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KANGXI PERIOD (1661-1722)


Height: 18 ½ inches



Christie's Hong Kong, 29th April 2002, lot 622



The Empty Fort Strategem, Kong Cheng Ji

"When the enemy is superior in numbers and your situation  is such that you expect to be overrun at any moment, then drop all pretense of military preparedness, act calmly and taunt the enemy, so that the enemy will think you have a huge ambush hidden for them. It works best by acting calm and at ease when your enemy expects you to be tense. This ploy is only successful if in most cases you do have a powerful hidden force and only sparsely use the empty fort strategy.” From ‘The Thirty-Six Strategems’, trans. Stefan H. Verstappen, The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China,San Francisco, 1999, ch. 6.

The present scene, taken from the famous Ming dynasty novel Sanguo Zhi  'The Romance of  the Three Kingdoms', is often cited as one of  the very best and most effective examples of strategic military deception. This pseudo-historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, recounts the attempted reunification of the country following the collapse of the Eastern Han dynasty. The brilliant military strategist, Zhuge Liang, knowing his troops to be badly outnumbered, avoids conflict using an unexpected ploy. He opens the city gates in a welcoming gesture and, comfortably seated, plays on a qin. This display of composure and confidence so rattles the opposing general Sima Yi that he turns his troops around and retreats. Zhuge Liang, having carefully considered the options, made a desperate gambit and it paid off handsomely.  An equilibrium strategy, derived from courage and creativity that illustrates the advantages of deception for strategic advancement.

The upper section of the vase is brilliantly painted with another scene from theSanguo Zhi involving yet another deception strategy. Cao Cao, the ruler of the State of Wei, successfully escapes from his enemy, Ma Chao by disguising himself with change of robe and shaving his beard. Once again, appearances are deceiving. 

Themes of a kingdom divided and of conquest strategy would have had a wide appeal. The Manchus in particular gravitated to martial subject matter. In fact, the first commissioned translation of the novel into Manchu was in 1650 with reprints in 1721 and 1767; and an illustrated version in 1769.  For further discussion, see Nicholas Pearce and Jason Steuber, Original Intentions, Gainesville, Florida, 2012, pp. 146-147.



Text and images on this page appear courtesy of ​

Sotheby's New York and are excerpted from:

Sotheby's New York. Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection. March 14, 2014, p. 46. [exhibition catalog].

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