By Iona Maccombie Smith | The BL

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said that: “Defeating the enemy without fighting is the highest realm of military use”. Historically, very few have ever reached this realm of martial achievement with the exception of masterminds such as Zhuge Liang and Han Xin…

The instrumental music that made 150 thousand troops retreat

Zhuge Liang. (

During the Three Kingdom period of the Han dynasty, (220–280 AD), Zhuge Liang, the great historical and military hero of Shu Han kingdom, found himself in a disastrous situation.

Zhuge Liang. (

After losing Jieting (a critical district at the time, known today as the Qinan district), Zhuge Liang’s location at Xicheng (西城; believed to be located 120 li southwest of present-day Tianshui) became exposed and was in peril of being attacked by the Wei army. In the face of such grave and imminent danger, whilst the main Shu army was deployed elsewhere and only a small group of soldiers remained in Xicheng, Zhuge Liang decided to retreat, taking with him all the necessary food supplies. But the Wei army promptly began to approach Xicheng, posing a deadly threat to the fort.

Despite the extreme circumstance that laid before him, Zhuge Liang still refused to take the given advice of immediate surrender and instead came up with a ploy to hold off the approaching enemy.

He commanded almost instantly, “Hide all of the flags, all of the soldiers, stay still in the watchtowers on the facade of the city. Anyone found to pass the gate or speak loudly, will be killed. Open all four gates, at each gate, arrange a dozen soldiers to disguise as civilians sweeping the streets. If the enemy arrives, just behave as usual, I will have my own way to deal with them.”

Upon the execution of his order, Zhuge Liang put on a crane-feather coat and made for the top of the citadel with a guqin and two errand-boys to help him play the instrument.

Gugin. (Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0))

Sima Yi. (Public Domain)

When Sima Yi, the commander in chief, of the approaching Wei Army led his troops into Xicheng, the air was filled with the calming melody of the guqin. He was held off by the sound of the music and somehow his mind was changed. After thoughtfully listening to Liang’s music for a while, he turned his back and fled the city before instructing his army to retreat.

Sima Yi. (Public Domain)

Later, when questioned about his sudden change of mind, he explained that Liang‘s music carried an extraordinary composure and serenity with not even a hint of worry, suggesting that he had fully prepared for the attack. He felt sure in that moment that if his army had moved forward, there would be have been a high probability that he would have been defeated.

After listening to the music of Zhuge Liang, Sima Yi hastened back. (Public Domain)

Zhuge Liang later explained that his strategy was a risky one. It worked because Zhuge Liang had a reputation for being a careful military tactician who rarely took risks, so Sima Yi came to the conclusion that there was an ambush awaiting him upon seeing Zhuge’s relaxed composure.

1000 troops defeated
by singing

Xiang Yu. (Public Domain)

Han Xin. (

In 202 BC, Han armies led by Liu Bang, Han Xin, and Peng Yue attacked Western Chu from three sides and trapped Xiang Yu’s army, which was desperately low on supplies at the time, at Gaixia (in present-day Lingbi County). Xiang Yu was a very talented military leader and was famous for several victories despite unadvantageous conditions in terms of military forces. This time, the Han armies had a hard time fighting against the Chu army of Xiang Yu. That was before Liu Bang quickly came up with a cunning strategic plan.

Xiang Yu. (Public Domain)

Han Xin. (

He ordered his troops to sing folk songs from the Chu region, evoking the home-sickness of the Chu armies and creating a false impression that Xiang Yu’s native land had been conquered by Han forces. The morale of the Chu army plummeted and many of Xiang Yu’s troops deserted in despair. Xiang Yu also sank into a state of depression. His concubine Consort Yu tragically even committed suicide. The next morning, Xiang Yu led about 800 of his remaining elite cavalry on a desperate attempt to break out of the encirclement, with 5,000 enemy troops pursuing them.

After crossing the Huai River, Xiang Yu was only left with a few hundred soldiers, before being completely overwhelmed and ultimately defeated.

There are many ways to win in battle, sometimes the route with the least violence can be the most effective.

(The cover photo: Zhuge Liang (Public Domain)/Photo Illustration by The BL))