Monday, December 13, 2010

Zhuge Liang as a Tragic Hero

Don't mind me. It's just me squirrelling away some acorns during my period of hibernation...

Sourced from here. An essay by AshleyTerra. 

A star falls to announce the death of Zhuge Liang, one of the most beloved characters of Three Kingdoms. At first glance, the attraction seems obvious: he is popular because he is a hero with a whole slew of victories. In fact, he is so successful and skilled that many, including C.T. Hsia, consider him the main hero of Three Kingdoms (31). As a scholar hero, he kills opponents "with the tip of his tongue, or, better, of his brush" instead of a sword and is both "daring and courageous… in court and council" (Ruhlmann 161). However, this interpretation fails to provide a satisfactory explanation because the novel is filled with successful heroes, like Zhao Zilong, who never gains the same adoration. When one takes a look at the historical Zhuge Liang, one would find that he was "simply a prominent figure to whom one might feel varying proportions of admiration or disgust… as toward any other influential person in public life" (Henry 604) despite all his successes in his lifetime. It was only after his death that popular sentiment turns to adulation, beginning in the area where he died (Henry 608). This gives the necessary clue to suggest that it was not Zhuge Liang's successes as a scholar hero that endeared him to the public, but rather the tragic nature of his heroism as a Confucian hero.

The reason Zhuge Liang is a Confucian hero is because he follows the Confucian moral system. This system is based on the belief that filial loyalty (xiao) needs to be wedded to loyalty to the true lord (zhong). The beliefs are wedded because a person who is filial in childhood grows up to be a loyal subject to his superior (Confucius 1). Zhuge Liang, in Three Kingdoms, exemplifies the tradition of filial duty bounded by loyalty to the state (Roberts xiii). His loyalty to Liu Bei mainly stems from his Confucian zhong principle; however, the loyalty is augmented by the fact that he became an orphan at an early age (Roberts 1036). He was only twenty seven and Liu Bei was twenty years his senior when they first met (Roberts 945). He probably saw Liu Bei as his true lord and a father figure. As a true lord, Liu Bei would demand a zhong bond and as a father-figure a xiao bond. Both bonds nurture Zhuge Liang's extreme loyalty to Liu Bei because failure to fulfill his goal meant failing his true lord and father. The other aspect of his belief is that a dynasty must be ruled by a sage-king, a person who possesses both Virtue and a royal linage (Wright 157). Zhuge Liang's adherence both to zhong and to belief in the sage-king, also known as a true lord, shapes all his actions and beliefs.

Such adherence to Confucian ideals should propel Zhuge Liang to becoming a revered minister, accorded all the joys the virtuous gain living in a righteous state. However, in a time of disorder, such ideals cause Zhuge Liang to be a tragic hero. Zhuge Liang focuses on Confucian secular concerns, selflessly dedicated to achieving justice and order by rebuilding the Han dynasty (Hsia 29).

Nevertheless, Zhuge Liang's Confucian beliefs make his goal impossible to accomplish. His Confucian principles require that he modify his goal of rebuilding the Han Dynasty by specifying that the ruler must be of the Liu family. He is stubbornly loyal to the Liu family, even though they prove to be unworthy rulers. The first ruler, Liu Bei, chooses the brotherhood over the empire and the second ruler, Liu Shan, is led astray by inept ministers and eunuchs. Furthermore, to accomplish his modified goal of reuniting China under Liu rule, Zhuge Liang must knowingly fight against fate. Cosmic ordainment decrees that the Liu family will not rule.

In addition, despite his superhuman abilities, he cannot overcome the fact that "morality is man's common lot; his years are numbered" (Roberts 806). He is forced to try to accomplish his goal in a limited amounted of time against an enemy who is not mortal, but fate itself. With his inability to overcome Heaven's verdict concerning Liu Bei, he fails to reunite China under the Liu family. However, his failure does not detract from his heroism; it actually enhances his reputation because "superior people fail; only petty people succeed" (Henry 590). In addition, the fact that on several occasions he seems to almost win against fate only heightens his tragedy, because it gives hope, which proves to be false, that a human can overcome his limitations and actually win against Heaven. Zhuge Liang knowingly violates cosmic ordainment in order to accomplish his goal in a manner dictated and modified by his Confucian principles. According to traditional definitions, this makes him a tragic figure because tragic heroes are those who refuse to meekly accept cosmic ordination and instead fight with human effort to try to change fate (Sewall 45). At first, it seems that Zhuge Liang has mastered Heaven's will, especially in fighting against Zhou Yu, but that mastery proves illusionary as he continues to fight fate after Liu Bei dies, struggling against cosmic ordination when it no longer has the same goals as he does. He fails several times in his struggle to subdue the North and eventually dies without fulfilling his goals.

