): Why leave into a harsh and uncertain exile when the future might offer reconciliation? Where could Cao Shuang have turned to? Certainly not to Shu (or Wu). The only option would be hiding at the barbarian fringe (eg Korea or the steppe) - death suddenly doesn't look so bad (and restore honor in a Japanese way).

Mar 5, 2009, 3:09am

The Byzantine Empire also favored ruthless treatment of defeated rivals. Rather often, after an interregnum power struggle, defeated claimants to the throne were blinded and then sent to a monastery.

Mar 6, 2009, 9:23am

The Byzantines are probably the record holders in intrigue, backstabbing and murder, often all within the family. Their successors, the Ottomans, were also quite skilled with silk strings ... Blind men can still be dangerous (cf. Enrico Dandolo).

As presented, the Chinese struggles are less within but between family clans. The danger of being wiped out solely because of one black sheep certainly strengthens solidarity and control.

Chapter 109 Another invasion, another Emperor

Once more, Jiang Wei and Xiaohou Ba with 200.00 sets out to conquer the North with the help of 50.000 Qiang allies. Wei sends Sima Zhao and Xu Zhi.The armies meet, Shu retreats 30 li and they stall. Xu Zhi is ambushed and killed. The Riverlanders disguise their troops in Wei uniforms, surprise their camp and rout their army. Sima Zhao is trapped on the aptly named Iron Cage Mountain with a limited water supply. The gods are with Sima Zhao. With a little prayer, water gushes out. Jiang Wei settles down on besieging Sima Zhao.

The Northerners, meanwhile, trick the Qiang into an ambush. Their king switches sides and spearheads the attack against Shu. The Riverlanders are routed and flee. Jiang Wei manages to wound the pursuing Guo Huai (who later dies from this wound). Killing the two generals - according to the text - makes up for the stunning defeat. In war, though, there are no style points. Shu has failed again (as expected).

The Western nuisance dealt with, Sima Shi opens a new battle with the Emperor Cao Fang who apparently has not learned that Emperors should not write bloody messages. Sima Shi finds the shirt with the bloody message, has the conspirators and the Empress executed: The men ripped in two at the waist, the Empress strangled with a white cord. Their clans are also wiped out for good measure. Cao Fang is sent into retirement as prince of Qi (a forceless qi?). Cao Mao is the new Emperor du jour who knows his business: "I, too, am a subject.", a "roi bourgeois". Not all are happy with this change ...

Edited: Mar 6, 2009, 10:15pm

>20 pechmerle: JC--Pechie (sorry, that's how I always think of you-lol).

Concurrently reading a history of Alexander the Great. He and his mother, Olympias, may have done their father/husband in.

We love and kill the same way, no matter what our cultural background.

Mar 7, 2009, 12:17am

I read Peter Green's biography of Alexander, and recall the suspicion of how Philip of Macedon met his end. An excellent book.

(I may have to start calling you Bellie.)

Mar 9, 2009, 11:52am

>22 belleyang: Belle, to steer your associations in another direction, have a look at Pech Merle. An enticing part of France I have yet to visit (Toulouse, Carcassonne, caves, French Airbus plant).

While I concur that human relations, constellations and motives are universal, means are culturally determined: As the king can not leave his palace in Chinese chess, murdering a Chinese/Japanese Emperor is on a higher level of taboo than regicide and parricide (with its literal tradition of Oedipus and Zeus). Clan based murder would be regarded as shocking in early modern Europe, killing religious groups not so much.

Chapter 110 An eye for an Empire

Switching Emperors and humbling the Cao clan rouses opposition in the East of Wei. Imperial Inspector Wen Qin accuses Sima Shi of high crimes and treason while assembling an army of 60.000 in Huainan. Xiangcheng in Henan is quickly captured. Despite suffering from a tumor in his left eye, Sima Shi personally, under great pain, moves to crush the rebellion. Wu torpedoes the rebellion by attacking Shouchun, forcing the rebels to retreat.

Sima Shi finds a new champion in Deng Ai who is tasked with the capture of Yuejia. The rebels send 5.000 troops to capture the city as well and attack Sima Shi's forces. The ailing Sima Shi in a supreme exhaustive effort leads his men to victory. Despite a fierce stand by Wen Yan, son of Wen Qin, the rebels are forced to retire to Shouchun. A Wei follower enduces Wen Qin to surrender hinting at the impending death of Sima Shi but fails. The rebels are crushed and flee, but are captured and beheaded. A prefect sends their heads with compliments to Sima Shi.

The dying Sima Shi (an eye-popping event) sends for Sima Zhao to take over (the cat is away from the capital). The Emperor meekly orders Sima Zhao to stay away from the capital, an order easily ignored by Sima Zhao. The Emperor appoints him regent-marshal and director of the secretariat.

