General Zhou Yu Flogging Huang Gai

周瑜打黄盖 (苦肉计)

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There are thirty-six well-known stratagems (三十六计) that the Chinese politicians, strategists, and businessmen have been using for millennia. One of them is the ‘ruse of inflicting pain on oneself or one’s comrades to gain the enemy’s trust’. The scene depicted here is its most famous illustration.

Zhou Yu (周瑜) was a brilliant strategist and a fine military figure in Chinese history and a major protagonist in the 14th-century Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). During the Battle of Red Cliff (赤壁之战), he successfully implemented this stratagem with the collaboration of his junior general Huang Gai (黄盖) by flogging him severely in public. As a result, his enemy, Warlord Cao Cao (曹操), fell into Zhou’s trap. Cao Cao’s gigantic ‘Armada’ fleet was burnt completely, ignited by Huang Gai’s fuel-filled boat pretending to surrender to Cao.

story scene description and literature research by Dr Yibin Ni 


Fig 1: porcelain round covered box with underglaze blue decoration, Chongzhen period (1628–44), Ming dynasty, courtesy of China Guardian Auctions, 29 May 2022, No. 60, Lot 4065

Fig 2: coloured fresco on the door way of the Long Corridor of the Summer Palace, Beijing, Republic Period (1911–49)

Fig 3: album leaf from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, ink and colour on paper, Jin Xiezhong 金协中 (1898–1961)

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