Ruse of the Empty City

DSC_0437You will often see tiles with these scenes on some of the older bone and bamboo sets. These scenes refer to the Ruse of the Empty City, a story from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  Zhuge Liang, the Prime Minister of Shu State, was in a terrible situation. He had sent the army to defend one of the cities in his territory, but heard the enemy was on the march, and nearing his city. He thought quickly and decided to act as if the city was well defended. He put himself on the city wall, playing music with two other people, and he ordered the people left in the city, mostly old men, to sweep the streets. (He told them there were soldiers scattered hiding everywhere.) When the enemy arrive at the city, they sensed a rap, because surely no one could look so untroubled as Zhuge Liang unless there was a trap. The enemy turned around, never entering the city. On the tiles you will see Zhuge Liang, playing an instrument atop the city wall, a drummer, and some older men sweeping the streets.

Here is a link to the story:

Here is a scene taken from the following website



And above is a photo of the scene in a Chinese opera, taken from the China highlights website linked above.


The following addition was written by Ray Heaton, who translated the words on the tiles and provided the story information. Thank you, Ray.

This row is the story of Mi Heng beating the drum to curse Cao Cao.
Cao Cao, the main villain in the Three Kingdoms story, disregards a famous scholar, Mi Heng, who answers back sarcastically. Later, at a banquet, Cao insults Mi by ordering him to beat the drum for the guests. As he beats the drum, Mi describes the crimes of Cao Cao and strips off his clothes.  Cao becomes enraged and wants to kill Mi, but is afraid what other people would think if he did. So he sends Mi to a warlord who arranges to have him killed.