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Liang Zhu-ge's First Letter Written Before He Set Out on a Campaign (227 CE)

Zhu-ge, Liang 1 (181-234 CE)

Honorable King,

    The late king passed away before he could achieve his goal of unifying China. Now China is divided into three kingdoms 2. People in the State of Yi-zhou 3 are growing poor and weary 4. This is truly the key moment that determines whether our kingdom can survive the current crisis. However, the officials in the king's court dare not slack in their effort. Loyal soldiers still bravely defend our kingdom without regard to their own safety. This is because they recall the special favors granted by the late king. The court officials, as well as the soldiers, want to return the late king's favor to Your Majesty. You should open your mind and accept more advice to enlarge the legacy of the late king and to raise the confidence of our soldiers. You should not underestimate our capabilities, nor quote stories to dismiss the goal of unifying China 5. This will hinder people from following the path of loyal reproof.

    The palace and the prime minister's office should be treated as one entity. Promotion, punishment, and evaluation should be based on the same standard. Any official who commits a crime or renders a meritorious service should be brought before authorities to be judged and then be punished or rewarded. This practice may show Your Majesty's fair and wise governance of our kingdom. You should not be partial to your favorites so that different laws apply to the palace and the prime minister's office.

    Officials You-zhi Gao, Yi Fei and Yun Dong are all honest and devoted. The late king selected them to serve you. In my opinion, for any question that might arise in the palace, you should consult with them before taking any action. This will help compensate for drawbacks, close loopholes, and produce beneficial results. General Chong Xiang is kind, fair, and versed in military affairs. He has been tested in the past. The late king praised him and considered him talented 6. Therefore, the king's court selected him as the commander in chief. In my opinion, for issues regarding military affairs you should consult with him. This will build comradery in our army. Soldiers will then be assigned proper positions based on their talents. Befriending wise officials and keeping corrupt flatterers at a distance was the reason why the early Han dynasty 7 flourished. Siding with corrupt flatterers and keeping wise officials at a distance was the reason why the late Han dynasty 8 declined and eventually collapsed. When the late king was alive, every time he discussed the matter of corrupt officials with me, he always denounced Emperors Huan-di and Ling-di 9. Officials You-zhi Gao and Yi Fei, Minister Zhen Chen, Secretary Yi Zhang, and Officer Wan Jiang are loyal, honest and willing to die in the line of duty. I hope you will befriend them and trust them. Then we can count the days till the Han dynasty regains its glory.

    I used to be a commoner, farming by myself in Nan-yang-jun County 10. I kept myself alive in troubled times and did not seek fame or positions from any king. The late king did not consider me to be of a lower class. He lowered himself to visit my grass hut three times and consulted with me over state affairs. I appreciated his sincerity, so I promised to serve him to the best of my ability. I was appointed to be the prime minister after the late king was defeated by the Kingdom of Wei 11. Since then I have helped our kingdom pass through difficult times for twenty-one years 12. The late king considered me a cautious man, so he entrusted me with an important matter when he was dying 13. Since then, I have worked hard day and night because I worried that I might fail to fulfill the late king's expectations. In May, I crossed the Lu-shui River and entered the southern wilderness to crush the rebels 14. Now the South is settled, and we have ample military supplies. We should encourage our soldiers to go north to unify China. I will do my best to eliminate the evil Kingdom of Wei, recover the prosperity of the Han dynasty, and return to the old capital. These are my responsibilities because I am anxious to return the favor of the late king, and devote myself to Your Majesty. As for evaluating political gains and losses and offering good advice, it is the duty of Officials You-zhi Gao, Yi Fei and Yun Dong. I hope Your Majesty will grant me the mission of eliminating the warlords and rebuilding the Han dynasty. If I fail, you can punish me to console the spirit of the late king. If you do not receive advice on ways to promote virtue, then kill Officials You-zhi Gao, Yi Fei and Yun Dong for their delinquency. Your Majesty should also examine yourself, seek virtue, accept good advice, and pursue the will of the late king. I will greatly appreciate your effort. Now we will be separated by distance. I weep as I am writing this letter, and I am not sure that what I have written is proper.

Respectfully yours,

Liang Zhu-ge


1 Kong-ming was Liang Zhu-ge's alternate first name. He was a native of Yang-du-xian City (south of present day Yi-shui-xian City in Shandong Province) in Lang-ye-jun County during the late Han dynasty. His father died when he was a child. He move to the State of Jing-zhou to live with his uncle. After his uncle died, he went to Long-zhong Mountain in Nan-yang-jun County and lived there in seclusion. Later, he helped Bei Liu (161-223) found the Kingdom of Shu-han and became its prime minister. When King Bei Liu was dying, he ordered Zhu-ge to help his son govern the kingdom.

