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Romance of the Three Kingdoms/chapter 72

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Chapter 72

Zhuge Liang's Wit Takes Hanzhong;
Cao Cao's Army Retires To The Ye Valley.

In spite of the most earnest dissuasion, Xu Huang crossed the river and camped. Huang Zhong and Zhao Yun asked to be allowed to go against the host of Cao Cao, and Liu Bei gave his consent.

Then said Huang Zhong, "Xu Huang has been bold enough to come. We will not go out against him till evening, when his soldiers are fatigued. Then we will fall upon him one on either side."

Zhao Yun consented, and each retired to a stockade. Xu Huang appeared and for a long time tried to draw them into a fight, but they refused to go forth. Then Xu Huang ordered his bowmen to begin to shoot straight before them, and the arrows and bolts fell in the Shu camp.

Huang Zhong said, "He must be thinking of retreat, or he would not shoot thus. Now is our time to smite him."

Then the scouts reported that the rearmost bodies of the enemy had begun to retreat. The drums of Shu rolled a deafening peal, and Huang Zhong's army from the left and Zhao Yun's army from the right came to the attack, and the double fight began. Xu Huang was badly defeated, and the flying soldiers were forced to River Han, where many were drowned. But Xu Huang escaped after fighting desperately, and when he got back to camp, he blamed his colleague Wang Ping for not having come to his aid.

"Had I done so, these camps would have been left unguarded," said Wang Ping. "I tried to dissuade you from going, but you would not hear me, and you brought about this reverse yourself."

Xu Huang in his wrath tried to slay Wang Ping, but Wang Ping escaped to his own camp. In the night, Wang Ping set fire on both camps, and great confusion reigned in the lines. Xu Huang ran away, but Wang Ping crossed the river and surrendered to Zhao Yun, who led him to Liu Bei. Wang Ping told Liu Bei all about River Han and the country near by.

"I shall surely capture Hanzhong now that you are here to help me, friend Wang Ping," said Liu Bei.

Liu Bei made Wang Ping General and Army Guide.

Xu Huang reported Wang Ping's defection, which made Cao Cao very angry. Cao Cao placed himself at the head of a force and tried to retake the bank of the river.

Zhao Yun, thinking his troops too few, retired to the west side, and the two armies lay on opposite sides of the stream. Liu Bei and his adviser came down to view the position. Zhuge Liang saw in the upper course of the stream a hill which might well screen a thousand soldiers.

So Zhuge Liang returned to camp, called in Zhao Yun and said, "General, you lead five hundred troops, with drums and horns, and place them in ambush behind the hill, to await certain orders which will come some time during the night or at dawn. When you hear a detonation, you are not to appear, only give a long roll of the drums at every report."

Zhao Yun departed to play his part in the drama, while Zhuge Liang went to a hill whence he could overlook the scene.

When next the army of Cao Cao approached the camp of Shu and offered battle, not a man came out, nor was an arrow or a bolt shot. They retired without any result. But in the depths of the night, when all the lights in the camp were extinguished and all appeared tranquil and restful, Zhuge Liang exploded a bomb, and at once Zhao Yun beat his drums and blared his trumpets. Cao Cao's soldiers awoke in alarm, thinking it was a night raid. They rushed out, but there was no enemy, and as the hubbub ceased they went back to sleep. Soon after there was another bomb, and again the drums and the trumpets seeming to shake the earth itself, and the fearsome roar echoing along the valleys and from the hills again scared Cao Cao's soldiers. Thus the night passed in constant alarms. The next night was the same, and the next. On the fourth day Cao Cao broke up his camp, marched his troops ten miles to the rear and pitched his camp in a clear, wide space among the hills.

Zhuge Liang was pleased at the result of his ruse. Said he, smiling, "Cao Cao is skilled in war, but still he is not proof against all deceitful tricks."

The troops of Shu then crossed the river and camped with the stream behind them. When Liu Bei asked the next move, he was told, but also told to keep the plan a secret.

Seeing Liu Bei thus encamped, Cao Cao became doubtful and anxious, and, to bring things to a decision, he sent a written declaration of war, to which Zhuge Liang replied that they would fight a battle on the morrow.

On the morrow the armies faced each other half way between the two camps in front of the Mountain of Five Borders, and there they arrayed. Cao Cao presently rode up stood beside his banner, with his officers right and left and the dragon and phoenix banners fluttering in the wind. His drums rolled thrice, and then he summoned Liu Bei to a parley. Liu Bei rode out supported by Liu Feng, Meng Da, and other leaders. Then Cao Cao insolently flourizshed his whip and vilified his opponent.