Meanwhile, Jiang Wei undertakes another invasion, despite its obvious impossibility pointed out by Zhang Yi. At least, the current turmoil prevents Wei from concentrating its full force against Shu. With 50.000 troops, Jiang Wei advances to Fuhan. Wei sends 70.000 to oppose them. Jiang Wei places his troops with their back to the river (no escape!) awaiting the Wei juggernaut. A devastating flank attack brings victory to Shu. Zhang Yi advises movement to profit from the victory, Jiang Wei instead besieges Didao (losing momentum).

When Deng Ai approaches to relieve the siege and threats Jiang Wei's rear (alas, with mostly phantom forces), the Riverlanders retreat (again!). For his success in battle (if not in campaign), Jiang Wei is promoted regent-marshal. As expected, he proposes another invasion. Will he ever learn?

Edited: Mar 9, 2009, 4:57pm

>24 jcbrunner: What evidence can you give me that the Asian equivalent of regicide is looked upon with greater horror? Maybe I've been watching too many Chinese TV series on the fall of dynasties.

Hmm . . . on thinking about your statement, you are right. "Tian"--heaven is part of the answer. Father, King, Teacher represent heaven or those who uphold heaven. Kill the King, Father, Teacher, and there is "luan" -- chaos is unleashed under heaven.

The Cultural Revolution was a form of parricide. They turned the children against their own parents. Fathers were blacklisted, and their adult children were too afraid to take them in. I'm currently working on the last chapter of my graphic novel, where my great grandfather was abandoned by all his children, except for two. This blog is titled, "Killing Great Grandfather."

Now that the government in Beijing is fearful of a future "regicide," they tote out old man Confucius to stave off turmoil of the workers, farmers and other disgruntled citizenry.


My father's excuse at 80 for not leaving the house is that the king does not leave his castle vacant. Ha, ha. I loved chapter 108. And aksi the chapter where Zhuge Ke shines too much light--displays too much his own power--at the expense of the king, threatening the king, is good philosophy even for the everyday. Do you see this more of an Asian attribute (Coiled dragon, hidden tiger?) Americans--sorry for the overgeneralization--are showy.

Mar 15, 2009, 6:03pm

So your father fears a coup? I also liked ch. 108. Zhuge Ke's regency merited a broader treatment (esp. given his role in editing Zhuge Liang's writings). The South gets short-changed in the novel. Three kingdoms? Not so much.

Chinese are showy too - much showier than the Japanese. All that gold, red and glitter in Chinese restaurants give me a visual shock. Parts of America aren't showy at all ("Show me" Missouri and the Midwest, the Quakers and parts of New England, ...).

The trouble with heavenly-ordained, monarchic or dictatorial systems is their inability to change. Change would be an implicit admission that the previous arrangement was not perfect/god-given. The great advantage of democracies (pace Schumpeter) is their ability to remove incompetents within a limited time frame (*cough* eight years in the US, Italy is still under Berlusconi's thumb ...).

Chapter 111 Birth pangs of Emperorship

Jiang Wei starts another invasion. His opponents are still at Didao, resting and rebuilding their troops. Deng Ai, the rising star, is awarded the title "General who pacifies the West" and offers five reasons that compel Jiang Wei to invade: 1. morale superiority, 2. united command, 3. easy access and logistics, 4. good battlefields for offense and defense, 5. good local food supply (The most important and decisive question is not asked: Can he defeat Wei?).

Meanwhile in camp, Jiang Wei offers his own five reasons (a nice exam question for aspiring mandarins: Compare Deng Ai's and Jiang Wei's reasons): 1. morale superiority, 2. easy access and logistics, 3. advantage in experience, 4. good local supply, 5. Concentrated forces (His reasons only hold true in the short run). Shu marches to Qishan. Wei awaits him there in nine camps. Leaving a decoy force in place, Jiang Wei marches against Nan'an. Deng Ai does not fall for the bait and force-marches to Nan'an and places his two sons in ambush positions. Jiang Wei is stopped and shifts to the third target. Will he ever learn? The issue is decided for him, as the Deng sons ambush him, while Papa Deng attacks from the front. The Shu forces flee back to Hanzhong. Following Zhuge Liang's example, Jiang Wei accepts a demotion.

Sima Zhao thinks about Emperorship and sends out underlings to do some opinion research. Jia Chong meets Zhuge Dan, a lord in Wei service - who stays loyal to the Cao clan (just as Zhuge stayed loyal to the Lius). Sima Zhao is not happy. To get Zhuge Dan to the capital, he appoints him Minister of Works. Zhuge Dan does not comply. Instead he raises troops, occupies Yangzhou and declares a rebellion. He sends a messenger to Wu for assistance, offering his son as a hostage. Has Wu learned from the last fiasco? Wu sends an army of 70,000.

Sima Zhao is smarter than Cao Shuang. He takes the Emperor and the Inner Court along on the punishing expedition against Zhuge Dan. With 260,000 men, Sima Zhao moves against the rebels and Wu. Wu is first to bear the rage: Zhu Yi's army is defeated and retires, meekly sending a note to Zhuge Dan in Shouchun, who marches out to battle Sima Zhao.

