Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book XL : The Last Days of Kung Ming

After yet another initial victory against Ssuma I, Kung Ming ordered his men to help the Wei farmers plant rice. This reduced animosity between the invading Shu Han army and the peasants of Wei and helped secure his support and food supply in recently conquered areas. Ssuma I was too wise to provoke an immediate battle with Kung Ming, which he could potentially lose. Instead, he decided to bide his time.

Hoping to provoke Ssuma I into action, Kung Ming sent his envoy along with an actress clothing, saying to Ssuma I, “Perhaps, if you are such a coward and so shy of war, you should wear this.”

Ssuma I was initially angry but quickly worked to control himself. Instead, he pretended to accept the gift and asked the Shu envoy a crucial question, “So how is the health of Lord Kung Ming these days?”

Unfortunately, the Shu envoy was overzealous and replied with too much honesty, “Lord Kung Ming trains the army by day and inspects all aspects by night. He is overworked and eats too little.”

Upon which, Ssuma I smiled and replied, “Kung Ming’s health must be suffering. I wonder how long he has to live.”

Kung Ming asked the envoy regarding the details of the conversation. When he heard this, he said, “Ssuma I knows me better than myself.”

Kung Ming tried to do a ceremony to extend his own life. The ceremony was guarded by Jiang Wei but disturbed by Wei Yan. Kung Ming realized he would die soon but had put plans in place and entrusted Jiang Wei to carry it out. When Kung Ming died, the Shu camp did not show any funerals but kept quiet and prepared to retreat with his corpse back to Chengtu.

Ssuma I, correctly suspecting Kung Ming’s death, ordered the Wei army in pursuit, but then saw Kung Ming standing before the Shu army. Thinking that an ambush was prepared, he retreated. Only later did he learn from his younger son Ssuma Chao that it was only a wooden statue of Kung Ming used to scare him. Ssuma I, though angry, admired Kung Ming, saying, “You have tricked me in both life and death.”

Kung Ming was the greatest strategist of his time. Known by others  by his real name Chuko Liang, he was greatly admired as a general, advisor, and ruler. With his death, Ssuma I had no one to fear any longer. Soon, he would march against Shu and consolidate his power in Wei.

Meanwhile, Jiang Wei was in possession of the “plan” and Kung Ming’s war treatsies. The senior noble Jiang Ji was ordered to lead the retreat. Angered that he was not entrusted with leadership, the jealous Marshal Wei Yan decided to rebel. Ma Tai, younger brother of Ma Chao (one of the Five Tiger Generals in Liu Pei’s days), offered to join him.

When Wei Yan’s forces met with Jiang Ji, Wei Yan wanted to start a civil war with Shu and carve out a domain for himself. He decided to challenge brave Jiang Wei to a duel, but Ma Tai offered to take the challenge on his behalf. However, Ma Tai backstabbed Wei Yan and killed him. Wei Yan was a great warrior and leader of men. Kung Ming knew all along that he would betray Shu and so hath planted Ma Tai into his camp from the start. In this manner, Kung Ming averted the civil war that would have further weakened Shu.

When the army returned to Chengtu, the will of Kung Ming was opened before the Emperor Liu Chan. According to the will, Jiang Wei was appointed Prime Minister and Grand General with Wang Ping and Ma Tai as his deputies. Jiang Ji was so disappointed with his demotion that he died of grief.

…and so this was how the will of Kung Ming was settled.

It must be said that while these disturbing events between Wei and Shu went on, Wu itself was in turmoil as well, but an internal one at that.

Chuko Ching, Kung Ming’s elder brother, hath died, and was much loved by the previous Emperor Sun Quan. In the reign of Sun Huan, Chuko Ching’s son Chuko Ke would become Regent of Wu. Chuko Ke held ultimate power and ordered the invasion of Wu. Under his general Ding Feng, Wu was initially successful against Wei and captured Xuzhou. They could have captured other major cities if Regent Chuko Ke hath obeyed the aged general Ding Feng (who was injured and ill at the time), but the Regent was too full of himself.

