Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us


Time for our next stratagem, the 反間計.

It's rather hard to translate the name itself. Literally it's "counter-between". A "between" is what foreign agents were called in ancient China. Half spies, half agents to sow discord in the enemy ranks.

Original text and translation follows:


Doubts inside doubts. Befriend from the inside, you won't lose.

間者使敵自相疑忌也 反間者因敵之間而間之也

Secret agents [lit. "betweens"] spread doubt within your enemy. Counter-agents do that to your enemy's own agents.

如燕昭王薨,惠王自為太子時,不快於樂毅。 田單乃縱反間曰: 樂毅與燕王有隙,畏誅,欲連兵王齊。 齊人未附故且緩攻即墨,以待其事。齊人唯恐他將來,即墨殘矣。 惠王聞之,即使騎劫代將,毅遂奔趙。

When King Zhao of Yan died, King Hui took the throne. He didn't like General Yue Yi ever since he was crown prince. Tian Dan [general of Qi during a massive war with Yan], unleashed a counter-op, saying: "Yue Yi doesn't have a good relation with his King, and fears he might be executed. He's thinking on bringing his trips and install himself as King at Qi. The people at Qi haven't committed to him yet which is why he's delaying his attack on Jimo [a city of Qi he was besieging]. The people of Qi are most afraid of Yue Yi being replaced by some other general, as then Jimo will certainly be sacked." King Hui of Yan heard of this story, immediately sent Qi Jie to replace Yue Yi, and Yue Yi fled to Zhao.


Or like Zhou Yu [famous general of the state of Wu during the Three Kingdoms period] fooled an undercover agent sent by Cao Cao to mislead his general. Or Chen Ping, using money to spread doubts on the Chu Army, making it look as if Fan Zeng was disloyal. The King of Chu grew suspicious and removed him. All these were tricks to spread doubts inside doubts.


This is one of the classics, used very, very often in history, often with great success.

The strongest thing in the world is a cohesive army of men who trust each other and have a common purpose. They can literally achieve anything they work on. Make them distrust each other, though, and no matter how numerous, how strong, how wealthy or how technically advanced, they just lose the ability to project power effectively. You can't get anything done if you're afraid your underlings (or your superiors!) are going to stab in your sleep. Any human organization runs on trust. It follows that to win, you must undermine the trust among your enemies. Especially if you're in a position of weakness.

Of course that assumes a flat, meritocatic scenario with a lot of mobility, which was often the case in China, or in the Roman Empire, up onto the very end of Constantinople plagued with dissension and betrayals and all sorts of stratagems. European or Japanese warfare was less afflicted by that because feudalism is quite good at enforcing loyalty, and in Europe warfare often had ethnic or religious background to it.

Well, do we live today in a feudal, fragmented society, or a global meritocracy? You might see now why I write about Chinese history so much. It's not just that I like it, it's actually much more relevant than you'd think.

Now, the stratagem above and their examples give the general idea of the counter-op. But there is a variant of this strategy not detailed in this collection, a variant which I find of the utmost importance. It is much more insidious, but so much more effective. It's the counter-op on steroids. The mother of all counter-ops.


Let's talk about Ying Bu 英布. Also known as Qing Bu 黥布, i.e. Bu the Tattooed. More on that soon.

The time is 209 BC. The Qin Dynasty, the First Empire, has collapsed after only 12 years, as the death of the first emperor ignited a palace crisis and the whole country, nostalgic of their recently vanquished kingdoms, rose in rebellion against the heavy handed rule of the Qin. The Qin dynasty was known to history as following the ideology of Legalism, an idea of government through clear laws of rewards and punishment, strictly applied, with no loopholes or privileges. Confucians, who eventually became the mainstream ideology in China, always refer to Legalism as cruel and inhuman. What they don't say is that Legalism works, and is almost wholly responsible for the rise of the state of Qin from frontier backwater to the founder of the First Empire.

Sometimes Legalist do over do it, however, and the early Qin empire was famously harsh with their punishments. They might have felt that it was necessary in order to tame a recently conquered massive population, but they certainly overdid it. They had two basic problems: one was the overly wide use of the death penalty. The death penalty is important to remove shitty people from the population. But you must only use it to punish the worst crimes of all, basically murder and extreme cruelty; else you're pushing lighter criminals into murder. If you punish rape with death, rapists might as well kill their victims too.