Mar 18, 2009, 12:49am

>26 jcbrunner: I'm curious to know where you read that Zhuge Ke edited Zhuge Liang's writing. How could he have possibly gotten a hold of these when the two men were in different states, serving different lords. The editing into the Twenty-Five Histories was officially done by Chen Shou under the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

Also, I didn't mean the gaudy outward decorations of so-called commoners, like your typical Cantonese restaurant. Gaudy is folk stuff. They higher the education, the more sophisticated the taste. I meant hiding one's strength, power, intelligence.

Mar 23, 2009, 1:47pm

Sorry, you are right, I misremembered ch. 98 footnote 3: "Zhuge Ke, a nephew of Zhuge Liang, is often supposed to be the author of Kongming's "Second petition on taking the field", ch. 97, because it resembles Ke's polemic against Wei."

Chapter 112

Sima Zhao knows how to split the Southerners from the rebels: Booty. Zhuge Dan meanwhile is defeated and withdraws into Shouchun. The Wu soldiers are at Anfeng, threatening to relieve the siege of Shouchun. Sima Zhao uncovers the southern gate. The Southerners fall for the bait and reinforce Shouchun. The main Wu army under Zhu Yi is blocked and ambushed. Zhu Yi is beheaded by Sun Chen for that defeat "pour encourager les autres". Instead, he provokes the surrender of his commander who transfers into Sima service. Others follow. Zhuge Dan executes Wen Qin to raise morale - triggering the hatred of Wen's sons. The city is ripe for the taking and stormed. Zhuge Dan is cut down as is the last defiant Southern general Yu Quan. For safety reasons, Sima Zhao wipes out the Zhuge clan (so the Wu Zhuges and the Wei Zhuges are gone, only the Shu line remains) and Zhuge Dan's faithful one hundred soldiers. Another rebellion crushed.

Predictably, Jiang Wei asks for another drubbing. First he receives a memo of strategic advice on the futility of his mission. Hope this helps. He plans to strike Wei's grain supplies at Longwall guarded by Sima Wang. The paladins clash (among them one named Li Peng - whose eye is pierced, better wear thick spectacles). Sima Wang retires into the city. Jiang Wei presses the attack and appears to succeed - when, oh wonder who could have guessed that - Wei reinforcements under Deng Ai arrive. Jiang Wei and Deng Ai clash. Jiang Wei narrowly wins, only to discover that the fleeing Deng Ai is really Deng Ai's son. The two sides retire. Deng Ai sends his son into the besieged city, while he plays for time. Finally, Jiang Wei understands his plan and asks Sun Chen for - too late as Sima Zhao has already defeated both his opponents and is free to rush reinforcements against the hapless Jiang Wei. Retreat again?

Mar 29, 2009, 7:44pm

Chapter 113 A new day, a new Emperor, a new invasion

Deng Ai lets Jiang Wei slip away. Meanwhile in the South, Sun Chen snaps and starts a purge. The young Emperor Sun Liang shows surprising skills of deduction (were mouse droppings really an issue in Ancient China?). Smart men are dangerous, especially if they plot to overturn the regent. Sun Liang repeats the amateur mistake of writing an edict and involving Sun Chen's sister's husband in the plot. Sun Chen foils the plot and executes the plotters (including his sister's husband). The Emperor is demoted and sent into exile. The bureaucracy shows token resistance by a personal sacrifice of one official. Sun Xiu, sixth son of Sun Quan, is the appointed new Emperor - under the thumb of Sun Chen. Sun Xiu snubs Sun Chen: Showdown. This time, though, it is Sun Chen who falls prey to a coup. He is cut down during the Emperor's reception. Sun Xiu has Sun Chen's clan slaughtered but wisely lets others off the hook. He also restores the property and titles of Sun Chen's enemies. Chengdu sends another greeting card. Apparently, the eunuch Huang Hao is in charge there.

Good old Jiang Wei starts another invasion into the Qishan Hills where Deng Ai awaits him. Deng Ai has prepared a secret tunnel giving him access to Jiang Wei's rear. Wei attacks from front and rear. The cool nerves of the Westerners prevent a total rout. The Wei soldiers abandon their attack.

The next day, Jiang Wei and Deng Ai show off their respective formations in drill. Jiang Wei bests Deng Ai who retreats, rescued by Sima Wang. Jiang Wei again displays his drill show for Sima Wang who is also forced to retreat. The Wei forces refuse further battle. Instead, Deng Ai has false rumors spread about Jiang Wei in Chengdu. Jiang Wei is summoned home. While preparing to retreat, his rear is harassed by Wei forces ...

