A popular idiom, the trick of “passing off fish eyes as pearls,” in a military context refers to, respectively, false and actual manoeuvres. First, the commander offers the enemy some bait, which can be a body of weak troops, poorly guarded provision carts, or a herd of oxen or horses that seem to be unprotected. At the prospect of sure gain the enemy will advance to swallow the bait. In this way the able commander has gained initiative by maneuvering the enemy of his own accord and so the victory is assured even before the battle is fought.
Give profit to the enemy to lure it. In warfare, the so-called baiting does not refer to poisoning the enemy’s food. Instead, any force used to tempt the enemy with the prospect of gain is called a bait army.
If, during an engagement, the enemy troops scatter oxen and horses, abandon property or jettison supplies, we must not seize them, for that would lead inevitably to our defeat. The principal goes, “do not swallow the bait army.”
When the enemy comes from far to mount a challenge it aims to entice you to advance. Abandon goods to throw the enemy into disorder, abandon troops to entice it, and abandon fortresses and land to encourage its arrogance. When it is expedient to apply abandonment, success can hardly be won with too much attachment.
One who is good at manoeuvring the enemy makes the move so that the enemy must make a corresponding move, offers bait so that the enemy must swallow it, or lures the enemy with the prospect of gain and waits for it with one’s main force.
Cao Cao’ s note: entice the enemy with profit , lead it away from its fortress, assume a vantage point, and attack when the enemy is weak and lacking in support.
(Strategy Seventeen in Art of War)
This excerpt from the Three Kingdoms will demonstrate this principle:
Zhuge Liang vs Sima Yi
Zhuge Liang: The camps remain the same, and the soldiers are unchanged. But with one glance, I can tell there is a new Grand Commander.
Wei Yan: We already have Chenchang in our hands. With the supply lines open, what can Sima Yi do?
Zhuge Liang: You mustn’t think like that. Sima Yi knows the art of war well and is a master of strategy. He is my arch-nemesis.
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, pardon me for my poor understanding, but I really can’t tell how Sima Yi is a master of strategy. In the last northern campaign, your “empty city ruse” scared the wits out of him!
Zhuge Liang: Let me tell you about Sima Yi’s mastery of strategy. Sima Yi does not excel in attacking, but in defending. He is the best defense strategist in the realm. As for us, we detest their deep ditches, tall ramparts and their other defensive tactics, because time is not on our side, but on their side. Sima Yi hopes that we will attack each and every city by force. At this rate, we won’t arrive at Louyang for another 50 years. Now you should understand that defense is Sima Yi’s strategy. Though it may seem like a foolish move, it’s actually quite wise.
Wei Yan: I understand now. Your Excellency, what is your plan?
Zhuge Liang: If we can’t get rid of Sima Yi, we will never take the Central Plains. We need to lure Sima Yi out and engage him in a decisive battle. Jiang Wei, how is the enemy’s defense in the cities of of Longxi?
Jiang Wei: I have investigated that among the 15 cities of Longxi, Wudu and Yingping’s defenses are the weakest.
Zhuge Liang: Wei Yan, can you take down Wudu and Yingping?
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, there is no difficulty in capturing two small cities.
Zhuge Liang: Good. However it’s not as simple as just attacking the cities. You know what to do right?
Wei Yan: I do. First besiege without attacking, and then attack without occupying the city. Wait until Wei’s reinforcement’s come.
Sima Yi: Have you investigated the camp thoroughly? Does Shu really only have 3,000 men?
Reporting Scout: I’ve seen them very clearly. Shu troops are very few indeed. They might not even amount to 3, 000.
Sima Yi: Have you investigated the area surrounding the city?
Reporting scout: The Mountains surrounding the city have been investigated, and there are no hidden enemy troops.
Sima Yi: You may leave.
Sima Yi (addressing Generals next): Since I’ve just assumed command, I am eager to report victory to the Court. Generals, who among you is willing to bring me honor by destroying the Shu army at Wudu?
General Sun Li: I will go.
Sima Yi: Good Sun Li, you are truly courageous general. I will give you 3,000 men. Here are the conditions- If you seize Wudu, you will be granted riches and noble rank. If you do not, don’t return.
General Sun Li: Yes sir!
Sima Yi: All of you may leave, except Guo Huai.
Guo Huai; do this task for me, but do not let the other generals know. Prepare 3, 000 coffins. Sun Li will not be returning. I don’t want their corpses exposed in the wild. Wudu is at the flank of our camp. How would Shu dare to attack the city with only 3, 000 troops? Zhuge Liang is trying to lure me out for an ambush.
