Zhang Liang was from a prominent family that served one of the feudal kingdoms that was eventually toppled by the Qin Dynasty (c. 221-206 BCE). Even after the Zhang family found itself under Qin rule, they still had wealth—Zhang Liang reportedly had the means to fund a staff of 300 servants. Yet, Zhang Liang was too patriotic to appreciate being able to keep his wealth under the new regime. Instead, he decided to spend his remaining family fortune on bankrolling a band of rebels to resist the Qin rulers.
According to the ancient historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Zhang Liang and his band of dissidents tried to assassinate the First Emperor of Qin, Shihuangdi, in 218 BCE. They hunted down the emperor’s carriage train while he was touring the east. The rebels set up an ambush and Zhang Liang gave his strongest recruit an enormous iron bludgeon with which to lead the attack. As the rebels had planned, the emperor’s entourage rolled into the trap. When the time was right, the assassins charged toward the wagons and successfully smashed their way into one of the regal carriages. Luck, however, was not on the side of the rebels that day. They made the unsalvageable mistake of attacking the wrong carriage. Instead of discovering the vulnerable emperor inside, the rebels found only startled attendants. The mistake gave the guards enough time to rally to the defense of their emperor. With their plan foiled, the rebels scattered and went into hiding. Zhang Liang assumed an alias and settled down in Xiapei. While there, he spent much of his time pacing around the local embankments.
According to Sima Qian, Zhang Liang was strolling along one of these embankments when he spotted a quirky old man in crude clothing walking toward him. As the two came into speaking distance, Zhang Liang watched in amazement as the elder took off his shoe and deliberately sent it tumbling down the embankment, where it came to a rest beside the water’s edge. Once the shoe came to a halt, the old man asked the baffled Zhang Liang to fetch the shoe. For a moment, the rebel did not know if he wanted to help the man or punch him. After a moment of deliberation, Zhang Liang climbed down the embankment and retrieved the shoe. When Zhang Liang climbed back up with the footgear, the old man then asked the rebel for a further favor—he wanted help putting the shoe back on his foot. After Zhang Liang helped with the shoe, the old man only laughed and walked off without a word.
The befuddled Zhang Liang watched as the chuckling elder continued on his walk. Yet, eventually the old man began shuffling his way back to the slack-jawed rebel. When he had returned, the old man approvingly said that Zhang Liang had potential and asked for the rebel to meet him at that spot on the embankment at dawn in five days time.
Zhang Liang counted off the days and when the fifth had come, he woke up at dawn and set off for the embankment. When he arrived, he found that the old man was already present and visibly angry. The elder chided his student for being late and told him to come again in five days.
On the appointed day, Zhang Liang woke with the birds and arrived at the embankment just before dawn. Again, the old man was already there and, again, the elder was angry. Disappointed, the old man dismissed Zhang Liang and told him to arrive on time in five days.
When the scheduled meeting was near, Zhang Liang decided that he would take no chances. Therefore, the rebel took only a brief nap for his rest and traveled out to the embankment in the middle of the night. To Zhang Liang’s satisfaction, the old man was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the rebel did not have to wait long before he could make out the old man approaching in the darkness. When the two met, the elder mused out loud that this was indeed the Way. After announcing his approval, the old man held out a book to Zhang Liang and prophesied that with its written wisdom, the rebel would become a successful teacher of kings. After that, the old man wandered off into the darkness and Zhang Liang never saw him again.
Sima Qian wrote that the book given to Zhang Liang was called The Grand Duke’s Art of War. As for the old man, Sima Qian did not presume to know the identity of the sage, but he did not rule out the possibility of a supernatural being. Other commentators on the story linked the old man to the semi-mythical Daoist figure, Huang Shigong.
According to Sima Qian, The Grand Duke’s Art of War was priceless for Zhang Liang during the civil wars that brought about the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty. When widespread rebellions sprung up against the Qin Dynastic rule in 209 BCE, Zhang Liang joined the rebels and aligned himself with Liu Bang, the king of Han, and King Cheng, who ruled Zhang Liang’s ancestral homeland. When a rival warlord murdered King Cheng, Zhang Liang put his full support behind Liu Bang, who would found the Han Dynasty of China and bring the fractured Chinese kingdoms under his control by 202 BCE.
Zhang Liang was said to have instructed Liu Bang in the wisdom of The Grand Duke’s Art of War and also tutored Liu Bang’s successor, Emperor Hui. Although Zhang Liang became too sick to fight during Liu Bang’s rise to power, he played a vital role in the background as a master strategist for the Han forces. For his contributions, Zhang Liang was given the title of marquis.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Zhang Liang and Huang Shigong, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.