After Fei River, Part 1

In December, 383 the Di 氐 leader Fu Jian 苻堅 of the Former Qin 前秦 dynasty met with catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Fei River near the city of Shouyang 壽陽. While Fu Jian was able to escape the battlefield, his loss of prestige marked the beginning of the end of his empire and a period of extended chaos in North China.

Initially, Fei River might not have been such a disaster. Only the Qin vanguard had been defeated and the main body of the invasion force, still in the Xiangcheng 襄城 area, was still intact. However, Fu Jian, taking refuge with the 39,000 troops of Xianbei 鮮卑 prince Murong Chui 慕容垂 to the west of Shouyang, opted to return north. At the time, Chui was urged by his son Bao 慕容寶 and brother De 慕容德 to take advantage of the opportunity to kill Jian and restore (Former) Yan 前 燕, the northern state ruled by the Murong family before falling to Former Qin in 370. Chui himself was a son of the Yan founder and had been a leading general of Yan until internal politics forced him to defect to Qin, which he had served with distinction for nearly a decade and a half. Because of that loyalty, he refused to kill Fu Jian and escorted him as far as Luoyang 洛阳, but still wished to restore Yan and, supposedly, aimed at a return to the pre-conquest division of North China into halves. To this end, Chui asked for permission to lead an army into the old Yan territories and put down any rebellions there. The historian Sima Guang puts what might be one of the greatest understatements of the era in Murong Chui’s mouth by having him say to Jian that the population might become rebellious on hearing of the “disadvantage” the Qin army had just suffered in the south. Fu Jian meanwhile continued his way to his capital at Chang’an 長安, where he arrived in February, 384.

However, a serious rebellion had already begun to break out before the end of the previous year. Qifu Guoren 乞伏國仁, a Xianbei tribal leader, had been dispatched to deal with an uprising by his uncle in Longxi 隴西, their home region. Instead of putting the rebellion down, Guoren joined forces with them. Meanwhile a Dingling 丁零 (possibly a proto-Turkish people) chieftain in the eastern (Yan) provinces, Zhai Bin 翟斌, rose in rebellion, aiming to conquer Luoyang where the Governor of Yu Province 豫州 (Fu Hui 苻暉, a son of Fu Jian) was stationed. Murong Chui was part of the force sent to put him down but instead massacred the troops of his assistant Fu Feilong 苻飛龍 on February 5th, assigned to him by Fu Jian’s son Fu Pi 苻丕, the viceroy of the east. Fu Hui’s general, Mao Dang, was subsequently defeated by Zhai Bin and killed. Chui then began preparing for his rebellion but still pretended loyalty to Qin. Meanwhile, Murong Nong 慕容農, one of Chui’s sons, along with two of his cousins fled from Fu Pi’s capital at Ye 鄴城 a few days after the massacre. They resurfaced leading an uprising of their own, with Nong gathering an impressive force of discontented soldiers and the allegiance of many nomadic tribal leaders. Fu Pi sent one of his best generals, Shi Yue, to attack them. However, the Qin army was defeated in a night attack on February 14th and routed from their fortifications, their general slain.

Two such defeats in close succession, in addition to the defection of Qifu Guoren, caused a drastic loss of morale across Former Qin. To make matters worse, the Eastern Jin 東晉 dynasty in the south that had defeated Fu Jian at Fei River was now on the move. The Jin governor of Jing Province 荆州, Huan Chong 桓沖, dispatched an army that successfully regained the southern cities of Shangyong 上庸, Weixing 魏興, and Xincheng 新塍 from Qin and evicted the local governor. Earlier, February 9th, Murong Chui had attempted to enter Luoyang but was refused by Fu Hui, who was by now aware of what had happened to Fu Feilong only four days ago. Chui dropped any pretense of loyalty and allied with Zhai Bin’s rebels. After rebuffing attempts to persuade him to take the title of emperor, Murong Chui led his army back towards Ye, believing Luoyang was too much trouble to put to siege.

Along the way, Chui proclaimed himself “King of Yan” and his dynasty is known today as Later Yan 後燕. On March 5th, he arrived at the walls of Ye with 20,000 men. By now he was rejoined by Murong Nong, whose forces had been securing cities throughout Hebei and Shandong in anticipation of Yan’s “revival”. Most of the pre-conquest Yan provinces declared for the new Later Yan state but Ye would prove an exceptionally difficult nut to crack. At first, Fu Pi attempted to persuade Chui to return to Qin service. He refused and tried to persuade Pi to abandon Ye and go to Chang’an. When the Qin prince refused, the siege began in earnest. After a month, the besiegers had succeeded in taking the outer walls, but that was the extent of their success. Despite a swelling of his numbers, thanks to the arrival of Xianbei and Wuhuan 烏桓 (a proto-Mongolic people) reinforcements gathered by Murong De, the king of Yan was unable to take the city by assault as the siege lasted into the second lunar month of 384.

Meanwhile Chui’s nephew Murong Hong 慕容泓, brother of the last emperor of Former Yan (Murong Wei 慕容暐), was independently active. When word reached him that Ye was under siege Hong abandoned his Qin governmental post and fled east beyond the historic Chinese capital region of Guanzhong 關中 (” Inside the Pass”) to gather a following of Xianbei horse herders numbering in the thousands. He returned to Guanzhong to camp at Huayin 華陰, east of the Qin capital. Fu Jian, recognizing the threat this posed, dispatched a general (variously identified as either Qiang Yong 強永 or Zhang Yong 張永) with 5,000 cavalry. The Qin force was defeated, and Hong’s numbers swelled with his victory. Taking advantage of the momentum Hong took a number of titles for himself, including the royal title he held under Former Yan, King of Jibei. Murong Hong’s dynasty is known today as Western Yan 西燕.


A Xianbei horse archer from the a tomb painting of the Fomer Yan period. By Unknown tomb painter ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

With his court now under serious threat from a victorious Murong Hong, Fu Jian raised new armies to put down the revolt. Meanwhile another Murong clansman, Hong’s younger brother Chong 慕容沖, rebelled east of the Yellow River. At Hua Marsh, the Qin army sent to attack Murong Hong was defeated, and its commander, Fu Rui 苻叡 (a brother of the Qin sovereign) was killed. When Hong had received word of Rui’s marching against him, he assembled his followers and intended to leave Guanzhong again to “go home” to Yan. Fu Rui’s assistant the Qiang 羌 leader Yao Chang 姚萇 argued the Xianbei had a strong homing instinct and not interfere. Fu Jian was livid when he received word his brother’s defeat and death and killed the messengers who came to report the news. Much like Murong Chui, Yao Chang had been a loyal general of considerable skill of Former Qin for many years, in this case from the beginning of Fu Jian’s reign in 357 when he led his branch of the Qiang to submit to Qin after the defeat and death of his older brother. A combination of secret ambition and fear for his life now caused Chang to flee north of the Wei River. Once there he began gathering the Qiang of Tianshui 天水 and Nan’an 南安to his banner. According to period sources, Yao Chang gained the support of 50,000 families before taking the prestigious title “Millennial King of Qin”. His dynasty is known today as Later Qin 後秦.

Former Qin gained a rare victory when the General Dou Chong 竇衝 defeated Murong Chong and sent him fleeing to his brother with some 8,000 cavalry. Murong Hong’s support had only continued to grow with his victory over Fu Rui and the arrival of Chong and now took the opportunity to demand the release of Murong Wei and the restoration of the pre-conquest division between Former Qin and Former Yan. Fu Jian rejected the proposal and ordered Wei to write to his relatives and order them to surrender. Secretly, however, Murong Wei urged Hong to forget about him and left instructions about how the three Murong leaders should share power and that if he (Wei) should be executed that Hong succeeds him as emperor. Murong Hong marched on Chang’an and formally broke with Fu Jian by changing the era name, marking the establishment of Western Yan in the fourth lunar month of 384.

However, the Qin ruler considered Yao Chang’s Qiang to be a more pressing concern. In the fifth month, Chang established his capital at Beidi 北地 in the northern reaches of Guanzhong and received the submission of the local Qiang. Fu Jian reacted in the sixth month with reportedly 20,000 infantry and cavalry to defeat the rebels on the field and cut off the Qiang from their water supplies. When Yao Chang dispatched his younger brother Yinmai to break the dam of the nearby Tongguan River he was defeated and killed along with the majority of his troops by Dou Chong. In the traditional histories Yao Chang and his soldiers were saved from thirst by a sudden rainfall which caused three feet of water to fall into their camp, but only an inch outside it.

Elsewhere Gao Gai 高蓋, the strategist of Western Yan, organized a conspiracy with some other officials to depose Murong Hong. They were concerned that Hong lacked as excellent a reputation as Chong and about his rigorous and strict application of the law and his high taxes. So they killed him and raised Murong Chong to power with the title “Imperial Younger Brother”. Yao Chang immediately sought an alliance, hoping to gain Western Yan aid and to avoid any possible trouble from the Yan forces as Chang moved his people west. The alliance was granted, and the millennial king moved his troops to engage Fu Jian directly, reportedly leading 70,000 men. Jian answered by sending a strike force against the Later Qin troops but was defeated. Fu Hui in Luoyang abandoned that city and the eastern half of the empire in the seventh month to lead his troops to Chang’an to reinforce his father. He was joined by Wang Ci, a general serving under the governor of Yi Province 益州. Unfortunately for Former Qin, the departure of Ci coincided with a Jin offensive into modern Sichuan led Yang Liang 楊亮. Fu Jian remained in the field facing off against Yao Chang until word reached him that Murong Chong was now very close to Chang’an. Jian acted quickly to organize a defense outside the city and placed Fu Hui in overall command with some 50,000 men.