"Liu Bei, you have forgotten kindness and lost the sense of right. You are a rebel against the government."

Liu Bei answered, "I am related to the imperial family, and I hold an edict authorizing me to seize all rebels. You have dared to lift up your hand against Empress Fu, made yourself a king, and arrogantly presume to an imperial chariot. If you are not a rebel, what are you?"

Then Cao Cao ordered Xu Huang out to give battle, and Liu Feng went to meet him. As the combat began, Liu Bei retired within the ranks of his array. Liu Feng was no match for his opponent, and fled.

Cao Cao issued an order to capture Liu Bei, saying, "He who captures Liu Bei will be made Prince of Hanzhong!"

At this the army of Wei uttered one great roar of rage, then they came surging on. The troops of Shu fled toward the river abandoning everything, even throwing aside their weapons, which littered the road. But as Cao Cao's army pressed forward, he suddenly clanged the gongs, called a halt and drew off.

"Why did you call us off, O Prince, just as we were on the point of success?" said his commanders.

"Because I saw the enemy had encamped with the river in their rear, which was very suspicious. They also abandoned their steeds and weapons, which made me doubt. Wherefore I could only retire. But retain your armor. Let not a person take off his harness on pain of death. Now retire as quickly as you can march."

As Cao Cao turned about to retire, Zhuge Liang hoisted the signal to attack, and the retreating soldiers were harassed on every side both night and day till they were all disordered. Cao Cao ordered his army to retire to Nanzheng.

Presently they saw flames rising all around, and soon it was known that their city of refuge was in the hands Zhang Fei and Wei Yan, who, after Yan Yan had taken the command of Langzhong, had launched a double attack and captured Nanzheng. Disappointed and saddened, Cao Cao bade them march to Yangping Pass. Liu Bei with the main army followed them to Baozhou and Nanzheng and there pacified the people and restored confidence.

"Cao Cao was exceedingly quickly overcome this time," said Liu Bei. "How was that?"

"He has always been of a suspicious nature," said Zhuge Liang, "and that has led to many failures although he is a good leader of armies. I have defeated him by playing upon his doubts."

"He is rather weakened now," said Liu Bei. "Can you not devise a plan to drive him away finally?"

"That is all thought out."

Next Zhang Fei and Wei Yan were sent along two different roads to cut off Cao Cao's supplies. Two other cohorts led by Huang Zhong and Zhao Yun were bidden to go and fire the hills and forests. All these four armies had natives of the place to act as guides and show the way.

Cao Cao's scouts sent out from Yangping Pass returned to report: "The roads far and near are blocked by the troops of Shu, and every place seems to be burning. No soldier is seen."

Cao Cao knew not what to do. Then other scouts told him, "Our stores are being plundered by Zhang Fei and Wei Yan."

At this, Cao Cao called for a volunteer to drive off the plunderers; and Xu Chu offered. He was given a thousand veterans, and went down the Pass to act as escort of the grain wagons.

The officers in charge of the transport were very glad to receive a general of such renown.

"Except for you, O General, the grain could never reach Yangping Pass."

They entertained Xu Chu with the wine and food on the carts; and he ate and drank copiously, so that he became very intoxicated. And in that state he insisted on marching, urging the convoy to start at once.

"The sun has nearly set," said the transport officers, "and the road near Baozhou is bad and dangerous, so that we cannot pass there at night."

"I can face any danger," boasted the drunken general. "I am brave as a myriad men put together. What do you think I fear? Beside, there is a good moon tonight, just the sort of thing to take grain carts along by."

Xu Chu took the lead, sword in hand. By the second watch they were passing Baozhou. About half the train had passed when the rolling drums and the blare of horns came down to them through a rift in the hills. It was soon followed by the appearance of a cohort led by Zhang Fei. With spear ready, he came racing down straight for Xu Chu, who, whirling his sword, dashed to the front to meet the enemy.

But Xu Chu was too drunk to stand against such a warrior. After a few bouts he received a spear thrust in the shoulder, turned round in his saddle, and fell from his horse. His men rushed to his help, and they carried him away as they retreated, while Zhang Fei took the whole transport train of fodder and forage away to his own camp.

The defeated escort carried their wounded leader back to Cao Cao's camp, where he was placed in the care of physicians. Then Cao Cao himself led out his army to fight a decisive battle with the army of Shu. Liu Bei went out to meet him, and, when both sides were arrayed, Liu Feng went out to challenge. Cao Cao at once let loose a torrent of taunts and reproaches.

