Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Once Upon a Time in China

My brother is the only one who will probably really get this blog, but here goes anyway.

In "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," the hero Liu Bei finds his advisor Zhuge Liang in the remote Xiangyang province. Zhuge Liang has made himself a hermit, devoting himself to farming and scholarly activities. Upon Liu Bei's third visit, he decides to join Liu Bei's quest to restore the fallen Han dynasty. Of course, once Liu Bei has Zhuge Liang helping him, the tripodal balance between Wei, Shu and Wu, the Three Kingdoms of the title, starts to solidify.

Everyone in the book and anyone who ever discusses the book always talks about Zhuge Liang's remoteness, his soliditude, and the fact that one can find people of his caliber and potential in the most remote places. A diamond in the rough, to borrow a Western phrase.

But consider that Liu Bei hears from several minor advisors about Zhuge Liang first. He hears stories of the man's greatness, from people who know Zhuge Liang well and those who don't know him as well. He hears rhymes and children's songs about how there is a hidden talent in the Xiangyang province.

If Liu Bei believes he'll find an advisor in Xiangyang, of course he's not going to give up when Zhuge Liang isn't home a couple of times.

To me, it is obvious that while Zhuge Liang's remoteness is a nice and romantic piece of character exposition, the most brilliant thing that Zhuge Liang does in the Three Kingdoms book, more brilliant than Chi Bi, the various fire attacks, the Nanman Campaign, the Zhou Yu thing, and arguing Wang Lang to death, is his marketing strategy.

He markets himself without making it obvious that he is marketing himself. How else can one be a recluse and yet have so many friends, and have such a reputation? Real hermits don't have reputations. Obviously Zhuge Liang had to do something to inspire children's rhymes about his brilliance. Did he teach the kids the rhymes himself?

A good contemporary example of this is J.D. Salinger, whose remoteness and eccentricity has made him a legend in and out of literary circles, even though his contribution to the canon of American literature is debatable (and no, I didn't like Catcher in the Rye. we can argue about that, but I won't entertain arguments that say his other stuff is any good, because it's not).

Someone like Hunter S. Thompson is different, because despite his insanity and reclusive existence, he was still prolific in his own way; beside his books, he was also an excellent journalist.

How do you market yourself like Salinger or Zhuge Liang? How does one market oneself through solitude? Zhuge Liang is well known to everyone, from the local kids to scholars to random advisors to major warlords. He didn't launch an expensive ad campaign, obviously. It wouldn't have been feasible to leaflet all of 100 BC China anyway.

He didn't have his friends walk the streets singing his praises, and yet, that's almost precisely what they do in the book.

To me, this is why the Three Kingdoms is such an immortal piece of literature, despite the misogyny and the biases and the bad translations.

It sets up Cao Cao as a villain, and you can read as much as you want in order to enjoy the battles and stories of families and empires rising and falling, but in the end, there are really no villains or heroes, only Machiavellian power brokers. And the ones that really succeed aren't the ones that win the empire at the end of the book, but the ones that leave the best legacies and reputations.

By the end of the book, the reader doesn't care about the ruling Jing Dynasty. They care about the original characters, especially Zhuge Liang.

The book claims that power is cyclical. Therefore, it is unspoken that with power always changing hands, the only thing that lasts is reputation.

Zhuge Liang is the greatest power broker of them all, going from his reclusive hut to being the Prime Minister of the Shu-Han dynasty, and he does it with the best marketing strategy in history.

The book is aware of this too - it spurns individuals like Yuan Shao and his brother Yuan Shu who build their reputations on their family name. Along similar lines, Zhuge Liang is made more reputable when his sons and grandsons fail to aid their rulers.

The book also rejects individuals like Liu Biao who rules a large province, and is yet ultimately too indecisive to make anything come of it.

The book even casts Liu Bei down, because even though his ability to pick the best advisors sets him up as a hero and ruler of a small kingdom, his personal vendettas ultimately doom his quest to restore the dynasty.

Of Liu Bei's sworn brothers, Zhang Fei is a drunk warrior and Guan Yu is a honorable fighter that doesn't think ahead a whole lot.

Zhou Yu is a hero in his own right, a brilliant schemer who has his ruler's goals in mind, but he doesn't have a marketing plan. He's so concerned with geographical conquest and personal genius that when his schemes don't work out as planned, he ends up looking bad for it. This eventually kills him.

Consider the other great advisors in the book, like Guo Jia and Jia Xu. Both of them are brilliant, but they don't have the entrance that Zhuge Liang does, or the lasting legacy.

Lu Su is a great character because he's the Machiavellian Fox to Zhuge Liang's Machiavellian Lion. Lu Su knows his shortcomings, but is able to take advantage of them, and is ultimately as influential as Zhuge Liang in forming the tripodal balance of states, if not more so.

The book really pinpoints Zhuge Liang's immortality, which is founded in his vast success in a failing enterprise. He balances an unspoken personal ambition with nationalistic ambition to restore the Han.

Very soon after Zhuge Liang joins Liu Bei, someone laments that Zhuge Liang won't succeed. But it is made very clear that Zhuge Liang's reputation is made more immortal and more marketable by the lack of ultimate success - Zhuge Liang is never the one that fails, even though the Shu-Han will.

Consider that on Liu Bei's deathbed, Zhuge Liang refuses to take the Shu-Han throne if Liu Bei's son is an ineffectual ruler, which he is. Now, Zhuge Liang's refusal isn't founded on some unwavering loyalty to a family.

It's because he doesn't want his impeccable reputation to be sullied. Zhuge Liang refuses Liu Bei's command because he would never think of taking the throne anyway.

If he takes over, he ends up being like Sima Yi's family, who usurp the Wei throne after the Cao family gets complacent.

No, Zhuge Liang's reputation is created through his servitude. His position of power as a prime minister is ultimately more influential than if he were the actual ruler, because as good as ruling from the top is, it's cooler to rule from the middle.

Zhuge Liang is a character who knew how to market himself, how to make a grand entrance (both to Liu Bei and to his army's advantage on a battlefield), and how to make a grand exit (which inspires an enemy army's retrat).

Other characters don't have this - someone like Xu You makes a couple of good decisions and a great exit. Yuan Shao's other advisors make good exits.

Even someone like Zhao Yun didn't have the glorious death in battle that he was looking for; which is possibly the only thing that keeps him from being the most marketable character in the book next to Zhuge Liang. He's also too perfect.

On that note, Zhuge Liang isn't perfect either - he makes some bad character judgements (Ma Su), and insists on overseeing everything. But this only makes his caharacter better - he doesn't fail, but other people fail him.

Zhuge Liang does everything, and does it through inaction, at least compared to the martial heroes in the book. He uses his friends, his sources, his empire, and even his enemies in making his marketing strategy succeed and solidifying his immortality.

This is the real message of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it's a damn fun one to follow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

(this is richard)

That's quite a lesson to learn from ROTK...

3:13 PM  

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