However, Murong Chong was already planning a clever strategy. He ordered the Xianbei women to mount oxen and horses and carry sacks of dirt and tall poles with flags attached. At dawn, Chong lead his Xianbei to attack Fu Hui’s fortified camp. At a pre-arranged signal, the women advanced and broke their sacks, blinding the defenders. Drums and shouts added to the confusion, but the attackers were kept in good order by the flags the women carried. The Qin army was defeated and fell back. At Bashang, another army under Fu Lin 苻琳 (another of Fu Jian’s sons) was defeated and the prince killed. The Western Yan army subsequently took Afang (also rendered as Epang) Palace 阿房宮 and was now only 9 miles west from the capital. Afang had also been the site of a palace constructed by the First Emperor of China in antiquity.

Further south, in Jing province, the Jin army was on the offensive. Huan Shimin 桓石民, a nephew of Huan Chong, captured Luyang and dispatched an army to take Luoyang. Xie Xuan 謝玄, the victor of the Battle of Fei River, advanced and took Pengcheng 彭城 in Xu Province 徐州 in the eighth month. At the same time, at Ye, the siege continued to drag on. The city was granted an unexpected reprieve by the rebellion of the Dingling. Zhai Bin had been executed when Murong Chui discovered he was in communication with Fu Pi, frustrated at being passed over for the position of prime minister, and offering to flood the siege camp. However, Bin’s nephew, Zhai Zhen 翟真 had escaped and raised the banner of revolt. On July 18th, Chui was forced to lift the siege of Ye. In the ninth month Liu Laozhi 劉牢之, Xie Xuan’s protégé, advanced into Yan province 兗州 and attacked the Qin forces there, driving off the governor (into the arms of Chui) before taking and setting into position at Juancheng 鄄城. By now Murong Chong had reached Chang’an and demanded the release of his brother Wei, but Fu Jian angrily refused yet again. In the next month, Fu Pi attempted to take advantage of his new breathing space to call for aid from within Ji province 冀州, unaware that Later Yan had already seized control of the region. His general was captured, and Pi attempted to call on Bing province 并州 for aid but was refused.

Unexpectedly, Jin forces now began to enter Ji, posing a threat to both Qin and Yan. When southern troops advanced far enough to capture Liyang 黎陽 Fu Pi hastened to negotiate with Xie Xuan. In return for a show of submission, he asked for supplies and safe passage out of the province. Should he reach Chang’an and make contact with his father, Ye would be handed over to Jin. Should the capital have already fallen or the road blocked then Pi asked to be allowed to maintain possession of Ye. Unbeknown to him, Yang Ying 楊膺 his brother-in-law and assistant altered the letter to make it appear that Pi was making a genuine surrender to the southern court.

In Chang’an Fu Jian was suddenly confronted by a new conspiracy. Murong Wei organized the Xianbei population of the capital with the intention of organizing an ambush to kill Jian and then join the Western Yan forces outside the walls in the final month of 384. When the plot was leaked to the redoubtable Dou Chong by his wife (the younger sister of one of the plotters) the Qin sovereign executed Wei, his entire family save two young boys (Rou 慕容柔 and Sheng 慕容盛, the son and grandson of Murong Chui) and soon after every Xianbei in the city. Chui, meanwhile, put Ye back under siege and Xie Xuan countered by sending Liu Laozhi with 20,000 to rescue the city and bring supplies. At Afang Murong Chong learned of his brother’s death and in the first month of the new year, 385 proclaimed himself emperor of Yan.

It did not take long for the forces of Western Yan to tighten their siege of Chang’an. Combined with a sudden famine the city was soon in dire straits. Fu Jian was an energetic defender however and defeated Yan two times before being defeated in turn though the Qin sovereign was still able to escape. Gao Gai then made a night attack on the city with a small force. He succeeded in breaching the south gate and entering the southern parts of Chang’an, but was defeated by the Qin defenders, and the bodies of the dead were used for food. Fu Hong 苻宏, the Crown Prince, followed up on this victory by leading troops out to inflict a second defeat on Gao Gai. His father meanwhile was leading his troops and together they succeeded in driving the besiegers back to Afang on the 20th day of the second month. Shortly afterward Fu Hui committed suicide from a mixture of shame from being defeated by Murong Chong so many times and his father’s repeated rebukes. To the east Liu Laozhi had reached Fangtou 枋頭. His officers informed Fu Pi of what Yang Ying and his supporters had done, and Pi put them to death causing Laozhi to drag out his advance on purpose.

In the next month Qin cavalry, numbering 5,000, fought with Yan troops to bring in some grain. They were defeated in battle near Mt. Li; one general died, and the other fled to Ye. In an earlier battle at the same place Fu Fang 苻方, Jian’s cousin was slain. The second body of cavalry, some 2,500 elite troops led by Jian’s son-in-law Yang Ding, were dispatched and won a victory at Mt. Li, capturing some 10,000 Xianbei. The prisoners were buried alive. Ding’s victory forced Chong to begin protecting his camps with pits in hopes of forcing the Qin cavalry to dismount in future engagements. At the same time, Laozhi reached Ye and defeated Murong Chui, forcing him to retreat northward. While Pi led the garrison to Fangtou to load up on grain Laozhi pursued the retreating Yan army. He was defeated and fell back to Ye, where Pi allowed him to rebuild his army to fighting strength. Around the same time in Sichuan, the Qin governor of Yi Province fled from the advancing Jin forces to Longxi with 30,000 people.

For Murong Chui, his victory would soon prove hollow. His troops fell victim to starvation as famine afflicted the besiegers as well, and many abandoned their posts to flee to Zhongshan 中山, a major stronghold. Chui had placed one of his nephews in power there, Murong Wen 慕容溫, who turned around what was formerly a militarily precarious position. Once he had repelled a Dingling attack, Wen forwarded on supplies and started construction on a palace. In the fourth month, Chui began seriously considering moving his headquarters and capital to Zhongshan and sent Murong Nong on ahead of him. However, first he had to take Ye. Meanwhile out west Yao Chang was still tied down with a siege of his own.

The Later Qin forces had surrounded Xinping 新平 in the tenth month of the previous year, but the city was held stoutly by a Di leader of one of the Fu clan’s consort clans named Gou Fu 苟輔. When Yao Chang made hills of packed earth and dug tunnels under the walls, Fu had countermeasures waiting for him. At one point the defenders offered to surrender, but Chang was made aware it was a trick and pulled his army back before it could enter the city though he still suffered losses during the retreat. Now in the fourth month of 385 Xinping was running low on food and supplies and news from the area around Chang’an made it clear relief was not coming. Chang sent a messenger to tell Fu if he abandoned his city he could lead the surviving population to Chang’an in safety. Fu accepted the offer and led his people, numbering 5,000 in all, out. The Qiang surrounded and buried them alive except a lone survivor who made it to the Qin capital. In Sichuan Jin completed its conquest of Yi Province when its officer Ren Quan took the provincial capital of Chengdu.

In Chang’an matters continued to look grim. In the fifth month, some 3,000 men from 30 fortified strongholds in the Guanzhong region attempted to reinforce Fu Jian’s position and bring some much-needed supplies. This attempt failed due to bandits, which were running rampant in the area. When Jian sought to set fire to Murong Chong’s siege camps, this also failed. As the situation deteriorated and defections increased amidst fears that the city could not hold the Qin sovereign devised a new plan. He would leave Chang’an under the command of Crown Prince Hong while making his way with a small force into the mountains. Jian believed he could break through and bring back troops and supplies to relieve the city this way. As the first step, Yang Ding was dispatched to battle Murong Chong, but he was defeated and captured. Jian nevertheless stuck with his plan, breaking through the siege lines safely and proclaiming he would rescue his capital by the beginning of winter.

Without Fu Jian’s presence in the city, however, everything collapsed. Fu Hong abandoned Chang’an with his wife and mother in the next month and went south to Jin. The officials scattered, and several hundred took service with Yao Chang, who was closer than ever. Sensing his opportunity, Murong Chong entered Chang’an without a fight and gave his troops free reign to plunder it. Fu Jian was surrounded by Wu Zhong 吳忠, a general of Later Qin, in the seventh month and captured, taken to Xinping and put under house arrest. Chang attempted to convince him to abdicate in the following month, and his chief minister, Yin Wei 尹緯, joined in but Jian would hear none of it. Shortly after that, he killed his two daughters who were present with him, not wanting them to be raped by Qiang soldiers. Angered at being deprived of a “legitimate” succession to the imperial dignity Chang ordered his former ruler strangled to death when Jian visited the local Buddhist temple. Traditionally the date is said to have been October 16th, 385. Fu Jian, the man who had nearly unified China only a short time before, was dead at 47. Jian’s concubine, Consort Zhang, and his son Fu Shen 苻詵 who had also accompanied his flight from Chang’an, committed suicide on the same day. When Chang found his soldiers mourning, he kept his part in the death of Jian a secret and bestowed a posthumous name and title on the Former Qin sovereign.