"Seller of shoes, you are always sending out this pretended son of yours to fight for you. If I only call my golden-bearded son Cao Zhang, your so-called son will be chopped to mincemeat!"

These words enraged Liu Feng, who raised his spear and galloped toward Cao Cao. Cao Cao bade Xu Huang do battle with the young man, and Liu Feng at once ran away. Cao Cao led on his legions, but he was harassed by the explosion of bombs, the beating of drums, and the blare of trumpets that came from every side. He concluded that he was being led into an ambush, and he hastened to retire. The retreat was unfortunate, for the soldiers trampled upon each other and many were killed. Anon they all ran off to Yangping Pass as quickly as they could.

But the soldiers of Shu came right up to the walls of the Pass, and some burned the east gate while others shouted at the west. Others, again, burned the north gate while drums rolled at the south. Leaders and led were alike harassed and frightened, and presently they left the Pass and ran away. They were pursued and sore smitten.

The road to safety was not easy. In one direction Zhang Fei barred the way, while Zhao Yun attacked the rear. Then Huang Zhong came from Baozhou and pressed a slaughter on the flank. Cao Cao's army lost many troops, and he was severely defeated in this triple attack. His commanders gathered about him and took him off toward the Xie Valley. Here a great cloud of dust was seen in the distance.

"If that is an ambush, it is the last of me," sighed Cao Cao.

The soldiers came nearer, and then Cao Cao recognized not a enemy but his second son, Cao Zhang. As a lad Cao Zhang was a good horseman and an expert archer. He was more powerful than most men and could overcome a wild beast with his bare hands. Cao Cao did not approve of the young man's bent, and often warned him to study instead.

"You do not study, but only love your bow and your horse; this is the courage of a mere person. Think you that this makes for an honorable career?"

But Cao Zhang replied, "The really noble person ought to imitate such grand men as Wei Qing[1] and Huo Qubing.[2] They won their reputation in the Gobi Desert, where they led a mighty host of hundred thousand, able to overrun the whole world and go anywhere. What have I to do with scholarship?"

Cao Cao used to ask his sons what career they found admirable, and Cao Zhang always replied that he would be a leader of armies.

"But what should a leader be like?" asked Cao Cao.

"He should be endued with firmness and courage, never turn aside from a difficulty, but be in the van of his officers and troops. Rewards should be certain; and so should punishments."

Cao Cao smiled with pleasure.

In the twenty-third year of Rebuilt Tranquillity (AD 218), the Wuhuan Peoples revolted in Daichun, and Cao Cao sent this son with fifty thousand troops to suppress them. Just as Cao Zhang was leaving, his father read him a homily on his duty.

"At home we are father and son, but when a task is given you, you have to consider your duty as a servant of your ruler. The law knows no kindness, and you must beware."

When the expedition reached the north of Daichun, Cao Zhang led the array and smote as far as Sanggan in the Gobi Desert, and peace was restored. He had lately heard that his father was at Yangping Pass, and had come to help him to fight.

His coming greatly pleased his father, who said, "Now that my golden-bearded son has arrived, we can destroy Liu Bei for certain."

Then the army was marched back again and pitched camp at the Xie Valley.

Someone told Liu Bei of the arrival of Cao Zhang, and he asked for a volunteer to go out against the newcomer. Liu Feng offered. Meng Da also desired to go, and Liu Bei decided to let both go.

"Vie with each other," said he.

Each general had five thousand troops, and Liu Feng led the way. Cao Zhang rode out and engaged him, and in the third bout Liu Feng was overcome and ran off. Then Meng Da advanced, and a battle was just beginning when he saw that Cao Cao's troops were in confusion. The cause was the sudden coming of Ma Chao and Wu Lan. Before the enemy had recovered from the panic, Meng Da attacked on another side. Ma Chao's force, who had been nursing their courage for a long time, fought brilliantly, so that none could withstand their onslaught, and they won the day. But in his flight, Cao Zhang met Wu Lan, and he thrust and slew Wu Lan with his spear.

After a great fight, Cao Cao ordered his army to retire into camp at the Xie Valley. Here he remained many days, prevented from advancing by Ma Chao and fearing the ridicule of Shu if he should retreat. One day, while he was anxiously trying to decide what to do, his cook sent in some chicken broth. He noticed in the broth some chicken tendons, and this simple fact led him into a train of reflection. He was still deep in thought when Xiahou Dun entered his tent to ask the watchword for that night.

