Yao Xueyin [ 姚雪垠]’s account of the collapse of an incompetent regime (the Ming dynasty) beset by both internal rebellion (provoked by the regime’s incompetence) and foreign invasion (invited by the regime’s declining effectiveness) is perhaps the best example of 20th century Chinese historical fiction. While the leaders argued over whether to defeat the rebels first or protect the country from invasion first, massive state armies tried to surround and overwhelm fast-moving rebel cavalry.
At the southern entrance to Tongguan Pass, Shaanxi Province Inspector General Sun Chuanting laid out a tripartite ambush to intercept Li Zicheng. By means of a vigorous attack, the peasant army had managed to flee in disorder from the first phase of the ambush, the only result being the rising exhaustion of the peasant army’s power, a result the experienced soldier Sun Chuanting had anticipated. He calculated that if Li Zicheng had pulled an escape route out of his hat by approaching the clash with absolute determination, the terrain of the first ambush also not being sufficiently favorable, naturally it would be hard in the future to surround and destroy Li Zicheng. The rule of war having always been, “Pull it off the first time, fall back the second time, and fail the third,”he believed that having undergone a big battle in the morning, not to mention continuing troops movements thereafter, Li Zicheng’s morale would already have reached the “fall back the second time”point, so he deployed even more forces for the second phase and took personal command of the battle. As for the third phase, he only allocated minimal forces in preparation for attacking scattered peasant troops. [My translation.]
Li did indeed escape from the first trap but was caught in the second trap and, in a dramatic battlefield negotiation with Sun Chuanting—each leader surrounded by his own bodyguard and yelling at the top of his lungs with both armies listening, offered—in the novel, at least—to join forces against the invading Manchus. Li undiplomatically portrayed himself as finding “unbearable”the Manchu intrusion through the Great Wall and surrounding of Beijing:
Now the Tartars have come through the Great Wall, surrounded Beijing, and come deep into the suburbs. [My translation.]
It will come as no surprise to any observer of modern politics that the regime general instantly became infuriated, interrupted Li Zicheng (who was engrossed in enumerating the conditions for his cooperation [supplies for his army, respectful treatment, etc.]), and ordered the total destruction of the rebels.
Whether or not this conversation in fact ever occurred, it underscores the fatal hubris of officials who prefer gambling their country’s freedom to sharing power with the people. No wonder Mao liked this novel, though he may have come to have second thoughts later in his career…