Zhuge Liang (181–234) is known by one and all in China as the incarnation of Chinese wisdom. His image has become mythologized through the Three States stories which are repeatedly told through a variety of vernacular stories scripts and operas.
Zhuge Liang, courtesy name Kongming, was a native of Yangdu, Langya prefecture (present-day Yinan county, Linyi city, Shandong province). He was a famous politician and military strategist in the Three States period (220–280). Born in the late Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) when political upheavals and wars frequently occurred, the young Zhuge Liang was an orphan raised by his uncle. Later, he moved with his uncle to today’s Xiangyang, Hubei province. After his uncle died from an illness, he lived a secluded life in nearby Longzhong. Today, both Nanyang city in Henan and Xiangyang city in Hubei claim to be the location of Longzhong and have built memorials to venerate Zhuge Liang.
In the famous story “Three visits to the thatched cottage,” Zhuge Liang left his mountain retreat to serve Liu Bei (161–223) because the latter had paid him three visits in Longzhong. After analyzing the overall situation with Liu, Zhuge Liang proposed seizing Jingzhou and Yizhou, and making an alliance with Sun Quan (182–252) of the state of Wu (222–280) to fight against Cao Cao (155–220) of Wei. Their conversation was recorded in the well-known piece “Longzhong dui” (Longzhong strategy). Later, Zhuge Liang assisted Liu Bei in ascending the throne in Chengdu, and establishing the Shu-Han state (221–263) where he served as prime minister. Thus, in this manner, the Three States period started.
After the death of Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang continued assisting Liu Shan (207–271), Liu Bei’s son, in consolidating laws and regulations, pacifying Nanzhong (modern Yunnan, Guizhou, and southwestern Sichuan), and launching expeditions in the north against Wei. He devoted himself to restoring the Han dynasty. During his fifth northern expedition, when he was fifty-three, he fell ill and died in 234 in the Wuzhang Plain (southwest of today’s Mei county, Shaanxi province), leaving his great cause unfinished. Though failing to recover the Central Plain, he exhausted himself for his state until the end of his life, and thus is highly admired by later generations.
Zhuge Liang was a prominent military strategist who helped Liu Bei to win many significant battles. The most famous of which was the Battle of Red Cliffs. After unifying the north, Cao Cao led his army south in 208 preparing to unite the whole realm once and for all. Advising Sun Quan to resist against Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang believed the alliance of Sun Quan and Liu Bei could defeat Cao Cao and form a tripartite confrontation. He realized that although superior in number, Cao Cao’s army was unskilled in marine warfare. Furthermore, they were far from their northern base and exhausted from traveling. Sun Quan took Zhuge Liang’s advice and sent troops to join Liu Bei at the Red Cliffs (today’s Puqi, Hubei province). There, 50,000 allied troops routed Cao Cao’s troops which exceeded 200,000 men. This battle, famous for using the few to defeat the many and using the weak to overcome the strong in Chinese history, shaped the tripartite balance of the three states.
Liu Bei fell seriously ill in Baidicheng by the Yangtze River in 223 when the crown prince, Liu Shan, was only seventeen years old. Liu Bei told Zhuge Liang: “If my son is competent enough to be assisted, then assist him. If not, you may take the throne.” Zhuge Liang replied: “I shall do my utmost to serve him with unwavering loyalty until death.” This is the famous story in which Liu Bei conferred his son to Zhuge Liang’s care. Throughout his life, he kept his word and spared no effort in the service of the states of Shu and Han.
Apart from his ability and wisdom, Zhuge Liang is respected for his moral excellence. He could have seized the throne from Liu Shan who had proved to be a mediocre emperor, but he did not even though Liu Bei, before his death, had granted him permission. However, he kept within his bounds and loyally served the state till the end. Representing the highest ethical standard of his time, Zhuge Liang set an example for Chinese courtiers of all time.