He was tricked by a fake Wei defector who asked for a period of truce. During that period, Wei recovered its strengths and gained reinforcements. The Wei army was able to repulse the Regent of Wu.

Fearing retribution, Chuko Ke seized power from the Emperor of Wu and installed a puppet emperor in his place, but Ding Feng remained loyal. When Chuko Ke entered the palace, Ding Feng staged a coup and murdered Chuko Ke in the Imperial Palace of Nanking. After that, Ding Feng served as Grand Marshal of Wu. While the Chuko family served Shu well, they were a source of weakness of Wu. Such is the strange nature of fate in our world.

The Three Kingdoms Saga (Stock Monster Version) will end in only three more episodes. Witness the fall of the Shu Han Kingdom in our next episode.

Book XXXIX : Kung Ming Repels Ssuma I with a Lute

Despite the disastrous defeat at Jie Ting, the invading Shu forces were not without hope. Meng Da, a former Shu noble who now worked for Wei, was now Lord of Wan. He did not personally like the Emperor Ts’ao Rui and so decided to betray him. He secretly sent messages to Kung Ming, and the latter accepted him. Kung Ming ordered Meng Da to be very careful with their correspondences, but somehow, it still leaked to Ssuma I’s men.

Ssuma I then ordered his general Xi Liang to besige Wan, while he himself marched there. Wan was in between the Wei western capital of Chang’an and An Ding, now occupied by Kung Ming, so Ssuma I feared an enveloping movement. Luckily, Meng Da was a good archer. He shot and killed Xi Liang from the top of his battlement. Unfortunately for him, Ssuma I’s main army arrived and captured Wan. After this battle, Ssuma I ordered the traitor Meng Da beheaded in vengeance for loyal Xi Liang.

Despite the delay, Ssuma I now marched to besiege Kung Ming at An Ding. Kung Ming had very few men with him. In fact, they were all scholars in An Ding. Surely, the fate of Shu was sealed, but Kung Ming took an amazing gambit.

He ordered the gates of An Ding to be opened wide, while he himself serenely played the lute. Ssuma I was astounded. As he listened to the music, he could hear the serenity and calmness in the lute’s voice. Suddenly, he feared that Kung Ming had ambushed a force on him, for he knew Kung Ming to be the most meticulous planners of all times. Ssuma ordered a retreat!!

The gambit had worked, and Kung Ming retreated to Tian Shui, where he had more troops. Ssuma I’s son Ssuma Shi reprimanded his father for being overly cautious, and in this respect, he was right. They had missed their one chance to erase the fame of Kung Ming from the face of Earth.

While Ssuma I led a successful campaign against Kung Ming in the West, Emperor Ts’ao Rui led the Wei repulse of Sun Quan in the East. Because the young Emperor led the war himself, the morale was strong amongst the Wei navy, and they had a great victory. It was a day of greatness for Wei to be able to repulse the Wu-Shu invasions simultaneously. Ssuma I applauded the victory of his Emperor against Wu.

After capturing An Ding, Ssuma decided to advance upon Kung Ming at Tian Shui, but this campaign did not prove as easy. Kung Ming’s army successfully ambushed Ssuma I and forced him to retreat. In fact, they almost captured him. The Shu general Wei Yan pursued Ssuma I deep into the forest. As he approached a fork, he threw his cap to one side and fled there.

Wei Yan knew Ssuma I was tricky and surmised that he would throw it at one side and go the other direction. When he went down that path, however, he could not find Ssuma I, who escaped safely back to his own camp. Nevertheless, Kung Ming promoted Wei Yan to the rank of Marshal for “almost” capturing his arch-nemesis Ssuma I.

The wars between Ssuma I and Kung Ming never seemed to be over. It was said that Kung Ming led seven northern expeditions against Ssuma I.

