Stories and Folktales in Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Empty City Ruse
In his first Northern Campaign, Zhuge Liang had to call for a retreat because the main supply route feeding the Shu army had been lost by Ma Su's foolishness in Jieting. His retreat was planned to be orderly and calculated with the smallest loss. Zhuge Liang took five thousand troops and set out for Xicheng to remove the stores. But messenger after messenger, more than ten of them, came to report: "Sima Yi is advancing rapidly on Xicheng with an army of one hundred fifty thousand troops." No leader of rank was left to Zhuge Liang; he had only the civil officials and the five thousand soldiers, and as half this force had started to remove the stores, he had only two thousand five hundred left.
His officers were all frightened at the news of near approach of the enemy. Zhuge Liang himself went up on the rampart, to look around. He saw clouds of dust rising into the sky. The Wei armies were nearing Xicheng along two roads. Then he gave orders: "All the banners are to be removed and concealed. If any officer in command of soldiers in the city moves or makes any noise, he will be instantly put to death." Next he threw open all the gates and set twenty soldiers dressed as ordinary people cleaning the streets at each gate. When all these preparations were complete, he donned the simple Taoist dress and, attended by a couple of lads, sat down on the wall by one of the towers with his lute before him and a stick of incense burning.
Sima Yi's scouts came near the city gate and saw all this. They did not enter the city, but went back and reported what they had seen. Sima Yi smiled incredulously. But he halted his army and rode ahead himself. Lo! It was exactly as the scouts had reported; Zhuge Liang sat there, his face with all smiles as he played the lute. A lad stood on one side of him bearing a treasured sword and on the other a boy with the ordinary symbol of authority, a yak's tail. Just inside the gates a score of persons with their heads down were sweeping as if no one was about.
Yi hardly believed his eyes and thought this meant some peculiarly subtle
ruse. So he went back to his armies, faced them about and moved toward the
hills on the north.
"I am certain there are no soldiers behind this foolery," said Sima Zhao. "What do you retire for, Father?"
Sima Yi replied, "Zhuge Liang is always most careful and runs no risks. Those open gates undoubtedly mean an ambush; and if our men enter the city, they will fall victims to his guile. How can you know? No; our course is to retire."
were the two armies turned back from the city, much to the joy of Zhuge Liang,
who laughed and clapped his hands as he saw them hastening away. The officials
gasped with astonishment, and they asked, "Sima Yi is a famous general of
Wei, and he was leading one hundred fifty thousand troops. By what reason
did he march off at the sight of you, O Minister?"
Zhuge Liang said, "He knows my reputation for carefulness and that I play not with danger. Seeing things as they were made him suspect an ambush, and so he turned away. I do not run risks, but this time there was no help for it. Now he will meet with Guan Xing and Zhang Bao, whom I sent away into the hills to wait for him."
were still in the grip of fear, but they praised the depth of insight of their
chief and his mysterious schemes and unfathomable plans. "We should simply
have run away," said they. "What could we have done with twenty-five hundred
soldiers even if we had run? We should not have gone far before being caught,"
said Zhuge Liang.
"But if I had been in Sima Yi's place, I should not have turned away," said Zhuge Liang, smiling and clapping his hands.