Cao Cao at once involuntarily replied, "Chicken tendon."

The word was passed on in orders. When First Secretary Yang Xiu saw the order that the watchword was "chicken tendon," he told all his people to pack up their belongings ready for the march. One who saw this went and told Xiahou Dun, who sent for Yang Xiu and asked why he had packed up.

Yang Xiu replied, "By tonight's orders I see that the Prince of Wei is soon going to retire. 'Chicken tendons' are tasteless things to eat, and yet it is a pity to waste them. Now if we advance, we cannot conquer; and if we retire, we fear we shall look ridiculous. There being no advantage here, the best course is to retire. You will certainly see the Prince of Wei retreat before long. I have made my preparations so as not to be hurried and confused at the last moment."

"You seem to know the Prince's inmost heart," said Xiahou Dun, and he bade his servants pack. The other generals seeing this, also made preparations for departure.

Cao Cao's mind was too perturbed for sleep. In the night he got up, took a steel battle-ax in his hand, and wandered privily through the camp. When he got to Xiahou Dun's tents, he saw everything packed and ready for a move. Much surprised, he made his way back to his own tent and sent for that officer.

"Why is everything in your camp packed as if ready for the march?"

"First Secretary Yang Xiu seems to have private knowledge of the Prince's design to retire," said Xiahou Dun.

Cao Cao summoned Yang Xiu and questioned him, and Yang Xiu replied with the chicken tendon incident.

"How dare you invent such a story and disturb the hearts of my army?"

Cao Cao called in his lictors and told them to take Yang Xiu away and behead him and hang his head at the camp gate.

Yang Xiu was a man of acute and ingenious mind, but inclined to show off. His lack of restraint over his tongue had often wounded Cao Cao's susceptibilities. Once Cao Cao was having a pleasance laid out, and when it was completed, he went to inspect the work. He uttered no word of praise or blame; he just wrote the word "Alive" on the gate and left. Nobody could guess what he meant till Yang Xiu heard of it.

"'Gate' with 'Alive' inside it makes the word for 'wide'," said he. "The Prime Minister thinks the gates are too wide."

Thereupon they rebuilt the outer walls on an altered plan. When complete, Cao Cao was asked to go and see it. And he was then delighted.

"But who guessed what I meant?" said he.

"Yang Xiu," replied his people.

Cao Cao thereafter lauded Yang Xiu's ingenuity, but in his heart he feared.

Another time Cao Cao received a box of cream cheese from Mongolia. Cao Cao just scribbled three words "One Cream Box" on the top and left it on the table. The words seemed to have no meaning. But Yang Xiu happened to come in, saw the box, and at once handed a spoonful of the contents to each guest in the room. When Cao Cao asked why he did this, he explained that that was the interpretation of the words on the box, which, resolved into primary symbols, read, "Each person a mouthful."

"Could I possibly disobey your orders?" said he.

Cao Cao laughed with the others, but hatred was in his heart.

Cao Cao lived in constant fear of assassination, and said to his attendants, "Let none of you come near me when I am sleeping, for I am likely to slay people in my dreams."

One day he was enjoying a siesta, and his quilt fell off. One of the attendants saw it and hastened to cover him again. Cao Cao suddenly leaped from the couch, cut down the intruder with his sword, and lay down again to sleep. Some time after he awoke, simulated surprise and asked who had killed his attendant. When they told him, Cao Cao wept aloud for the dead man and had him buried in a fine grave. Most people thought that Cao Cao had slain the man while asleep, but Yang Xiu knew better.

At the funeral of the victim Yang Xiu remarked, "The Prime Minister was in no dream, but only you were asleep."

This only increased the hatred.

Cao Cao's third son, Cao Zhi, took great delight in Yang Xiu's cleverness and often invited him, when they would talk the whole night.

When Cao Cao was considering the nomination of his heir and desired to name Cao Zhi, Cao Pi got to hear of the proposal to set him aside in favor of his younger brother, so he secretly requested the Master of the Court Singers, Wu Zhi, to come and discuss this matter. Then fearing that someone might see his visitor, Cao Pi got a large basket made, in which his friend was smuggled into the Palace. Cao Pi gave out that the basket contained rolls of silk. Yang Xiu heard the truth and informed Cao Cao, who sent guards to watch at the gates.