The seeds of Zhuge Liang's tragedy are sown in Three Kingdoms from the moment he steps on the novel's stage. Before Zhuge Liang meets Liu Bei, he and his friends know the futility of serving Liu Bei. The first time Zhuge Liang is shown is when he replies to Shan Fu, who tries to persuade him to serve Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang answers "and you mean to make me the victim of this sacrifice?" (Roberts 280), showing foreknowledge of the futility of serving Liu Bei. Before meeting Liu Bei, he is a Daoist recluse with a "mocking detachment from the political world" (Hsia 55). Like the Daoists presented in theAnalects, Zhuge Liang foresees the disintegration of the country and decides to retire from public life (Confucius 216). Zhuge Liang tries to avert his fate by refusing to meet with Liu Bei.

It takes Liu Bei three visits before he sees Zhuge Liang. On his first failed visit to meet Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei meets Zhuge Liang's friend, Cui Zhouping, instead. Cui's reply to Liu Bei's desire to have Zhuge Liang help him stabilize the country is illuminating. He says that "for Kongming [Zhuge Liang] to try to reverse the course of events or mitigate what fortune has in store would be… a futile expense of mind and it is said 'adapt to Heaven and enjoy ease; oppose it and toil in vain," (Roberts 285). Like Still Water before him, Cui Zhouping recognizes the tragic futility in resisting Heaven's will; when humans pit their will against that of Heaven, Heaven will win every time. Still Water, a true recluse, also recognizes that Zhuge Liang has found his true lord in Liu Bei, but he has not found his time (Roberts 283). Zhuge Liang must serve a worthy lord as his Confucian beliefs dictate; however, Heaven wills that Liu Bei will not succeed in his quest to establish a united China under the Han Dynasty. Zhuge Liang is doomed should he serve Liu Bei because his Confucian principles will demand it of him; therefore, the only way to try to outwit fate is to avoid meeting Liu Bei.

If Zhuge Liang was a true Daoist recluse, he would have been able to avoid his fate. However, he is actually a Confucian scholar awaiting a worthy lord to serve. Without a worthy lord, Zhuge Liang is free to play the Daoist recluse by hiding himself in the countryside farming, reading books, and engaging in debates with other intellectual recluses. Upon meeting Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang tries for the last time to demur from service by stating his unworthiness to fulfill the tasks demanded by Liu Bei. However, Zhuge Liang is overcome by Liu Bei's sincerity and his Confucian sense of loyalty demands that Zhuge Liang serve Xuande because he is a worthy lord. Finally, Zhuge Liang tells Liu Bei that "if you will have me, then, General, I shall serve you like a hound or horse" (Roberts 293); with that declaration, Zhuge Liang seals his fate. His gratitude for Liu Bei's appreciation of him, Confucian focus on human efforts, and loyalty to the Han will allow him no choice in the matter; he must serve Liu Bei no matter what the odds are and even if it means that all his efforts will be in vain (Tung 7). He will pit his abilities against Heaven's will to try to reunite China under the Liu family. Zhuge Liang has now become a Confucian hero with his secular aspiration of serving "his country in the best way he could and to achieve the kind of moral supremacy that would make him always be remembered in history" (Chang 59). Thus he dooms himself to be a tragic hero uselessly fighting against Heaven.

Zhuge Liang chooses the Confucian path; however, he does not completely reject his Daoist life. When he met Liu Bei he rejected the Daoist recluse lifestyle to pursue a Confucian life even though a Daoist life would have saved him from his fate as a tragic hero. Despite rejecting the Daoist lifestyle, he still uses Daoist skills to read Heaven's will in the stars and to apply sorcery to his battles, in his Confucian life. He might hope that these skills, like his Daoist life, could save him from his fate. If he could foresee what Heaven desires, he could outwit it with his brilliant intellect and stubbornness. Unfortunately, while these skills are essential to his many successes, they could not save him from his fate. He can only avert his fate by remaining on a Daoist path. His attempts at compromising between his Confucian side and Daoist side to avert his fate while achieving his goal are unsuccessful. Even if he uses his Daoist skills, he cannot avoid his fate as a tragic hero.