“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 ( or CC 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 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Pang Juan died under this tree” – The battles of Guiling and Maling

The twin battles of Guiling and Maling (354 and 342 BC respectively) during China’s Warring States period made the reputation of the otherwise little known Sun Bin, a supposed descendant of Sunzi. These battles were also of epochal importance by breaking the military power of the State of Wei and, indirectly, making the rise of Qin possible.

With the partitioning of the “Super-State” of Jin in 453 and the three states that resulted formally recognized by the Royal Zhou in 403, the most powerful successor was Wei. Its strength derived from its control over the central regions of Jin. However, Wei also possessed significant strategic weaknesses since its territory comprised two large halves connected by a narrow strip. Additionally, both of Wei’s capitals were located on flat terrain that left them completely exposed to attack.

Nevertheless under the able rule of Prince Wen (445-396) the state underwent radical internal reforms. In this, he was aided by capable individuals like Li Kui, Ximen Bao, and the military administrator Wu Qi. Wei grew in power steadily, causing the other Jin successor states, Hann (different Chinese character then the Han Dynasty) and Zhao, to become wary and break off their existing alliances. In 370 Wen’s grandson, Prince Hui came to power following a civil war and invasions by Hann and Zhao. Hui, an ambitious ruler, immediately began expanding in all four directions.

By 356 Prince Hui felt powerful enough to force attendance by the minor states of Lu, Song, Wey (different Chinese character then Wei), and Zheng to a formal conference to affirm Wei superiority. Zhao was also supposed to attend, but instead formed a mutual defense pact with the State of Qi, now a great northeastern power. Two years later Wei led Hann, Zhao, and Wey in expanding their territories at the expense of their perimeter enemies. Zhao though failed to profit and now felt pressure to find some way to continue keeping up with Hann and Wei.

Later that year Zhao launched a mass invasion of Wey, forcing it to pay homage. This action was poorly received by Wei, as Wey was previously paying tribute to them. Prince Hui ordered a single, great, surgical strike directly at the Zhao capital of Handan aiming for a short war that would empower his state. As a first stroke, Wei forces besieged Chiqiu before heading on to the capital.

The other feudal states of China reacted badly to this move, wishing to prevent Wei from being able to wield power like Jin had done before the Warring States. Zhao sent a desperate plea for aid to Qi and Chu (a great southern power). Duke Wei of Qi was undecided about what to do and allowed his retainers to argue it out. The arguments of Sun Bin and Duanhan Lun (who might have been the same person) to “rescue” Zhao won out. Sun and Duanhan did not advocate for immediate intervention, but waiting until the two sides had worn each other out. Thus, Qi would be left in a position of strength by the end of the fighting.

To that end, they advanced a three-point plan:


  1. Attack Xiangling with Song, Wey, and Chu to fool the Wei forces into thinking that Qi intended to attack their supply lines and primary staging area in the south.


  1. Send a dispatch to Handan to let Zhao know that help was on the way.


  1. Allow Handan to fall and Zhao to teeter on the brink of collapse before actually moving forward.



Sun Bin as depicted in a Ming Dynasty portrait. See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

This let Qi appear as if it was fulfilling its obligations but also let it take advantage of the situation. Qi forces were mobilized and a small, but highly skilled, the army was sent to besiege Xiangling. When Handan fell a year later, Qi gathered its forces to attack.

The army sent to Wei was commanded by General Tian Ji, with Sun Bin as his strategist. Sun suggested an attack on Pingling, another southern supply depot and staging area as a feint. To do this, he had the general send two detached columns under incompetent commanders. On receiving word of the columns’ defeat Tian Ji and Sun Bin dispatched their light chariots and light infantry to attack the suburbs of Daliang, Wei’s greatest city in the east. Chu was also active in this campaign, posing its own a threat to Daliang.

An already rattled Prince Hui desperately called for aid from his general Pang Juan, still in Zhao. Pang, believing the Qi army to be relatively small, departed for Daliang with only his elite light troops with him. While the Wei forces marched south, Sun Bin called forth his tactical reserves from across the border and planned an ambush. The site he chose was Guiling, through which Pang Juan would have to pass to reach Daliang. The Qi forces deployed in depth and partially concealed.

As a result when the Wei forces finally did arrive they were taken completely by surprise. Suffering both from the after-effects of siege warfare and the quick march south the forces of Pang Juan crumbled under the press of the Qi assault. Sun Bin’s forces were well-rested and supremely motivated, allowing him to defeat Pang’s Wei forces handily.

In the chaos, the Wei commander was captured and General Tian allowed Sun Bin to decide his fate. For the strategist, this was an opportunity for revenge. Pang Juan and Sun Bin had once been competitors for Prince Hui’s favor, and Pang won the contest by mutilating and exiling Sun. Strangely Sun Bin allowed Pang Juan to live and sent him back to Wei in disgrace. The campaign had ended in smashing victory for Qi, allowing Zhao to recover and ending the myth of Wei military invincibility. In the west Qin, sensing opportunity, invaded Wei. At the battle of Yuanli, they defeated Prince Hui’s troops and annexed Shaoliang, part of Wei’s home territory.

Sun Bin and the Qi army’s spectacular feat was not enough to end Wei’s hegemonic ambitions. In 352 Prince Hui, with Hann assistance, was able to defeat the allied armies at Xiangling and conclude terms. The next year Handan was returned to Zhao and a peace settlement reached on friendly terms. This allowed Prince Hui to turn his attentions on Qin. Shaoliang was reclaimed, and the city of Dingyang captured. In 350 Prince Hui was able to force Duke Xiao of Qin to do homage and accept Wei overlordship. In 344 Prince Wei declared himself equal to the Zhou king and gave himself a royal title. Qi’s Duke Wei followed suit, the two rulers agreeing to recognize the other’s independence from Zhou.

In a display of strength, Wei called a conference at Fengze to affirm its power and superiority. Song, Wey, Zou, Lu, and Hann were all summoned to attend. Hann was the only absence, building up strength under the guidance of its Legalist chief counselor, Shen Buhai. In 343 Hann armies attacked minor states nearby, which coupled with Hann’s general aim since Guiling of strengthening their position in the center of the plains, posed a serious threat to Wei.

King Hui, therefore, had three reasons to attack Hann. First, Hann territory intersected Wei and divided them into halves. Second, Hann’s growing strength posed a threat to Wei hegemony. Third, Hann’s refusal to show up at Fengze was perceived as an insult.

Pang Juan was dispatched to attack Xinzheng, the Hann capital. Much like with Zhao twelve years earlier, King Hui was aiming for clean surgical strike straight at the enemy capital to bring the war to an end quickly. Hann called on Qi for aid, judging that Qin was in no position to help and that Chu would just swallow up their southern half.

King Wei asked his retainers to argue it out. Eventually, the arguments of Sun Bin and Tian Chensi won out. Wary of Hann’s growing power and hoping to increase Qi’s prestige Sun and Tian advocated waiting for one year to allow both sides to tire out. A repeat of the strategy adopted when Wei invaded Zhao. Like before, Hann was given assurances of support.

A year later Hann, having been defeated by Pang Juan five times in major battles, sent a second plea for aid. They even agreed to recognize Qi overlordship in their desperation. Qi, which had been gathering its troops along the border, swung into action. Tian Ji (given certain chronological difficulties, Tian Ban is sometimes suggested instead) and Tian Ying were both appointed generals and Sun Bin as their strategist.

Under Sun Bin’s advice, Tian Ji led his army on a march to Daliang. King Hui responded by recalling Pang Juan from his siege of Xinzheng, the Hann capital. He also mobilized a fresh army under his heir, Crown Prince Shen (also called Jia), which would unite with Pang’s army to overwhelm the Qi forces with sheer weight of numbers.

The Qi army withdrew in the sight of the two Wei columns. Sun Bin knew Pang Juan would be wary of ambush, so he concocted a clever ruse. Over three days he ordered the number of cooking fires reduced to less than half the original to make it appear as though their troops were deserting. In the meanwhile, Tian Ji and Tian Ying had been leading the army to Mt. Maling, near modern Tancheng in Shandong.

Sun Bin had chosen his site carefully. The road to the mountain passed through a valley marked by ravines and wooded hillsides. Here Sun laid out an ambush force in a circular formation along the sides and the far end of the valley, erected fortifications, and held most of the Qi army in reserve at the mouth of the valley. Pang Juan, meanwhile, had abandoned the greater part of his army to race ahead with his elite vanguard at double pace. He arrived at Maling by dusk, with Crown Prince Shen lagging behind.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian Sun Bin, had scraped some bark off of a tree and wrote: “Pang Juan died under this tree”. He also left orders to his crossbowmen to rise and fire as one when they saw a torch. The results were predictable. Pang perished in a hail of bolts (alternatively he escaped the initial volley only to commit suicide later), and his army thrown into disarray as the Qi army sprung its trap. Crown Prince Shen’s troops were soon caught up in the trap as well as they found themselves attacked from behind by the Qi reserve. The Wei forces found themselves trapped in a killing zone with no way out and destroyed.




