“Liu Bei’s men were getting closer. You could hear them beating their drums, waving their torches, shouting their war songs into the frigid air as they sailed closer and closer.
Cao Cao’s enemy camps were caught unawares on the riverbank and frantically assembled to face what appeared to be a massive army.
Only Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei’s best and most trusted strategist—and the organizer of the whole affair—knew the truth. He knew that the cacophony of drums and yells were produced by fewer than 30 men. He knew that under the thick cover of fog, Cao Cao’s armies on the riverbank would not be able to tell the size of the approaching enemy fleet. The straw-stuffed dolls that filled each boat would appear as formidable enemy soldiers, standing six feet high and carrying giant staffs.
Zhuge Liang peered out at the banks, squinting to see Cao Cao’s next move. A war horn sounded twice. A volley of arrows darkened the sky, arcing through the falling snow, finding their marks buried deep in the army of straw men that Zhuge Liang had filled his fleet with.
Zhuge Liang ducked to safety, satisfied. His men hunkered down below deck and waited out the attack. By the time the fleet had sailed miles beyond the enemy camp, they were 100,000 arrows richer without having expended any of their own resources and Cao Cao was none the wiser.”
My dad paused to catch his breath. I leaned back against an old oak and waited.
“Tell me more about Zhuge Liang.”
“Well, he was the most cunning man in the Three Kingdoms. He was brave and loyal. He was decisive and always weighed every move he made against the consequences that could follow.”
I practiced my swordplay with my hiking stick—a spindly branch picked up half a mile ago—against the tree, denting the stick with every carefully placed strike.
“He was all these things. And he was still only a man.”
Whenever my dad and I went hiking, we would pass the time by telling stories. Or, more accurately, I would pester him to tell me stories about my two favorite subjects: his own childhood, and the legendary Chinese hero, Zhuge Liang.
While we are quite sure Zhuge Liang is a real man who lived and died during the Three Kingdoms period, what we know of him today has long since left the constraints of his actual life and slipped into legend. His most well-known exploits were recorded as historical fact and some of his more mythological feats were sprinkled into the 14th century publication of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is known as one of the greatest Chinese strategists who ever lived and his cunning schemes are retold often and with many dramatics to Chinese (and Chinese-American) schoolchildren. He was one of my favorite heroes growing up.
My dad told me about Zhuge Liang because I liked hearing about him. But as I grew older, I realized it was also because he didn’t really know what to say when I asked him to tell me stories about himself. Stories about historical heroes were easier and more fun.
I learn my dad’s narrative from other people. My parents met in high school and my mom tells me about how absurd my dad was as a teen: how he would rather play soccer in the rain than study for the gaokao; how he wrote (plagiarized) love poems in her yearbook and letters after high school; how he had poor vision but no glasses so his teachers always thought he was rude when he ignored them in the streets; how he was brilliant and always top of his class despite these various little faults.
He mentions once that he might’ve been a physicist if they had stayed in China. I ask if he’s happy doing what he does now.
IT isn’t bad, of course, he reflects, Not bad at all.
“Can you tell me another Zhuge Liang story?”
We approach the summit and cover the following Zhuge Liang tales: how he summoned the eastern wind to set his enemies’ ships on fire, how he incited a civil war by sending rival kings insulting poems, how he performed a ritual to extend his lifespan by twelve years but was interrupted by battle before it could be completed. How he may have been a hero, but he still feared death.
Everyone says I look like my dad. When I compare pictures of us in childhood, we’re nearly identical. According to legend, Zhuge Liang was “eight feet tall, like pine and cypress.” My dad is considerably shorter, but I suppose he casts a tall shadow.
Personality-wise, the differences intensify. While I’m short-tempered and stubborn, he’s exceedingly reserved with a long fuse, but is also uproariously funny on the rare occasion he chooses to speak up. He goes to great lengths to keep the peace wherever he may be. Family friends, church members, and relatives all point out how humble and tolerant he is—to the point that it’s a running joke in some circles and has gotten him elected to lead multiple religious study groups against his will. It’s something I admire greatly, but is simultaneously annoying: It’s difficult to know what he’s really thinking and feeling.
The sun trickles into the parking lot. I’m driving clumsy circles around cones he set up, plowing into a fair number as we go.
He taught me how to drive with more patience than was reasonable. Some days we would listen to my music, some days we would listen to his. Others, we wouldn’t listen to anything at all because he was cross that I kept talking and getting distracted, my eyes drifting off the road.
We drive up Sugarloaf Mountain a few minutes after it has officially closed. He shrugs. “How do you enforce the closure of a mountain?” The sun dips, yet it’s hot and humid. We don’t end up staying long.
My favorite Zhuge Liang story was the one about the empty city:
Cao Cao’s men were gaining. Liu Bei’s forces were spread thin. Zhuge Liang had received word that Cao Cao’s men were less than a day’s march from taking Xicheng. Zhuge Liang only had a small number of men with him in Xicheng; the bulk of the Shu army were deployed elsewhere. What was he to do?
“I’ll tell you what he did.”
He sent the few soldiers he had to disguise themselves as civilians and sweep the streets. He instructed local children to sing and play happily. Zhuge Liang himself sat in the middle of the main road and played the guqin. He ordered the main gates to be swung wide open. And then he waited to see if his enemies would fall for his gambit. When Cao Cao’s general Sima Yi arrived, he was surprised to see an empty city with open gates and suspected an ambush. He promptly retreated. Of course, like many of his ploys, it was only a trick of the eye. Sima Yi only saw what he suspected to be true. Zhuge Liang was known for being careful and pragmatic; how could an empty city be anything other than an ambush? How could Zhuge Liang be anything other than what he was?
When my family talks about love we talk about it in English, not Chinese like we do everything else. I think it distances things. Or maybe it makes it more real. Maybe love is so sacred that we can’t speak about it in the same language we use to talk about groceries or cleaning the bathroom, everyday drudgeries.
A few months ago, I turned to the true source to get my fix of historical drama and political intrigue. Actually reading the text of Romance of the Three Kingdoms felt like a return to something I had known all my life, my dad’s retellings in their original form.
There were unexpected twists that my dad hadn’t told me (though to be fair, it’s very long). The most surprising was Zhuge Liang’s death after leading five failed campaigns north and the eventual fall of the Shu. I suppose I had never thought too hard about what happened to him at the end. But then, it didn’t matter much because his life had grown so large in the end that it had eclipsed his death.
It’s hard to maintain your heroes as you grow older. These days I’ve mostly outgrown Zhuge Liang, but my dad and I still connect through our shared set of cultural references, though I have to study to keep up. I listen to his Eagles CDs and point out when Don Henley comes on the car radio to make sure he knows that I’m listening closely. I watch a few seasons of Seinfeld and Longmire, and form a respectable number of opinions about soccer players. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to see him as a man who, fortunately, happens to be my father, but possesses all the normal flaws and inconsistencies that that comes with. Even so, it’s comforting to see the spots where we overlap and differ, and to know that I’m growing into someone I admire overall. Beyond the physical resemblance, perhaps another area of similarity is that we both feel most comfortable discussing our own lives and relationship through other people’s stories. And that’s a constant that’s becoming alright with me.