Apr 11, 2009, 9:29am

Chapter 114 A new day, a new Emperor, a new invasion

The chapter starts with another Jiang Wei retreat. After calling in at Chengdu, Jiang Wei returns to Hanzhong. Sima Zhao is happy to hear about the bad vibes in Chengdu, but can't risk an invasion as his position is not yet secure. His Emperor tests whether the pen is mightier than the sword by writing an accusatory poem. It comes to a clash between the Cao and Sima clans. Sima Zhao sends in his henchmen who murder Emperor Cao Mao in cold blood - with a diffusion of authority: Sima Zhao has only given deniable verbal orders, Jia Chong is the one ordering the kill, Cheng Ji executes it. Sima Zhao weeps croco tears - and has Cheng Ji and his clan executed. Quod licet Iovis ... Sima Zhao is not yet ready to assume the purple. In comes the placeholder Cao Huang (let's see how many chapter he lasts).

Jiang Wei sends a letter complaining about the regicide. In fact, he should applaud the death of an usurper and Cao descendant (in Shu view). Naturally, he starts another invasion. To stop it, Deng Ai sends out a general with a fake surrender. Jiang Wei accepts the surrender but splits the general's troops. One part is tasked with getting supplies, the other is used to ambush Deng Ai who barely escapes from the trap. Score one for Jiang Wei. He still loses because the turncoat general sets fire to Jiang Wei's supplies. Gone are his logistical capabilities, evening the score. Another invasion stalled.

Everybody is playing for time. Internal troubles in each part prevent large external manoeuvres, even though a full-scale invasion certainly would shatter a kingdom - either the attacker's or the defender's.

Apr 15, 2009, 5:38pm

Chapter 115 Stumbling Shu

Jiang Wei petitions the Emperor for one more push (averting Dolchstoß charges?). The Emperor gives him one more chance (despite bad portents). Jiang Wei sets out on his eighth (!) campaign. This time, he intends to flank the Northerners via Taoyang. Deng Ai is again a bit smarter. Turncoat Xiahou Ba is trapped and killed within Taoyang. Jiang Wei is trapped and defeated between two Wei forces. Jiang Wei tries again by attacking Qishan Hills where Jiang Wei achieves a tactical victory - but is recalled again by the Emperor.

In a vignette, we learn about the Emperor's debauchery and execution of a cuckold husband who had his unfaithful wife hit in the face with shoes (Chinese shoe throwing?). Obviously, such an Emperor can not have the mandate of heaven. Jiang Wei loses the power game against the eunuchs. Having exhausted his army, he settles them as soldier-farmers at Tazhong in Longxi behind a ring of fortifications. I cannot see why this position should block an advance on Hanzhong, given Wei's numerical superiority.

Wei plunges itself into the breach: With a weak Shu Emperor and Jiang Wei loitering on the flank, Shu is open to invasion. Sima Zhao is cunning. He lets Zhong Hui assemble a strike force supposedly against Wu (building boats) but in reality targeting Shu. The Shu army is split with 80.000 at Chengdu, 60.000 with Jiang Wei and 40.000 at the border. Sima Zhao hopes to block Jiang Wei with Deng Ai's 100.000 while Zhong Hui's 200-300.000 advance on Chengdu.

Shu is on the ropes and I fear a k.o. punch is coming soon. The only hope lies in Wu, which ignores the risk of a Shu breakdown at its own peril. Jiang Wei has exhausted Shu's military might with very little gain (Smaller nations should not enter into wars of attrition), by withdrawing to the sidelines, he sets up others to fail, while he, the pure follower of Zhuge Liang, keeps on defending the unimportant flank. Sima Zhao is cunning in building a rival general to Deng Ai, thus splitting the achievement.

Apr 16, 2009, 6:00pm

Horrible little emperor and his eunuch. I guess Jiang Wei has also been recalled twice by Liu Shan. Hooray. Four more chapters.

Apr 16, 2009, 6:09pm

Perseverance is a virtue, but don't you think failing 14 times (6 x Zhuge, 8 x Jiang) should give a hint that it doesn't work and you should change your approach. The two might have had a great career at GM.

Not that the Emperor isn't naked.

Apr 18, 2009, 6:55pm

I read the Forward last night. Strange they put it near the end of the volumes. I met John Service at a dinner party some years ago. I doubt he is still alive. Began reading the Afterword, and find it fascinating, because he helps to pull it all together, now that we've read nearly to the end. Moss Roberts is so clear and insightful. I think he will help us make sense of this big sprawling book.

Apr 19, 2009, 5:58pm

A 100 page afterword is not bad, a lot of it would have been better placed at the beginning. I don't know if it is possible to pull everything together as the book has elements of an epic, a history and a novel - and leaves much unexplored (such as Wu).

Chapter 116 The Northern Avalanche

Sima Zhao is not too frightened about a possible coup by either Deng Ai or Zhong Hui, having taken preventive measures in the case of either man's success. While Zhong Hui attacks Hanzhong, Deng Ai is pitched against Jiang Wei. On the flank Sima Wang guards the Qiang from having dumb thoughts. Deng Ai has a bad dream about his impending death but soldiers on. Meanwhile, Jiang Wei tries to warn the Emperor. His eunuch cuts off the information flow, keeping him in a reality-free bubble. Jiang Wei stands alone.