A map of the Maling campaign. By Tzhu (the English language Wikipedia (log)) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Historical records differ as to the fate of the Wei crown prince, with him either falling in battle, being captured, or committing suicide. In any case, the Qi victory at Maling was another smashing success and confirmed Sun Bin’s reputation. Qin and Zhao allied with Qi to make considerable territorial gains at Wei’s expense. Qin, in particular, prospered at the direction of Shang Yang, who attacked Wei in 340, capturing the new Wei crown prince and forced King Hui to cede all territory west of the Yellow River. Wei then moved its capital to Daliang to escape Qin and never recovered its former power. Qi meanwhile enjoyed undisputed hegemony in eastern China for the next several decades before its decline.



Ma Teng, Han Sui, and the Liang Rebellion

Traditionally, Ma Teng and Han Sui are portrayed as being loyal subjects of the Han dynasty starting with the Ming novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the various media that has followed it. Ma Chao, Teng’s most famous son, is portrayed similarly.

Han Sui was an officer in modern Lanzhou at the time of the outbreak of the Liang Rebellion and joined the Qiang and Lesser Yuezhi mutineers of the Auxiliary of Loyal Barbarians in late 184. He quickly emerged as rebel leader alongside his colleague Bian Zhang. Ma Teng, half-Qiang himself, was a foot soldier in the government armies rising to major under Inspector Geng Bi by 187. He claimed descent from Ma Yuan, a famous general who helped establish the Later Han dynasty.

Following the inspector’s death in battle, Ma Teng switched sides and quickly caught attention. He styled himself a general under Wang Guo, the new rebel leader. When loyalist forces under Huangfu Song defeated Wang at Chencang during an attack on Chang’an and deposed in 189 Ma Teng took control of Longxi commandery, fighting the Qiang and Di. From there he exerted control over the middle Wei River as one of three main rebel commanders. Han Sui, holding Jincheng commandery, was another and commanded the majority of the Liang troops. Song Jian, who adopted the grandiose title “King of the Sources of the Yellow River, Pacifier of Han”, was the third and later set up an independent state from his base at Fuhan.

With the turmoil caused by the Han succession disputes and Dong Zhuo’s coup no one paid attention to events in Liang province. Dong, however, recognized the strength of Ma and Han’s armies and offered them pardon in return for service against the coalition of lords aligning against him in 190. They accepted and made imperial generals but stayed neutral in the war against Dong Zhuo.

Ma Teng and Han Sui both re-confirmed their loyalty after Dong made the move west to Chang’an. Two years later Dong Zhuo was assassinated by Lu Bu, and Li Jue and Guo Si seized power after a brief succession struggle. At first Ma Teng and Han Sui submitted to the new clique and were confirmed as generals for this submission. In reality they were just biding time, for Ma Teng wanted power for himself. Slowly, Ma extended his control east as far as Mei Castle on the northern bank of the Wei River. In 194 Ma Teng suddenly struck for Chang’an with Han Sui and Governor Liu Yan of Yi province supporting him. Northwest of the capital at Changping Slope Guo Si and Fan Chou defeated the Liang-Yi forces. Ma withdrew to Liang while Han, pursued more carefully, withdrew to Chencang. He reached an amicable agreement with Fan, his countryman and was able to return to Jincheng after that. Both men were subsequently pardoned and given new titles.

Failure at Changping Slope weakened the Liang rebels, allowing the central government to make gains at their expense. The commanderies west of the Yellow River were lost and reorganized as a new province, called Yong. The official government of Liang also began reasserting itself from the capital at Ji.

In 197 both Ma Teng and Han Sui acknowledged Cao Cao’s control over the Han dynasty. They dispatched hostages east, and Cao sent his agent, Zhong Yao, to them. Zhong sparked a falling out between the two leaders and Liang fell into civil war. Han emerged victoriously and killed Ma’s wife and some of his children in the process. Zhong Yao then brokered a peace agreement and Ma Teng withdrew to his home in Youfufeng commandery west of Chang’an and set his capital at Huaili. A few years later in 202 Cao Cao sent another agent, Zhang Ji, to conclude an alliance and ask for troops for his war with the sons of Yuan Shao.

Cao Cao came to depend upon on Ma Teng for his famed Qiang-style cavalry and used these forces for the remainder of his campaigns against the Yuans and northern unification. Ma Chao, Teng’s eldest, commanded the Liang cavalry and served with distinction. However this service only strengthened the ties between Ma Teng and Cao Cao, decreasing the former’s independence. Han Sui, on the other hand, remained steadfast in refusing any more contact with Cao Cao or his government then necessary.

In 208 Cao Cao, now paramount warlord, dispatched Zhang Ji a second time to Huaili. Ma Teng was compelled to come east and take up a post at Ye, Cao’s military capital. He was enfeoffed and given the exalted position of “Minister of the Guards” but was also a hostage along with his surviving sons, except Ma Chao.

Chao was given command of Liang province troops as a lieutenant-general and set up his command in Longxi. Meanwhile, Han Sui was forced conclude an alliance with Cao Cao in 209 and send his sons as hostages. The following year he invaded Yong province and destroyed Inspector Zhang Meng. Ma Chao by now had established an alliance with Han.

In 211 Xiahou Yuan marched into the Wei valley to attack Zhang Lu’s positions in Hanyang commandery. Unfortunately Ma Chao and Han Sui misinterpreted this as a preemptive strike against them and began building a western coalition to oppose Cao Cao. They expelled Xiahou’s army and forced Cao to appear himself that autumn. Blocked at Tong Pass, Cao Cao left a holding force behind and led his troops north, crossed the Yellow River upstream to the west, then marched south, intending to cross the Wei at Huaiyin. Han Sui requested a truce to negotiate and reminisce (the two were old friends), but only succeeded in arousing Ma Chao and the other western lords’ suspicions. The coalition was defeated at Huaiyin and driven back.

The following year, during the summer, Ma Teng and his entire household were executed because of Ma Chao’s rebellion. Chao, from his refuge in Longxi, gathered support for a renewed attack east. With Qiang, Di, and Zhang Lu of Hanzhong’s support he attacked Liang and Hanyang, conquering Ji in September, 212. Ma Chao proclaimed himself ruler of Liang and Bing, but his “reign” was short-lived. The next winter, 213, a local uprising evicted the Ma forces and forced them to take refuge in Hanzhong. Zhang Lu backed Ma Chao’s attempt to return in 214, but he was defeated by Xiahou Yuan and compelled to retreat. With Zhang refusing to support him, Ma fled to the Di where he would remain until Liu Bei invited him to join his attack on Liu Zhang of Yi province later that year.

Meanwhile, Han Sui was hard pressed. Xiahou Yuan expelled him from his forward positions in Hanyang and annihilated his army. Han fled back to Jincheng and then to modern Xining. Xiahou was turning his attention toward the Di and took Xingguo before pressing on to attack Song Jian. Zhang He, then serving under Xiahou Yuan, embarked on campaign independently over the Yellow River into the territory of the Lesser Yuezhi around Qinghai Lake. When Xiahou Yuan’s armies were recalled for the campaign against Zhang Lu in 215 Han Sui, then planning to flee into Yi, listened to the pleas of his advisors and raised fresh troops. With these and Qiang support he crushed the revolt of his son-in-law Yan Xing, now aligned with Cao Cao and died. That July the head was offered to Cao along with the submission of Han’s officers.

Content with mere recognition of his authority, Cao Cao left matters in Han Sui’s former territory alone. Only in Jincheng did he appoint his officer, Su Ze, as administrator. In late 217 government forces took Fuhan and executed Song Jian and his ministers. The following year the commanderies of Xining, Wuwei, Zhangye, and Jiuquan all fell into anarchy following a general war between their officers.

Peace was not restored until the very end of the Han and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms. In the summer of 220 Cao Pi, having succeeded his father, Cao Cao as King of Wei, appointed Su Ze as Protector of the Qiang. Su was charged, along with Zou Qi (inspector of the newly reconstituted Liang province), to restore order in the far west. The rebels raised their banner again and united under Huang Hua and Wang Zhao, joined the Qiang and Dingling. Su and Zou, aided by Inspector Zhang Ji of Yong and the Dunhuang chieftain Zhang Gong, emerged victorious a year later. In 222 the western trade reopened, marking the end of 50 years of turmoil.

The Battle of Poyang Lake

In late August 1363 AD the two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang, faced off on Poyang (also called Boyang) Lake, the largest freshwater body of water in China. In the end Zhu Yuanzhang would win the battle and go on to found one of China’s greatest dynasties: the Ming.

The circumstances that would lead to Poyang Lake are tied to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. When Kublai Khan founded his Yuan Dynasty in 1271 many of the Chinese resented it. In fact they never regarded the Yuan as a legitimate dynasty, but as a foreign occupation army. As time would show very few Yuan Emperors were capable and they became more decedent and sinicized over time. In the 1320s a massive famine swept China and 7 to 8 million people died of starvation. The inability of the Yuan to handle the crises was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many secret societies devoted to the destruction of the Yuan popped up all over the land.

In 1325 the first rebellion broke out. The central Yuan government in Dadu (modern Beijing) was paralyzed and unable to act. Further the Yuan Army had denigrated into an ineffectual force. The wealthy landowning class realized the uprising, which was made of peasants, threatened them just as much as the Yuan. So they armed their own private armies and saved the Yuan from collapse. But the next time they would not be so lucky. In 1344 a flood broke the dams along the Huang He. The Yuan called up 170,000 peasants to fix the dams. But instead the peasants rose in revolt in 1352, and from there snowballed out of control. More rebellions broke out all over the country, and this time the landowners could not save the Yuan. By 1355 the dynasty was for all intents and purposes dead, although the Yuan Emperor remained in power until 1368.