Well, the early Qin famously punished arriving late to a military commission with death. And so Chen Sheng and Wu Guang got bogged down by torrential rains in Dazexiang, and knew they would be killed for it, they famously said: 等死,死國可乎 "If we're dying anyway, might as well die for our [old] country". And so they rose in rebellion and proclaimed the restoration of the State of Chu.

Second problem with the harsh criminal laws of the early Qin was that any man with a slightly above average level of testosterone was likely to see himself in the wrong side of the law; and the relentless, thorough Qin legal machinery would see him branded for life (an old Chinese punishment is tattooing the word "criminal" in the forehead) and sent to hard labor. Hard labor sucks, but if you have a bunch of big, strong guys, branded for life, expelled for good from polite society; well you better make sure that this relentless state machinery is kept well oiled and stable all times. Because if it's not, at the slightest show of unrest, these guys are not an embryonic army. They're an army alright.

So this takes us to Ying Bu. Ying Bu was a big, tall, strong guy, who for some probably violent crime got tattooed in the face and sent to build Qin Shihuang's mausoleum at Lishan. There he was, shoveling earth around with a bunch of several thousand big, tall, strong, violent tatted bros when news come that there's a bunch of big rebellions all over the place and the government is basically not functioning anymore.

Ying Bu naturally decides that he wants a piece of the action, so he raises a gang with his fellow prisoner bros and goes around robbing caravans, stealing women, claiming territory and raising more troops. Good times.

Soon Ying Bu was commanding a few thousand men, and as it happened, he was a masterful commander and brave warrior, winning a series of battles against government troops. As the civil war progressed, Ying Bu was persuaded to join the, at the moment, largest army of all, that of Xiang Yu, who controlled the heir of the house of Chu, the largest of the pre-unification kingdoms. Ying Bu again showed himself to be a brilliant commander and was made a nobleman of the kingdom of Chu. In 207 at the great battle of Julu, the Chu armies destroyed the main force of the Qin Dynasty, a battle in which Ying Bu had a decisive role to play, holding the flank of his army against superior government forces.

After the battle of Julu, Xiang Yu went around burying alive hundreds of thousands of Qin troops, mopping up any opposition he found, and triumphantly conquering the Qin capital at Xianyang, which he burnt to the ground, no fucks given. The amount of ancient treasure and literature that was lost at the time, I shudder to think. Oh well. The wages of war.

Soon after his triumphant tour, Xiang Yu, now basically lord of the realm, decided he just wanted to grill. He had Ying Bu kill the King of Chu he supposedly served, put himself as King of Western Chu, and divided the rest of the country among his underlings, 18 of them. Among them obviously was Ying Bu, his loyal general, always at his side leading the shock troops, doing the dirty and dangerous work while Xiang Yu stayed at the rear. Ying Bu was made King of Jiujiang, just south of Xiang's own territory. From mutilated prisoner to King, Ying Bu had gone a long way. Good times. Very good times.

But of course it didn't end that way. Everybody in China knows about Xiang Yu, but what they know about Xiang Yu is how dumb he was. First, don't fucking burn the capital, there's good stuff there. Second, once you burn the capital don't fucking go home and retire. What the hell. How is dividing the country randomly in 19 pieces to random dudes who 10 years before were mutilated prisoners working hard labor sentences going to be a stable arrangement. It almost immediately broke down, as Liu Bang, just made King of Han, decided he wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

The rest is history, as Chinese people today are known as Han, so called because of the Han Dynasty, so called because Liu Bang conquered the country as King of Han, a title given to him by Xiang Yu during that weird 19-fold division of the country when he retired home to grill in 206 BC. So yes, that guy won, and Xiang Yu got wrecked, little by little, for a long 4 years. Poor guy didn't see it coming. But he should.

So Liu Bang eventually conquered the whole thing, the 19 statelets. So what happened to Ying Bu? Was he killed defending his little kingdom of Jiujiang? Oh no, this is where it gets interesting. So this is the thing, Liu Bang was no strong, 7 foot chad warrior. He was a rather short, scrawny, cowardly guy. But he was smart, and most importantly, he was both evil and nice, and had exquisite timing on when to be which. Liu Bang famously said that he didn't have any talents, but that he got so far in life (the guy was a village drunkard before he became Emperor of one of the largest empires known to man) because he had good friends. And that's indeed the most important talent in life: how to make useful friends.

