Sunday, March 18, 2012
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