In another one, his general Wu Pan was defeated by Ssuma I while crossing the river. Then, Ssuma I hired the northern charioteer tribesman of Qiang to attack Kung Ming after the Shu forces captured Xi Liang. The Qiang tribesmen were good warriors of Turkic origins, but Kung Ming tricked them into a trap with tacks.

Finally, Ssuma I cut Kung Ming’s momentum in one brilliant stroke of genius. At one point, Kung Ming’s army was so victorious that they besieged Chang’an, the western capital of Wei. The royal son-in-law Hsiahou Mao was captured and Prime Minister Ts’ao Fang, a well-respected rival of Ssuma I, was also defeated. Ts’ao Fang died soon after and was succeeded by his son Ts’ao Shaung as Prime Minister.

What Ssuma I did was to bribe an evil eunuch close to the Shu Emperor Liu Chan “A-tou”. The eunuch told Liu Chan that Kung Ming could be conspiring against him, and Liu Chan ordered him back. Kung Ming reluctantly retreated. Once at Chengtu, however, he beheaded the eunuch, reprimanded the Emperor Liu Chan for his lack of intelligence, and marched northwards again.

By then, Kung Ming’s health was very poor. In reality, Kung Ming was only 45 years old, but the once untiring genius had overworked himself. He was closer to death than he realized when he embarked on his seventh campaign against Ssuma I. One can not deny the greatness of Kung Ming, so don’t miss his end in our next episode Book XL The Last Days of Kung Ming

Book XXXVIII : Ssuma I Defeats Ma Xu at Jie Ting

Once Jiang Wei joined Kung Ming’s army, it was a cinch to capture Tian Shui and An Ding. Even Xi Liang, the stronghold once controlled by Han Sui (now dead), fell into Shu hands. Kung Ming’s seemingly invincible army would now march deep into Wei territory.

At this time, the Emperor Ts’ao Rui, son of Ts’ao Pi, decided to recall Ssuma I to help Wei repulse Kung Ming’s invasion. Ssuma I was then bored with his retirement. He looked on with his two sons, Ssuma Shi and Ssuma Chao, as the Imperial summons came to him. One day, he was a retired old man. The next, he was Grand General of Wei.

One of Kung Ming’s generals, Ma Xu, volunteered for the Battle of Jie Ting. Kung Ming had great trust in this man, who often answered well to strategy questions regarding the ancient art of war, and so he entrusted him with the job. However, he also asked Wang Ping, a Wei defector and cautious veteran of war, to accompany Ma Xu to Jie Ting. He also ordered Ma Xu to listen to Wang Ping’s advice at all times.

At Mount Jie Ting, Ma Xu insisted on positioning the Shu army on top of the hill, but Wang Ping advised him to put it at the base. Wang Ping argued passionately, “What would we do if Ssuma I besieges the hill?”

Ma Xu laughed and mocked him, “Wang Ping, you do not know the Art of War as well as I. I have read Sun Tzu many times over. We are on higher grounds. If we are surrounded, I will march down upon Ssuma and win by momentum.”

Wang Ping continued to argue, “Commander Ma Xu, this is no book exercise. Mt Jie Ting is a dry place. You will suffer from lack of water. The Prime Minister commanded you to take my advice even though you are general.”

Ma Xu: “Fine, then take one tenth of the men with you, but I will not share the credit of this victory with an insubordinate officer as yourself.”

Wang Ping: “I hope only to help you and avert these losses.” With these words, Wang Ping stationed a tenth of the Shu forces at the base of Mt Jie Ting, while Ma Xu positioned the main Shu force at the top of the hill.

