The Chinese idiom 運籌帷幄 (yùn chóu wéi wò), literally “devising strategies in the military command tent,” is used to describe the undertaking of strategic planning to achieve success.
The idiom refers to the brilliance of Zhang Liang (張良), chief strategist and key adviser of Liu Bang (劉邦), the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty (漢朝) (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), known as Emperor Gao of Han, or Han Gaozu (漢高祖).
Famous historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) told the story of Han Gaozu in his book “Shiji” (史記), or “Records of the Grand Historian,” written around 91 B.C., in a chapter called the “Annals of Gaozu” (高祖本紀), an imperial biography.
Near the end of the Qin Dynasty (秦朝) (221–206 B.C.), China was thrown into chaos as peasant rebellions broke out against the corrupt emperor of Qin.
The fall of the Qin Dynasty was followed by the Chu-Han Contention (楚漢戰爭) (206–202 B.C.), a struggle for dominance between Xiang Yu (項羽), the Hegemon-King of Western Chu (西楚霸王), and Liu Bang, ruler of the much weaker Han state.
In the outcome, Liu Bang emerged victorious, and Xiang Yu committed suicide. Upon conquering all of China, Liu Bang founded the Han Dynasty and proclaimed himself as emperor, becoming known as Han Gaozu.
Sima Qian’s biography of Gaozu records that after the country stabilized, Gaozu held a banquet at his palace in Luo Yang (雒陽) and invited his ministers, generals, and other subordinates.
Gaozu asked his subordinates to speak truthfully about why they believed he succeeded in conquering all of China, and why Xiang Yu failed.
After hearing their opinion, the emperor gave his own view, attributing his victory to three distinguished individuals under his command—Zhang Liang, Xiao He (蕭何), and Han Xin (韓信)—and their outstanding talents in terms of strategy, governance, logistics, and military genius.
Gaozu said: “When it comes to the ability to devise victorious strategies in the command tent 1,000 miles from the battle, I cannot compare with Zhang Liang.
“When it comes to the ability to maintain peace and order in the country, provide for the people, safeguard their food supply, and ensure that the roads needed to transport provisions are not blocked, I cannot compare with Xiao He.
“When it comes to the ability to command a million troops, win every battle, and conquer in every attack, I cannot compare with Han Xin.
“These three are heroes among the people. I am able to utilize them well, and this is the true reason I succeeded in conquering all of China.
“Xiang Yu had a capable adviser, Fan Zeng (范增), but did not use him well. Therefore, he was defeated by me.”
Zhang Liang, Xiao He, and Han Xin thus became known as the “Three Heroes of the Early Han Dynasty” (漢初三傑).