“Jian is Defeated!” – The Battle of Fei River

The Battle of Fei River 淝水之戰 or the Battle of Feishui was a major battle of the Chinese Age of Fragmentation. At this battle, the forces of Former Qin 前秦, under the command of the Heavenly King 天王 Fu Jian 苻堅 were defeated by the much smaller army of Eastern Jin 東晉, under the command of Xie Xuan 謝玄 in December, 383.

The battle was the result of the meteoric rise of a new military dynasty in North China. Following the collapse of a unified Chinese empire (Western Jin 西晉, 265-316) in the early decades of the 4th Century, the land became divided. The North fragmented into many warring states founded by non-Chinese, many of whom had previously served the dynasty. The South remained largely whole under a remnant of Jin, which allowed it retain a measure of prosperity though the southern court was impotent and power rested in the hands of powerful land-holding aristocrats.

Lead by the Fu clan and its allies among the proto-Tibetan Di 氐 people, the new Qin empire was founded in the 350s following the catastrophic collapse of Later Zhao 后趙 at the beginning of the decade. It rose rapidly under a string of capable leaders, of whom the greatest was Fu Jian, nephew of the dynastic founder. Jian overthrew his cousin, traditionally portrayed as a tyrant, in 357. A man of some genius, Fu Jian had the ambition and energy to push the borders of his state aggressively. In 370, his prime minister, the ethnic Chinese official Wang Meng 王猛 conquered the Xianbei 鮮卑 state of Former Yan 前燕 to the east, Qin’s most formidable northern adversary. The fall of Yan left Qin with no more northern enemies that could realistically challenge it. In 376, he united North China with the fall of the Chinese state of Former Liang 前涼 in the northwest and Dai 代, another Xianbei state, in the extreme north. Three years before that Jian had taken his first steps against Jin by wresting control of modern Sichuan (Yizhou or Yi province 益州) from them.


China after Fu Jian’s unification of the north and the conquest of Sichuan. By Ian Kiu [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Fu Jian wanted to reunite China under his rule, and it appeared he was close to achieving that goal. He knew the fastest way to subdue the south would be to invade Jin through Jing province or Jingzhou 荆州 and from there marched on to Jiankang 建康, the imperial capital. The key to Jing was the city of Xiangyang 襄陽, positioned as the gateway to the central Yangzi River region 長江 and exerting control over the confluence of that river with its tributary the Han 漢江. Control of Xiangyang also provided a land route over the Huai 淮河. Strategically, the city was vital, and alongside Shouyang 壽陽 (perhaps better known as Shouchun 壽春) in Huainan 淮南 necessary for any attempted conquest of the south. So it was that Fu Jian dispatched an army his son Fu Pi 苻丕 to take Xiangyang in the second lunar month of 378. By the fourth month, the Qin army had reached the north bank of the Han. Any hopes by Jin that the invaders would be unable to ford without boats were soon dashed when Fu Pi’s elite cavalry swam across. Huan Chong 桓沖, the governor of Jing, sat put at his headquarters in Shangming 上明 south of the Yangzi.

Meanwhile, Qin forces attacked Jiangling. Shortly after that the cities of Weixing 魏興 and Pengcheng 彭城 were attacked as part of a general offensive in Huainan and the Han River region to stretch the southern defenses. The siege of Xiangyang was continuing to drag out, longer than anticipated, and Fu Pi was faced with the choice of either achieving victory by the beginning of spring or committing suicide. Pi decided on making an enveloping assault on the walls. Early the new year, 379, the city finally fell, and Qin stepped up its offensive along the rest of the front and captured several strongholds including Pengcheng (after some difficulty) and Weixing.