The first strike is launched by Zhong Hui who captures Hanzhong, overcoming resistance by personal leadership and draconian punishment. A "hearts and minds" campaign wins over the local population. With a little worship, and after a bit of a weather tantrum, even the ghost of Zhuge Liang offers his blessing to the destruction of the Liu Emperors.

Jiang Wei battles heroically but vainly against Deng Ai's forces and is driven back to Saber Gateway. Between two pincers, will he be able to stop one?

Only a miracle or a Southern intervention can safe Shu from collapse. Jiang Wei at best can play for time - trading hills against blood like Johnston in the 1864 campaign.

Apr 26, 2009, 4:22pm

Chapter 117 You'll take the low road and I'll take the high road ...

Dong Jue, assisted by the approaching Jiang Wei, blocks Saber Gateway. Zhong Hui is disappointed and squabbles with Deng Ai, vying for the conquest of Shu. The direct route to Chengdu through Saber Gateway is obviously Zhong Hui's, so Deng Ai's only chance is a desperate flank attack over steep mountain ranges. Deng Ai is skilled in logistics. He establishes base camps along the mountain route, advancing with a diminishing spear-point number of soldiers who scale the mountains and rappel. On the last range, the Heaven-Scraping Mountains, Deng Ai has his men throw down their weapons and slide down the mountain. Exhausted, they have crossed the mountains - an easy target for any Shu force. The even find a warning sign by Zhuge Liang, a warning unheeded by both the Emperor and Jiang Wei. While the book assigns the blame to Chengdu, it was Jiang Wei who uncovered the flank to Deng Ai and left the mountain range open. All that stands before Deng Ai is a local garrison, whose commander quickly surrenders (the commander's wife shows more balls and commits suicide in shame). Saber Gateway is flanked. Deng Ai advances to Fucheng and Mianzhu where the last Shu stalwarts block him.

Zhuge Liang's son and grandson, as well as Zhang Fei's grandson go out in a blaze of glory. Attacking Deng Ai is not a smart move. They should have played defense, allowing part of Jiang Wei's army to attack Deng Ai's rear. The resistance looks more like a political statement of the faithful few, while the Kingdom crumbles. Finally, Shu sends a letter of help to Wu which prepares some of its armies. Having conquered Mianzhu, Deng Ai free to advance to Chengdu.

Jiang Wei is a terrible general both in attack and defense. He basically left Deng Ai a difficult but open road to Chengdu and neglected to assume overall theater command, letting Zhuge Zhan waste an army. Why didn't Zhuge Liang's star pupil not at least follow the master's instructions? Shu is toast.

Apr 27, 2009, 12:30am

>117 I have to go back to Chapter 117 because I was cracking up at the thought that they were rolling down the mountain instead of your word "sliding" down the mountain. I imagined them being very dizzy after rolling down the hill like so many barrels of beer.

Yes, Shu is smoldering, charred toast.

Apr 28, 2009, 11:09am

Moss Robert's use of "rolling" doesn't make much sense. Sliding works fine (if you pay attention to rocks and cow droppings), as the contestants of the Amazing Race Season 14 Episode 1 clumsily proved in the Swiss cheese bearing challenge (pic) (including much stumbling, equipment destruction and cheese torture).

Apr 28, 2009, 11:50pm

>38 jcbrunner: I know it doesn't make sense. That's why it's so funny. In the Chinese, they say "rolling" also, so I think the felt around their bodies did enable them to "roll." That was at least the intention of the author. If ghosts of Zhuge Liang are emerging in the mountains, I'm sure the author intended a "roll" -lol.

May 3, 2009, 6:38pm

Chapter 118 Musical Chairs

Panic in Chengdu. Should they resist, flee or surrender? Fleeing to either the Man nation or Wu is a bad option, hoping for a successful relief by Jiang Wei is risky - the Emperor chooses surrender. While Deng Ai receives the surrender documents, the Emperor's son Liu Chan, his wife and their two children commit suicide. Shu-Han goes out with a whimper and a bang.

The Emperor surrenders, marching alongside his coffin, his hands behind his back (tied? Backflash to Rodin's citizens of Calais). Deng Ai's strategic local appointments nurture his power base. Jiang Wei in turn surrenders, rather fast, to Zhong Hui, nurturing his Dolchstoßlegende (even if his troop movements only made Deng Ai's conquest possible).

Sima Zhao now has two successful generals in the field. Better play them off against each other. Deng Ai and Sima Zhao start a bureaucratic in-fight - Deng Ai refuses to be put on a tight leash. Sima Zhao looks to Zhong Hui to control the Deng Ai menace. Jiang Wei eagerly hangs on Zhong Hui's coat tails (or is this only a disguise?). The sly fox Sima Zhao hurries to Chang'an to be in a position to strike as soon as one contender is eliminated ...

