Chinese kong1-cheng2 ji4. The method of concealing one's weakness by shamming casual self-confidence.

This still-current literary allusion draws on the story of the brilliant and erratic strategist Zhuge Liang (courtesy name Kongming), who lived in the Three Kingdoms period. The most brilliant military mind of his generation, Kongming had a reputation for absolute caution and shocking surprises in battle. He was in the service of the doomed government of Shu, fighting the Wei and Wu for control of China as the Han dynasty collapsed

Having given almost all his troops to the general Wei Yan, Kongming found himself left with only a few thousand men to protect the walled city of Xicheng. He learned that Sima Yi, a powerful enemy general, was on his way with 200,000 troops. Sima Yi passed Wei Yan's troops on the road, and his scouts told him that Kongming was without forces, so he took a shortcut and was approaching rapidly. The dust his armies were raising could be seen from the Xicheng walls. The officials of Xicheng all turned pale, knowing that there was no way to defend the city.

Kongming had all the gates of the city opened, and instructed a few of his troops to take brooms and sweep the grounds in a leisurely way, wearing mufti. He had the army banners lowered and the drums silenced, giving strict orders that no one was to leave the city or make a sound. He himself went up to one of the towers of the city wall with two servant boys and lit some incense in a censer, playing his zither gently in full view of anyone on the ground.

Sima Yi and his armies drew up within sight of Xicheng. Seeing the city apparently open and undefended, with civilians sweeping the road and Kongming at ease in a parapet, General Sima gave the order for immedate retreat. Knowing of Kongming's reputation for extreme caution, he suspected an ambush and intended to take no risks.

When he eventually learned how he had been deceived, he was furious.

This story is the subject of Chinese opera and puppet drama, and appears in the popular novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The expression "Stratagem of the Empty City" remains in everyday speech as a trick to conceal one's lack of ability or knowledge.


Other Chinese literary allusions

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