China’s military generals changed history era after era, leaving legends behind them. They braved the battles, were loyal to their kingdoms, and were wise and brave. They mastered warcraft, and understood the hidden designs of fate. Listen carefully and you can almost hear their horses galloping on the battlefields.
Guo Ziyi, a general and leader during the renowned Tang Dynasty, had the rare distinction of actually living out what ancient books said Chinese officials should be like.
One of the bedrock concepts of Chinese strategic thought, as told by the classic Art of War, is the concept “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” But how many Chinese generals did that?
Guo Ziyi of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) did.
“He was all-powerful across China, but the courtesans did not envy him,” announced Vol. 70 of the magnum opus The Old Book of Tang. “His deeds were known throughout the land, but the emperor did not doubt him.” Guo lived to a rare 85 years old. He sired eight sons and they, along with his seven sons-in-law, held important positions in adulthood.
Ziyi’s long and illustrious military career included major battles with Uyghur and Tibetan minority groups, whose invasions he repelled without utilizing soldiers or weapons. His reputation alone was sufficient, built up over decades of battling courageously and outwitting enemies.
In 763, as the Tang Dynasty was just recovering from the devastating An Shi rebellion of 755-763, a massive force of Tibetan warriors was on Chang’an’s, the capital’s, doorstep, ready to loot and plunder. Ziyi immediately dispatched scouts to light hundreds of fires in places that the Tibetans would see — making them think that troops were encamped there. At the same time, he had Chang’anese set off fireworks and strike gongs. The Tibetans, terrified by the commotion, thought they were surrounded and fled.
Guo’s most important non-battle took place two years later. A treacherous Marshal, Pugu Huai’en, seized a troublemaking opportunity, coaxing the Uyghurs and Tibetans to again invade Chang’an. Three hundred thousand enemy soldiers were about to descend. Ziyi, with only 10,000 troops, was sent to stop them.
At nearly 70 years of age, Ziyi decided the best solution was simply to go to the Uyghur commander and discuss the matter. His own officials thought it too risky — but Ziyi went ahead. Guo’s son pleaded that “you will be feeding yourself to the tigers.” Ziyi responded: “Our country is in a life and death situation. If I can convince the Uyghurs to side with us, the country can be safe. What else is there to consider?” He whipped his son’s hand free from his horse, slapped the reins, and galloped forth.
The Uyghur commander, wary, ordered his soldiers to continue preparing for battle. Ziyi, seeing this, tossed aside his armor and weapons as he rode closer. Ziyi already knew these troops: They had served under him during actions when he put down other rebels. Ziyi, gracious and generous to the Uyghurs, had become a father figure to them. Recognizing him, the Uyghurs knelt.
Seeing Ziyi, the Uyghurs realized that Huai’en had tricked them into attacking. Quickly, the Uyghurs joined forces with Ziyi’s army, the one they had been sent to defeat. When word broke to the Tibetans, they fled overnight.
Ziyi “broke the enemy’s resistance without fighting” in court as well. Ziyi parried the blows of narrow-minded officials who envied his achievements and closeness with the monarch.
The sneaky eunuch Yu Chao’en, Emperor Suzong’s Military Attaché, was one of the most dangerous. Yu lost a major battle and blamed Ziyi. Suzong, trusting the deceitful eunuch, stripped Ziyi of his military rank. Ziyi, however, held no grudge: He simply waited, and when the next emperor rose to the throne, his position and powers were reinstated.
As the years went on, Ziyi showed the real extent of his magnanimity, most memorably after Yu looted Ziyi’s father’s tomb. The looting of a family tomb was among the most disrespectful and insulting acts in ancient China, and Ziyi could easily have proven the arrogant Yu guilty. That, however, would have caused a massive rift at the center of the Tang state, imperiling the dynasty.
Ziyi took the extraordinary step of placing his personal interest and honor below that of the safety of the country. Ziyi, whom countless soldiers looked upon as a father and obeyed without question, blamed himself for the looting. While on campaign, his soldiers had been careless around other family’s tombs, he offered, and now that his own father’s was robbed, it must be divine retribution. He was extremely sorry, he lamented, that he had not been the leader he hoped to be.