Grand General Ssuma I was not a fool, but in fact, one of the wisest men of the Three Kingdoms. A Han scholar of fame but no importance in his early age, it was said that in the olden days, he did not serve Ts’ao Ts’ao until the latter was firmly established. When Ts’ao Ts’ao came of power and wanted to test if he was truly sick or disloyal by sending a secret attacker, Ssuma I judged that the attacker was only testing him and not really after his life, so he allowed himself to be injured (but not mortally) by the knife.

Later, he served Ts’ao Ts’ao and became one of the Advisors, but Ts’ao Ts’ao never fully trusted him. Ssuma I could turn his head 180 degrees without turning his back, and this made Ts’ao Ts’ao even more distrustful. To allay Ts’ao Ts’ao’s fears, Ssuma I pretended to be satisfied with his role as Grand Librarian until he was 60. He was also seen teaching his two clever sons to serve Wei loyally, but in reality, he had grander ambitions for the family.

Now, it was this great strategist who viewed the folly of Ma Xu at Jie Ting and spoke to his sons—subcommanders Ssuma Shi and Ssuma Chao, “Look, my sons, Kung Ming has sent the wrong man. Ma Xu has stationed his army on top of the hill, and I will destroy him. But whose army is it there at the base?”

The eldest son Ssuma Shi, who hold a massive mole on his neck, replied, “Father, it is one of our former generals, Wang Ping, who now serves Shu.”

Ssuma I nodded in agreement, “It seems that Shu is not without clever men. The loss of Wang Ping is regrettable to us.”

At that point, Ssuma I laid siege to Mt Jie Ting, and Ma Xu’s army was greatly running out of water. Unable to fight, Ma Xu decided to make a wild dash down, but was also outnumbered. Furthermore, Ssuma I made a ring of fire around Mt. Jie Ting, making the terrain even more difficult for Ma Xu. Finally, with no choice, Ma Xu tried to break the blockade, but he only came out with a few of his men and barely rescued by Wang Ping’s smaller army.

Ma Xu lost most of his men as he to join Kung Ming at An Ding. It was clear that he hath failed the Shu army. Kung Ming decided to execute Ma Xu even though the latter was one of his favorite staff and personal friend. Kung Ming also admitted that he himself was partly at fault but if he hath committed suicide or sentenced himself to death, Ssuma I would gain an even greater advantage on the war against Shu. We could say that in their first combat, Ssuma I was victorious against Kung Ming. Kung Ming now had very few men left at An Ding, most of whom were scholars and not warriors.

It was clear that Kung Ming was in great danger. To take some responsibility for appointing Ma Xu, he promoted  Wang Ping to General of the Cavalry and demoted himself from Prime Minister to Grand General.

Ssuma I’s forces were now approaching. Could Kung Ming really survive the onslaught from the massively superior Wei forces? We will soon find out in the next episode, Book XXXIX  Kung Ming Repels Ssuma I with a Lute

Book XXXVII : Kung Ming Gains a Disciple

Having pacified the southern borders, Kung Ming marched northwards to Han Chong with the intention of invading Tian Shui. This city belonged to Wei and was under the control of another Wei city of An Ding. The importance of Tian Shui was that it was defended by a promising young general called Jiang Wei. It was also the gateway for Shu to launch its invasion to the rest of Wei kingdom. At this time, Emperor Ts’ao Pi of Wei hath demoted Ssuma I, Ts’ao Ts’ao’s advisor, to Grand Librarian and eventually even forced him to resign. For this reason, Wei was weakened and ripe for an invasion by Kung Ming, who hath tricked Ts’ao Pi into doing so by sending rumors that Ssuma I wished to seize the throne for himself. As far as Kung Ming was concerned, the old fox Ssuma I was his biggest rival for supremacy.

However, the Battle of Tian Shui was not easily won as Kung Ming expected. Jiang Wei successfully defended the city against attacks by the Marshal Chao Yun and the young general Kuan Xing. Shortly after this combat, the aged Marshal Chao Yun died peacefully. He was undefeated all his life.