Among the various rebel groups, many of which were religious in nature, the most powerful was the Song regime. The Song regime was originally a combined Buddhist-Manichean sect called the White Lotus, and became the Song regime in 1355. The titular leader was Han Lin’er, the Young King of Brilliance, and the son of Han Shantong, the sect’s founding father. But true power lay in the hands of the so called Red Turban (the military arm of the White Lotus) generals and in particular with a former beggar named Zhu Yuanzhang.

Zhu had been a Buddhist monk, but left his monastery to join the Song. Despite being so ugly that he was compared to a pig in looks Zhu was a strong and charismatic leader. People came to him in droves and Zhu rose quickly among the Song. In 1356 Zhu Yuanzhang conquered Yingtian (modern Nanjing) and from there abandoned the last vestiges of his Buddhist past, proclaiming himself the defender of Confucianism and the people. The Confucian scholars in return began to invent for him a claim to The Mandate of Heaven, the principle by which the Chinese considered no one could not rule. Zhu could now effectively make his own claim to power, but Zhu Shen, a scholar, persuaded him to hold off. Saying:

“Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king”

Attacks from former Red Turban leaders Zhang Shicheng and Xu Shouhui would keep Zhu Yuanzhang busy in the south for several years. Zhu’s ultimate aim was to build up his power base by destroying the southern rebels, while supporting Liu Futong’s (the nominal commander-in-chief of the regime) northern adventures. A major upset occurred in 1360 when Xu Shouhui was killed by his general Chen Youliang, who founded the Da Han regime. This would mark the start of a three-year war between Chen and Zhu.

In 1363 Zhang Shicheng dispatched his general Lu Zhen to attack Anfeng, as Han Lin’er was in the city. The city was quickly besieged and reduced to starvation. At this point Han Lin’er sent out calls for aid. At the time Zhu Yuanzhang was at Yingtian. He knew that if Anfeng fell his flank would be exposed, so Zhu left to save his lord. Chen Youliang saw this as a major opportunity for him to regain the lands in Jiangxi he had lost in 1361. So while Zhu battled Lu for Anfeng, Chen led a massive force to attack Hongdu (modern Nanchang) in June 1363.

The attack force’s exact size is unknown, many accounts number it around 600,000, but this is a popular myth, regardless it was a large force. The naval force was the most impressive piece of the attack. The ships Chen Youliang used here were said to be bright red, several zhang (units of ten feet) high, triple decked, with the decks wide enough for a horse to walk on, with armored hulls and sculling oars. This has lead modern scholars to deduce that Chen Youliang was using Lou Chuans (tower ships) in this battle. However big his army and navy Chen would find Hongdu impossible to crack, the city was well defended by its commander, Zhu Wenzheng. Despite fierce fighting and high casualties among the defenders Hongdu held out. In August Zhu Wenzheng was finally able to get word out of the city to Zhu Yuanzhang.

Zhu Yuanzhang had returned to Yingtian by now from saving Han Lin’er. With the majority his forces fighting Zhang Shicheng at Luzhou (modern Hefei) the news that Chen had attacked Hongdu was an unwelcome surprise. Zhu knew he had to act quickly, even with his small force. But Zhu also knew that in the middle of summer the water in the lake went down. Given the size of the Da Han ships this would mean Zhu and his Red Turban forces would have the advantage with their much smaller boats. Zhu Yuanzhang knew this would be the perfect chance to wipe out the Da Han and Chen Youliang with them. He immediately sent letters to Xu Da and Chang Yuchun, his commanders at Luzhou to wrap it up and come home quickly. Zhu realized that he could not wait for Xu and Chang and on August 6th set out from Yingtian with Feng Guosheng, Liao Yongzhong, and Yu Tonghai to the rescue of Hongdu.

On August 25th Red Turban forces reached Hukou. There Zhu Yuanzhang divided his forces; he sent his land army to Jingjiangkou, Nanhuzui, and Wuyangdu to spring a trap for the Da Han forces. Zhu personally led the naval force to Poyang Lake. On August 27th Chen Youliang realized that after 85 days of siege that Hongdu was not going to surrender, at the same time he learned that a relief fleet was sailing on to the lake. Chen knew his heavy ships could not fight well against the Red Turbans’ lighter vessels, plus the water level continued to fall daily. He knew he needed a quick victory. So the Da Han fleet abandoned the siege of Hongdu and sailed out onto Poyang Lake, dropping anchor around Mt. Kanglang on August 30th. Zhu saw this and did the same. Thus began the decisive battle of Poyang Lake.

File:Satelites image of Lake Poyang.png

Modern satellite image of Lake Poyang. By NASA (NASA Landsat Image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Red Turban forces under Zhu Yuanzhang were smaller, but had an advantage against the Da Han forces they faced. Numbers for the Song forces at Poyang Lake are usually said to be around 200,000 men.  To exploit the higher mobility of his ships Zhu had his navy divided into eleven squadrons of ships. The lightest vessels were placed out in front and rear, while the heavier vessels were placed in the center. Zhu Yuanzhang mandated before the start of the battle that every ship carry large and small cannon, handguns, rocket arrows, grenades, fire lances, multiple bolt launchers, and crossbows.

The Da Han forces were larger then the Red Turbans, but with their bigger boats they had a disadvantage. The total number of ships that was with Chen Youliang at Poyang Lake is unknown; however among historians it is believed that Chen Youliang outnumbered Zhu three-to-one at Poyang. Knowing this a reasonable estimate for the size of the Da Han navy at Poyang would be 600,000. Chen believed that all he had to do to defeat Zhu would be to stand fast against him. Therefore Chen had his vast navy chained together, not only did this allow his fleet to remain still but the chains would prevent any penetrations into the Da Han battle line.

With both forces ready the battle of Poyang Lake would be joined. That same day after taking up positions Zhu Yuanzhang opened the battle by sending in the three squadrons of Xu Da, Chang Yuchun (both men had since been able to hook-up with the main body), and Liao Yongzhong. The large numbers of missiles, gunpowder, and other weaponry made the battle visible for over fifty miles. The ferocity of the attack almost broke the Da Han line and when Yu Tonghai showed up in support with a fourth squadron of ships twenty Da Han vessels went down in flames. Besides this Xu Da was able to board and take over one of Chen’s prize Lou Chuans. However the Da Han were able to launch a counterattack. The Da Han vessels, using their height superiority, began to rain down flaming arrows on Xu Da’s ship, which was the vanguard ship of Zhu’s forces. Immediately the other Song vessels came to the rescue to try to drive off the Da Han ships. Even Zhu Yuanzhang himself joined in with his squadron. Due to the concentrated efforts of all involved the fire on Xu Da’s ship was put out and the Song ships scattered to avoid being targeted by Da Han trebuchets.

As the Red Turbans attempted to regroup Chen Youliang’s best commander, Zhang Dingbian, spotted Zhu’s command ship and took off after it. In the attempt to escape from his pursuer Zhu’s ship ran aground on a shoal. Zhang seized the moment and poured everything he had at Zhu Yuanzhang’s command vessel. The other ships, noticing their commander under attack, began to pile toward him. The resulting waves caused by so many ships converging on one place knocked Zhu’s ship free from the sandbar. Zhang Dingbian kept on however until the combined efforts of Chang Yuchun, Yu Tonghai, and Liao Yongzhong forced his retreat. Liao would continue to chase Zhang, nearly turning the latter into a living pincushion, until Zhang got back behind his own lines.

The battle would continue until nightfall and in the review would prove to be a disappointment to both sides. Zhu Yuanzhang had believed that his nimbler ships would be able to run rings around the massive Da Han ships and attack them with impunity. However Chen had realized that possibility and maneuvered his ships so when the Red Turbans tried to flank him, the ships would run aground, as Zhu himself learned. In addition Zhu lost many men in the fight, more then anticipated, as well as many good commanders (especially in the fracas surrounding the command ship beaching). For Chen’s part he had not expected Zhu to make a full frontal attack. The loss of twenty ships at the start of the battle was an unwelcome surprise. Not to mention his fury over that Zhang was not able to kill Zhu. At nightfall Xu Da withdrew from the battle back to Yingtian on Zhu’s orders. He feared an attack from Zhang Shicheng in his rear and knew he could depend on Xu Da to keep Yingtian safe.

On the following morning, August 31st, Zhu Yuanzhang ordered a second full frontal assault on the Da Han lines, hoping for a repeat of the previous day’s success and this time around Zhu would be in personal command. But Chen Youliang had anticipated such a move and had the massive Lou Chuans moved to the front of the formation tightly packed. As a result despite three full frontal assaults by Red Turban forces the Da Han were able to keep throwing them back. Then the squadrons on the right wing began to turn and sail away. In a fury Zhu ordered them to return to battle, when they refused Zhu ordered his ships to disengage.

Back at camp Zhu Yuanzhang let out the full weight of his infamous temper, he ordered the executions of the ten commanders who fled the battle as an example to the rest. Zhu seemed prepared to execute many more, but his staff officer Guo Xing intervened. Guo pointed out to his commander that it was not cowardice or lack of effort that was the reason that he was losing the battle. Instead and correctly, Guo pointed out that it was the disparity in the sizes of their vessels to Chen’s.

