The Empty-City Ruse is one of the most popular episodes of Luo Guangzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdom, a historical novel about a century long of turbulence near and after the end of Han Dynasty. For years this part has been a welcomed plot for general audience of Beijing dramas and story lovers.
The episode starts when Zhuge Liang, the chief military advisor of Shu Han, has just lost two strategic cities during a campaign. Zhuge finds himself and a small number of soldiers are about to be surrounded in Xichen, a small city by his opponent, Cao Wei’s Sima Yi and his 150,000-strong army. As Zhuge’s main force is miles away and not possible to come for rescue, he immediately orders all civilians and soldiers stay indoors. Zhuge then orders to wide open the main gate of the city and leave only a few veterans sweeping the ground with brooms in hands. He sits himself calmly playing zither on the city wall with two servant boys. As Sima and his men approaching the city, sighting this uncanny scene, he orders his men to retreat because he is suspicious of Zhuge hiding his men somewhere ready to ambush him. For centuries it has been concluded that Zhuge’s bold and daring arrangement confuses Sima and therefore defuses the situation.
Recently in mainland China some people who are interested in so called “dark history” have thought differently about this episode. They claimed that the Empty-City Ruse was militarily illogical and it was pure political game played by Zhuge and Sima tacitly. Why did not Sima just send a reconnaissance team dashing into the city to scout if there was actually an ambush? It would be a bargain to sacrifice perhaps a hundred men to get this intelligence; after all, he had 150,000 men at his disposal. It would be very easy for Sima to discover that that was just Zhuge’s elaborate hoax. Sima would nail Zhuge and return Cao Wei as a victor.
Modern Chinese historians reasoned that Sima’s withdrawal of his army in front of Zhuge’s “empty city” was a calculated decision. Sima knew perfectly that he was not trusted by Cao Rui, the king of Cao Wei. He also knew that no king in the world would welcome a general under him, especially a general commanding a huge army, who was famed and adored by the people for conquering another state. As long as Zhuge was alive, he and Shu Han would pose a threat to Cao Wei, and Cao Rui would need him to command the troops to resist the threat from Shu Han.