Zhaokuo discusses military tactics on paper-赵括纸上谈兵

Zhao Kuo, the son of Zhao She, a general of the state of Zhao, was born in 280 BC. In 280 BC, the King of Zhao ordered Zhao She to attack the city of Maiqiu in the state of Qi. So Zhao She, along with his son Zhao Kuo, arrived at Maiqiu. Before their arrival, the Zhao army had attacked Maiqiu many times, all ending in failure. The King of Zhao then appointed Zhao She as the commander and gave him a month to capture Maiqiu.

With the King’s command, Zhao She immediately ordered the attack upon arriving at Maiqiu. However, Zhao Kuo felt that the defenses of Maiqiu were strong, and since the Zhao army had failed to capture it many times before, a direct assault would only weaken their strength. To take Maiqiu within a month, other methods should be considered. He believed that after being besieged for so long, the food inside Maiqiu must be running out. So he suggested to his father to halt the attack, conserve their strength, understand the situation inside Maiqiu, and then plan their strategy accordingly. But the one-month deadline set by the King made Zhao She anxious, and he couldn’t listen to his son’s advice.

Zhao She captured some Qi prisoners of war and tortured them to extract information about the situation inside Maiqiu, but the prisoners remained silent. Every day, Zhao Kuo politely served food to the prisoners and allowed them to take food back with them. Eventually, a prisoner secretly informed him that the food inside the city was running out, and the people were resorting to cannibalism due to the siege. Asked how long the Qi army could hold out, the prisoner replied, “A few months.”

The information Zhao Kuo obtained was something his father had failed to acquire despite all his efforts, which made Zhao She start to respect his son’s insight. He then followed Zhao Kuo’s advice, stopped the assault, and released all the prisoners back into the city. Upon their return, the prisoners spoke highly of the treatment they received from the Zhao army, which led some of the city’s inhabitants to contemplate surrendering.

When the Qi commanders saw that the returning prisoners had shaken the morale of the people, they imprisoned them all. This action angered both the citizens and soldiers of Maiqiu. At Zhao Kuo’s suggestion, Zhao She started to have his soldiers throw food into the city. The Zhao army would toss food into the city every day without saying a word and then return to camp to rest. After a few days, the Qi army sent people to return the food, with a message urging the Zhao army to attack quickly and cease sending food into the city.

After the messengers returned to the Qi camp, Zhao She still did not attack. Instead, a few days later, he resumed sending food into the city. After a few more days of this, the Qi army sent messengers again, this time challenging Zhao She to a decisive battle. Zhao Kuo advised his father, “Ignore them.” And after a few more days, they received news that the Qi commander defending the city had been killed by the people of Maiqiu, and all the inhabitants surrendered to the Zhao army.

Zhao Kuo’s strategy of winning over the people of Maiqiu without fighting spread back to the state of Zhao, earning praise from the King. Zhao Kuo had been fond of studying military strategy from a young age, discussing military matters, and even writing books on the subject while attracting many disciples. He often discussed military matters with his father, sometimes even outshining him in strategy, but Zhao She never praised him. When asked why by Zhao Kuo’s mother, Zhao She replied, “War is a matter of life and death, but Zhao Kuo treats it like a game. If he were allowed to lead troops into battle, the Zhao army would surely be defeated.”

His father’s words were soon proven true. In 262 BC, the Zhao army led by Lian Po faced off against the Qin army led by Wang He in Shangdang, with Qin on the offense and Zhao on the defense. Despite several provocations from the Qin army, Lian Po consistently avoided engagement. With the Qin army running low on supplies, the King of Qin sought advice from Fan Ju. Fan Ju quickly came up with a plan: within days, rumors spread in the Qin camp that Lian Po was planning to rebel. At the same time, rumors reached the King of Zhao that Lian Po was too old and incapable, and that Zhao Kuo was the true threat. The King of Zhao became suspicious of Lian Po and sought counsel from his ministers.

Lin Xiangru staunchly defended Lian Po, stating that Zhao Kuo only studied his father’s military books and lacked practical experience. The King of Zhao then consulted the veteran general Yue Yi, who said that while Lian Po excelled at quick sieges, he was not suited for prolonged standoffs. Zhao Kuo, having grown up in the military, had ample experience, and many generals in the Zhao army looked up to him for military theory. Furthermore, Zhao Kuo and his father had previously defeated a prominent Qin general, earning the respect and fear of the Qin army.

The King of Zhao heeded Yue Yi’s advice, summoned Zhao Kuo, and asked if he could defeat the Qin army if sent into battle. Zhao Kuo replied, “If the Qin general were Bai Qi, I might need to consider it. But with Wang He, he’s only Lian Po’s counterpart, a small matter for me.” The King of Zhao then ordered Zhao Kuo to replace Lian Po.

Upon hearing that Zhao Kuo was to lead the troops, Zhao Kuo’s mother immediately petitioned the King, pleading for him to revoke the order. She stated, “On his deathbed, his father repeatedly urged that he should never be allowed to lead troops. This child treats war as a game, and if he leads troops, it will likely only lead to the unnecessary loss of soldiers’ lives.” The King of Zhao refused to listen.

Zhao Kuo’s mother then returned home and advised Zhao Kuo to request rewards from the King to establish a family business. Confused, Zhao Kuo asked for an explanation. His mother explained, “This time, you are leading away half of the Zhao army, and the King cannot completely trust you. Moreover, Shangdang is a dangerous place, and with so many troops under your command, you could establish your own power base there. If you are away for too long, there will inevitably be rumors against you in front of the King. Also, this battle concerns the survival of the state. If you win, you will be greatly rewarded, but if you lose, you will be blamed. By asking for rewards for your family and leaving them behind, you are showing the King that you will return. This battle’s outcome is uncertain, depending on how it is judged. Therefore, it’s more important to let the King be at ease than anything else.”

Zhao Kuo listened to his mother’s advice. She then petitioned the King again, asking for a promise that regardless of Zhao Kuo’s victory or defeat, his family would not be implicated. The King agreed, and Zhao Kuo then led the troops into battle.

In 260 BC, Zhao Kuo arrived at Changping with his army and abolished all the military laws previously