The classic historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms portrays Pang Tong as a genius military strategist, and describes him and Zhuge Liang in equal terms. Indeed, Sima Hui first recommends Zhuge Liang and Pang Tong to Liu Bei with the following introduction:
“Sleeping Dragon and Young Phoenix: with either one you can settle all under heaven.”
Pang Tong was born in Xiangyang and initially served the warlord, Sun Quan. In this capacity, Pang Tong pretended to defect to Cao Cao in the build-up to the Battle of Red Cliffs, and advised Cao Cao to chain his warships together, ostensibly to stabilise them and reduce sea-sickness among the soldiers. As a result, when Sun Quan’s navy attacked the ships with fire, the fire spread quickly to destroy Cao Cao’s entire fleet.
After the death of Wu’s commander-in-chief Zhou Yu, Zhou’s successor Lu Su recommended Pang Tong to Sun Quan as a chief advisor. However, Sun Quan was prejudiced against Pang Tong due to his ugly appearance, and the young man took offense. When asked how his learning compared to the late commander Zhou Yu, Pang haughtily replied that his abilities were not to be compared to those of Zhou Yu. Feeling offended by Pang Tong’s attitude toward his favourite assistant, Sun Quan dismissed Pang Tong.
Pang Tong then went to serve Liu Bei, and mapped out the occupation of Liu Zhang’s territory in Yizhou (modern Sichuan), which Zhuge Liang had decided years ago to be the heartland of Liu Bei’s kingdom. Pang Tong suggested to Liu Bei to surprise Liu Zhang at their first meeting and kidnap him; Liu Bei declined, seeing Liu Zhang as a kinsman, however distant. Pang Tong then attempted to have Liu Zhang assassinated through Wei Yan’s pretense of a sword dance, but was stopped by Liu Bei who instead tried to help fight Zhang Lu when he attacked Liu Zhang.
Liu Zhang, however, was persuaded not to send troops to reinforce Liu Bei, and Liu Bei decided no longer to help Liu Zhang and to take the strategically important Fu Pass. At the Fu Pass, Liu Zhang’s generals Yang Huai and Gao Pei tried to assassinate Liu Bei, but were caught and put to death by Pang Tong. Liu Zhang then ordered his generals to attack Liu Bei, and as Liu Bei’s two armies marched towards Luocheng, Pang Tong was ambushed in the Valley of the Fallen Phoenix (落鳯坡) by Liu Zhang’s general Zhang Ren, where Pang Tong was mistaken for Liu Bei because he had been given Liu Bei’s white horse (possibly Dilu who brought bad luck to his rider). He and his men were killed in the shower of arrows. He died at the age of thirty-six.
Liu Bei was left hemmed in at the Pass, and so Zhuge Liang had to leave Jing province to relieve him. Guan Yu then had to hold the entire region of Jing province alone, leading eventually to defeat when Cao Cao and Sun Quan allied to attack Jing from both north and south.