The Robotic Oxen of Zhuge Liang

P.W. Singer’s recent lecture on our daily reality of robotic warfare serves well as a witty and thoughtful overview of the topic. The lecture is very worthwhile, and draws from his book, but if you don’t have an hour right now you can get a taste from this earlier essay in Foreign Policy.

It brings to mind a favourite episode from Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). This is excerpted from Chapter 102 of the Brewitt-Taylor translation available here. Since the estimable Brewitt-Taylor died in 1938 and I own a dead tree copy of the same with the Wade-Giles names, some kind soul must have since updated the Chinese names to pinyin for this edition.

One day Yang Yi went to Zhuge Liang and said, “The stores of grain are all at Saber Pass, and the labor of transport is very heavy. What can be done?”
Zhuge Liang replied, smiling, “I have had a scheme ready for a long time. The timber that I collected and bought in the Lands of Rivers was for the construction of wooden transport animals to convey grain. It will be very advantageous, as they will require neither food nor water and they can keep on the move day and night without resting.”

All those within hearing said, “From old days till now no one has ever heard of such a device. What excellent plan have you, O Minister, to make such marvelous creatures?”

“They are being made now after my plans, but they are not yet ready. Here I have the sketches for these mechanical oxen and horses, with all their dimensions written out in full. You may see the details.”

The opposing general, Sima Yi (司马懿), finds out about the oxen, and his army captures some.

When Sima Yi saw them, he had to confess they were very life-like. But what pleased him most was that he could imitate them now that he had models.
“If Zhuge Liang can use this sort of thing, it would be strange if I could not,” said he.
He called to him many clever craftspeople and made them then and there take the machines to pieces and make some exactly like them. In less than half a month, they had completed a couple of thousand after Zhuge Liang’s models, and the new mechanical animals could move. Then Sima Yi placed Cen Wei, General Who Guards the Frontiers, in charge of this new means of transport, and the “animals” began to ply between the camp and Xizhou. The Wei soldiers were filled with joy.
Gao Xiang returned to camp and reported the loss of a few of his wooden oxen and horses.
“I wished him to capture some of them,” said Zhuge Liang, much pleased. “I am just laying out these few, and before long I shall get some very solid help in exchange.”
“How do you know, O Minister,” said his officers.
“Because Sima Yi will certainly copy them; and when he has done that, I have another plan ready to play on him.”
Some days later Zhuge Liang received a report that the enemy were using the same sort of wooden bullocks and horses to bring up supplies from Xizhou.
“Exactly as I thought,” said he.
Calling Wang Ping, he said, “Dress up a thousand soldiers as those of Wei, and find your way quickly and secretly to Beiyuan. Tell them that you are escort for the convoy, and mingle with the real escort. Then suddenly turn on them so that they scatter. Next you will turn the herd this way. By and by you will be pursued. When that occurs, you will give a turn to the tongues of the wooden animals, and they will be locked from movement. Leave them where they are and run away. When the soldiers of Wei come up, they will be unable to drag the creatures and equally unable to carry them. I shall have soldiers ready, and you will go back with them, give the tongues a backward turn and bring the convoy here, The enemy will be greatly astonished.”
Next he called Zhang Ni and said, “Dress up five hundred soldiers in the costume of the Deities of the Six Layers so that they appear supernatural. Fit them with demon heads and wild beast shapes, and let them stain their faces various colors so as to look as strange as possible. Give them flags and swords and bottle-gourds with smoke issuing from combustibles inside. Let these soldiers hide among the hills till the convoy approaches, when they will start the smoke, rush out suddenly and drive off the wooden animals. No one will dare pursue such uncanny company.”
When Zhang Ni had left, Wei Yan and Jiang Wei were called.
“You will take ten thousand troops, go to the border of Beiyuan to receive the wooden transport creatures and
defend them against attack.”

My wife described this episode as like a fairy-tale, and perhaps it is. Unlike, say, Rumpelstiltskin, though, it has a striking amount of technical detail. Zhuge Liang (诸葛亮) has plans prepared. The mechanical oxen require wood to build and craftsmen to build them. It also has a rare science fictional quality of showing an idea unfolding into its consequences, and then again unfolding. It’s a parable of all technologies, but especially those of war – first mover advantage never lasts. Unlike a fairy tale, the educational message is not primarily moral, but very much in keeping with much of the Three Kingdoms, it is tactical. The tech involved is at the least sexy, but utterly crucial, end of the military, the supply lines. And of course, Zhuge Liang is several steps ahead. I guess he’s called the Marquis of War for a reason.

So while there are a number of pre-modern stories featuring tech, few are so illustrative of the way tech actually works in society and the way it transforms its environment over time.

Along the Saber Pass mountain roads
The running horses bore their loads,
And through Xie Valley’s narrow way
The wooden oxen paced each day.
O generals, use these means today,
And transport troubles take away.

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