Cao Pi, in alarm, told Wu Zhi, who said, "Be not afraid, but to fill a basket actually with rolls of silk on the morrow and have it carried in as before."

The searchers peeped into the basket and found the rolls of silk. They told Cao Cao the result of their search, and Cao Cao began to think Yang Xiu was plotting against his son. This also added to his hatred.

Another time Cao Cao, wishing to compare the abilities of his two sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, told them both to go out of the city, at the same time ordering the gate wardens to forbid their exit. Cao Pi first came to the gate, was stopped by the wardens, and returned to his palace.

But his brother Cao Zhi consulted Yang Xiu, who said, "You have received orders from the Prince to go out. Simply cut down any who may try to prevent you."

When Cao Zhi went to the gate and was stopped, he shouted out to the wardens, "I have the Prince's order to go out. Dare you stop me?"

He slew the man who would have prevented him. Wherefore Cao Cao considered his younger son the more able. But when some other person told him that the device came from Yang Xiu, he was angry and took a dislike to his son Cao Zhi.

Yang Xiu also used to coach Cao Zhi in preparing replies to likely questions, which were learned by heart and quoted when necessary. Cao Cao was always asking this son his opinion on military matters, and Cao Zhi always had a fluent reply ready. His father was not without suspicions, which were turned into certainties when Cao Pi gave his father the written replies which Cao Pi had bribed a servant to filch from his brother's apartments. Cao Cao was quite angry.

"How dare he throw dust in my eyes like this?" said Cao Cao.

Yang Xiu very nearly lost his life for his share in that business. Now sending him to execution on the charge of destroying the morale of the soldiers was only a subterfuge. Yang Xiu was but thirty-four when he met his end.

Talented was Yang Xiu,
Born of an illustrious stock,
His pen traced wonderful characters,
In his breast were beautiful words.
When he talked, his hearers were astonished,
His alert responses overpast everyone.
He died because of misdirected genius
And not because he foretold retreat.

Cao Cao thus put to death the prime mover and simulated anger against Xiahou Dun. He threatened to execute Xiahou Dun, but listened to those who begged him to show mercy.

"Get out of this!" said he.

Next he issued an order to advance on the morrow. The army moved out of the valley and came face to face with the troops of Shu led by Wei Yan. He summoned Wei Yan to surrender, but received abuse and contumely in return.

Pang De went out to fight Wei Yan. But while the combat was in progress, fires broke out in Cao Cao's camp, and a soldier came flying to say that the rear and center camps had been seized by Ma Chao.

Fearing lest this should lead to a rout, he drew his sword and stood before the army, crying out, "Death for any officer who flinches!"

Wherefore the men of Wei pressed forward valiantly, and Wei Yan, pretending defeat, retreated. Having driven back this army, Cao Cao gave the signal to turn toward camp and fight with Ma Chao. He took up his station on the top of a hill whence he could survey the field.

Suddenly a cohort appeared just below him, and the leader cried, "Wei Yan is here!"

Wei Yan fitted an arrow to his bow, shot, and wounded Cao Cao right in his lip. Cao Cao turned and fell. Wei Yan threw aside his bow, seized his sword, and came charging up the hill to finish his enemy. But with a shouting Pang De flashed in.

"Spare my lord!" cried Pang De.

He rushed up and drove Wei Yan backward. Then they took Cao Cao away. Ma Chao also retired, and the wounded prince slowly returned to his own camp.

Cao Cao was wounded full in the face, and the arrow knocked out two of his front teeth. When in the hands of the physicians, he lay thinking over Yang Xiu's words. In a repentant mood he had Yang Xiu's remains decently interred.

Then he gave the order to retreat. Pang De was the rear guard. Cao Cao set out homeward in a padded carriage, escorted by his Tiger Guards.

Before they had gone far, there was an alarm of fire and ambush in the Xie Valley. The soldiers of Wei were all fear-stricken.

That was something like the danger once at Tong Pass met,
Or like the fight at the Red Cliffs which no one could never forget.

How Cao Cao fared will next be told.

NotesEdit

  1. Wei Qing a grand general during Han Emperor Wu. Wei Qing had made several large-scale campaigns against the Xiongnu countries. Though those campaigns were successful, he also suffered great casualties. Further, he was accused of being extravagant.
  2. Huo Qubing (BC 177-140) a brave general of Han Emperor Wu. Huo Qubing was a relative of Wei Qing, and he also led expeditions against the Xiongnu countries. But he died young, and the emperor built him a large tomb in his memory.

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