General Li Guang, also known as General Fei, was a well-respected leader in the Western Han Dynasty. He possessed many talents. The general excelled in archery, martial arts, and military strategy. For all his accomplishments, he had one great regret that was to have a fateful impact on his life.
The Xiongnu, a nomadic people to the north of Han China, were always at odds with the Han. In European history, they would have been described, rightly or wrongly, as “barbarians.” They constantly harassed and waged war against the Han and were envious of their fertile and hospitable lands. General Li led and won more than 70 military campaigns against the Xiongnu during his lifetime. As a result, the aggressive Xiongnu feared Li Guang due to his uncanny and elusive skills on the battlefield.
They nicknamed him General Fei, meaning “The Flying General” in Chinese. He thus became known as “The Flying General of the Han Dynasty,” indicating that his actions were so quick and so swift that he defied the laws of gravity and human capabilities, moving as deftly as a bird in the sky. Because of his great military abilities and exploits, the Xiongnu dared not invade his kingdom again.
Li Guang led the army from the time he was a young man and served as a senior official as well as holding positions as Governor at various times over a period of 40 years. He had a strong moral character, refusing to take bribes, being content to eat the same food as his men, and sharing his rewards with them as well.
During the course of various military campaigns, the army was sometimes short of food or water. General Li demonstrated great benevolence by always allowing his soldiers to eat and drink first.
Because General Li was kind and tolerant, his soldiers were very loyal and dedicated to him. They bravely fought together in even the toughest of battles and most grueling conditions under his adept leadership.
Historian Sima Qian said of General Li Guang:
“When one is righteous, one does not need to order people to obey; if one is not righteous, no one would listen to him.”
But Li Guang, for all his bravery and battlefield success, encountered a big problem. Despite his many fine attributes, he was not promoted any further while his cousin Li Cai, who was also an official, was promoted again and again, eventually becoming prime minister. Though Li Cai’s character and accomplishments were far inferior to Li Guang, Li Cai advanced while Li Guang did not.
The same thing happened with many other officers and soldiers who served under Li Guang; they were promoted and given a rank above Li, while General Li advanced no further.
One day, Li Guang asked his friend, an astrologer named Wang Shuo, about his life and fate. “I cannot get any type of promotion. Is this my fate?”
Wang Shuo asked: “Please think about it. Did you do something you regret in your life?”
Upon reflection, Li Guang replied: “When I served as a guard of the Long West, there were many rebels. I deceived more than 800 of them, convincing them to surrender and then putting them to death the same day. That is what I regret the most!”
There is no greater sin than killing people who surrender
“There is no greater sin than killing innocent people who surrender, and that is why you’re not being promoted,” Wang said.
A few years later, the now-elderly Li Guang followed the great General Wei Qing into battle. As part of the punishment for his sin, Li lost his way and arrived late for battle, and he eventually killed himself with his own sword.
Li Guang’s sons also met early deaths. Li’s mother, wife, and children were all killed in court, while Li Guang’s grandson, Li Ling, was later defeated and forced to surrender in the war against the Xiongnu. Thus, the Li family slowly disappeared.
Despite General Li’s many abilities, he could not advance in his career, and ultimately, met a tragic end.
In ancient China, it was known that, though a person may otherwise possess a strong moral character, if he commits a great sin such as killing many innocent lives, he will surely suffer a wretched fate.
Translated by Yi Ming and edited by T Denning