In the second battle, Jiang Wei successfully ambushed Kung Ming and torched the Shu camp outside the outnumbered city of Tian Shui. Kung Ming, however, now had great respect for Jiang Wei’s many talents.

First, he ordered Chang Pao to lure Jiang Wei out to attack him. Then, he ordered Kuan Xing, who was about the same age and stature as Jiang Wei, to disguise as him and attack An Ding. The governor of An Ding now thought Jiang Wei as a traitor, and he was barred from returning to either An Ding or Tian Shui.

Finally, Jiang Wei’s small army was enveloped by two of Kung Ming’s Shu armies, led by Kuan Xing and Chang Pao. Not wanting to die young without any great feat to his name, Jiang Wei agreed to surrender to Kung Ming.

From then on, Kung Ming accepted Jiang Wei as his disciple and would one day groom him as his successor. Shortly after this great battle, both Kuan Xing and Chang Pao would die. The two young generals had fought valiantly most of their young lives. Kuan Xing, son of Kuan Yu, claimed that the peace was killing him, but of course, that is nonsense. His doctors said the strain of combat took a toll on his body.

Kung Ming hath lost many generals but now he gained a disciple who would carry on his works in  the future. The battle against Wei was far from over. In the next episode, Kung Ming would meet his arch-nemesis for the first time in combat. Don’t miss Book XXXVIII Ssuma I Defeats Ma Xu at Jie Ting

Book XXXVI : Kung Ming Subdues Meng Huo Seven Times

After the disastrous defeat by Wu, Emperor Liu Pei grieved for the great men lost and was soon dying. At his deathbed, he appointed Kung Ming as Prime Minister of Shu and Chao Yun, the last remaining of the “Five Tiger Generals”, as Grand Marshal. He told Kung Ming that if his son, Crown Prince Liu Chan or “A-tou”, failed to perform his duties, then Kung Ming should take the throne for himself. However, the Emperor realized that both Kung Ming and Chao Yun were loyal to the Han line.

Before he died, Liu Pei asked Kung Ming, “What do you think of Ma Xu?”

Ma Xu was a general of Shu and younger brother of Ma Liang, who served Kung Ming. To this, Kung Ming replied, “Your Majesty, I think he is the ablest of men.”

But Liu Pei chuckled, for he was a good judge of men, “I think Ma Xu is only a talker. He pretends to know many things but can not accomplish big things.”

After saying these last words, Liu Pei passed away. The Emperor Liu Pei was a great man who hath stepped up from a mere shoemaker to a ruler of one of the Three Kingdoms. It was he who faced Ts’ao Ts’ao in battle many times and recruited great men such as Kung Ming and Pang Tong and hold sway over the Five Tiger Generals. In truth, there was no man of greater charisma than him in those days.

Kung Ming was now fully in charge of the Shu Kingdom. Before he embarked on the northern campaign against Wei (having renewed peaceful alliance with Emperor Sun Quan of Wu), he decided to face the southern barbarian tribes of Nanman. These tribes were Tai in origin. They ruled over Yunnan and were led by a leader called Meng Huo, who was most stubborn. Meng Huo had invaded several of Shu’s territories in the deep south.

In the first battlewith Meng Huo, Kung Mung set up a successful trap and captured him. Meng Huo refused to submit, saying that Kung Ming defeated him by guile and not through courageous combat. In the second battle, Meng Huo was defeated by the Marshal Chao Yun and again captured. Presented before Kung Ming for the second time, he asked for another chance to fight Shu. Once again, Kung Ming released him.

The third battle may have been the first victory for the Nanman side. Meng Huo’s wife led this battle. Lady Meng Huo pretended to flee from Marshal Chao Yun but set a trap for him. Meng Huo allowed Chao Yun to be freed, since Kung Ming had already freed him twice. After returning the favor, Lady Meng Huo led a second raid on the Shu camp. This time, Kung Ming came out in a wheelchair and sped away when Lady Meng Huo pursued him. Following him, she was trapped, but Kung Ming released her too. This was Meng Huo’s third defeat.

