I actually like the character across various Three Kingdoms media (well, maybe not those iterations in extremely loose series such as Ikki Tousen – I don’t even want to remember that title…). Especially because he’s usually portrayed as that really exceptional and virtuous strategist among the cast (not that I’m implying that such a depiction is historically accurate or anything, and I’m not really pleased about how the other personalities have been downgraded just to make Kongming look superior, but I’m saying that I appreciate the presence of benevolent and wise characters).
But what fascinates (and frustrates) me about the ‘version’ of him in The Ravages of Time is that he shows up several times, yet hides a significant portion of his intellectual prowess. To be fair his moments of glory (as prime minister of Shu-Han and nemesis of Sima Yi in the five northern campaigns) are still pretty far off, and more importantly this helps preserve a sense of mystery/hype and moreover stays true to the meaning of his moniker.
I shall not dwell too much on what he has done so far. Instead, my plan is to give attention to how Zhuge Liang is constantly presented as this sketchy guy with concealed abilities, and shrouded in various sorts of rumors and allegations. Interestingly, this parallels Sima Yi’s own reputation in Ravages as this untrustworthy but indispensable merchant who one approaches with much caution (albeit with the twist that whereas we readers get unprecedented access to whatever it is that Sima Yi is up to, in the case of Zhuge Liang one barely gets a glimpse of how he plots and manipulates things).
- Zhuge Liang’s interventions and stratagems so far tend to be low-key, compared to the elaborate setups used by the likes of Guo Jia and Yuan Fang. That may partly be due to the lack of manpower or firepower on the part of his forces, but it also goes to show the extent of his meticulous shady opportunism (the composer of Ravages highlights this deflated interpretation of Zhuge Liang’s supposed brilliance in an earlier work, Unhuman). Of course, one consequence of this is that the other strategists and tacticians get to have their moments of glory, and yet this approach also sustains the already-established rumors about (and expectations on) him.
- Not only did Zhuge Liang make an early appearance (to be fair, his classmates appeared early as well, and all except the Eighth Genius have been unmasked ahead of him), but he also shows up in various scenes as an observer or a side player. Moreover, whereas the Eighth Genius makes an even rarer appearance and is still wearing the full outfit, Zhuge Liang’s partial mode of concealment (the usual garb albeit without the hat, thus rendering his eyebrows visible) prior to his eventual unmasking – along with the statements that other characters have made about him – makes him identifiable as ‘that famous hidden dragon’ as opposed to ‘some unknown and unseen person’.
- Perhaps the biggest clue one has about Zhuge Liang’s mode of proceeding can be found in what Sima Hui has to say concerning his ability to win any contest he joins (and what Guo Jia has to say regarding his willingness to join the fray only when victory is certain). A simple interpretation would be that he chooses his battles well, but another way of looking at it would be that he rigs the playing field and plants special agents long in advance (while maintaining the facade of inactivity) in order to ensure victory when he finally steps in. This neatly explains the lack of extravagance in his moves, as well as the remarks made by Yuan Fang and Sima Yi about his ‘fatigue’.