This translation is based on an essay found on many Chinese 3 Kingdoms sites. Unfortunately I couldn’t track down the name of the original author. The characters and events in this essay are based on historical records, not based on the novel. Read on to find out why it’s a popular little piece on characters from the 3 Kingdoms period.
Liu Bei once said that winning Zhuge Liang’s service was like a “fish winning his water.” It was an emperor-minister relationship that’s been the envy of hundreds of later generations.
The three visits to the straw cottage has to be our best-known legend. But if you think getting Zhuge Liang was Liu Bei’s most arduous recruiting task, you’d be wrong.
There was another super genius who caused Liu Bei a lot more bother; Liu Bei pursued him all across Jingzhou and Yizhou, and almost as far as Jiaozhi (Vietnam today);in this process, Liu Bei was sometimes so elated he was ready to throw a banquet, but other times frustrated to the verge of hacking this guy to pieces.
When Liu Bei obtained Zhuge Liang, he could sleep with him as much as he wanted (this was more like sleep-overs so they could chat into the night — don’t let your mind drift!). The guy we’re talking about, however, remained frosty even when he worked in the Shu camp, as if all the people in Shu owed him money.
He was the Super Adorable Liu Ba.
This guy had talents that surpassed even Zhuge Liang’s — Zhuge Liang himself admitted as much, and was in fact Liu Ba’s most enthusiastic recruiter. In order to get this guy, the whole cast from Liu Bei’s camp was mobilized.
So who the heck was this hard-to-get Liu Ba?
Liu Ba, style named Ziche, was from a well-established family in Jingzhou. He was known for his talents even in youth. But as soon as he was famous for anything, he was famous for “despising Liu Bei.”. Yet he seemed destined to be connected to Liu Bei. No matter how hard he tried to skitter out of the way, he always ran smack into Bei.
When Ba was 18, he worked as a clerk in Jingzhou’s official records department. It was at the time when Liu Bei came to Jingzhou to join forces with Liu Biao.
We do not know when Liu Ba started to dislike Liu Bei. What we do know is that during this time Ba was already quite famous. Liu Bei told Liu Biao’s nephew Zhou Wuyi to study with Ba. But when Ba learned that the recommendation came from Liu Bei, he declined with gusto, claiming that he didn’t deserve Bei’s high opinion. Of course this might only be proof of his modesty, not of his distaste for Liu Bei. But soon after, Liu Bei found out that the latter was indeed the case.
Before the battle of the Red Cliffs, Liu Bei’s army was soundly beaten by Cao Cao, and Bei was on the run. All the aristocrats in Jingzhou decided to flee with Liu Bei, except for Liu Ba, who went north to join Cao Cao, thus proving that he preferred betraying the Han dynasty to following Liu Bei.
Cao Cao couldn’t believe his luck, and quickly named Liu Ba as his assistant. Later on Cao Cao gave Ba the cushy assignment of claiming the cities of Changsha and Lingling. This would have been a most desirable assignment, but Liu Ba said: “I’m not going.” Cao Cao found this totally bewildering– I’m giving you the best jobs, and you don’t want them? So of course he wanted a reason, and got this pouty response from Liu Ba: “Liu Bei is in Jingzhou. I don’t want to go anywhere near there!” Changsha and Lingling were located just south of Jingzhou.
Cao Cao laughed and said: “No worries! I’ll send armies to protect you if you encounter Liu Bei.”
“Since you say so, I’ll go.” With this promise from Cao Cao, Liu Ba took off on his mission.
Well, he was truly unlucky. In the battle of Red Cliffs Cao Cao suffered his biggest defeat. And the strategy Zhuge Liang devised for Liu Bei was to go grab Changsha and Lingling right after that.
So when Liu Bei took over Lingling, he was ecstatic to hear that Liu Ba was there. Still refusing to take Ba’s earlier hints, Liu Bei deluded himself into believing that Liu Ba must have been captured by Cao Cao the last time, which would explain perfectly why he didn’t follow Bei down south. So he went eagerly to visit Liu Ba, only to find that Ba had fled once again, far far away, all the way to Jiaozhi (Vietnam).
No matter how dense Liu Bei wanted to be, he finally realized that Ba really didn’t want anything to do with him. Now, it is true that brilliant people can be a bit haughty and reluctant to engage with the hoi polloi, and Bei was used to chasing talent relentlessly. However, even though Zhuge Liang tried to hide during the three-visits, at least he didn’t run away! (Liang: I didn’t have enough time to run – he caught me snoozing.) Liu Bei’s feelings were hurt.
If Liu Bei had known just how much Liu Ba despised him, he would have felt even worse. Fleeing to Vietnam, to the far reaches of the known world, didn’t make Ba feel safe enough. To prevent Liu Bei from finding him through other connections, Liu Ba went so far as to change his name to Zhang.
Fate liked to play cruel jokes on Liu Ba. He worked in Jiaozhi for Governor Shi Xie, under his new name Zhang. While Shi Xie was pro-Wu, he was one of the few high-level officials in the three kingdoms period who were not directly involved in the war. Perhaps Liu Ba’s advice didn’t suit his style; whatever the case they never got along, and soon Liu Ba left. As Ba travelled the westward road he was arrested by a Yizhou County official, and almost executed (my guess is that he gave a fake name that didn’t match his identification papers). (Note: this Yizhou County is in Yunnan, not related to our normal Yizhou).
