A mystical military strategist escapes certain execution and triumphs in battle with the aid of an invisible army.
When the legendary chancellor Zhuge Liang was given just ten days to deliver 100,000 arrows for battle, the year was 208 CE in ancient China, long before machines could help him produce such a massive amount of ammunition in such a short period of time. And if he didn’t succeed, he’d be executed.
But when faced with this situation, Zhuge — revered as the “embodiment of wisdom” in traditional Chinese culture — just calmly wafted himself with his crane-feather fan. He looked to the sky, and smiling, replied, “Just give me three days, no more.”
The southeastern state — the ones threatening him with this impossible ultimatum — and Zhuge’s southwestern state had formed a reluctant alliance to join their forces of 50,000 troops to fend off the imposing northern army of 800,000.
Zhuge Liang, the chancellor of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period, was recognized as the greatest military strategist of that time, compared often to Sun Tzu. Also a devout Taoist cultivator, Zhuge’s success in battle often came as a result of visions that would give him prophetic wisdom and guidance to outmaneuver his enemy. Illustration by Xiaoping Chen
With no time to waste, Zhuge quickly went to work on his secret plan. For the first two days, no one had a clue what he was up to as he rushed around preparing his fleet — 20 swift boats, each with only 30 soldiers — an absurdly small army to attack the massive northern nemesis.
On dawn of the third day, Zhuge and his small fleet set sail across the Yangtze with a trusting but very nervous army, as no rational strategy had been revealed to them.
Just before the ships got within sight, a heavy fog blanketed the entire river. Strangely, Zhuge decided to blow their sneak attack, ordering his men to shout and wildly beat their war drums, awakening and alarming the northern clan. Terrified by the thunderous drums and screams approaching them from the fog, the northern soldiers shot endless volleys of arrows into the turbulent mist.
Amidst the thunder of drums, screams, and arrows raining down from the sky, Zhuge sat calmly on deck, smiling, sipping tea. For he and his small band of trusted soldiers weren’t alone on deck. Surrounding them were dummy soldiers, stuffed with straw — an army of scarecrows, cloaked by the fog.
Tens of thousands of arrows sunk into the life-sized pin cushions, which safely protected Zhuge and his crew. When the sheer number of arrows began to tip the bow of the boat, Zhuge rotated his ships in the water and let thousands more arrows sink into the straw men on the stern, balancing the weight of the ship.
Long after his quota of 100,000 arrows was met, Zhuge gave the order, and the southern fleets sailed home with the ammunition that would not only save the wise chancellor’s life, it would alter the fate of the kingdom.
When the southeastern generals saw Zhuge and his army return, uninjured, with a fleet full of arrows, they were shocked, desperate to know how he’d done it.
“A good general must be well versed not only in battle strategy, but also in astronomy, geography, divination, and the principles of yin and yang,” Zhuge replied. “I foresaw the heavy fog three days in advance, and so formulated my plan.”
The ancient Chinese believed that one who cultivated the Tao, or the Heavenly Way, could transcend the physical world and unlock supernormal wisdom, such as foresight. Since Zhuge, a devout Taoist, always tried to purify his heart and mind, his greatest asset, in fact, was his spiritual wisdom, which allowed him to defy all odds on the battlefield.
With this tale, Zhuge didn’t simply find an answer — he found an efficient, easy solution to an impossible situation, ultimately delivering the arrows without even fighting. He not only saved his own life and depleted his enemy’s resources, Zhuge used the north’s own strength against them, supplying the south with ammunition that would help them win the next pivotal battle and stabilize the kingdom.