The Western world is quite familiar with the Art of War as a book on military warfare. Thanks to the trainers who popularised this manual of warfare by applying the tactics and strategies in modern management practices. An equivalent and more powerful book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is less well known outside the Middle Kingdom but is stacked with many military strategies and tactics of psychological warfare.
In one of the stories, the famous strategist, Zhu Ge Liang, was pitted against the warlord Cao Cao. The game plan was about luring Cao Cao into a trap, allowing him to be victorious and became complacent. The finale was for Cao Cao to paint himself into a corner and defeating himself in a game of crafty deceit.
Zhu Ge Liang knew that Cao Cao had a weakness for women. Without disclosing this knowledge, he used it to plot Cao Cao’s embarrassing defeat by setting up one of his general, General Yao, with another woman in an improper affair. Of course this was leaked to Cao Cao who happily exposed the details of the relationship to the public. Zhu Ge Liang’s Cukong Liu was greatly embarrassed and summarily dismissed General Yao who then left the state.
Tasting success, Cao Cao seized on the opportunity to embarrass Liu by ridiculing him, demanding that Liu tell the whole truth and be transparent, not to hide any material fact. Cao Cao’s ministers added fuel and fire, telling Liu’s people that Liu had let them down, and failed to carefully select his officers. They ran circus around Liu, accusing him of being inept in choosing his generals, lack of integrity and that Cao Cao’s camp was better in serving the people’s interest.
After a year, when things quiet down, when there was apparent peace under heaven, with Cao Cao smarting over his moral victory, Liu exposed Cao Cao’s affair to the world. What Cao Cao did was an exact replica of what Yao had done, the same affair with the wives of another officer in the same camp. Cao Cao was forced to face the same barrage of accusations and flaming and was helpless. Every word spoken by Cao Cao and his ministers were carefully recorded and read back to Cao Cao and his men. It was a taste of his own medicine. There were no buts, no running away from a similar and grave mistake. Cao Cao and his ministers who acted high and mighty, as the righteous ones, beyond reproach, had to swallow every word they said, heads bent low, some went into hiding. Cao Cao was defeated in his own game of moral superiority.
The Three Kingdom was a timeless classic, and the tactics and strategies have been thoroughly read and discussed and mastered by many modern military commanders and politicians. Some were able to use them so effectively in defeating their enemies through deceptions, schemes, plots and strategies that often caught the enemies totally unguarded and with their pants down. Zhu Ge Liang was a living legend of his time.