2 The Kingdom of Wei, founded by Pi Cao (187-226), occupied Northern China. Its capital was Lo-yang City. The Kingdom of Wu, founded by Quan Sun (182-252), occupied Southeastern China. Its capital was Jian-ye City (present day Nanjing City). The Kingdom of Shu-han, founded by Bei Liu, occupied Southwestern China. Its capital was Cheng-du City in present day Sichuan Province. This era of Chinese history was called the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280).

3 The State of Yi-zhou was the name of a state during the late Eastern Han dynasty. It governed present day Sichuan Province and was the main part of the territory of the Kingdom of Shu-han.

4 Bei Liu, the founding king of Shu-han, united with Quan Sun, the King of the Kingdom of Wu, defeated Cao Cao (155-220). Later, Quan Sun attacked the Kingdom of Shu-han and killed Yu Guan (?-220), a sworn brother of Bei Liu. In revenge of Yu Guan's death, King Bei Liu hastily attacked the Kingdom of Wu and lost the battle. In order to conquer the southern barbarian tribes, he also recruited soldiers and requisitioned grain from his people. Therefore, manpower and resources were in short supply.

5 The king used the failures of Shu Gong-sun and Zhang Liu as evidence that the Kingdom of Shu-han could not defeat its enemies.

6 General Chong Xiang was a native of Yi-cheng City of Xiang-yang County. The chapter titled "The Biography of Lang Xiang" in The History of the Three Kingdoms says, "Chong Xiang, the son of Lang Xiang's elder brother, was a general. When King Bei Liu's troops were defeated by the Kingdom of Wu, Chong Xiang's camp sustained the least damage. Consequently, King Bei Liu praised Chong Xiang's talent for minimizing losses."

7 "The early Han dynasty" refers to the early heyday of the Western Han dynasty.

8 "The late Han dynasty" refers to the late Eastern Han dynasty.

9 Both Emperor Huan-di and Emperor Ling-di of the Eastern Han dynasty were fatuous and immoral.

10 Nan-yang-jun County during the Han dynasty governed Nan-yang-fu City and Xiang-yang-fu City. Liang Zhu-ge lived in the western part of Nan-yang-jun County, 2.87 miles west of present day Xiang-yang-xian City in Hubei Province. The place where Liang Zhu-ge lived in seclusion was also known as "Long-zhong".

11 In 208 CE, after King Bei Liu was defeated by Cao Cao at Chang-ban Slope in Dang-yang City of Hubei Province, he abandoned his troops and fled.

12 From 207 CE, the year that Bei Liu appointed Liang Zhu-ge to be his prime minister, to 227 CE, the year that Liang Zhu-ge wrote this letter, twenty-one years had passed.

13 In April 223 CE, when King Bei Liu was dying, he summoned Liang Zhu-ge to entrust him with the kingdom's affairs after his death. The king said, "You are ten times as talented as Pi Cao (the King of the Kingdom of Wei). You are certainly able to stabilize our kingdom and eventually unify China." Then he told his son, "When you discuss state affairs with the prime minister, you should respect him as if he were your father."

14 The downstream portion of the Ya-long-jiang River is called the Lu-shui River. It flows into the Jin-sha-jiang River southwest of Hui-li-xian City in Sichuan Province. The intersection of these two rivers was the place where Liang Zhu-ge crossed the Lu-shui River. Another interpretation says that the Lu-shui River was located forty-three miles south of Yue-sui-xian City in Sichuan Province. It was the only way to enter the State of Dian (present day Yunnan Province). The Records of the State of Yi-zhou says, "The section of the Lu-shui River that passes by the two mountain peaks is dangerous. It is difficult to travel along the Lu-shui River even in summer. Thus, it is understandable that Liang Zhu-ge considered it difficult to cross the Lu-shui River in summer." In summer, 223 CE, the Prefect of Zang-ge-jun County (governing present day Zhun-yi City, Shi-qian City, Si-nan City, etc.) rebelled. Both Kai Yong, the head of an influential clan in the State of Yi-zhou, and Ding Gao, the chief of the Yi Tribe, also rebelled. Liang Zhu-ge went south on a punitive expedition in May of 225 CE. All the rebellions were crushed.