In the beginning, Zhuge Liang modifies his plans based on Heaven's will, which makes it seem like he has mastered fate. This seeming mastery is best shown in Zhuge Liang's greatest success in the Battle of Red Cliffs. This battle will put forth the idea, which Sima Yi will later fear, that he possesses supernatural abilities, has mastered Heaven, and can bend fate to his will. Zhuge Liang shows his prowess at strategic insight and sorcery abilities at his best when he outwits Zhou Yu's three attempts to kill him. Zhou Yu first tries to kill Zhuge Liang by assigning him the impossible task of creating one hundred thousand arrows in ten days. However, Zhuge Liang surprises Zhou Yu by saying he will only need three days or die as punishment. Zhuge Liang can make this promise because he can read the forces ofyin and yang and predict that a fog will cover the lake on the third day. His success causes Lu Su and Zhou Yu to comment that he has supernatural abilities. His success at gaining the arrows shows his supernatural ability to bend the powers of Heaven to his will and makes it seem that he could prevail.

Out of these displays of Zhuge Liang outwitting Zhou Yu, the best example of his skills would be Zhou Yu's third attempt to kill him. Zhou Yu needs an eastern wind to defeat Cao Cao or all his planning will be for naught. At this point Zhuge Liang comes in to play the critical role in the battle and summons the wind with sorcery (Yang 67). With this act of magic, Zhou Yu realises that Zhuge Liang has seized the powers of Heaven and Earth and must die if the Southlands is to reign as the next rulers of China, so he once again tries to kill Zhuge Liang. However, Zhuge Liang has already figured out Zhou Yu's plan before Liu Bei and his people left Red Cliff (in Chapter XX) and devised a contingency plan for such an occurrence. He escapes unscratched and impresses his allies and former allies in Southlands with his ability to control the powers of Heaven and Earth.

Zhuge Liang further shows his ability to foresee cosmic ordainment when he is able to predict which road Cao Cao will choose to escape and uses his knowledge of Heaven's will to his advantage in selecting who will go to stop Cao Cao. He knows that by Heaven's will Cao Cao will escape unscratched and uses this opportunity to allow Guan Yu, whom he selects to defend the path that Cao Cao will take, to discharge his debt to Cao Cao by letting him go (Roberts 377). With this display he impresses everyone with his ability to bend Heaven's decisions on Cao Cao's fate to his desires; therefore, it seems he will be able to avoid his fate as a tragic hero.

While at first glance the entire Red Cliff episode and subsequent pursuit of Cao Cao seems to portray Zhuge Liang as having mastered the powers of Heaven, another interpretation could be that it is actually Heaven that is using Zhuge Liang to fulfill its goal of dividing the country. As historian Lu Simian says, the battle "is the key to the history of the period, for if it had not occurred, or if Cao Cao had won, the empire would have been united and would never have split into three parts." With the battle, the country is sundered, according to cosmic ordainment, because Cao Cao will never forgive Liu Bei, so peace between them will be impossible, and once Sun Quan has tasted victory the prediction of "those who replace the Han will come from the southeast" (Roberts 1049) seems probable. When Cao Cao loses, cosmic ordainment of dividing the country occurs and sets the stage for the battle of thrones that occurs. Instead of Zhuge Liang bending Heaven to his will, it would seem that it is Heaven that is the puppet master bending Zhuge Liang to its desires. If that is the case, then this episode does not show him as having the ability to defeat cosmic ordainment; instead, it shows Zhuge Liang losing his first major battle against fate.

After the Battle of Red Cliffs, a series of battles occurs between the three powers that results in a series of victories for Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang carves out a territory for Liu Bei, but only by betraying the plan that he outlined at the first meeting between them. He does not follow his plan because Liu Bei is squeamish about ousting Liu Biao from his land and thereby tainting his benevolent image. Therefore, the victories for Liu Bei's territory come at the price of the possibility of an alliance with Sun Quan and result in Liu Bei's death. Liu Bei's victories push Sun Quan to align himself with Cao Cao to win back the Jing Province. Xuande is enraged when Sun Quan kills Guan Yu in his aggressive campaign to gain Jing Province back. Liu Bei decides to put his brotherhood loyalty first by getting revenge rather than agreeing to the appeasement offered by Sun Quan, which would have been a more strategic move. Liu Bei's revenge ends with him defeated and on his death bed humbled by his defeats.