Meng Huo now retreated south in search of finding allies amongst the other Nanman tribes. Although he was supreme leader, Meng Huo had only nominal control over the allied tribes. One of them invited him to a feast and suddenly arrested him and bought him before Kung Ming. It turned out that his allies had earlier been defeated, captured, and released by the Shu Prime Minister. Unlike Meng Huo, they were grateful to him and had joined Shu.

However, Meng Huo, even in this fourth humiliating defeat, remained stubborn, saying that “I was betrayed by my own Nanman allies, not defeated by you this time. Why should I surrender?”

So despite himself, Kung Ming released Meng Huo again. He realized that the key to pacifying the southern borders of Shu was not expending massive troops to control the Nanman tribesmen, which would hinder his invasion of Wei, but to win their hearts and mind.

Meng Huo crossed further south. When some of the Shu soldiers pursued him, they were killed in a poisonous river. Suddenly, a mysterious man appeared and revealed that he was Meng Huo’s younger brother. He revealed the secret that the poisonous sulfur actually came from dead remains of animals in the river when heated by sunlight. By crossing at night, the Shu army could go through safely. He personally felt that Meng Huo’s resistance and wars against Shu were detrimental to Nanman tribe in general and only done to satisfy Meng Huo’s personal ambitions.

Kung Ming promptly led the Shu army through at night and captured Meng Huo the fifth time. Note that it was not difficult as Shu was much stronger than Nanman. Once again, Meng Huo claimed that it was his brother’s treachery and asked for one more time, so for the fifth time, Kung Ming released him.

In the sixth battle, Meng Huo tried to bribe some of the Shu generals to kidnap Kung Ming. They pretended to take his bribe but then turned on him and brought him to Kung Ming instead. Kung Ming jokingly asked him, “Meng Huo, I thought you said you were not capable of treachery, so what’s this all about?”

Once again, Meng Huo asked to be given another chance and Kung Ming let him go. Meng Huo now retreated to the deepest south, which is close to present-day Myanmar border. There, he allied himself with another tribal leader Wutugo, who had many beasts including tigers and elephants, and who believed he could use them to defeat Shu.

However, Wutugo was lured into a narrow pass. The Shu army covered it with boulder and used explosives to kill Wutugo and his beasts. Once again, Meng Huo was captured and bought before Kung Ming. Kung Ming was prepared to release Meng Huo even after this seventh defeat, but this time, shame got the better of him.

Meng Huo bowed before Kung Ming and paid fealty to him, “My Lord, the Heavens smile upon you, and I  am not your match. Let me and my descendants humbly accept your leadership and serve you till the end of our days.”

And so, in this manner, the Nanman tribes submitted to the authority of Shu, and in fact all of the following Chinese emperors, until the time of the T’ang dynasty many centuries later. It was the work of Kung Ming, the Shu Prime Minister revered as the wisest of the Chinese.

On the way back to the Shu capital of Chengtu accompanied by Meng Huo, Kung Ming passed a narrow pass. Meng Huo offered to kill some of his own men and toss their heads down to the river gods in an exchange for Kung Ming’s safe passage, but Kung Ming knew this was foolish waste of lives. So instead, he ordered steamed buns tossed instead, claiming that these buns were equivalent to heads of the Nanman tribesmen. These buns are today called “Man Tho”, which means Head of the Nanman tribesman. In this manner, Kung Ming also invented a very popular bun for China, and this is why Man Tho originated from Szechuan. More than a strategist, he was also a master chef. I love eating those buns with the red pork called Char Siew. Haha…

Anyway, Kung Ming’s campaigns in the south went very smoothly. Now, he would have to venture north against his most fearsome enemy—Wei. Don’t miss the next thrilling episode. Book XXXVII Kung Ming Gains a Disciple