Monday, September 22, 2008

The Way of the General – Part X

On Cultivation

In order to succeed in life, perseverance is necessary. The following is an ancient story about the origin of Zhuge Liang and the struggles he faced when he was young. Take it with a pinch of salt though, since it's not part of any official records nor found in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. This story originated from
Clear Harmony.

Origins of a Legend
Zhuge Liang was the military strategist for the Han state in the Three Kingdoms period of China (220-280 A.D.). He was the most famous and ingenious military strategist in Chinese history. He was often pictured wearing a robe and holding a fan made of crane feathers.

When Zhuge Liang was 9 years old, he still was unable to speak. His family was poor and Zhuge Liang was asked by his father to herd the sheep at a nearby hill of a mountain. Up on the mountain there was a Taoist temple where an elderly Taoist with a full head of gray hair resided (A Taoist is one who studies the 'Tao' or 'Way of the Universe').

The Taoist took a leisurely stroll outside the Taoist temple every day. When he ran into Zhuge Liang, he would try to tease the boy with hand signs. Zhuge Liang also enjoyed “talking” back to the Taoist with hand signs. The Taoist grew very fond of the smart and adorable Zhuge Liang. He started to treat the boy’s muteness problem. Before long, Zhuge Liang was able to speak!

Zhuge Liang was delighted when he was finally able to speak. He went up to the Taoist temple and thanked the Taoist in person. The elderly Taoist told him, “When you return home, tell your parents that I am taking you as a disciple and I will teach you to read. I will also teach you the art of astronomy, geography and the applied theories of Yin and Yang in military strategies. If your parents agree, you must come attend the school every day and you must never skip a class!”

From that day on, Zhuge Liang became the elderly Taoist’s disciple. Come rain or shine, Zhuge Liang would climb up to the mountain to receive his education. He was a very smart and diligent boy who took his study seriously. He also had a photographic memory. The Taoist never had to teach him anything twice. Naturally, the Taoist became all the more fond of him.

Eight years passed quickly and Zhuge Liang became a teenager.

No Man May Pass the Hall of Beauties
One day while Zhuge Liang was coming down the mountain as usual, he passed by a deserted nunnery located in the middle of the mountain. Suddenly there came a gusty wind, followed by a thunderstorm. Zhuge Liang had no choice but to flee to the deserted nunnery to escape the storm. There a young woman he had never met came out to meet him. She had a large pair of eyes and thin eyebrows. She was so beautiful that Zhuge Liang almost mistook her for a goddess. He was immediately attracted to the young woman.

When the storm stopped, the beautiful woman saw him off at the door and said to him with a grin, “Now that we have met each other. You are free to come by and have a cup of tea whenever you wish to take a break in your trip up or down the mountain.” As Zhuge Liang was walking out of the nunnery, he felt suspicious. “Why didn’t I notice that someone lived in this nunnery before?” he thought.

From that day on, Zhuge Liang began to frequent the nunnery. Each time the beautiful woman would entertain him with warm hospitality. She cooked him delectable meals and always encouraged him to stay longer. After dinner they would chat heartily and play chess. Compared to the Taoist temple, the nunnery appeared to be a paradise.

Thoughts about the woman often diverted his attention from his education and he began to lose interest in studying. He paid less and less attention to the Taoist’s lectures. He also became forgetful and had difficulty in learning new textbooks.

On Mindfulness
The elderly Taoist discovered his problem. One day he summoned Zhuge Liang and let out a long sigh. “It is easier to ruin a tree than grow a tree!” he said. “I have wasted many years on you!”

Zhuge Liang lowered his head in shame and said, “Master, I will never disappoint you again or waste your education!”

“I don’t believe you,” said the elderly Taoist. “I knew you are a very smart boy, so I wanted to treat your illness and give you a proper education. For the past eight years you have been very diligent in your study, so I thought it was worth the hard work of educating you. But now you are neglecting your education. No matter how smart you are, you will never get anywhere if you continue to carry on like this! You are now promising me to never disappoint me again. How can I trust your words?”

The elderly Taoist continued, “Everything has its cause.” Then he pointed at a tree wrapped up by many thick vines in the courtyard. “Look at the tree,” he said. “Why do you think the tree is half alive and is struggling in its growth?”

“The vines binding the tree are keeping it from growing!” answered Zhuge Liang.

“Precisely! This tree had a tough time growing up in this rocky mountain with little soil. But it keeps growing because it is determined to develop its roots and branches. It fears neither the heat nor the cold. However, when the vines wrap around it, it cannot grow up any taller. It is funny how ‘soft’ vines can defeat a tall, robust tree!”

