Not all victories were decided on the battlefield in ancient China. Seemingly invincible warriors have been defeated not by even stronger warriors but by sweet and dainty women with a plot.
The Beauty Trap or 美人计 was used twice during the Three Kingdoms. It was first used by Wang Yun and later by Zhou Yu. While Wang Yun’s plan worked perfectly, Zhou Yu’s plot failed miserably. Why? According to the version of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Zhou Yu seemed to have failed because Zhuge Liang had been advising Liu Bei. I believe there were actually other factors at play.
First of all, Wang Yun’s bait was his beautiful maid/songstress Diao Chan. Though Wang Yun had gone on his knees and begged her to make a sacrifice for her country, Diao Chan was obliged to follow her master’s instructions to the letter. Besides, Diao Chan was an entertainer. She was good at manipulating men, telling one set of lies to Dong Zhuo and another set of lies to Lu Bu. She knew that the two grown men would just bottle their frustrations and not discuss such a sensitive issue. If Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu had exchanged notes, the plot would have been exposed.
Now take a look at the bait which Zhou Yu had used. Sun Shang Xiang was certainly no maid. She was Sun Quan’s younger sister – in other words, his boss’ sister! We don’t know how old Diao Chan was when she first seduced Lu Bu and then Dong Zhuo. We can only guess that she was probably in her 20s. Chinese historical texts almost never mention the names of female commoners. Even the name “Diao Chan” did not appear in any of the historical texts. It was probably invented by author Luo Guanzhong. Understandably, that beautifully appropriate name got stuck.
All Three Kingdoms movies and TV dramas we can watch today depict Sun Shang Xiang as a grown woman, probably to avoid being accused of promoting padephilia, because in reality, Miss Sun was only 13 then! How could a 13-year-old girl pull something off the way Diao Chan did? Of course, Zhou Yu was not stupid. He had never meant to marry his boss’ sister to Liu Bei. He was only using her as a bait with no wedding plans but an assassination waiting for Liu Bei when he arrived in Dongwu. Unfortunately, news of the wedding was leaked out. Sun Quan’s mother (also Miss Sun’s mother) was furious that she was not informed. She met up with Liu Bei and the highly influential Mrs Sun (Madam Wu) liked the smooth-talking Liu Bei so much that she instructed Zhou Yu that the wedding must proceed. What was the poor Commander Zhou Yu to do?
Thus, 50-year-old Liu Bei married 13-year-old Sun Shang Xiang. A very angry Zhou Yu then resorted to Plan B – keeping Liu Bei indefinitely in Dongwu. Again, that didn’t work. Being the smooth talker that he was, Liu Bei must have persuaded underage and naive Sun Shang Xiang to leave with him. Liu Bei used her as a shield. The guards recognised her authority and were powerless to stop her. Furthermore, Liu Bei was protected by Zhao Yun’s entourage and Miss Sun was protected by her team of heavily armed female bodyguards. It took news of her departure some time to reach Sun Quan and a direct order from Sun Quan to reach the guards before they dared use force on Miss Sun. By then, the couple had already fled. Not only had Zhou Yu’s plan failed, he had lost a highly valued bait to Liu Bei.
What lessons we can learn from these two cases, or rather from Zhou Yu’s failure? First and foremost, in order for a beauty trap to work, the bait must be someone who knows your plan inside out and is firmly on your side! Diao Chan took an oath. She had a clear mission and she accomplished it beautifully. Sun Shang Xiang on the other hand, was probably clueless from start to finish. Zhou Yu had assumed that he was in full control and had no need for the young Miss Sun to do anything or know anything about his plans. He was wrong.
There is something else. Pick the right target also. Never try this trick on smooth talkers like Liu Bei.