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-by Ernie Diaz
It’s rare in the West that a place is famous solely for one person. None of Brooklyn’s promotional literature proclaims the birthplace of Mike Tyson. The city of Nottingham finds it gauche to crow over Robin Hood as its claim to fame. True, there is Stratford-on-Avon, but Shagsper the grain merchant didn’t even write those plays, and the billing is all in the interest of a billion-dollar tourist industry.
The village of Zhuge Liang represented itself as such long before the tourists started coming. As skilled in battle as Tyson, wily in the face of the enemy as Hood, Zhuge Liang has won the undying admiration of Chinese since the Britons were supplanting Picts, albeit some of his writings are as questionably his as “the Bard’s.”
But most of all, Zhuge Liang is lauded for his out-of the box thinking. Yes, such thinking is a trait most prized in the world’s oldest civilization, despite what generations of sodden expats will tell you. Out-of-the-box thinking is man’s greatest resource against the cruel realities of nature, and none had the gift like Zhuge Liang.
King Liu Bei had a special mission for Zhuge Liang, his most trusted advisor. If legendary general Cao Cao crossed the Yangtze, he could sweep the land south, depose Liu Bei, and reunite the Eastern Han empire. You’d think Liu Bei’s commander on the south bank would welcome Zhuge Liang for his unparalleled strategic insight. But the commander was the jealous type, and set for Zhuge Liang a mundane yet impossible task, to make a hundred thousand arrows in ten days. Zhuge Liang promised he would need only three.
He spent the time stocking twenty boats with straw dummies in soldier’s garb. On the morning of the third day, in the Yangtze’s predictable early morning fog, he launched his fleet toward the enemy’s camp with a skeleton crew, a few hands extra to beat war drums. Cao Cao’s men rushed the bank in a panic, firing volley after volley of arrows at the boats that circled in the fog, only to retreat. Liu Bei’s commander had his arrows and more to spare, and Zhuge Liang had one more feather in his war-bonnet.
The descendants of Zhuge Liang keep track of themselves almost as zealously as those of Confucius. Of some 16,000 traceable descendants, a quarter reside in Zhejiang’s Lanxi, the village of Zhuge Liang. In fact, he was neither born nor resided there. The village was founded in 1340 by his 27th generation direct descendant, Zhuge Dashi, master geomancer, who picked the spot, laid the foundations, and oversaw construction.
In physical and spiritual aspect, however, the place may as well have been built by the original Zhuge. After all, Zhuge Liang based all of his wisdom on the bagua, the eight trigrams, the sixty-four hexagrams, by which both the minds of men and the will of heaven can be read. A pond at the center of Lanxi village symbolizes the yin-yang center of the bagua, from which radiate eight central lanes that stretch out and up to eight encircling hills.
The sun smiles on such harmony, so that Lanxi village, with its white walls and black roofs, easy pace and sunny disposition, is often compared to Greece, pre-EU chaos. The many elders, all the more long-lived for their dedication to preserving Zhuge Liang’s spirit, roam sedately down the street, and the youngsters still wash their clothes in the pond. Simplicity reigns in Lanxi, yet there is no hint of want. This truly smacks of the spirit of Zhuge Liang. Not for nothing was he known as The Crouching Dragon, a renowned master without the slightest interest in gadding about convincing people of such. Emperor-to-be Liu Bei himself had to come to Zhuge Liang’s countryside remove, hat in hand, to humbly request the man leave his rural content for the majesty of the court.
Naturally, not all who sought Zhuge Liang were friends and admirers. For those foolish enough to chase him, Zhuge Liang prepared supernatural traps. In the battles that presaged the Three Kingdoms, Lu Xun pursued Zhuge Liang to an area outside Chongqing. Scouts reported the area deserted, apart from some scattered piles of rocks. Baffled, Lu Xun consulted a local, who reported that the entire area possessed strange qi since Zhuge Liang had arranged the piles.
Superstitious times though they were, Lu Xun had come too far to be scared away by stones. He personally led a few men along the path between the rock piles, and was soon convinced that Zhuge Liang was simply trying to play on the gullible. As he turned to leave, the sky became dark, and the river adjacent began roaring with waves like an angry army. Lu Xun hurried to lead his men back to the camp, only to find that one pile of rocks looked just like the other they had passed, that the path had turned circular, that they were truly trapped.
Only when Lu Xun despaired did an old man appear to lead them out – Zhuge Liang’s father-in-law. He explained to Lu Xun that the piles had been built according to the bagua, and had been set for the day an Wu general like Lu Xun would come looking for trouble. Realizing the hopeless gap between his and Zhuge Liang’s intellect, Lu Xun called off the chase.
Today, visitors to Lanxi who fail to pay attention will find themselves disoriented, as though in a maze. Villagers will tell you that any who wish harm will find themselves enervated and bamboozled by Lanxi’s bagua design. Perhaps this is why the Ming and Qing architecture has survived so much turmoil not spared nearby Hangzhou. More likely it is the fact that the village models Zhuge Liang’s stratagem to “slough off the cicada’s golden shell”, to mask their prosperity in content with simplicity and obscurity. May the world at large be yet deceived a little while longer.