Zhang He: If you already knew that Sun Li wouldn’t succeed, why did you let him go?
Sima Yi: I have no choice. If I don’t send reinforcements and Wudu falls, the troops in the other cities will think I won’t save them when they are besieged. They will falter before the battle even begins, and thus all the neighboring cities will fall. If that comes to be, how will the main camp survive? Sun Li is loyal and brave. Just as mentioned sending reinforcements to Wudu, he eagerly volunteered.
Sima Yi: Though I could not have explained things openly, the thought that such a courageous general should not return, I…my heart is racked with pain!
Guo Huai: Grand Commander, please give me another 3,000 men. I’ll go and support Sun Li’s troops. I’m sure I can save him.
Sima Yi: Guo Huai , do you really dare to brave this danger?
Guo Huai: At worst, it’ll just be another 3, 000 coffins. As a general, I don’t fear death.
Sima Yi: Allow me to thank you. Go with peace of mind. I won’t let you die.
Guo Huai: Thank you, Grand Commander.
Scout meeting the first contingent: General, Wudu is just 10 miles ahead. Shu troops are attacking the city.
Sun Li: Scout again. Then addressing the army, Brothers! The time has come for us to demonstrate our loyalty and our might! Follow me!
The way is blocked.
Wei Yan: Listen up, I’m Wei Yan. The Prime Minister has instructed me to wait here for you. You petty scoundrels are not my match. Dismount and surrender now.
Sun Li: Wei Yan, I Sun Li specialize in beheading generals! Your life is mine!
Wei Yan: Shoot them.
(The second reinforcements arrive just in time.)
Guo Huai: General Sun Li! Grand Commander has sent me to save you! Hurry, follow me!
Wei Yan: The enemy has sent reinforcements! Do not let the enemy generals flee! Charge!
Guo Huai: General Sun, I’ll bring up the rear!
Sun Li: General Guo, you came just in time! Fight your way out with me! Charge !
(Sometime later, Wei Yan reporting back to Zhuge Liang)
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, the Wei troops have been routed.
Zhuge Liang: How many enemy troops did you kill?
Wei Yan: The Wei general, Sun Li , led 3,000 to rescue Wudu. I killed more than 2,000 of them. I was about to kill Sun Li, but unexpectedly, Vice Commander Guo Huai broke through and rescued him. I didn’t expect there to be another regiment behind the reinforcements.
Zhuge Liang: Sima Yi guessed my intentions.
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, why do you say that?
Zhuge Liang: I had you besiege Wudu and Yinping in order to attack the reinforcements. A rookie general would have seen right through such a simple ruse. How would Sima Yi be unable to guess my intentions? If he had chosen to abandon the cities, the Wei troops in the neighbouring cities would lose all hope when we attack them. They might even surrender the cities to us.
Jiang Wei: However, Sima Yi didn’t abandon them. He sent men to their rescue.
Zhuge Liang: He sent that boor, Sun Li , to rescue Wudu, and then sent the Vice Commander to rescue Sun Li. The first rescue was clearly a ruse, a show for the Wei troops defending the cities. The second one was the real rescue. But Sima Yi would never lead the reinforcements personally. We need to lure Sima Yi out and engage him in a decisive battle.
Jiang Wei: That cunning fox, Sima Yi …
Zhuge Liang: We can’t lure him out without attractive bait.
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, who should we send as bait?
Zhuge Liang: Me. Sima Yi dreams of taking my head.
Wei Yan, return to camp and prepare the troops for battle. Jiang Wei, tomorrow morning send 5,000 men with me to go reassure people of Wudu.
Jiang Wei: Your Excellency, it’s too dangerous.
Wei Yan: Your Excellency, if Sima Yi sends all his troops against us, I will not be able to rescue you in time.
Zhuge Liang: I Understand. Life and death are matters of fate. Return to camp and get ready.
(Back at Sima Yi’s command centre)
Spy: Grand Commander, Zhuge Liang is leading his troops towards Wudu.
Sima Yi: Drag this man away and execute him.
Spy: Grand commander, why do you want to kill me?
Sima Yi: Because you have reported false information. I truly despise liars.
Spy: Grand Commander, I am not lying! I saw Zhuge Liang with my own eyes!
Sima YI: How tall is Zhuge Liang? What was he wearing? Was he riding a horse or in a cart? Who were his guards? How many troops were with him? No hesitating. Reply at once.
