In the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Sima Yi was one of Cao Cao's greatest strategists. In his heyday, Sima Yi was arguably second only to his rival Zhuge Liang. After the death of his blood brothersGuan Yu and Zhang Fei, Liu Bei began to personally wage his wars. Sima Yi routed Liu Bei's forces, and only the timely rescue by trusted general Zhou Yun kept the legendary ruler alive.

After the death of the three brothers of the peach garden oath, Zhuge Liang campaigned against Cao Cao, defeating Sima Yi at every turn but suffering from horrible luck. Before Zhuge Liang died of exhaustion, he had a wooden idol constructed of himself. Sima Yi persued the retreating army, that (by Zhuge Liang's orders) revealed the wooden statue, scaring off Sima Yi. Later, when Yi learned of the deception, the axiom "a dead Zhuge Liang can defeat a live Sima Yi" was born.

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