Zhuge Liang was smart, so he immediately knew what his Master was referring to. He asked, “Master, you knew about my dates at the nunnery””

The elderly Taoist said, “Living near the water, a man will learn the fish’s nature. Living on the mountain, a man will learn the birds’ language. I have been observing you and your actions. How can your romantic affair escape my attention?”

He paused for a moment before telling his disciple with a stern look. “Let me tell you the truth about the beautiful woman. She is not a human being. She is a divine crane in heaven. She was kicked out of the heavenly palace as a punishment after she stole and ate the Queen of Heaven’s peaches. She came to the human realm and assumed the appearance of a beautiful woman. She is a depraved divine crane that knows only to seek pleasure. You have been beguiled by her appearance, but you have wasted more than your time. If you allow yourself to lose your will, you will become a loser! Moreover, if you refuse to comply with her wishes, she will hurt you eventually.”

It was not until then that Zhuge Liang realised the severity of his escapade. He anxiously asked his Master for a solution.

The elderly Taoist said, “The divine crane has a habit of returning to her original form at midnight and flying up to the heavenly river for a bath. While she is away from the nunnery, you will enter her room and burn her robe. She stole the robe from the Heavenly Palace. Without the robe, she can no longer assume the shape of a beautiful woman.”

Zhuge Liang promised to follow his Master’s instructions. Before he took off, his Master handed him a cane with the carving of a dragon’s head on the top. He told Zhuge Ling, “When the divine crane finds there is a fire in the nunnery, she will fly down from the heavenly river right away. She will realise that you have burned her robe and will attack you. When that happens, you must hit her with the cane! It is important that you remember and do what I have told you!”

At midnight, Zhuge Liang went to the nunnery quietly. He opened the woman’s room only to find her robe on the bed. He immediately set the robe on fire.

While the divine crane was bathing in the heavenly river, she felt a sudden heartache. She checked the direction of the nunnery and saw it was on fire. She immediately flied down and saw it was Zhuge Liang who had set her robe on fire. She came at Zhuge Liang and tried to attack his eyes with her beak. Zhuge Liang had quick reflexes. He raised the cane and knocked the divine crane down to the ground. Then he grabbed the crane by her tail. The divine crane struggled and was able to escape, but she lost her tail features to Zhuge Liang.

She became a crane with a bald tail. She was embarrassed by her looks, so she stopped bathing in the heavenly river. She dared not enter the Heavenly Palace to steal another robe either, so she had no choice but to remain in the human realm forever and live among ordinary cranes.

In order to remind himself of this lesson, Zhuge Liang kept the tail feathers of the crane.

Blossoming of the Mind’s Eye
From that day on, Zhuge Liang became even more diligent. He would memorise everything his Master taught him and every textbook. He truly absorbed what he had learnt and was able to apply it freely. Another year passed. On the very day he had burned the divine crane’s robe a year ago, the elderly Taoist told him with a big smile, “My disciple, you have been studying under my tutelage for nine years. I have taught you everything you need to learn and you have learnt every textbook here. There is an idiom, ‘Master takes you through the entrance, and it is up to you to practise cultivation.’ You are now 18 years old. It is time for you to leave your home and develop your career!”

When Zhuge Liang heard that he had completed his education, he begged his Master for more. “Master! The more I learn, the more humble I feel. I feel there is more I need to learn from you!”

“True education comes from real life. You must learn to apply your knowledge to life and design different solutions for different situations! For example, you have learnt an important lesson from the dates with the divine crane that one must not be tempted by lust or emotion. This is a practical lesson from a life experience. With that in mind, you must not be confused by this illusionary surface of the world. Take great caution in everything you do. You must see everything in its true form. This is my farewell advice to you! I will be leaving you today.”

“Master, where are you going?” Zhuge Liang asked in astonishment. “Where can I find you or visit you from now on?”

“I will wander around the world and will not settle down again.”

Suddenly Zhuge Liang found hot tears filling his eyes. He said to his Master, “Master! Before you leave, you must give me an opportunity to kowtow to you and thank you for giving me the education!”

Next Zhuge Liang kowtowed to his Master. When he got up, the Taoist had disappeared.

The Taoist left him with a robe with the print of the Eight Diagrams. Zhuge Liang thought of his Master regularly; therefore, he often wore his robe with the print of the Eight Diagrams because it gave him the feeling that his Master was right beside him.

Zhuge Liang never forgot his Master’s advice, especially his parting advice. He made a feather fan out of the divine crane’s tail feathers to remind himself to take great caution for the rest of his life. This is the story behind the famous feather fan that Zhuge Liang carried.