Spy: Zhuge Liang had a feathered fan and silk cap. He sat in a four-wheeled cart, so I could not tell his height. He was guarded by Jiang Wei, who is just over six spans tall. They had around 5, 000 men with them. I followed them for more than 20 miles and saw Zhuge Liang enter the city.
Sima Yi: Indeed, you’re not a liar. On the contrary, you are bold and meticulous. I promote you to colonel and reward you with 3, 000 cash.
Spy: Thank you, Grand Commander! Thank you, sir!
Guo Huai: Grand Commander, can this be true? Zhuge Liang left his main camp for Wudu?
Sima Yi: I’ve studied Zhuge Liang for several years. This man has a habit. He has personally inspected every city, parapet and post that has capitulated to Shu, in order to comfort the officials and the people. I also have heard that Zhuge Liang prefers to handle these matters personally.
Zhang He: Grand Commander, this is an excellent opportunity to kill Zhuge Liang. Wudu is a small city that’s easy to attack but difficult to defend. I’ll lead 20,000 elite troops there at once. By dawn, I should arrive at Wudu. Before the end of the day, I will have either killed or captured Zhuge Liang.
Sima Yi: Though Wudu is a small city, it is surrounded by mountains, even if tens of thousands of soldiers were to hide there, they would be undetectable. Don’t forget, Wei Yan set an ambush there in the past.
Zhang He: Grand Commander, you are absolutely correct. Last time, Zhuge Liang used Wudu as bait. This time, he himself is the bait.
Sima Yi: Zhuge Liang is so bold. How impressive. How impressive… If I don’t take his bait, then Zhuge Liang will be like the man who picks up a rock to crush his own foot- Overly brilliant men are often victims of their own cleverness.
Zhang He: Instead of going after Zhuge Liang, we will attack them from behind- Attack the Shu camps directly!
Sima Yi: General, your experience in the battlefield shows. You see what truly matters right away. Their supplies and provisions are in the main camp. That is their lifeline. If we use this opportunity to attack and burn the main camp, Zhuge Liang’s army will crumble before us.
Zhang He: Grand Commander, it’s my turn to lead this attack. I volunteer to lead 20,000 elite troops to attack the Shu camp.
Sima Yi: General, you have served Wei for three generations. Your fame is well-known already. Let someone younger lead this battle.
Zhang He: I haven’t gone to battle for a long time. My sword is rattling with battlelust in its case, and my entire body is itching for a fight. I must be part of this battle!
Sima Yi: Please supervise this battle then. You don’t need to kill the enemies personally.
Zhang He: Attack the camp!
We’ve been tricked! Retreat quickly!
Zhang Bao: Charge ! Exterminate the enemy! Do not let their commanding general escape!
Zhang He: Brothers, we’ll fight our way out!
Zhang Bao: I’m General Zhang Bao! You are surrounded! Dismount and surrender!
Zhang He: Coward! Don’t you know that I am Zhang He?
Not even your father, Zhang Fei, was a match for me!
Guo Huai: General, there are too many enemies! We can’t breatk through!
Zhang He: Charge that way! Hurry!
(Zhuge Liang observing the situation from far, asks)
Zhuge Liang: Who is fighting against Zhang Bao?
Jiang Wei: Zhang He.
Zhuge Liang: That explains it. Even 20 years ago, he was already one of Cao Cao’s top commanders. His bravery today is no less that it was then.
Jiang Wei: If that man is not killed, he’ll be a thorn in our flesh. Let me capture him.
Zhuge Liang: The road towards Jiange is just ahead, and is flanked by steep cliffs.
Zhuge Liang: Take 2,000 archers and set up an ambush. I’ll have Wei Yan leave an opening and lure Zhang He towards Jiange. Remember, do not let him get out alive
Zhang He: What place is this? It’s so gloomy.
Jiang Wei: Zhang He! Considering your old age, I will ask you this: Will you surrender or not?
Zhang He growls in defiance.
Jiang Wei: Shoot them.
Sima Yi: I’ve spent so many years of my life fishing that I consider myself an angling master. Yet, I’ve taken Zhuge Liang’s bait.
Sima Yi: But who in the world would set a hook like this?
The bait is at Wudu, but the hook is in their camp!
Guo Huai: There were 37 arrows found in the body of General Zhang He!
Sima Yi: Why are you crying? Though General Zhang He fell in battle, the morale of our troops has been resurrected. Did you know? Of the 20,000 elite troops by General Zhang He, not one fled from the enemy. This is our victory! With such strong resolve in our rank the Shu army will certainly be defeated! Sima Zhao; Slaughter my horse and use its hide to wrap General Zhang He’s body! I will personally lead the whole army to send him off one last time!