Kong Ming, the greatest Chinese military strategist

The greatest Chinese military strategist is not Sun Tzu, but Kong Ming. Photo: Military strategist Kong Ming.

WASHINGTON, August 27, 2013 — If you ask a Chinese who is the greatest military strategist in history, he likely would name Kong Ming (181–234 AD), above Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War.

Kong Ming, also known as Zhuge Liang, was a military genius, statesman, administrator, accomplished scholar, inventor, astrologer and meteorologist. Many Chinese considered him as the smartest person in history, but he was most respected for his intense loyalty to his king.


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Kong Ming was the ideal Chinese hero. Liu Bei, a refugee nobleman, made three pious personal visits to Kong Ming to seek his assistance, and Kong Ming repaid Liu Bei’s trust with 28 years of loyal service. With Kong Ming as his side, Liu Bei rose from an insignificant warlord to become a king.

At the Battle of Red Cliff on the Yangtze River, circa 208 AD, Kong Ming masterminded the strategy that persuaded the Wu kingdom to join in the fight against the invading warlord, Chao Chao. In the ensuing battle, the alliance of mere 30,000 men decimated an army of 800,000. The prestige and the territory gained from that battle enabled Liu Bei to establish his Su kingdom.

Kong Ming was an ingenious innovator. He invented mechanical horses and oxen to transport military supplies to the front line. Unfortunately, no records or blue prints of the devices survived his passing. He was also the inventor of the Kong Ming Lantern, known in the West as the Chinese lantern. Kong Ming developed it to carry messages to summon reinforcements for his army. He also modified the ancient crossbow into a multiple firing ballista system to bolster the fighting strength of his small army.

In 225 AD, Kong Ming led his army against a regional rebellion. Kong Ming, captured and released Meng Huo, the leader of the rebel forces seven times before Meng Huo surrendered of his own free will, and swore never to trouble Liu Bei’s Su kingdom again. After the surrender, Kong Ming withdrew his army and left Meng Huo’s people to choose their own leaders and govern themselves. The strategy allowed the Su kingdom to rule Meng Huo’s territory in peace without any further expenditure of men or resources, while collecting the benefits of a ruling nation.


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Kong Ming’s expedition against Meng Huo is comparable to General Crook’s pursuit of Geronimo. In Kong Ming’s case, he left Meng Huo as an obedient vassal of the kingdom; while Geronimo spent most of his post war years as a prisoner.

The most recounted folklore among Chinese people was Kong Ming’s Empty City Strategy. Kong Ming was renowned for his stratagem. Circa 227 AD, Ma Su, a general under Kong Ming’s command lost a crucial battle, which left Kong Ming vulnerable at Xi Cheng with 2,500 men against an enemy force of 150,000 led by Shi Ma Yi.

Kong Ming ordered soldiers, disguised as civilians, to water and sweep the grounds around the four city gates. He removed all banners and hid his troop from sight then waited for the enemy to arrive. Shi Ma Yi’s vanguards found the city undefended with all four gates wide open. They halted and reported the information to their superiors. Shi Ma Yi arrived at the city gate and saw Kong Ming seated atop the battlement flanked by two page boys as he played a ghen.

Shi Ma Yi knew Kong Ming as a brilliant strategist not given to rash and risky ventures. The open city gates appeared to be an invitation to attack thus must be a baited trap. Shi Ma Yi withdrew his army thus allowed Kong Ming and his men to escape. Henceforth, the phrase Empty City Strategy became synonymous with the word “bluff.”


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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