The Self-Torture Ruse (苦肉计)
Season Part 2, Episode 12
Air date 1994
Written by Shu-sheng Liu
Directed by Cai Xiaoqing
Episode guide
Episode 34 (2x11)
Episode 36 (2x13)

"The Self-Torture Ruse (苦肉计)" is the 35th episode of the 1994 historical fiction drama Romance of Three Kingdoms. It is the 12th episode of Part Two of the series and is directed by Cai Xiaoqing. In the episode, Cao Cao sends two generals to Zhou Yu's camp to make a pretended surrender and spy out the opposition. Zhou Yu perceives the ruse and decides to send one of his own generals to Cao Cao's camp to offer pretended surrender in the same manner. However, for the counter-ruse to work, Zhou Yu must order that a severe and unwarranted punishment be inflicted upon his most loyal general, Huang Gai, so that Cao Cao will be convinced by Huang Gai's defection.

Summary Edit

Cao Cao sends Cai Mao's younger brothers Cai Zhong and Cai He to offer pretended surrender to Wu State's supreme military commander Zhou Yu . Cao Cao's true intent is for the two generals to gain Zhou Yu's trust and then to act as intelligence-gatherers ultimately loyal to Cao Cao. Because the generals' brother Cai Mao was recently executed by Cao Cao for suspected treason, Cao Cao believes that the generals' surrender will be convincing given that they have a justified cause for grievance against Cao Cao. Zhou Yu's adviser Lu Su openly states his suspicion that the surrender is is not genuine because the generals did not bring their families with them. Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang apparently both share Lu Su's belief but pretend to be convinced anyway. In private, Zhuge Liang explains to Lu Su that Zhou Yu plans to use the surrendered generals as a conduit through which he will leak false intelligence to Cao Cao.

Zhou Yu meets with his general Gan Ning and orders him to arrange accommodations for the surrendered generals, telling him that he will later use them to deliberately send false information to Cao Cao's camp. Zhou Yu dismisses Gan Ning, and then another of Zhou Yu's generals, Huang Gai, arrives to offer a report. Huang Gai tells Zhou Yu that he also independently conceived the plan of attacking Cao Cao's navy with fire. Zhou Yu laments the difficulty of sneaking into a naval encampment and setting fire to boats on the water, since the enemy fleet could disperse and counter-attack before the fire spreads among them. Zhou Yu says that he needs to place a trusted informant inside of Cao Cao's camp in a manner similar to the Cai brothers' pretended surrender, but the ruse could fail if Cao Cao suspects treachery. Huang Gai offers his service as a pretended defector, saying that as a long-time officer who's served under three masters of Wu State, he has no problem with submitting to self-torture if that is what it will take to fool Cao Cao. Zhou Yu thanks him dearly and agrees to proceed with the plan, though with reservations that should the process accidentally result in Huang Gai's death then he will lose one of his most trusted officers.

Presiding over a military council the next day with allied strategist Zhuge Liang in attendance, Zhou Yu sets the ruse into motion by announcing his intention to shore up defenses, stockpile provisions, and hunker down for three months until Cao Cao's army's supplies run out. Huang Gai criticizes this plan and advocates going on the offensive against Cao Cao within one month, saying that Cao Cao's supplies may last indefinitely. He says that to neglect the opportunity to fight their way out of siege would be tantamount to surrender. As talk of surrender was officially outlawed by Sun Quan 孫權 at the commencement of hostilities, Zhou Yu sentences Huang Gai to military execution for his speech. Gan Ning entreats Zhou Yu to show leniency, and Zhou Yu's adviser Lu Su argues that to execute a general in the midst of war will lower morale. Zhou Yu therefore suspends the execution order and instead orders Huang Gai to be beaten by 100 blows. As Huang Gai endures the beating to the shock of the other generals and advisers, Zhou Yu struggles to conceal his own sadness at seeing his loyal officer's mistreatment under Zhou Yu's own orders. After 50 blows, Huang Gai faints, and all in attendance (except for Zhuge Liang) again entreat Zhou Yu to offer leniency. Zhou Yu agrees to suspend the remaining 50 blows for the time being, and all are dismissed. With members of his court departed, Zhou Yu is seen secretly weeping at this action against Huang Gai.

Zhuge Liang pays a visit to Huang Gai and offers some medicine to alleviate the pain. In private, Lu Su asks Zhuge Liang why he did not intervene. Zhuge explains that Huang Gai's punishment is part of a ruse against Cao Cao and that Huang Gai's physical torture is equaled by Zhou Yu's mental anguish at ordering the punishment. Zhuge Liang entreats Lu Su not to inform Zhou Yu of his knowledge of Zhou Yu's plan, so as not to stir jealous resentment in Zhou Yu against Zhuge's strategic wisdom. Lu Su agrees and, in contrast to his informing Zhou Yu of Zhuge's knowledge of his plans in the previous episode, does comply this time.

Zhou Yu's adviser Kan Ze privately visits Huang Gai to inquire whether the punishment is a ruse. Huang Gai confides that it is. Kan Ze offers to bring Huang Gai's letter of pretended surrender to Cao Cao. Huang Gai thanks him for his aid and gives him the letter of surrender.

At Cao Cao's camp, a fisherman claiming to be one of Zhou Yu's advisers is arrested and brought before Cao Cao. The "fisherman" is Kan Ze, who claims to be witness to a division within Zhou Yu's camp. A high-ranking general Huang Gai, Kan Ze tells Cao Cao, was recently beaten under Zhou Yu's orders and now wishes to defect to Cao Cao. He gives Huang Gai's letter of surrender to Cao Cao. In the letter, Huang Gai imparts to Cao Cao his belief that Zhou Yu stands no chance against Cao Cao's superior force strength, and he wishes to serve under a more competent commander. Cao Cao initially believes the surrender to be a ruse and orders Kan Ze's beheading. Kan Ze laughs at this, which puzzles Cao Cao. Kan Ze says that Cao Cao does not meet his expectations and laments that Huang Gai's defection will be in vain, as Cao Cao does not show the worthiness for Kan Ze's & Huang Gai's service. Cao Cao says that the letter is an obvious deception, since it specifies no time and date for the surrender to take place. Kan Ze says that, given the clandestine circumstances of the proceeding, it would be impossible to specify a time. Kan Ze continues to bluff, saying that the trust he and Huang Gai had placed in Cao Cao was misplaced. Cao Cao is taken in by this bluff and offers to bring the two defectors into his service. He offers a plate of golden ornaments to Kan Ze, but Kan declines the gift, saying that it should wait until Huang Gai's defection is completed. Cao Cao proposes to send Kan back to Zhou Yu's camp to pick up Huang Gai and bring him over. Kan Ze initially declines, but Cao Cao says that he cannot trust anybody else with this important and secret task. Kan Ze accepts the mission and crosses the river back to Zhou Yu's camp.

In Zhou Yu's camp, Kan Ze, still dressed as a fisherman, visits Huang Gai to update him on proceedings. After leaving Huang Gai's tent, Kan Ze notices that he's being spied upon by Cai Zhong and Cai He. Pretending not to notice the spies, Kan Ze goes next to Gan Ning's tent. Kan Ze and Gan Ning, both aware that they're being listened in on, hold a conversation intended to leak false information to Cao Cao's spies. Gan Ning pretends to share Kan Ze's and Huang Gai's supposed disillusionment with Zhou Yu and voices his sympathies. The Cai brothers, hearing about this apparent defection, both reveal themselves to Kan Ze and Gan Ning as spies working for Cao Cao. They tell Kan Ze and Gan Ning that they will work to facilitate Huang Gai's defection to Cao Cao.

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