Thursday, January 17, 2008

Death Ground (Si Di)

While going through The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to gather material to write about ‘Man plans, Heaven ordains’, one came across this short prose:

A man of Wei blindly quotes Han Hsin, in a minister of Shu who would recognize another Chang Liang?

For readers unfamiliar with Han Dynasty history, the minister of Shu undoubtedly referred to Chuko Liang aka Kungming whom the Chinese considered a very wise strategist who lived during the end of that dynasty. Chang Liang or Zhang Liang was the famous and wise strategist of Liu Pang, the first Han emperor. While Han Hsin was his chief marshal, who helped the King of Han defeat the Overlord, Hsiang Yu of Chu, and who had demonstrated his thorough understanding of the ‘death ground’ (si di) strategy of Sunzi.

Before we explore into what Han Hsin did, let’s see how the man of Wei blindly quoted Han Hsin’s usage of the strategy:

“When Cao Cao of Wei tried to capture the Han Waters from Shu, he sent out his general, Hsu Huang to lead the van and open battle. Wang Ping who said he knew the country, offered to go as well, and he was sent as second in command. When the advance guard reached the bank of River Han, Hsu Huang gave orders to cross to the other side.

“To cross the river is well,” said his second, “but what if you have to retreat?”

“When Han Hsin made his array with a river in his rear; he said that out of the place of death one could return to life.”

“You are mistaken now. The cases are not the same, for then Han Hsin knew his opponents were unskillful. Have you reckoned upon the skills of our opponents, Chao Yun and Huang Chung?”

In spite of the most earnest dissuasion, Hsu Huang crossed the river and camped. To cut the story short, his army was defeated, and his fleeing soldiers were forced to the Han Waters, where many were drowned. But their leader escaped, and when he got back to camp he blamed his colleague Wang Ping for not having come to his aid.

“Had I done so, the camps would have been left unguarded,” said Wang Ping. “I tried to dissuade you from going, but you would not hear me, and you brought about this reverse yourself.”

Hsu Huang in his wrath tried to slay Wang, but he escaped to his own camp. Later that night, Wang Ping crossed the river and surrendered to Chao Yun, who led him to Liu Bei.”
[Romance of the Three Kingdoms]

According to the Records of the Historian, Hsiang Yu who became the overlord of China also understood Sunzi’s death ground strategy. He led his entire force across the river. They sank all their boats, smashed their cooking vessels, burned their huts, and carried only three days’ rations with them, to show their determination to fight to the death and never to turn back. They besieged Wang Li’s troops, fought nine battles with the Chin army, cut its supply route and defeated it utterly. By now the army of Chu outmatched all others. As overlord, Hsiang Yu held the power to appoint kings to various states.

Later, Han Hsin and Chang Erh with a few tens of thousands of men planned to march east by way of Chinghsing against Chao. When the king of Chao and Chen Yu, lord of Chengan, heard of their approach, they sent an army, said to be two hundred thousand strong, to the Chinghsing Defile.

With a few strategies and because the lord of Chengan was a Confucian scholar who believed that soldiers fighting in a just cause should resort to neither stratagems nor deceit, and therefore had no wish to listen to his wise adviser; Han Hsin won the battle. The lord of Chengan was put to death beside the River Chih and the king of Chao was taken prisoner.

The officers presented their captives and the heads of the slain and congratulated Han Hsin on the victory.

“According to the Art of War,” they said, “an army should keep hills to its rear or right, and a river in front or to the left. When you ordered us to form ranks before the river and promised us a feast after Chao’s defeat, we could hardly believe our ears. Yet we won after all. What strategy was this?”

“This is in the Art of War too, if you only knew it,” answered Han Hsin. “Does it not say, ‘Put them in a death trap [death ground] and they will come out alive; send them to destruction and they will survive’? Besides, I had no well-trained officers and men but only street rabble rounded up to fight. Circumstances compelled me to put them in a death trap and force them to fight for their lives. Had I left them in a safe place, they would all have run away. What use would that have been to me?”

“Quite right!” agreed the officers. “This was beyond us.”

With the few examples quoted, students who study the Art of War can do some research to find out why Hsiang Yu and Han Hsin got the death ground strategy right, and why Hsu Huang blindly quoted Han Hsin. Some of the answers can be found in this entry. After the necessary homework, unlike the officers of Han, perhaps we can say that we know ‘one or two’ of the death ground strategy of Sunzi?


According to Sunzi in the Art of War, there are nine varieties of ground in respect to the employment of troops. One of these nine, ground in which the army survives only if it fights with the courage of desperation is called ‘death’.

He went on to say that: “In death ground I could make it evident that there is no chance of survival. For it is the nature of soldiers to resist when surrounded; to fight to the death when there is no alternative, and when desperate to follow commands implicitly.”


Anonymous said...

Hi Allan,

I enjoy reading about the 3 kingdoms and chinese warfare more than western warfare generally due to the far reaching strategies of the competent generals like Lu Meng, Lu Xun, Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang.

From the little that I understand, the death ground strategy was applied by men like Han Xin and Xiang Yu as their situations were desperate such that they could not gain victory by conventional means.

However if I am not mistaken, the death ground strategy is risky in itself and if generals who failed to grasp its true essence and the true situation before them, merely copied the examples of Han Xin and Xiang Yu, it is likely they would meet with defeat.

Warfare is such an extremely complex issue. Seemingly intelligent men like Ma Su, who lost Jieting due to his arrogance and misapplication of the art of war and Zhao Kuo who assumed he knew the art of war thoroughly which resulted in the lost of the entire Zhao army shows that one who misinterprets the context of the art of war is doomed to failure.

The danger I feel can be seen in people nowadays who quote certain passages of the bible and koran out of context.

I feel that one of the most important qualities for generals who shoulder such heavy responsibilities to have is humilty as Hexagram 15 puts it. Humility, prudence and patience I feel is important in using the art of war well and has allowed men like Lu Xun and Tokugawa Ieyasu to triumph over great odds.


Allan said...


Keep it up; you are on the right track to learn from the ancients.

I have also heard that to know one’s capabilities and resources, and that of the opponent’s; battles can be won easily.