Kuora: Zhuge Liang and the myth of the hermit genius


Kaiser’s favorite Chinese epic is Romance of the Three Kingdoms — China’s version of Game of Thrones — which he has written about in the past (see: China’s most notorious villain, Cao Cao); today’s column is taken from a question originally posted on Quora on March 14, 2015:

Given that Zhuge Liang was so smart, why did he choose to work for a Liu Bei who offered poorer career prospects compared to Cao Cao, stayed loyal even after Liu Bei’s death and continued to work for an obvious loser (son of Liu Bei)?

and from an answer posted on December 11, 2017:

How were strategists of Ancient China trained? I noticed that during the Three Kingdoms, strategists were very young. Hermits like Zhuge Liang for example came from the middle of nowhere and created hugely successful strategies. How is it possible?

Zhuge Liang, in the mythologized and fictionalized Romance of the Three Kingdoms of Luo Guanzhong, wasn’t just smart: He was also the embodiment of Confucian virtues. His decision to back Liu Bei was based not on personal ambition and an assessment of which warlord offered the best career prospects. He decided to serve Liu Bei because he believed him to be the a moral exemplar, and the legitimate heir to the Han throne. And for those same reasons he continued to stay loyal to Shu Han after Liu Bei’s death.

The novelized versions of history like Three Kingdoms of course exaggerate the extent of the isolation of men like Zhuge Liang. Reading even these “sources” more closely, we can see at the very least that he was well-acquainted with many of the literati elites of Jing Province, where he resided at the time he entered Liu Bei’s service — men like Xu Shu, himself no slouch as a strategist. He was also friends with Sima Hui, who was the person who put Liu Bei on to him indirectly if I recall correctly.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in these stories; the romanticized idea of hermit geniuses is quite common across many cultures, and it makes for good storytelling. Recall that legend says King Wen of Zhou found his great strategist, Jiang Ziya, also living as a rustic eremite, fishing on the banks of a river with no hook and no bait. What’s more likely is that there was quite the little coterie of smartypants intellectuals in Jing Province and, like people of our own time, they really enjoyed dissecting the politics, the personalities, the battles, and the intrigues of their fascinating, chaotic age. Some of them were particularly insightful and their reputations were built up by their peers. This seems to have been the case with men like Zhuge Liang and Pang Tong.

Also see: 

Kuora: Cao Cao was a magnificently cruel bastard

Kuora is a weekly column.