Ask any Chinese with some knowledge of Chinese history, who were the brilliant war strategists of all times and they may come up with a few well known names. Sunzi for his Art of War (Bingfa); Jiang Ziya also known as Jiang Taigong or Patriarch Lushang, for his strategies and advice to King Wen and his son, Wu on the conquest of Shang; Chuko Liang or Kungming for his famous ‘empty city’ strategy against an overwhelming force led by his much respected adversary, Sima Yi. Kungming was also known for the ‘borrowing’ of arrows and the East Wind in the fight against the legions of wily Cao Cao.
Both Jiang Taigong and Kungming were probably immortalized through various stories and movies available to the West such as those contained in The Investiture of Gods and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms respectively. Therefore less well known to the West but equally brilliant Zhang Liang whom the Chinese often mentioned for his Daoist strategies to help Liu Pang changed the Mandate of Heaven to that of Han remains forgotten by Western academics that have access to and often quote the Records of the Historian (Shiji) in public discourses.
A famous quote by the Chinese paraphrased as, “You have Zhang Liang’s strategy, I have a 'crossed the wall' ladder” as a counter aver to his brilliancy. His strategies helped Liu Pang escaped several times from the clutches of his adopted brother and arch adversary, Hsiang Yu the then Overlord and turned around the tides of war against vastly superior forces at the time. So who was this follower of the HuangLao tradition, Zhang Liang? The following story (in parts) is an abridged version from the Records of the Historian:
His ancestors came from the state of Hann. Both his grandfather and father had been prime ministers of Hann. His father died around 250 BC and twenty years later Hann was conquered by Chin. At the time of the fall of Hann, Zhang Liang still had three hundred slaves, yet when his younger brother died he did not bury him but used his patrimony to find an assassin who would kill the king of Chin to avenge his state, because his grandfather and father had been ministers of Hann during five reigns. The assassination failed and caused an urgent, countrywide search for brigands ordered by the first Chin emperor in his rage.
One day he was strolling idly across the bridge in Hsiapi when an old man in rough homespun approached, dropped a shoe under the bridge and, turning to Zhang Liang, said, ”Boy! Go down, and fetch my slipper!” Zhang Liang was astounded and wanted to hit the fellow. But controlling himself on account of the other’s age, he went down to fetch the shoe. “Put it on for me,” ordered the old man. And since Zhang Liang had already fetched the shoe, he knelt down to put it on. The old man stretched out his foot for it, then left with a smile while Liang watched in amazement. After going some distance the old man came back. “You can be taught, boy,” he said. “Meet me here five days from now at dawn.” Zhang Liang, his curiosity aroused, knelt down to answer, “I will.”
At dawn five days later he went back to the place. The old man, there before him, said angrily, “What do you mean by keeping an old man waiting? Come earlier five days from now.” With that he left.
Five days later Zhang Liang went earlier, only to find the old man already there. He was told to come back after another five days.
This time Zhang Liang went before midnight. Presently the old man arrived. “That’s right!” he said approvingly and handed him a book with the injunction, “Read this and you will become the teacher of kings. Ten years from now you will prosper. Thirteen years from now you will once more encounter me, as the yellow rock at the foot of Mount Kucheng north of the River Chi.” Without another word he left and did not appear again.
When day broke Zhang Liang examined the book and found it was ‘The Patriarch Lu Shang’s Art of War’. Prizing this work, he pored over it again and again. He remained in Hsiapi as a champion of justice and helped to conceal Hsiang Po after he killed a man.
Ten years later Chen Sheh and the others revolted, and Zhang Liang gathered a band of more than a hundred young men. When Ching Chu made himself the acting king of Chu in Liu, Zhang Liang decided to join him; but on the way he met Liu Pang, then in command of several thousand men who were conquering the region west of Hsiapi, and he threw in his lot with him. Liu Pang made him a cavalry officer. Zhang Liang expounded ‘The Patriarch’s Art of War to him on several occasions and he approved of the book and made use of its strategies, although Zhang Liang found others could not understand them. Struck by Liu Pang’s natural genius, he followed him instead of joining Ching Chu.
We paused here to reflect on what makes an earnest and sincere student and the meaning of affinity. Western Daoist students sometimes think about going to China to seek out real Daoist masters.
If you happen to be one of these students, look at the above excerpt once again and see whether you can be as humble as Zhang Liang in his encounter with an old man, and whether you can self study a work over and over again for the next ten years. It depicts true earnestness and sincerity. If you can indeed do that, perhaps the other thing is to have an affinity with a real master.
Be prepared to stay in the mountains alone for a few years and may be an old master may take pity on you and come along to speak to the ‘silly’ boy. A joke shared with my Daoist friend when we talk about seeking out masters in the mountains. You will never know you could see us in the same Chinese mountains waiting for real masters too or most likely not.
In the meantime, welcome and hope you enjoy some Han history.
To be continued.