Humble to the End
Humble to the End
Without Zhang Liang and his Taoist training,
there may have been no Han dynasty
Zhang Liang, strategist-sage of China, helped found and settle the Han dynasty (206BCE – 220AD), which ruled for 400 years and with whose name Chinese people now identify their ethnicity. The structures of governance and values laid down by the Han dynasty created a foundation for the next 2,000 years of Chinese civilization.
In ancient China, every strategist served under a lord. For decades, Zhang loyally served Liu Bang, general, great leader and first Emperor of the Han. Zhang’s family history motivated him. Both his grandfather and father served as prime ministers to the state of Han (403 BCE – 230 BCE). The state of Han gradually declined, however, and was annexed by the state of Qin during Zhang’s lifetime, a period of China’s history known as “The Era of Warring States.” Zhang devoted his life to revenge.
His first attempt failed: an effort to assassinate Qin Shi Huang, First Emperor of Qin. Zhang escaped and became a wanted fugitive. Legend has it that during this phase of his life, while crossing a bridge one day, Zhang encountered an old man. The elder took off one of his shoes and tossed it off the bridge saying “Boy, go and fetch my shoe!” Zhang, surprised at the request, went and picked up the shoe. As Zhang returned, the ancient extended his foot and demanded that Zhang put the shoe back on. Zhang controlled his temper and complied. The man walked away laughing.
While Zhang was still trying to make sense of the encounter, the old man returned and told him that they would meet again at the bridge at dawn in five days. Zhang agreed. He came at dawn on the fifth day but the old man was already there. The senior sent Zhang away. Five days later, and again: Zhang arrived, a little earlier, but the old man was there before him and dismissed Zhang. On the third occasion, Zhang arrived at midnight and stood, waiting.
Impressed at Zhang’s perseverance, the old man introduced himself. He was Huang Shigong, one of four legendary wise men who possessed insight into the workings of man and the universe. He taught Zhang the Art of War by Taigong, a fabled text of internal discipline and strategy that is thought to have been passed down for generations.
“When it comes to devising a strategy in an army camp to win a battle 1,000 miles away, I am no match for Zhang Liang,” General Liu Bang once proclaimed. The general’s words echoed through centuries and are still used today. “Devising a strategy while in camp to win a far-off battle” even describes developing a formidable business plan while at the office.
One of the key stages in Zhang’s life came after the collapse of the Qin dynasty. Several warlords sought to seize control of China and establish a new dynasty: each engaged in limited warfare and political intrigue against its neighbors. Amid the tension, Liu Bang’s primary goal was simply to not excite the wrath of the predominant warlord at the time, Xiang Yu of Chu. During the escalation of hostilities, Liu Bang laid siege to the city of Xianyang, the capital of Qin in the hinterlands of the central Shaanxi planes—Zhang made sure that Liu Bang’s army did not loot Qin treasures and treated its people kindly. Xiang Yu was lulled into believing that Liu Bang was a mild and innocuous chief. It worked; Xiang Yu’s gaze remained on other events.
On another occasion, Zhang Liang headed off the suggestion of a different chief advisor that Liu Bang restore power to the royal families of the last six states annexed by Qin. It was a tempting move and seemed to bring a short term advantage, but Zhang Liang, upon getting wind of the idea, argued forcefully against it: if the monarchs were restored, the generals following Liu would return home to serve them instead. But those warriors were needed if Liu was to wage effective battle against Xiang Yu. When Liu heard Zhang’s wisdom, he could not finish his meal and headed off the reinstatement that very instant. Short term solutions were unwise, Zhang cautioned, and history proved that he was right. Eventually, full-scale war erupted between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. With a complete army, Liu Bang of Han was victorious.
A painting that sits above one of the long corridors in the Summer Palace, a historic imperial building from the Qing dynasty, telling the story of young Zhang Liang with Huang Shigong. Huang, an old Taoist, threw his shoes off the bridge and told Zhang Liang to go fetch them. Later, Huang passed on his Taoist wisdom to Zhang Liang, allowing him to help pave the way for the founding of the Han dynasty.
After guiding Liu Bang to victory over Xiang Yu—a process which inspired some of the richest historical episodes in China, memorialized in poetry, song, opera, and art— Zhang remained as a trusted advisor to the court.
But once the empire was securely established, Zhang became a recluse and returned to Taoist practice, studying mystical texts in the mountains and meditating daily. It is said that years later, Zhang’s tomb was raided and those who entered saw a stone pillow that suddenly turned into light and disappeared like a shooting star. His body was gone.