Well Ying Bu was a useful friend to have, obviously. One of the best military minds (and bodies) in the world. But at this point (206 BC, Liu Bang attacks Xiang Yu), Ying Bu was not Liu Bang's friend. He was Xiang Yu's friend, the other guy's friend. What's to be done? Well Liu Bang had to turn the guy. Not easy though, Ying Bu had been one Xiang Yu's right hand man for years, accompanying him around in almost every campaign, and even killing the nominal emperor (the erstwhile King of Chu; long story) for him.

But he was now king for his realm, and after a couple years of kingship, Ying Bu had grown a bit lazy. Several times his erstwhile big brother Xiang Yu had asked him to raise troops and help him in his campaigns, but Ying Bu claimed he was sick and refused to go out. For all we know he was actually sick, but Xiang Yu wasn't happy about it, and people who angered Xiang Yu had a tendency to ended up stabbed and thrown in a ditch. At any rate there was a civil war going on and Ying Bu had perfectly good reasons to not commit on either side just yet. The smart play was obviously to let other people fight it out, conserve your strength, and then sweep them both, with a bit of luck maybe pull a Muhammad against Persia and Byzantium.

That was not to happen though, as Liu Bang was just too crafty. He sent an envoy to Ying Bu, telling him Xiang Yu is cringe, everybody hates him, Han is taking him down any day now, might as well join the party now while the going is early and we're feeling generous. We'll give you a bigger patch of land or something. Ying Bu remained uncommitted, reasonably taking his time to think about it. But the Han army was not going to give him that time. On seeing that a Xiang Yu envoy was meeting Ying Bu, Liu Bang's envoy rushed in uninvited, pushed away the guards and just yelled: "Ying Bu is with us now! Why the hell would he send troops to help Xiang Yu!".

Ying Bu was aghast. That fucking Han envoy had slandered him in public in front of the one guy who could and most certainly will kill him if he got suspicious of defection. Xiang Yu didn't joke around. He didn't need proof. He just got angry and killed people all the time.

You can imagine the Han envoy, giggling, wispering at his ear. "Well, if that's the case… you might as well, like, do it. Kill Xiang Yu's envoy, rally your troops, and come join the Han army. Come on, you'll like it there. We'll treat you well."

And so Ying Bu was very much forced to take sides in favor of Liu Bang. He killed Xiang Yu's envoy, left his fief, and run to the Han camp. He was soon made a great general of a big Han army and after the final victory he was made King again of a slightly bigger kingdom. So it all turned alright (well, not in the very end, but that's another story).

But the fact is Ying Bu didn't take sides himself. He was forced to. By an ally, a guy who needed him and treated him well. But he had to be forced to defect. And by forcing Ying Bu to defect, Liu Bang didn't only sow discord and perhaps deprive his enemy of one of his best generals, which is the basic idea of the stratagem. He deprived his enemy of a good general and obtained the general for himself. Genius.

If you still don't get it, I'll elaborate on lesson of this story on the next post.


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  • Plenty of discord being sown to the nth degree. Create the distractions and act in secrecy.

    Personally, I don't trust anyone. And have usually found the one playing the nicest to you is the one to watch. An open enemy is easier to trust.

  • What did Ying Bu do? Do we have evidence that he instructed his envoy to act this way because otherwise it would seem that the envoy is the real MVP here. This (nameless?) envoy risked his head being so brazen and it payed off. You mentioned Japan. Didn't feudal Japan have a political system where the families of the daimyos had to live with the shogun in the capital? So the daimyos might govern/live in their respective provinces for the majority of the year but their wives and children had to stay in the capital. Now that's what I'd call a system that "inspires" great loyalty!

    • Yeah that system (参勤交代) was smart. It ensured 200 years of peace, no mean feat.

      The envoy was smart of course but Liu Bang was known for having smart envoys.

  • Well the current zeitgeist is definitely fragmentation.prog lefties, radical ,muslims, tribal interests - they don't mix well.

    Hell the lgbtqwtf are already at each other throats inside of it. And that rainbow coalition was all about love lol.

    What is lacking however is cohesive idea to united men around. All the isms are dead for any intelligent, capable to attach himself. Religions are dead too, except if you are low iq and want to be led

    Capable men need to unite and carve out a place for themselves. that's how roman empire started

    In current world though... Not sure it will be possible. Technocratic elites wield a lot of power. And capable men seem to be happy to serve them as emasculated soyboys in their corporations, research labs, factories

    John Galt exodus is not happening. And without it power will stay with status quo

    • "capable men seem to be happy to serve them as emasculated soyboys in their corporations, research labs, factories"

      Ying Bu was very happy to be Xiang Yu's vassal too.