By now the situation had gotten so bad that the mere appearance of a cavalry patrol was enough to frighten the elite Western Palace Guards stationed near Jiankang into dispersion. A new defense strategy was needed. As a result, a new plan was drafted calling for the southern garrison forces to defend along the Yangzi river line. The Northern Headquarters Army 北府兵 which was considered to be the best army then under arms was tasked to defend along the Huai. It was commanded by Xie Xuan, a nephew of Xie An 謝安, prime minister and the dominant power in Jin since 373. An’s brother Xie Shi 謝石 also held a military command in this campaign. However, members of the family were better known as dandies rather than military leaders. On June 25th Xuan scored a victory over Qin forces led by Ju Nan 俱難 and Peng Chao 彭超 at a place called Boma Embankment. On July 7th, he defeated Ju and Peng again at Xuyi. The third victory at Huaiyin forced them back over the Huai, and a fourth at Jun Stream proved decisive. These defeats convinced Fu Jian to return north, but even had though he had failed in conquering the south, he had still succeeded in pushing the border closer to Jiankang and held Xiangyang.

In 381-2, he sent another invasion force into Jing, but Huan Chong reacted quickly and countered the Qin force decisively, defeating them and gaining a great victory. Huan Chong followed up in the 5th lunar month of 383 with a large offensive to retake Xiangyang and Yi province. The attack was beaten back handily, and Qin was left in a strong position both militarily and morally. If Fu Jian invaded now, he would look like he was just retaliating for Huan Chong’s invasion. So the order went out, and mass conscription was enforced empire-wide in the seventh month. The scale was unprecedented, with one man for every ten being conscripted for service. According to period sources, such the “Chronicle of Fu Jian” in the official Jin history, the vanguard force alone under Jian’s youngest brother, Fu Rong 苻融, numbered 250,000 of cavalry and infantry. The main body was composed of 600,000 infantry and 270,000 cavalry and marched from the capital of Chang’an 長安. Even accounting for exaggeration, Qin’s sovereign was obviously intent on finishing what he began in 379. The advance was to proceed along many different routes into Jing, with a column advancing from Sichuan and a second to Pengcheng in the lower reaches of the Huai River.

The army of Former Qin was a polyglot force of many different ethnic groups. The Di themselves numbered relatively few and were more sedentary than their close cousins and old neighbors the Qiang 羌族. Unlike other “northern barbarians” of Chinese imagination, the Di fought primarily as foot soldiers instead of cavalry. As Qin’s rapid rise to prominence was built on a string of military victories they were able to incorporate the defeated into their armies. Meaning Jian could count on the well-organized Xianbei and Xiongnu 匈奴 to provide his mounted troops and plenty of Chinese to serve either on foot or for menial tasks. Fu Jian went the extra step of either keeping defeated officials in place or appointing them to new, high-level, posts both civil and military regardless of their loyalty. As a result, and due to the structural weaknesses of the Qin government, the entire edifice was only kept together so long as the leaders continued to win.

On November 28th, 383 AD, the Qin vanguard captured the city of Shouyang. Yuncheng 運城 fell shortly after. A Qin general, Liang Cheng, led 50,000 to nearby Luo Creek 洛澗 to the east and fortified it. At the same time, word of the invasion reached Jiankang and threw the imperial court into disarray. Hurriedly Huan Chong was put in charge of the defense of the middle Yangzi. The Northern Headquarters Army with mixed land and naval forces was called up to defend the Huai with Xie Shi and Xie Xuan in command. As prime minister, Xie An was put in overall command of the defense despite his lack of military experience. Rather than go into the field, An went to his villa outside the capital and played weiqi (also known by its Japanese name of go).

Meanwhile Fu Jian, bolstered by reports from Fu Rong that the Jin forces were in pitiful shape, left the bulk of his army behind on the northern banks of the Huai River at Xiangcheng (where he had been in command since September) to join his brother at Shouyang. Zhu Xu 朱序, a Jin officer, captured in 378, was dispatched to negotiate with Xie Shi. Xie had been frightened by the size of the invasion forces and by Fu Jian’s personal appearance at Shouyang. Zhu now informed him that only the Qin vanguard was present in the Shouyang area and urged him to attack before the main body could arrive from Xiangcheng. Together both Xie Xuan and his cousin Xie Yan (謝琰), the prime minister’s more militarily minded son, managed to convince their uncle to commit to an offensive policy.