On his death bed, Liu in his last address offers his kingdom to Zhuge Liang because his son Liu Shan is an unworthy ruler. Zhuge Liang replies to the offer by breaking into a sweat and prostrating himself before Liu Bei saying "could I do other… then serve him [Liu Shan] as aid and vassal, persevering in loyalty unto death" (Roberts 647). It is commonly accepted that the better successor would be Zhuge Liang, however, as a man with dynastic concerns, it could not be helped that Liu Bei desires his son to succeed him (Hsia 61). Therefore, Zhuge Liang is right to view the offer as a last trial by Liu Bei and he gives the proper response with a public and emotional refusal to usurp the throne (Moody 184). Nevertheless, this refusal will cost Zhuge Liang any chance of fulfilling his goal.

Zhuge Liang has no choice but to refuse the offer. Even if Liu Bei's offer was sincere, Zhuge Liang could not have accepted it because his ultimate goal is not a reunited China, but a reunited China ruled by the Liu family. Still, this raises the puzzling question why Zhuge Liang does not simply make Liu Shan a puppet ruler and control him from behind the scenes, for this would allow him to reunite China and have a Liu as Emperor. An answer could perhaps be found in Zhuge Liang's Confucian moral system. This system requires that "the lord be a true lord, the ministers true ministers" (Confucius 130), meaning that the minister should never take his lord's place, no matter how unworthy his lord is. With this choice he proves himself a true Confucian hero, an unswervingly loyal minister endlessly toiling for an unworthy lord and often courting the lord's enmity to show him the correct path (Hsia 24). Up till now his numerous successes due to his mastery of Heaven's powers seemed to indicate that he could overcome his tragic hero's fate through sheer determination and brilliance. With Liu Bei's death, it becomes impossible for Zhuge Liang to achieve his goal because Liu Shan is an unworthy lord and, therefore, will not be able to use Zhuge Liang effectively or gain Heaven's approval. Zhuge Liang's tragic nature is illuminated because the only way he can still achieve his goal is to follow Simi Yi's method, which is to make his lord a puppet lord. However, his Confucian principles forbid such a course. Consequently, he will remain stubbornly loyal to a cause that he knows no longer has a chance of succeeding, as a true tragic hero. As a true tragic hero, he will keep his office "in order to do what is right, even through he already knows that [his goals will] not be realized" (Confucius 218).

Under Liu Shan, Zhuge Liang goes on the five campaigns against the North, which shows how illusionary his mastery of Heaven is because cosmic ordainment and he have now diverged and, therefore, he is no longer capable of winning. Before, Zhuge Liang augmented his strategies with his readings of the stars, which allowed him to predict future events. Now, Zhuge Liang still reads the signs, but rejects what they foretell, that the Liu family will not rule China, and continues to struggle against fate. Sima Yi interprets this as Zhuge Liang's thinking too highly of himself and his abilities (Roberts 788). Simi Yi thinks Zhuge Liang is becoming more arrogant, because his many successes lead him to think that he no longer has to act according to the predictions of the stars.

A better interpretation would be that Zhuge Liang has no choice but to reject the signs. When historian Qiao Zhou reminds him of the negative omens foretold in the stars, Zhuge Liang replies, "Under the late Emperor's grave charge, I have thrown myself body and soul into the task of suppressing the rebels. Do you expect me to throw aside the dynasty's cause on account of some meaningless portents?" (Roberts 787). Later, at Liu Bei's temple, he says, "I vow to exhaust my strength and loyalty in eradicating the traitors to the Han and restoring the dynasty in the north, where it belongs" (Roberts 787). Zhuge Liang rejects Heaven's will because his loyalty to his former lord requires no less. His sense of Confucian zhong demands that he try to create a united China under the Liu family no matter what the enemies to that goal are, Sima Yi or the Heaven itself. In order to reach this goal, he must defy his human limitations, and it is his failure in his defiance that reveals his tragic nature, for no man can overcome fate.