If a genius like Zhuge Liang could be led astray, what about mere mortals such as us? One should be doubly vigilant in one’s affairs to avoid being led astray. Any comments?



That's a great tale about the importance of vigilance. Damn I should have plucked the feathers of a few people who distracted me last week, hehe.

Trying to see that story in today's terms, nowadays if you turn down a beautiful girl, people will say there's something wrong with you. As I always said, the rule of the world is eat first think later. Ask anyone and he'll say "Aiyah... why you think so much, just take that girl lor..."

Of course you and I would see it differently and I think levels of awareness has a lot to do with it. But in a system where minds and lives are fueled by consumption, virtue is a liability and virtuous guys finish last. Spend a week in Shanghai and Tokyo and you'll see what I mean.

What I've been trying to do is find a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern thinking. For example what the story didn't explain was why was virtue important and why its worth the sacrifice of a beautiful woman. It will put a different light to the tale.

Its tricky when explaining virtue to a world that measures you by what you possess in material terms. That's why very, very few people are interested in the Way.

Btw, I've been wondering, who's the picture in your avatar - the guy with a watermelon on his head (or is it a pumpkin?)


Dear Damien,

Let's me answer the easy question first. You don't recognize my Avatar? It's Professor Quirrell! Lord Voldemort is hidden inside the watermelon or pumpkin :)

Seriously though, it's Zhuge Liang-lah. Maybe they increased the size of his spiffy Taoist headgear to denote his great intellect.

As to explanation of why it was worth abandoning the beautiful woman, I think you have already grasped the answer. If you are too infatuated with something, be it women, wealth or fame, it clouds one's minds. Grasping leads to foolishness away from the Way.

If Zhuge Liang had not forsaken the temptations, he could never have achieved the fame and success he had. Probably he would face the problems like these here.


Great tale! I can't believe there's a story about his feather fan. I don't think many people had heard of it.


Dear Marketing Deviant,

Yup, I didn't either. Came across this folk's tale quite by accident.



Ah so... Zhuge Liang dresses up like Mojo Jojo of the Powerpuff Girls. Mojo also wears a big hat to contain his oversized brain.

Question: Do you suppose Zhuge Liang studied to become famous and successful (a desire based on grasping) or was fame and success an unintended side effect? If he had a higher goal what was it. I haven't studied that part of history so I'm rather ignorant.


Dear Damien,

Come to think about it, you're right about Mojo Jojo :)

As to your question, here's the relevant extract from the novel on his views, so you can come to your own conclusion.


"Can any know what fate is his?
Yet have I felt throughout my life,
The day would come at last to quit
The calm retreat for toil and strife."


The full chapter can be found here.



Interesting, I like the story. Be careful when you meet a beautiful girl, she could be something else the next moment. Hehehe


Dear Molly,

Glad you like the story. I'll definitely take your advice seriously.

For most guys, our wisdom temporarily malfunctions upon seeing beautiful girls.

The solution? Don't Look! LOL


now i know why zhuge liang play with the fan all the time. i thought he was just trying to pretend to be cool and sexy... lol....

mankind do get easily distracted. try to flash a pair of nice shoes to a girl who likes shoes and she will forget why she is in the supermarket for.

having a focused and disciplined mind is one of the hardest thing to do.


I'd GIVE UP THE WORLD if a desirable chick were willin' to marry Yours Truly.

Wealth, power, authority. Don't mean nothin' if a man can't ever love...

Just have to look at Shi Huang Di & Cao Cao.


Methinks Xiang Yu was better off than Liu Bang...least he knew that the woman who was with him truly loved him. Unlike that shrew whom Liu married.


Whoa...this discussion has taken an interesting turn...

@Falling Stones
You've finally found out the secret function of Zhuge Liang's fan :)

Guess that's why life is bearable. When you distracted and fascinated with something, the world seems brighter and time goes by faster somehow right... Once you get it, then life reverts to being mundane again. Having a disciplined and focus mind is the hallmark of a great person - since you are 2-D in Go already, I'd say you have loads :)


@Yours Truly,
Cao Cao was misrepresented in Red Cliff. Nah, he wasn't that interested in Xiao Qiao.

As for the Han Dynasty saga, you must have watched the movie where Gong Li was acting as Liu Bang's wife, yes?

Hmmm...give up wealth, power and authority just for the love of one girl? But what if you have an entire country depending on you to defend them? Would you give them up?

I can't say I can answer these questions with any certainty. All I can say is that I'm glad that I am not in the shoes of such great men and forced to make such difficult decisions.


  © Blogger template 'Minimalist G' by 2008

Back to TOP