Liu Laozhi 劉牢之, a protégé of Xie Xuan and noted non-gentry military officer, assaulted Liang Cheng’s fortifications (where he now had 20,000 men). This surprise night attack across the stream succeeded in killing Liang and 15,000 northern troops. The victory was an important and much-needed morale booster for the Northern Headquarters forces and shook the resolve of the invading army. Even Fu Jian began to doubt if he could win now. Meanwhile, Xie Shi and his troops had started advancing after their victory until encountering Fu Rong’s general Zhang Ci at the Fei River. The Fei was a tributary of the Huai near Shouyang and west of Luo Creek to which it parallel south-north. Xie Shi was defeated, but Xie Xuan and Xie Yan moved quickly in support and Zhang returned to the west bank of the river, outside the walls of Shouyang. By this point, the Jin had been drawn their troops in a much wider formation than usual to give the appearance of much larger numbers. With the Qin army’s formation crowding the opposite bank, making any assault across the river difficult, Xie Xuan dispatched a messenger to the other camp.

Xie Xuan’s messenger informed Fu Rong there was no room on the western side of the Fei for his soldiers to fight on with the massive size of his army. He requested that the Qin army back up from the banks to allow the Northern Headquarters Army to cross. This way they could settle the war in a single quick, decisive, battle rather than drag things out with a stalemate. There two separate traditions regarding who gave the fateful order to back up. According to the “Chronicle of Fu Jian”, Rong gave the order, but in Xie Xuan’s biography in the same work, it was Jian himself who did so over the objections of his officers. Sima Guang in his “Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government” (an 11th-century universal history of China) accepts the latter theory. In any case, regardless of which brother gave the order, the reasoning was the same. They expected to be able to take advantage of the Jin army once it was at its most vulnerable at mid-crossing. The order went out to back up. However, something went terribly wrong. The majority of the Qin army had little to no formal training or military experience. The mounted troops were still little more than spoiled teenagers newly conscripted from rich northern families. The call to fall back came as a surprise and when they could not find out why they panicked. At the front ranks Zhu Xu, taking advantage of the situation, leaped up and shouted: “We are defeated!” (or “Jian is defeated!”). At this point what little resolve remained in the Qin army failed, and the whole vanguard began to rout.

Meanwhile, the Northern Headquarters Army on the other side of the river could hardly believe their eyes. Xie Xuan was already sending his vanguard under Liu Laozhi across the river when the Former Qin army began to disintegrate. Quickly recognizing the opportunity before him, Xie Xuan immediately sent Xie Yan and Huan Yi 桓伊 (no relation to Huan Chong) across the river as well with 8,000 men for a major assault on the Qin positions. At this point, Fu Rong, who was desperately attempting to rally his men, was thrown off his horse and killed by Northern Headquarters soldiers. The battle turned into a slaughter as the Jin soldiers pursued and cut down the Qin survivors. Some of the stragglers managed to escape to safety on the northern bank of the Huai River, but it is estimated up to 80% later died from either starvation or hypothermia. Most the battle’s casualties died from drowning in the Fei or being trampled to death during the rout, traditionally the fallen were numerous enough to block the flow of the river. Fu Jian himself had been struck by an arrow but was able to retreat to safety alongside some of his cavalry. However, despite this, the battle was certainly the most unexpected, if not most influential, battle upset in medieval Chinese history. Shortly afterward Former Qin began to break up as the same leaders with whom Fu Jian had been so generous took advantage of his defeat to rebel against him. The dissolution of the empire plunged North China into chaos as it had not seen since the fall of Western Jin. For Eastern Jin, the battle ensured its continued survival and the independence of the south until unification in 589.



Qin and Jin as they were in 383. The black marks the furthermost advance of the border before the catastrophe at Fei River, the red line the new border after Jin northern offensives in the years following the battle. By 淝水之战前后形势图.PNG: noidea  derivative work: Zer0taku (淝水之战前后形势图.PNG) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.