Xiao He sized up Han Xin suspiciously. Slowly, he said: ‘I heard from Xiahou Ying that you know every tome on military strategy forwards and back, is that correct?”
Han Xin smiled at that. That day, Xiahou Ying had used every military book he owned to test him: Six Secret Teachings, The Sima’s Methods, The Art of War, Wuzi, even the obscure and tangential Guiguzi. None of them had posed any challenge, and Xiahou Ying, overjoyed, had hurried to the palace to recommend him. Of course, that sort of test was laughable, and Han Xin had never regarded his knowledge as any true qualification for command. “To a general, the important thing isn’t memorizing books of military strategy,” he said, “but flexibly employing the principles behind the strategy in battle to attain victory.”
Xiao He took notice. “Please go into more detail,” he said, more respectfully.
Han Xin said: “Of the would-be generals of today, plenty can recite The Art of War by memory, but how many have achieved Sun Zi’s success in battle? In the end, their devotion to strategy ends at their tongue. They still rely on brute force on the battlefield instead of tactics and planning.
Xiao He nodded. “Yes, I’ve noticed it too. But why? If strategy is so effective, then why don’t people use it?”
Han Xin said: “There are two situations. The first occurs when the reader utterly fails to understand what he’s read. Some memorize The Art of War only to show off, when, in reality, they don’t understand a single sentence of it. In that case, how can they hope to apply it to the real world? The second occurs when the reader only partially understands what he’s read. All the very best strategies are widely used, and things widely used are often the most simple. Some take that at surface value and believe these strategies to be worthless prattle. They content themselves with a shallow assumption and never bother to look beyond. Isn’t Xiang Yu this way?”
Xiao He frowned. “I agree with your other points, but I can’t agree with your assessment of Xiang Yu. From the beginning, he’s never lost a battle or retreated in a campaign. This is common knowledge. Not to mention Julu, where he shocked everyone with his victory against a much more powerful enemy. He led the other lords to destroy the mighty Qin Empire in only two years! How can you dismiss his understanding of military strategy?”