Even more tragically, if he had been any less of a Confucian hero and was willing to bend his moral compass, he might have been able to reunite China. This tragedy is perhaps best shown with his near capture of Chang'an, the capital of the North. If he had captured Chang'an he would have reunited China because he would have subdued the North, and as the South was now a vassal of the North, he would have defeated the South too. However, he does not capture Chang'an because at the last moment he is called back by Liu Shan. Zhuge Liang would have succeeded in his goal if he had bent his moral compass earlier and made Cao Pi into a puppet ruler, or – a more risky strategy – if he had refused to return to court.

That Zhuge Liang was a hair's breadth from victory before having it snatched away due to a decline in the court show Heaven's displeasure with the Liu's kingdom. This mirrors the signs that Heaven revealed at the beginning of the novel to show its displeasure with the Han Dynasty. Both times Emperors were led astray by inept and disloyal ministers and listened to eunuchs (Hayden 43-44). The campaigns show Zhuge Liang's tragedy because of his resolve to maintain his moral integrity despite it hindering him in achieving his goal. They also show his tragic defiance of his human limitation of being unable to overcome fate. With these campaigns, Zhuge Liang's fate is no longer in question; he will become a tragic hero striving to reach a goal that Heaven and his moral beliefs will never allow.

Cosmic ordination has its final victory when Zhuge Liang dies on his fifth campaign against the North. His last campaign is marred by his frustration at his inability to win battles against Sima Yi and his realization that he is running out of time (Tung 11). He foretold his own death when he sees that "the guest stars in Triple Platform are doubly bright, the host stars darkened; the ranged luminaries supporting them are dimmer, too. These heavenly phenomena disclose [his] fate" (Roberts 803). However, he does not just meekly give in to fate; instead, he struggles one last time against cosmic ordainment. He uses sorcery to try to gain another twelve years of life. This requires that a lamp stay lit for seven days and seven nights. At first it seems that Zhuge Liang's gamble will work; the lamp stays lit for six days, but on the sixth night Wei Yan knocks over the lamp in his haste to announce that the Wei army has arrived. At last Zhuge Liang acknowledges defeat and says "Death is a fate no one can avert…. Heaven's wishes rule us all" (Roberts 804, 805). He accepts the price demanded of all tragic heroes: failure to achieve one's goal and an early death. He knew this price from the moment he stepped from his hut, but it does not hit home until he hears of Guan Xing's death and says "Heaven rarely grants long life to men of loyalty and honour" (Roberts 786). With his resignation to fate, his tragic heroism is elucidated: Zhuge Liang's failure to achieve his goals stem from his refusal to violate his Confucian principles and knowing violation of the will of Heaven.

It should be noted that Zhuge Liang's resignation is not complete because on his death bed, he still attempts to achieve his goal by passing it on to Jiang Wie. However, if Zhuge Liang, a person with superhuman abilities, could not achieve his goal, there was no way that Jiang Wie would have been able to succeed. Zhuge Liang dies a tragic hero's death and with it ushers in a flatter landscape, where "glorious heroes are replaced by lesser figures" (Roberts 979) and Heaven's will reigns supreme in a dictatorship that none can defy.

From the moment that Zhuge Liang stepped onto the stage, readers are captivated by him. A sea of ink has been spilled in trying to define what makes him so mesmerizing. The most important aspect of his character that endears him to the reader is probably not because he is a hero with a long string of successes; if it were merely that, a similar fascination with Zhao Zilong would also be found. Instead, it is because Zhuge Liang is a tragic hero. His tragedy comes from his failure to achieve his goals because Heaven forbids it and his unwillingness to compromise his Confucian morality to achieve his goals. In him, readers see a "sort of Promethean figure who, though unable to change fate, can, through sheer intellect and determination, make Heaven falter in its preordained course" (Henry 593). They see someone who is uncompromising in the face of insurmountable odds and loyal unto death, a star that blazes across the night sky before going supernova. His death sears his name into the annuals of history. That Zhuge Liang almost succeeds against insurmountable odds and is only human despite all his superhuman abilities makes him an ideal tragic hero. From his struggles readers see themselves as what they could be and more importantly what they want to be.

Works Cited:

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