Sunday, November 06, 2005

Zhang Liang, the war strategist (Part 1)

A continuation from Zhang Liang, a forgotten brilliant Han Daoist – The Records of the Historian:

On the advice of Zhang Liang, Lord Cheng was made king of Hann by Hsiang Liang, the uncle of Hsiang Yu and paramount chief of the rebel army. Zhang Liang was made minister to assist this king. Both the king and the minister led over a thousand men to conquer the territory of Hann in the west, but each time they took a city the army of Chin recaptured it. So they carried on mobile warfare in Yingchuan.

When Liu Pang marched south from Loyang, Zhang Liang led his men to join him and together they captured more than ten cities of Hann and routed the Chin army. Liu Pang planned to lead twenty thousand men against the forces of Chin at the Yao Pass, but Zhang Liang said, “Don’t underestimate the men of Chin – they are still a powerful force. I hear their general is a butcher’s son, and tradesmen are easily tempted by gain. Why not entrench yourself here, send a force ahead with provisions for fifty thousand and set up banners on all the hills around to dismay the enemy, while Li Yichi goes with rich gifts to bribe him?”

The Chin general did in fact surrender and offered to advance west with Liu Pang against the capital in Hsienyang. Liu Pang would have agreed, but Zhang Liang warned, “The general is willing to surrender but I doubt if his troops will follow suit. That would put us in a dangerous position. Better strike while they are off their guard.” So Liu Pang attacked and defeated the army of Chin, then marched north to Lantien where he routed the Chin forces again, when he reached Hsienyang, Tzu-ying (Shih Huangdi’s grandson), the king of Chin, surrended.

Liu Pang, entering the Chin palaces, found there hangings, curtains, hounds, horses, treasures and women by the thousand. Tempted to stay there, he ignored the advice of Fan Kuai, who urged him to camp outside.

Zhang Liang said, “You are here because Chin did not rule well. And now that you have rid the world of a tyrant, you should trade on frugality. If the moment you enter Chin you indulge in its pleasures, you will just be out-doing the despot. ‘Home truths grate on the ears yet are good guides to action; strong medicine tastes bitter yet helps to cure disease.’ I hope you will take Fan Kuai’s advice.” Then Liu Pang withdrew his troops and stationed them at Pashang.

When Hsiang Yu, arriving in Hungmen, decided to attack Liu Pang, Hsiang Po hastened by night to their camp and secretly urged Zhang Liang to leave with him. But Zhang Liang said, “I came on behalf of my prince to help Liu Pang. It would not be right to desert him in his hour of danger.”

He reported the whole matter to Liu Pang, who asked in consternation, “What shall I do?”

“Do you really intend to oppose Hsiang Yu?” asked Zhang Liang.

“A worthless fellow advised me to hold the Pass against the other princes so that I could rule over the whole of Chin. I acted on his advice.”

“Do you believe you can defeat Hsiang Yu?”

After quite a long silence he answered, “No, of course not. What shall I do?”

Then Zhang Liang urged Hsiang Po to come in and see Liu Pang, who drank a toast to him, promised to link their families by marriage, and asked him to explain to Hsiang Yu that he would never think of betraying him and had simply held the Pass against brigands. So Hsiang Po went back and cleared up this matter, as had been recorded in the account of Hsiang Yu. (Records of the Historian)

Again we pause for some reflections. Zhang Liang engaging in mobile warfare in Yingchuan against vastly superior forces and in advising Liu Pang how to defeat the Chin general and his army depicts his knowledge of warfare similar to those of Sunzi. Compare Zhang Liang’s above strategy to dismay the Chin army with those of Chuko Kungming to confuse the Wei army if you have the time and interest. Did Kungming learn some of his tricks from this past master?

By advising Liu Pang against temptations with this homily, “Home truths grate on the ears yet are good guides to action; strong medicine tastes bitter yet helps to cure disease,” he could have paraphrased Laozi’s words, “Sincere words are not fine; fine words are not sincere" (TTC 81). The entire sentence by Zhang Liang is often used by the Chinese in remonstrations even today. The tyrant (and despot) refers to the first Chin emperor, Chin Shih Huangdi.

Not abandoning Liu Pang in his time of need depicts Zhang Liang’s righteousness. Using a stratagem to turn around an impending attack by the superior force of Hsiang Yu shows his sagacity and perhaps deep insight of the TTC.

To be continued.

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