May 7, 2009, 6:59pm

Chapter 119 Gall and gore

Poor Deng Ai falls prey to a Wallensteinesque coup: He is captured in bed and quickly caged. Triumphant enters Zhong Hui, along with his cheerleader Jiang Wei. The Deng Ai package is sent to Luoyang. Jiang Wei hopes to turn Zhong Hui against Sima Zhao (and restore Shu). Upon hearing that Sima Zhao is near, Zhong Hui tests his commanders' loyalty - planning to bury the less than faithful alive. As always, word escapes, relief forces gather. While Jiang Wei is interrupted by chest pains from starting/continuing the massacre, the besieged Zhong Hui is killed by an arrow. Jiang Wei commits suicide. The Northerners use the opportunity to perform a grisly autopsy of Jiang Wei: an enlarged gall - bad qi! Jiang Wei's family is wiped out too. Deng Ai, freed from his cage rides to Chengdu, but on the way is surprised and killed. For good measure, the Wei soldiers kill the remaining Shu loyalists. The former Emperor is sent to Luoyang. Sparing his life (while executing Shu's eunuch. Karma!) but humiliating him, Sima Zhao displays his power, collecting the second emperor. Sima Zhao is declared King of Jin. Apparently, Sima Zhao's son has rather simian features, Sima Yan, and a calmer second son, Sima You. Despite preferring the second son, Sima Zhao appoints the first his heir - just in time, as a stroke kills him.

Sima Yan pressures and bullies stubborn Emperor Cao Huan into abdication. The mandate of Heaven is with Jin. Cao Huan is exiled. Wu stands alone. Sun Xiu prepares for an invasion. So does Sima Yan ...

Wow, the second to last chapter wipes out every major character. The Emperors are the only survivors, living a miserable life as exiles (flash-forward to The Last Emperor. The English were less benign with their kings, see Richard II). It is strange that both the successful Deng Ai, the average Zhong Hui and the mediocre Jiang Wei meet a violent death. Draw a sword ...

May 16, 2009, 11:16am

Chapter 120 The Empire, long divided, must unite

The invasion stress knocks out Sun Xiu. Dying he points to Sun Wan. The palace does not agree: Sun Hao is the new Wu Emperor with a penchant for switching reign years and tyrannical mindset. As always, the novel objects particularly to architectural follies. Sun Hao even tries to stir up war against Wei. The province he tries to attack if governed by a supremely capable general Yang Hu. He establishes good relations and trust with his southern counterpart exchanging gifts. The southern general objects to attacking Wei and is removed.

Wu is ripe with mismanagement and discontent. Yang Hu sends a memo home to urge a Southern campaign. His request denied, he tries again but passes away. Du Yu is the new champion. Wei starts a massive invasion with five armies, a marine force and a reserve.

Wu prepares two defensive armies and a strategic reserve. The Great River is blocked with an iron chain (is this even physically possible? Given the width of the river, wouldn't the chain sink under its own weight?).

Du Yu moves against Jiangling. He lures the Southern commander into a trap and kills him. Repeated with the naval commander. Wuchang falls next. On to the Wu capital of Jianye.

The Wei naval commander easily overcomes Wu's river chains. He sends a dummy fleet onto the prepared stakes and melts (?) the chains by setting fire to his dummy ships. A rather peculiar idea of physics. Anyway, the river is now open. For the sake of honor, some Wu general continue to resist - but fail. Niuzhu falls (the capital is close). Southerners start to surrender without a fight.

Sun Hao is not happy. The officials seek a scapegoat, slaughter an eunuch and - feed on his flesh. Strange behavior (incidentally, after the French Revolution 1792 Tuilleries massacre of the Swiss Guard, the French people ate part of the soldiers's corpses too, the Chinese and French with their exotic palates ...). The Wu army disintegrates. The capital falls - and the second Emperor surrenders with coffin and tied. Wu is no more. Given how often invasions of the South failed, I would have expected more resistance. Then again, Shu fell to the first major push too. Sima Yan integrates the Wu power structure and keeps Sun Hao alive (to prevent pretenders, not bad decision given Sun's huge harem). Liu Shan 271, Sun Hao dies in 283, Cao Hun 302. The Kingdom is united once again. FINE

2.177 pages, 120 chapters, 641 days - one country and its many provinces. Still to come: the afterword and favorite moments, characters, vilains, ...

May 16, 2009, 9:27pm

Great job, JC!!

May 31, 2009, 6:21pm

Thanks. Now I need your input. At last, at last, I finished Roberts' great afterword. I also ordered Three kingdoms and Chinese culture, the only English literary treatment of Three Kingdoms that my quick googling unearthed. Any other rec's? Part of the first essay viewable in Amazon/Google uses a heavy style wielding concepts such as Hegelian, Sophoclean (I would buy that detergent!). With big words comes great responsibility ...