To correct this he proposed a fire attack. Realizing his mistakes Zhu Yuanzhang took to the plan wholeheartedly and had seven fire ships constructed. These ships were built to look like any regular vessel and had straw dummies dressed in armor and holding weapons to fool the Da Han crews. All that was needed now was a wind to blow the ships toward the enemy. That evening a northeastern wind blew and the fire ships were sent away. Before the Da Han fleet even realized what was happening their fleet had been set ablaze. When night fell Poyang Lake had become a lake of fire. Zhu Yuanzhang seized the initiative and attacked.

By morning half of the Da Han forces had been either burned alive or killed by Zhu’s attack. Among the dead was Chen Youliang’s brothers Youren and Yougui. After this both sides withdrew to their camps for a while. On September 2nd the fighting resumed when Chen Youliang launched a mass attack on Zhu’s flagship. The ferocity became so great that Zhu realized he had to abandon his ship, but could not because of his distinct armor. So he was forced to exchange his armor with one of his generals, which allowed Zhu to escape just as his ship exploded. After pulling back Zhu Yuanzhang realized that Chen was identifying his ship by its white boom. So when the Red Turban forces returned later in the day all the ships had white booms. Noticing the Da Han ships were having difficulty maneuvering Zhu sent his commanders Yu Tonghai, Liao Yongzhong, Zhang Xingzu, and Zhao Yong to a quick strike between the behemoth vessels with some small fast ships. This act of daring raised Red Turban morale significantly. After the commanders returned a general assault was launched that was able to smash the Da Han forces.

The tide had turned. Chen Youliang realized the battle had turned against him and tried to escape via Xieshan at Hukou. But Zhu was already waiting for him. For a while Chen Youliang had begun to disengage his navy, and Zhu Yuanzhang had received word that his ground forces had broken the land siege of Hongdu and had entered the city in triumph. This meant that for all intents and purposes he had won the battle for he had rescued Hongdu, his original goal. But Zhu realized that this battle presented him with the golden opportunity to remove the thorn of Chen Youliang, and Zhu was not going to let this chance slip. So he moved his navy back off the lake and onto the mouths of the Gan and Yangzi rivers. This made it appear he was going home, but also allowed him to block the route of retreat for the Da Han forces as well.

By September 4th Chen Youliang had thrown himself at the Red Turban forces blockading the rivers and made no headway. At this point his Right Golden General, name unknown, proposed abandoning the ships and advancing overland to Hunan to regroup and resupply, then return. The Left Golden General, name also unknown, disagreed; stating that if they went overland the Red Turban cavalry would make mincemeat of them. In the end and despite his generals’ bickering, Chen decided to take the Right General’s advice. This made the Left General surrender to Zhu Yuanzhang in despair. Shortly after the Right General did the same for unknown reasons. Following this Zhu sent many letters to Chen Youliang calling for his surrender. Chen’s reply was to execute all his prisoners. Remarkably Zhu did not retaliate by executing his prisoners, instead he let them go. Following this both commanders did nothing for the rest of the month, for fear of losing their respective fleets. However the remaining Da Han were beginning to starve.

As a month passed Zhu Yuanzhang recognized that Chen would attempt a break out or risk losing his remaining forces to starvation. With this in mind the Red Turban forces moved off the lake entirely and went back up the Yangzi to Hukou. Here the entire force went ashore from the ships. A majority dug in on both banks of the river and built wooden palisades. The rest built fire ships or were sent to occupy Qizhou and Xingguo. On October 4th Chen Youliang realized he had no choice and led a last-ditch attack of Zhu Yuanzhang’s forces at Nanhuzui in an attempt to break through to the safety of Wuchang. However the blockade at Hukou prevented the Da Han forces from even being able to reach Nanhuzui. Chen made a split decision to try a breakout at Jingjiangkou instead. However along the way a force of Red Turban ships ambushed him and amid the fighting an arrow hit Chen Youliang through the eye and into his skull causing instant death.

When the Da Han troops realized their king was dead Chen Rongyu, as ranking commander, surrendered the remaining 50,000 soldiers to the forces of Zhu Yuanzhang. To appease Zhu he planned to give up his former master’s two sons. The older boy, Shan’er, was given for execution, but the younger, Li, had disappeared. In fact Zhang Dingbian, the Da Han star commander, had whisked the boy away to Wuchang in the confusion of surrender. With Chen Rongyu’s surrender of the remaining Da Han forces the long battle of Poyang Lake had come to an end.

In the aftermath of Poyang much happened. With the death of Chen Youliang and the destruction of most of his forces the Da Han regime had received a wound from which it would not recover. Chen Li, the second son of Youliang and successor, surrendered just one year later in March 1364, to the new King of Wu. The previous month Zhu Yuanzhang had judged the time right to break out of the shell of the Song regime and establish his own, which he named Wu. Zhu continued to wage war against his southern rivals for many years, until 1367 when he unified the south. That same year Zhu Yuanzhang finally attacked the Yuan remnants in the north for the first time, sending Xu Da with the task of capturing Dadu. He also sent Liao Yongzhong to attack the Mongols in Guangdong and Guangxi.

In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed a new dynasty in Yingtian, the Ming (Brilliance), taking inspiration from the title of his former superior, Han Lin’er. Yingtian’s name was changed to Nanjing, meaning southern capital. Furthermore Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor Ming Taizu (Great Ancestor), with the era name Hongwu (Immensely Martial). It is by his era name that he is best recorded in history. By 1369 the new emperor had chased the last vestige of Mongol rule out of China, marking the beginning of Ming rule over the entire country. The Ming dynasty would go on to rule for 300 years, ending at the hands of the Manchus of Qing in 1644. In conclusion the battle of Poyang Lake was the decisive battle in the wars between the various rebel groups and by wining the battle Zhu Yuanzhang ensured his supremacy, eventually paving the way for the foundation of Ming rule.



The court portrait of Ming Taizu in old age. By Palace Painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.



Turnbull, Stephen (2002). ‘Fighting Ships of the Far East (1): China and Southeast Asia

202 BC – AD 1419.’ Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Chen, Junyi. “Re: Battle of Poyang Lake.” In China History Forum

[online discussion board]. Cited 20 June 2006.

Available from:

The Sui-Tang Invasions of Goguryeo

The kingdom of Goguryeo was one of the three great Korean kingdoms of that country’s Three Kingdoms period (57 BC – AD 668) that first arose in the 1st Century BC. The state expanded well beyond the Korean peninsula and soon encountered several Chinese dynasties in succession. A series of wars erupted between them even as China splintered in AD 220, ending the 400-year Han dynasty. The period that followed, known as the Age of Fragmentation, with interludes, lasted until 589 when the new Sui dynasty reunified the broken country.

The Sui quickly flexed its muscles on the neighboring powers, including Goguryeo. The first conflict between the two states occurred because of a limited invasion by Goguryeo in 597. This first war ended a year later in embarrassment for the Chinese. However, a diplomatic arrangement saved face for both sides. Years later a new emperor, Yang Guang, took the throne as Emperor Yang and initially did not think of Goguryeo. When Sui diplomats, and the emperor himself found diplomats of Goguryeo at the court of the Eastern Turks in 607, this changed.

Judged unacceptable by the Sui they demanded the King of Goguryeo, Yeongyang, come to the Chinese court to give account. When the king refused, the Sui began preparing for an invasion. On February 8th, 612 the Sui army, numbering over 600,000 men, invaded Goguryeo.

Both Emperor Yang and King Yeongyang had been aware that siege warfare would be inevitable in the coming conflict. The Sui had great siege experience, and the Chinese siege arsenal was formidable. However, Goguryeo also had siege experience, with the fortress line in what is now Manchuria was the kingdom’s greatest defense against external threats. After crossing the Liao River, the Chinese realized they would be forced to break the fortress line before being able to strike at the capital of Goguryeo at modern Pyongyang.

The fortress of Ryotongsong or Liaodong on the banks of the river was the primary target of the Sui siege effort. Ryotongsong was the key to the entire Liao River Valley and was judged ‘must take’ regardless of whether the other fortresses were bypassed or not. However, Emperor Yang discovered that other key fortresses would have to fall as well and so decided to settle down and prepare to take down the fortress line. He would command the siege of Ryotongsong personally while leaving the other sieges to his lieutenants.

The Chinese had several siege weapons at their disposal, for our purposes we will cover two in this article and another two in the next part. One of the most wide-spread of China’s siege machines was the so-called ’whirlwind’ traction catapult (xuanfeng pao in pinyin) which gained its name from its ability to swivel 360 degrees. The xuanfeng has been called a ‘sniper rifle of a catapult’ because it was incredibly accurate. They were used mainly to take out other catapults or even enemy generals. The xuanfeng was also adaptable and could be modified to suit the situation. Typical variations include two leg base, four leg base, swivel battery, and cart-mounted.

The other siege weapon we will cover is the cloud ladder. Called yunti che in pinyin the cloud ladder was a cart with a triangular base on which a series of ladders, curved so as to clamp into each other, rested. They operated the device by use of a wheel that could extend the ladder and propping levers to control the angle. A counterweight dropped as the ladder extended, increasing the height. The yunti che used a combination of wooden wheels and iron ‘teeth’ to latch onto its target as it was extended. The weapon gained its name from the perception there was no limit to how high it could extend.