  • Spandrell, why do you think Chinese history has such extreme cases of lower-than-dirt nobodies rising up to becoming emperors AND running successful dynasties? (Han Dynasty, Ming Dynasty)

    • Well it's only those two. They were just very lucky and very competent. They had plenty of competition: they just won.

      • Being homeless is a good Dune hellworld, in hard times much more so. Only the best survive.

        When society explicitly discriminates against talent its easy to get drunk and nap by the river until you sense weakness.

      • Still, if it was just a case of luck and competence, we would've seen cases pop up around the world, but to my knowledge no other civilization had them. Even Genghis Khan and Tamerlane came from local powerful clans.

        In the rest of the world, you either have stratified societies where dynasties are stable but it takes 10+ generations to go from peasant to emperor, or unstable societies where you can have nobodies raise up to the top through sheer force of will, but their throne is very unstable and their heirs don't keep it.

        Chinese civilization somehow allowed both things to happen at the same time. Why?

        • Rule by bureaucrats.

          1. Hiring+promotion based exclusively on verbal trickery and regime loyalty as determined by rote memorization and regurgitation of "moral" regime-approved art. Poetry was medieval China's Twitter.

          2. The ability to manifest a distinctive but regime approved style+brand when dispensing your rulings or displaying skill at symbol manipulation. Calligraphy which in China was one of many ways to provide subtext is equivalent to todays poasting style. You were literally hired and promoted based on your posting career.

          3. Eunuchs/non-breeders being preferred by the ruling class for mid level management.

          The aftermath of the Managerial Revolution is different from medieval China only in available technics, the race afflicted with bureaucrats, and outward manifestations.

        • China got rid of its aristocracy once with the Qin conquest and again with the Song bureaucratic reforms. It was really a flat, commoner's society. If there's no aristocrats around then every time the dynasty collapses it's all against all.

          It's really a miracle that the Han was as stable as it was. It took a while to get there though.

    • The history you speak of covers an economy driven by labor-based agriculture. All of the people of developed societies today are divorced from the harsh realities of agricultural production which include, but are not limited to: failed crops after investing both sweat and financial resources to plant a crop, slaughtering livestock and extreme sensitivity to market prices.

      All of the intelligent people were involved in some level of the agricultural economy and it wasn't as economists or quantitative trader-speculators. Thus, new leadership would always come out of the "lower-than-dirt nobodies" as you put it.

      Feel free to disagree, but our modern world has a clear dichotomy with respect to where the high IQ people develop and end up. Corporations tend to select from the pool of high IQ prospects by virtue of the education complex and we hear about many of these people as their gifts are commercially exploited. The military selects from the pool of high IQ prospects that economically starved families and communities produce and we rarely learn anything about these people despite their gifts being exploited by the military.

      All of this is happening against the background of statistically very (today) large samples that we conveniently discard massive quantities of data noise when fixating on the winners. What is happening in western society today is adverse selection to suppress competition among the control freak class and you can guess what will inevitably happen next: an "extreme case of lower-than-dirt nobody" will rise up out of the dirt and crush the western control freak dynasty.

      There are only two ways a dynasty collapses:

      1) A class traitor organizes and galvanizes the "lower-than-dirt nobodies" to destroy his fellow class competition and redistributes their concentration of resources to achieve a new social equilibrium.

      2) A "lower-than-dirt nobody" emerges from the dirty population and destroys the feminized dynasty by virtue of necessity, ability, will, violence and sheer numbers of soldiers and redistributes their resources to achieve a new social equilibrium.

      This is not communism it is just the cycle of wealth concentration and diffusion and is no different than osmosis (financial diffusion) and the entropy are to the hard sciences.

      I think this quote is important to bear in mind as we are all experiencing this process of dynastic collapse and longing for resolution.

      "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security"

      A "long train" does not connote an abusive social dynamic that happened in the brief 20-40 year lifespan of the signers of the Constitution. The founders were in the right place at the right time and set their problem-solving mission to articulating a kingless government. They were necessarily young because who else would have the violent capability to coerce their government structure on a mass of people but the young and virile?

      Everyone is fixated on the forms and norms, but the reality is that monarchs, theocracies and dictatorships all come with their own aristocratic (managerial) class and they all have their own challenges with respect to producing quality successors. You cannot scale beyond a tribe without a managerial class.

      History is a cycle of cultural violence and the Constitution has hit the magical age of three saeculum and the legacy control freaks will lose to a new class of control freaks.

      IIWII, nothing new under the sun.

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