I would like to start the discussion with the first sentence of the book above "Three Kingdoms is a great tragedy that depicts the hero's fabulous defiance of cosmic foreordination." and the first sentence of the book itself "The Empire, long divided, must unite: long united, must divide." The two points I want to examine are: How crucial is the word "must"? Is 3K a tragedy?

To the first point, as Roberts explained in his afterword the Jin reunification was short-lived (like the English Yorkist intermezzo). A slight focus shift would have destroyed the elegance of the transition from Han to (Wei) to Jin. The cyclical structure is the author's choice. On the other hand, China tends to split into similar three power centers (Shu, Wei, Wu) through history.How much of it is geographically and culturally determined?

My Western viewpoint is guided by the idea of transformation, both negatively in a Humpty Dumpty way ("aurea prima sata est", expulsion from the garden of Eden, ...) and positively by Marxian and other stage models. The idea of a static ideal is usually reserved for the after-life (Elysium, paradise) or fairy tales. Proclaiming the "End of History" is usually a doomed project. Thus, to me, the structural "must" harms the tragic quality of its heroes. It removes the focus from the protagonists to the overarching history. An eighty chapter version focused on Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang might have intensified the tragic aspects - if the heroes can be labeled tragic at all.

I consider Cao Cao to have been extremely successful. That his family couldn't sustain the Emperorship does not make him a tragic figure. Whether Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang can be tragic heroes depends on the probability of their success. Given the forces at play, Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang had only a tiny chance to succeed - they always lacked Northern allies. Zhuge Liang had his Achilles choice. In contrast to Achilles, Zhuge Liang did not pay the ultimate price for fame. The most tragic figure in my opinion is Lü Bu. He is also the most emotional, life-like character.

Jun 2, 2009, 12:19pm

An English take on chapter 117's rolling down the mountains.

Jun 3, 2009, 2:59pm

>45 jcbrunner: love the Brits!

>45 jcbrunner: I was most amazed that each succeeding dynasty compared themselves to the Shu-Han. It's of course not surprising. Roughly 1000 year of the past 2000 years of Chinese history has been under "foreign" rule, so it's enlightening to know that Three Kingdoms has been used to bolster one's own regime and denigrate the OTHER.

Fascinating, too, the Mongols compared themselves to the Shu-Han when they fought to take revenge against the Jin (Gin). This was a real eyeopener.

Liu Bei--I prefer Cao Cao to Liu Bei. Liu Bei wept incessantly and it seemed more of a ruse than heartfelt emotion.

Edited: Jun 12, 2009, 5:49pm

For JC Brunner, a poem from the hand of Cao Cao himself.
北上太行山, 艱哉何巍巍 Climbing the Taihang mountains in retreat/ The going is hard. How can they be so steep?
羊腸阪詰屈, 車輪爲之摧 The Yang-ch`ang slope is rugged/ Cart wheels are broken by it.
樹木何蕭瑟, 北風聲正悲 How the trees moan and sob!/ The north wind sounds just like mourning.
熊羆對我蹲, 虎豹夾路啼 Bears rear at us; tigers roar near the road.
谿谷少人民, 雪落何霏霏 Few people live in these steep-sided glens/ And look how heavily it is snowing!
延頸長歎息, 遠行多所懷 Hunched forward peering, I sigh aloud/ On this long march I have pondered many things.
我心何怫鬱, 思欲一東歸 Where has my resolution gone?/ I want to retreat all the way back east.
水深橋梁絕, 中路正徘徊 The river is deep and the bridge is down/ We stand in the middle of the road and do nothing but mill around.
迷惑失故路, 薄暮無宿栖 We have lost our way and cannot retrace our steps/ Darkness nears and we have no bivouac.
行行日已遠, 人馬同時飢 We have marched and marched until daylight is long gone/ Men and horses are both very hungry.
擔囊行取薪, 斧冰持作糜 Shoulder a sack and go for firewood/ Chop ice to melt for gruel.
悲彼東山詩, 悠悠使我哀 How mournful the ode “East Mountain”* is/ It makes me lament their isolation.

*Ode 156. Read it in any good translation.

You have also crossed a mountain range, but advancing, not retreating.

Jun 18, 2009, 12:21pm

(Sorry for the long reply. Work and a visit ate my spare time.)

Ad Shu-Han: Intellectual heritage can be all kinds of messed-up, see the recent US love for Sparta. Or rooting for the Romans, despite most ancestors being barbarians …

Ad Cao Cao. The great Australian China history coffee table book (go word chains!) I picked up at the London V & A announced that Rafe de Crespigny is working on a Cao Cao biography which I would love to read. One strange trivia about China scholars: Apparently the renamed The Man who loved China into Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China. Is this due to a porcelain fetish phobia, a Jared Diamond clone or the US love for explosives.

One wonders whether Cao Cao could have become a Chinese Hideyoshi – if he had allied himself with the Sun clan (Tokugawa Ieyasu in Japan). Just like Ieyasu, the Sun should have chosen to be the mightiest fish in a big pond (China), instead of being the only fish in a large pond (Wu) – and wait for their turn. Good at waiting were the Sima clan (cue: the old man show) and carried away the spoils.

