According to the folklore, Sima Yi is a villain. According to the history book, he is a brilliant politician during The Three Kingdoms period, hence a villain. Wikipedia listed two instances that showcased the deficiencies in his character. First instance, he refused to see his big wife and called her an ugly, old hag in front of his younger wife. The big wife was so upset over it, she went on a hunger strike, with their sons joining her. He later apologized and begged for her forgiveness. When asked why he changed his tune, he explained that he would gladly let the old hag die but he couldn’t let his precious sons die with her. (Scathing, much?) The second instance was during the final battle between him and Zhuge Liang, a brilliant strategist who is not a villain. When he heard the rumor that Zhuge had died and the Shu-Han army was retreating, he feared that it was a trap and did not pursue them. He was mocked for missing out his best chance to crush his enemy once and for all, “a dead Zhuge scared away a living Sima.”
The first season of The Advisors Alliance (军师联盟) didn’t whitewash his character. Instead, it gave context to his actions. Sima Yi in the drama is a real person, who, at times, is cowardly, selfish, calculating, ambitious, decisive, protective, smart, humble, caring, and supportive. He does what it is needed to protect his family and his country. Altruism is a rare human trait and that’s why we call altruistic people heroes. Sima Yi clearly is not one of them. He is just a regular fellow who has been judged a wee bit too harshly by the history book.
I like this drama even better than Nirvana in Fire. It integrates humor with seriousness. It is quick paced yet heartfelt. I cried when Yang Xiu died. He is a true believer of Cao Cao’s vision and I can feel across the TV screen his intense regret for not being able to witness that vision come true.
I love the rivalry between Sima Yi and Yang Xiu because competition spurs improvement. When Cao Cao asks Sima Yi whether he feels vindicated by Yang Xiu’s execution, an enemy who has tried numerous time to get him killed, Sima responds: “I have no enemies, only teachers. Some show me the way. Some teach me a lesson.”
Xu Yun is the teacher who showed Sima Yi a better way of getting things done. After watching this drama, I have the highest respect for Xu Yun. The hardest place to be and the most difficult position to hold is being a moderate in a partisan government. Yang Xiu stands firmly behind Cao Cao and his plan for world domination. Sima Yi changes sides according to the direction the wind blows. Xu Yun takes no side, only causes. He stands with Cao Cao because they share the same goal of uniting their divided country. He is the one who advised Cao Cao to hold the Emperor hostage so he could quash rebellions in the Emperor’s name. Throughout his tenure as Cao Cao’s advisor, he never once loses sight that they are Han officials and what they do is for the Han Dynasty. Every choice he makes, every advice he gives, is for the good of the country. He skillfully keeps Cao Cao’s ambition in check for 20 years by devising compromises acceptable on both sides. And nothing is off the table, even his own death. A more altruistic advisor you will not find. He is the great negotiator, the idealistic pragmatist, the joggling extraordinaire. Politics need more people like him.
Xu Yun’s last action is saving Cao Pi, the oldest son of Cao Cao. Cao Pi, for the longest time, doesn’t seem to have a mind of his own. He is either obeying his father’s orders or following Sima Yi’s advice. But after being exonerated of treason, he seems to be a different man. The scene where he accuses his father of unfair treatment is one of the most memorable scenes. He asks his father point-blank whether his father would punish his younger brother the way he punished him if his brother had committed the same crime he was accused of. Him kneeling in front of Cao Cao with his lash wounds in full display. The unspoken resentment in his eyes says, “These are the physical representation of how you have hurt me inside with your favoritism. I have done everything you asked of me and more, why do you never recognize my achievements? I love and honor you, why do you not love and respect me too? Why do you favor my younger brother at my expense? Why do you hate me so?” I think, maybe, that is the first time Cao Cao ever properly considered Cao Pi as his successor after seeing the fierceness in his son’s eyes.
Sima Yi is quick to recognize Cao Cao’s changing perception of Cao Pi. He reinforces Cao Pi’s new image in Cao Cao’s mind by comparing Cao Cao to the wise rulers of ancient time, and that his oldest son is just like him.
I thought the prison scene is one of the best scenes to showcase the full range of Sima Yi’s traits. He uses flattery like nobody’s business. He can really think on his feet. He is apt to hide his true feelings but is honest when it counts.