For comparison, we will also cover the Korean fortresses and their garrisons. Goguryeo had come to depend on its fortress line in Manchuria, and so great lengths were taken to ensure their defense. The fortresses themselves came in several types, but we will cover the most common type here.

This was the ‘half-moon’ fortress type, typically anchored between the banks of a major river and a nearby tributary. Ryotongsong was one such fortress. Part of what made the ‘half-moon’ fortresses so hard to crack was the presence of multiple walls outside the central citadel, which could reach as high as 6 meters, with a thickness of 3 meters. A system of ditches dotted by a line of towers, each fortified by stone protected the walls in turn. Siege countermeasures varied though a common defense against catapults was the use of makeshift bastions and wooden cages draped over the walls.

The garrisons of the fortress line were a mixture of dedicated local forces and other forces. The military system of Goguryeo allowed for the formation of strong regional bands of mainly professional soldiers grouped around powerful local aristocrats empowered by the king. The fortress garrisons were similar but tied to their respective strongholds. They were supported by bands of young men, in their early 20s, organized into religious-military ‘clubs’ called kyongdang. The leader of a garrison was called the songiu, fortress lord.

Emperor Yang had started his invasion from the beginning of the year on purpose, to give himself time to get through Manchuria before the rainy season would make warfare impossible. The Sui needed to reduce or starve the garrisons, or they would have to retreat.

At first they made good progress (even expanding operations), and one key fortress, Yodong, began to make overtures of surrender. However, when the offer came it had to be relayed to the emperor at Ryotongsong, and he had to approve it first. By the time word got back to Yodong, the garrison had resupplied and reinforced. Word spread quickly and using this flaw in the Sui command structure the fortress line was able to hold out.

As June began the Sui sent out a detached force to race ahead to Pyongyang to force an end to the war by surprise. Emperor Yang decided to continue siege operations in the meantime, scaling back his attacks to small scale skirmishes. However, on August 27th word arrived the Premier of Goguryeo, Eulji Mundeok, had destroyed the Sui forces at the Salsu River around the 15th of that month. With his last hope destroyed and the first rains beginning to fall the emperor ordered a withdrawal. Several sieges ended in confusion and chaos; Premier Eulji perished in one such withdrawal at Sinsong fortress.

However, this was not the end of the matter. Emperor Yang had become obsessed with Goguryeo and sought to bring the kingdom down once and for all. Even as flood, drought, and disease sparked revolts across the empire the Sui war machine prepared to return the following year.

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Sui Yang di, second emperor of the Sui dynasty. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The events of the previous invasion had barely fazed the Sui monarch. Unwilling to accept his defeat, Emperor Yang announced a fresh attack in January, 613. The Chinese took precautions to avoid the problems that had plagued them in 612: extensive measures were chosen to make sure the army remained in supply across Manchuria. Emperor Yang also granted his commanders almost total autonomy, so the Korean garrisons would not be able to exploit command delays. However ominous rumblings of rebellion, as well as a horse shortage, cast a pall over the expedition.

On March 30th, the third invasion of Goguryeo was launched. On the Korean side, King Yeongyang remained confident the fortress line would be able to hold out, but still took added precautions across the fortress line and in the mountain fortresses near Pyongyang.

Sui invasion forces crossed into the Liao River Valley in Late May. The army then broke off into three columns with the emperor mandating that Ryotongsong and Sinsong must fall. The third column was directed to make an overland strike at Pyongyang in conjunction with naval forces coming up from the Shandong Peninsula.

The best-known siege of this war is the siege of Ryotongsong. Commanded by the Emperor in person the besiegers were prepared to use the full force of their arsenal against the garrison. For our purposes, we will cover another two siege machines leading on from last week.

In addition to the already mentioned xuanfeng catapult and yunti che ladder, another weapon employed by the Chinese was the ‘four-footed’ traction catapult. Called sijiao pao in pinyin it gained its name from the four large wooden columns that formed its legs and provided the corners of the frame. The sijiao was largest of the Chinese traction catapults, standing a good four times the height of the average adult man. Its primary purpose was the reduction of walls, a task it did well. Unlike the xuanfeng, the sijiao was one-directional. However, it could be made mobile through being mounted on a cart (though it was never fired while mounted). The weapon could be adapted by increasing or decreasing the number of bundled rods that comprised its throwing arm. Typical variations were: Five-rod arm, nine-rod arm, ten-rod arm, and thirteen-rod arm.

The other siege weapon we will cover is the assault cart. Called chong che in pinyin the assault cart was the Chinese version of the well-known siege tower. Like any siege tower, the chong che was a makeshift tower built on a wheeled cart. There was no typical chong che because each was constructed to fit the circumstances of its specific siege, thus allowing for much adaptation and flexibility. One famous chong che type was the so-called ‘cloud bridge’, a massive 100-meter tall weapon armored by layers of cowhide on the sides. The top level contained many bags of water to douse fires.

In the time between the sieges of 612 and 613, no significant changes took place on the Korean side of the war. However, we will cover in brief the importance of natural obstacles in Goguryeo defense strategy. As already mentioned the Koreans built their most common fortress type anchored between the banks of a river and a nearby tributary, which provided a natural defense line. They built other fortifications on the sides of or anchored onto a mountain. A network of such mountain fortresses protected Pyongyang, which made the city nearly impenetrable.

Historical records also point out that sometimes the garrisons of a particular citadel would try to extend the walls to take advantage of a nearby natural defense. Ryotongsong was one such fortress. While already anchored on the Liao River the garrison successfully reached the walls to a nearby mountain (probably between 612 and 613), causing the Chinese endless frustration.

From the beginning, the Chinese assaulted the Manchurian fortress line with far greater force than the previous year. Sui military engineers unrolled a much greater part of their siege arsenal in the third invasion then they had in the second. They hit Ryotongsong the hardest of all. Emperor Yang knew the fortresses’ importance and ordered attacks on it from all four directions at once unceasingly.

However, the Korean garrison held on grimly. Each move made by the Chinese was countered by the garrison successfully. One celebrated episode was a mass assault on the walls by the Sui using yunti che assault ladders and battering rams. The attack was driven off by the Goguryeo garrison through the use of fire, burning them as the machines got caught in the ditch system in front of Ryotongsong. Another incident involved a different tack. Emperor Yang decided to attempt to take the fortress through tunneling, but the garrison had been expecting such a move. As the Chinese siege engineers dug toward the walls, the defenders flooded the tunnels with water from the nearby river, drowning them out.

However, the Sui Emperor had another card to play. After the siege had been going on for a month, the emperor tried another ploy. He ordered the construction of an enormous earthen ramp along one corner of the fortress wall. To protect the engineers and laborers as they worked eight chong che manned by the best archers in the Sui forces were built and rolled out near the walls. This time the Chinese met with success. The defenders were forced to abandon the section of the wall threatened by the ramp under withering arrow fire. On July 20th as the Sui prepared to storm the walls of Ryotongsong disastrous news arrived from China. Yang Xuangan, the son of the late famous Premier Yang Su, had risen in revolt and threatened the imperial capital of Luoyang itself.

The situation had drastically changed. Emperor Yang suddenly found himself facing the possibility of being caught between a rapidly growing rebellion at home and the forces of Goguryeo at the front. He acted immediately, recalling the advance column and the naval arm and directing them to make all haste to the heartland. The entire war was called off, and the Sui withdrew with barely disguised hurry. King Yeongyang of Goguryeo and his generals could barely believe it, especially as false retreats were a well-known Chinese trick. However, the hurry in which the Sui evacuated and several defections led them to infer it was real.

Eventually, while the Sui would mount one more invasion the following year (614), the third attack on Goguryeo was the last major offensive. Yang Xuangan’s revolt had lit the powder keg of discontent, leading the Sui Empire to unravel and fall in 618. Goguryeo survived but just barely, and would go on to face the successors of Sui: Tang.


Armed and armored statue from the tomb of King Dongmyeong. yeowatzup [CC BY 2.0 (], via Flickr. 

Events had changed dramatically since 613. The Sui dynasty, ravaged by rebellion, had begun to shatter in 615 and by the following year it became apparent the Sui could not regain control (at least with their current leadership). In late 617 a measure of peace returned when Emperor Yang’s first cousin, Li Yuan, suddenly seized control of the capital and moved the emperor into retirement. He took the title Prince of Tang and sought to quell the chaos as regent for a puppet child-ruler. However, the former emperor was assassinated soon after. Li Yuan then took the imperial throne for himself, becoming Gaozu of Tang in 618. Meanwhile in Goguryeo, King Yeongyang died and was succeeded by his younger half-brother as King Yeongnyu.

The two empires would spend the following years in cordial relations with each other. As the Tang sought to unify China under their rule, they tried to reconcile with the Korean kingdom on an equal basis, exchanging niceties and such forth.

In 626 an internal coup within the Tang imperial family resulted in the abdication of Gaozu in favor of his most able son, the Prince of Qin, Li Shimin. As Emperor Taizong, he embarked on a whirlwind campaign of military conquest. By 640 Tang power had become so great that even the Turkic khaganates had been humbled, and Taizong recognized as Great Khan.