Cao Cao has got the blues. Thanks for the poem! Reminds me of Napoleon crossing the Alps. The local Napoleon exhibition has a print of the crossing which is visibly inspired by classic Chinese mountain views (the aristocratic chinoiserie). Cao Cao and Napoleon were not defeated by mountains …

I wanted to check whether line 6 of the poem features “the Long March (tm)” and turned to the trusty Google machine translation: “extension of neck long sigh, travels more than pregnant, I feel anger” captures the mystery, David Carradine-style.

Ode 156 (James Legge) “The cranes were crying on the ant-hills; Our wives were sighing in their rooms;” A marvellous image, less so if sound is considered: Cranes are horribly noisy birds. Biology question: Aren’t cranes water birds? If so, do they perch on ant-hills (I have no idea, just find the association of ants and cranes strange.)?

Jul 17, 2009, 11:07am

>47 Fogies: This is the first time I've heard his genuine voice. Gives me shivers.

Jul 18, 2009, 8:06am

47, is that translation by the Fogies themselves? It's much more gripping than Watson's rendition.

Edited: Jul 20, 2009, 8:30am

>50 defaults: All translations from ancient Chinese in the Fogies' posts are by Mr. Fogy. Mrs. Fogy translates from ancient Japanese. (We both read both languages, but naturally we specialize.) There is little point in comparing his translations with Watson's, since the two are done to different standards with different aims in mind. (See the thread "It's hard to translate".)
>48 jcbrunner:,49,50 If we go through line by line we can get a glimpse of the mind of a superb field commander at work.

1 The first graph also writes the word for "north" but there is no ambiguity here. The prime requisite for command success is to see the situation clearly for what it is. Cao Cao's very first word is "retreat." The strategy and tactics of retreating differ from those of advancing; what works in the one may fail in the other. What I rendered "The going is hard" would more accurately be "Dammit, it's hard!" But an accurate translation might mislead the reader who sees this poem as a lament or complaint, instead of what it is, a depiction of a scene unfolding in the eyes of a general. Here he recognizes that his overall plan is not working as well as it might have, so his calculations, espcially about food, will have to be redone to allow for a slower journey.

2 The word I rendered "rugged" would more accurately be "crumpled". An original poem in English might say that of terrain, but it would be a striking figure of speech. Cao Cao is merely speaking the everyday language of soldiers (minus the obscenity, which is as common in Chinese as in English). Similarly, the name of the hills they are climbing is Sheep Guts Slope, but the goriness of the image that conveys in English is lacking in Chinese. Something like "Switchback Hills" gets closer to the original.

3&4 His men are not timid; he knows they are not afraid of sounds, and they are aware that wild animals will not attack an army--at least, not one that is alert and vigorous. But he also knows that cold, fatigue and hunger sap the morale to the point where panic becomes a possibility to be guarded against.

5 He's not lonely for human company. He's considering the chances of "living off the countryside"--a euphemism for plundering the inhabitants' food and stealing their livestock.

5&6 Snow will slow the march even more, and raises the possibility of their getting lost.

6 The original does not contain the words "hunch" and "peer." It says "stretch neck." That's a common Chinese description of the attitude we unconsciously adopt when staring at something. But like all good commanders, Cao Cao sees both the immediate present and the past and future all at once. The word I render as "march" is the most general word for motion in Classical Chinese. It could mean walk, or ride, or row, or float with the current. It often needs a more specific translation in English. Here "march"--that's how soldiers travel. (Don't think of them marching in step. We only do that on parade, and the Chinese didn't do it all.) He never expected to be where he is now; he reviews the events that put him here and looks for alternate decisions that would have come out better, so he won't be defeated in this manner again.

7 "I, too, am affected by cold, fatigue and hunger. I'd better postpone any decisions until I've eaten and rested."

8 "The morale loss in retreat is worse than I'd hoped. On the advance these men would not hesitate to rebuild that bridge at once. Now they just shilly-shally."

9-11 "Nothing for it but to stop where we are, eat and sleep rough, and get a fresh start in the morning. Better go easy on our rations, though."

12 Only this line shows how deeply Chinese Cao Cao is. He thinks of one of the odes he memorized as a child, just as in his place I would think of Valley Forge.

Sep 1, 2009, 5:32pm

The movie Red Cliff has finally arrived in Switzerland (opening on two screens). No release date set for Austria ... (US release: Nov 09)

While picking up my Dream of Red Mansions DVD, I splurged on a gorgeous, oversize picture book of Romance of Three Kingdoms in a beautiful cassette (see my catalog; neither Amazon nor Worldcat have yet registered it). I love the design solution of placing the illustrations in the center while running the English text at the bottom and the Chinese text on the right.

The Dream volume is on my Christmas gift shortlist. The sample page indicates an unfortunate use of a letterbox design with large empty space above and below for the English and Chinese text.