Luckily the Yizhou County mayor’s secretary sensed that Liu Ba wasn’t just a random guy (this was the three kingdoms period, after all. Even a clerk in a remote town could read people as well as Sima Hui, Mr. Water-Mirror). So they sent Ba to Yizhou’s Governor, Liu Zhang.
Those familiar with the history of Three Kingdoms know what happens next.
Liu Zhang was originally pro-Cao — he had already sent Zhang Song to express his fealty to Cao Cao. But Cao Cao gave Mr. Zhang Song a very cold reception, presumably because of Song’s ugly face. Feeling slighted, Song came back and urged Liu Zhang to collaborate with Liu Bei instead. Without a strong opinion either way, Liu Zhang agreed.
When Liu Ba was brought before Liu Zhang, Liu Zhang was delighted, as he had heard of Ba’s fame before. He immediately asked Ba: “What advice would you give me?” Ba gave him just one tip: “Do not welcome Liu Bei.”
But Liu Zhang didn’t listen to him, and eventually lost Yizhou to Liu Bei. Once again Liu Ba set out on his journey to keep his distance from Liu Bei, but this time he was immediately thwarted by a very determined Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang wrote to Liu Ba: “It’s futile to keep running! It is your fate. Liu Bei is your destined master, so just give it up and come out to work!” Liu Ba replied: “I was working for Liu Zhang, and failed on that job, so you should dismiss me to my home. Why do you bother with all this nonsense!”
Zhuge Liang insisted, and finally was able to get Liu Ba.
Liu Ba had probably given up his struggle by now, and agreed to work for Liu Bei. But, “you can have my body, but not my soul”. He continued to dispise Liu Bei.
As the old saying goes, “an ugly house disfigures its inhabitants”. Liu Ba’s distaste for Liu Bei naturally extended to Bei’s brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu, who never received so much as a smile from Ba. Zhang Fei seemed to possess no more sense than his big brother Bei — he even asked for a sleepover at Ba’s house. Perhaps he heard of Ba’s dislike of Bei, and felt curious? Or perhaps he thought to himself: “when Ba used a pseudonym, he chose Zhang. I think he might actually like me!” Or perhaps he wanted to experience the lovely “fish in water” feeling between his brother and Zhuge Liang. In any case, he invited himself for a sleepover at Ba’s home.
Liu Ba never thought that in addition to handling Liu Bei’s business, he had the duty to sleep with Bei’s brother … Alright, but he didn’t have to keep up a conversation, did he? Zhang Fei dawdled in Ba’s house for a full day, and asked many questions, but never got a single word out of Liu Ba (even if Ba had opened his mouth, nothing polite would have come out of it). Zhang Fei finally realized that he wasn’t welcome at Ba’s house at all (which he should have realized the moment he set foot in the house and saw Ba’s expression). Fei threw a tantrum, and Zhuge Liang had to get involved to mollify both sides. Liu Ba wasn’t moved: “Why should I talk to him?”
This story quickly traveled to Wu. During one of the chit-chat sessions between Wu’s emperor and ministers (outside the door was a sign “Center for Strategic Planning”, i.e., Think Tank!), this piece of gossip came up. Zhang Zhao commented: “Liu Ba really isn’t very cultured, is he? So impolite to Zhang Fei.” Sun Quan replied: “Well that’s how Liu Ba is. Capable people always have some temper, you know.” Truly, these are inane conversations, and more inane was the historian who dutifully wrote them down … But I love it; what an adorable Pei Songzhi (the historian who annotated San Guo Zhi — History of Three Kingdoms — with additional material from local and other sources)!
Even though Liu Ba was arrogant, he had good reasons for being so. When Liu Bei occuppied Yizhou, the treasury was completely empty, and Bei was very worried. Liu Ba said: “No big deal, three little steps should take care of it: first, circulate copper coins of 100 Qian denomination; second, enforce consistent consumer prices all over the country; third, implement a government-controlled trade system for certain goods.” This was no empty boast, either. In a few short months after these policies took effect, the treasury was filled.
Zhuge Liang did an exellent job recruiting Liu Ba!
From this one task, we can see that Liu Ba’s capabilities were truly exceptional. But his attitude was completely passive. He would never do anything not officially assigned to him. Understandably so, of course, as he didn’t exactly come willingly to work for Liu Bei. After Shu was established, most of the government documents were written by Liu Ba. Even the nation’s name and the symbolic name of each year of the reign were chosen by him. However, he didn’t want others in the future to notice his existence in Shu (Bei: is it really such a disgrace to work for me?!), so the historical records about Liu Ba are very sparse.
Liu Ba died in the year 222, in his prime, aged 39. He had spent 13 years, or 1/3 of his lifetime trying to escape from Liu Bei. In the last 8 years of his life, he finally bowed to his fate. Finally, with his death, he was able to get away from Liu Bei.
However, his peace in heaven lasted for only one day (as we all know, one day in heaven is equivalent to one year on earth) before Liu Bei followed. That’s right, one year after Liu Ba died, Liu Bei died too!
Alas, up to the azure vault and down to the deepest place, neither above nor below could he e’er lose his trace! Liu Ba and Liu Bei were truly connected by fate.
Appendix: Original Chinese version