For Goguryeo, the years saw the ascendancy of a new leader. Tang excursions had resulted in the construction of a new defense line in Manchuria, the Cheolli Jangseong (Thousand-Li Wall). The task of overseeing construction fell to a rising young military star, Yeon Gaesomun, who came from a prestigious background. Because of internal friction in Goguryeo between the civil and military officials Yeon launched a coup in 642 and killed the king. He placed a puppet ruler in power, King Bojang and assumed dictatorial powers as Grand Premier.

Yeon’s actions played into Chinese ambitions. Emperor Taizong wanted to succeed where Yang had failed, including against Goguryeo. The assassination of Yeongnyu gave him the perfect pretense for war. In April, 645 the Tang army invaded Goguryeo by land and sea.

Both the Chinese and the Koreans had learned valuable lessons from the Sui invasions. The Tang were well aware that Emperor Yang’s primary problem had always been the issue of keeping his massive armies supplied. Taizong launched a much smaller force of 113,000 men in total, a much easier number to manage logistically. The Chinese also had a far larger naval force than before, including river ships that could navigate the great rivers of Manchuria. Naval support not only gave them more flexibility tactically, but it also gave the Tang a steady source of supply for the first phase of operations (before moving too far inland).

Perhaps the most significant difference between the Tang and the Sui in approach was that Yang meant only to ‘chastise’ Goguryeo. Taizong intended to annex it outright. On May 1st, the Tang vanguard crossed the Liao River trailed by the naval force and Taizong’s personal cavalry squadrons.

Before moving on, we will say a few words about another two Chinese siege machines. The ‘crouching tiger’ traction catapult or hudun pao in pinyin was a medium catapult that roughly fell between the xuanfeng and sijiao in size and firepower. The weapon gained its name from the resemblance of its frame to that a tiger in a crouch. Like the sijiao, it was one-directional, but like the xuanfeng it was also mobile and could be fired on the move. One purpose of the hudun was to throw incendiary projectiles, which could disperse the enemy in a pinch. However, the hudun was adaptable. Typical variations include stationary, cart-mounted, three-rod arm, and seven-rod arm.

The other weapon we will cover is the chao che. Meaning ‘nest cart’ in English the chao che was one of the oddest Chinese siege machines. Put simply, the chao che was an eight-wheeled cart on which a tall pole, or a pair of tall poles was fixed. By use of a pulley wheel a small house-like box went up and down the pole (or poles). What the use of this device was is unknown, but its most probable use was as a mobile look-out tower, an artillery spotting platform, or a command platform.

On the Goguryeo side, things had changed as well. Yeon Gaesomun had been preparing for a Tang invasion since 643, once it became apparent that Taizong was planning an attack. Yeon placed much of his faith in the hardiness of his soldiers and garrisons and the impregnability of the Cheolli Jangseong. However the ‘thousand-li wall’ was still unfinished in 645. Yeon had realized this earlier, and so had focused on completing what he judged to be the most relevant sections of the wall, large fortress cities that formed the cornerstones of the network.

For our purposes in this article, we will focus on these fortress cities, Ansisong in particular. Much like the Liao River Valley line used by Eulji Mundeok and his successors during the wars with the Sui, the fortress cities of the Cheolli Jangseong anchored on natural features. Mountains were most common of all, given the most of the wall crossed. However for Ansisong and other fortresses like it the walls played a greater role. The walls of the Cheolli Jangseong were much larger than the walls of the old system and made from stone and packed earth reinforced with clay. Extra defensive measures similar to the ones used by the river fortresses were also used, such as ditches and secondary walls. Permanent stone bastions and forts built into the wall were all well-known. Protecting the city itself was smaller stone walls dividing it into sections.

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Map and prominent actions of the First Goguryeo-Tang War. By Historiographer at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The Korean forces found themselves caught off guard almost as soon as the invasion began. The Tang vanguard had crossed the Liao River further north than predicted and put the fortress of Gaemosong under siege on May 16th. It fell only eleven days later. On June 7th Ryotongsong, the fortress that had defied the Sui twice, was put under siege. Emperor Taizong arrived a few days later. To the shock of Goguryeo, the great citadel fell on June 16th when the Chinese carried out a massive fire attack on the interior of the fortress. The advance kept up at a quick pace, leaving Yeon Gaesomun having to play a game of catch up. On June 27th, the fortress of Baegamsong fell without a fight, making the remaining citadels in the Liao River Valley inconsequential. Earlier the Chinese naval forces had landed a sizable contingent at the mouth of the Yalu River and captured Bisasong, the southernmost fortress-city of the Cheolli Jangseong. On July 18th, the main body of Tang troops arrived before the fortress-city of Ansisong, which was to become the most memorable siege of the war.

However, siege preparations were interrupted by a Goguryeo attempt to relieve the city. The Grand Premier had posted two governors, Go Yeonsu and Go Hyezin, in that region and ordered them to prevent the Tang from capturing Ansisong. Realizing the fall of that city would leave the interior open to invasion. However, neither of the two generals were skilled at war. Taizong routed the Koreans at Mt. Zhubi (as the Chinese dubbed it) and their nomadic allies (the Mohe, ancestors of the Manchus) in a two-day battle (July 20th-21st).

The siege itself now began in earnest. Much to Taizong’s dismay, and the cheer of Goguryeo, the walls and garrison of Ansisong held out against the first assault. A stalemate resulted within a month, and the emperor became impatient. He desired a quick campaign, and the longer Tang forces were held up at Ansisong, the less likely it looked that they would be able to clear Manchuria before the rains. The idea was floated to abandon the siege of Ansisong and take another fortress. However, Goguryeo resistance had stiffened considerably, and Taizong was aware the garrison commander, a Mohe dubbed Yang Manchen by tradition, at Ansisong could cut his supply lines if left unhindered.

The stalemate continued. In early October the Tang, realizing that time was running out, gambled everything on a large earthen mound that had been under construction for the past two months. However on the day of the assault, October 10th, the hill collapsed, and the Tang inexplicitly withdrew. Yang Manchen then took control of the hill, using it to reinforce the walls. In anger, Taizong ordered much of his army into the breach but on October 13th he ordered a withdrawal of all Tang forces. The first Tang invasion was at an end.

Eventually, the Tang would return. This victory significantly strengthened Yeon Gaesomun and his regime, and Taizong planned a second attack on Goguryeo. Before he could, the Tang Emperor passed away in 649, and invasion plans were called off until 660.

The failure of the first attack was the trigger for future conflict. Tang Taizong had never accepted his defeat at Ansisong and laid plans for future conquest. Border skirmishes and deep raids became the norm all along the northeast. Taizong’s death in 649 and the ascension of his son Li Zhi to the throne as Tang Gaozong had brought a respite. In Goguryeo the unyielding Grand Premier, Yeon Gaesomun, planned to take advantage of the lull. In 654 it was broken when a Goguryeo expedition threatened Tang client states on the steppe.

The Tang response, when it came, struck from an unusual direction. Emperor Gaozong knew that to take down Goguryeo would require an attack from more than one direction. To this end, he had continued his father’s diplomatic offensive in Korea, cultivating a relationship with the kingdom of Silla, Goguryeo’s most powerful rival on the peninsula. In 660 the King of Silla called for aid against Baekje, Goguryeo’s ally on the peninsula. Gaozong responded by sending an expeditionary force. Together the allied forces conquered Baekje, turning it into a Tang province. In an instant, the entire strategic balance of power in Northeast Asia had changed.

In 661 the Tang court moved against Goguryeo proper. For this campaign the leading commanders of the Baekje campaign, led by Su Dingfang, took command. In August 661 these forces were sent across the sea to Goguryeo, bypassing the Cheolli Jangseong, and landed. The emperor accompanied the expedition to oversee the war.

Tang and Goguryeo had both been preparing for this inevitability. During the years between 645 and 660 both the Chinese and the Koreans had gained much experience and fighting the other. These lessons proved invaluable. Territorial advances along the Liao River line had pushed the border further into Manchuria. An attack directly on Pyongyang thus became possible, even though the fortress cities remained a concern. Chinese naval forces continued to exercise almost total control of the waves. Logistical concerns had already been taken care of earlier as the supplies gathered for 649 were now used to supply the expedition. Also, Silla promised military and logistics support to the Chinese.

As before, the aim of the war was to annex Goguryeo. By capturing Pyongyang, the Tang hoped to force the surrender of the Grand Premier, thus ending the war. Coordination with Silla, and their leading general Gim Yusin, in particular, played a role in this. While the Chinese handled affairs in the north, it was the job of Silla to keep them tied down in the south and give support to the forces in former Baekje territory.

Before moving on, we will cover our last Chinese siege weapon. Perhaps one of the most famous siege machines in East Asia was the siege crossbow, or chuangzi nu in pinyin (meaning ‘little bed crossbow’). These weapons were initially oversized crossbows mounted on a table frame, thus gaining its name. By Tang times, they had become far more sophisticated and powerful. Tang chuangzi nu used double bows (facing in opposite directions), increasing the drawing power significantly. The uses of the chuangzi nu were varied and used to good effect both for offense and defense. Mobility was an important feature of these weapons and functioned in a similar role to later horse artillery in that way. Typical variations include single bow, double bow, stationary, mobile, and battery (multiple weapons mounted on the same frame).

File:Yon Kaesomun.gif
Yeon Gaesomun, dictator of Goguryeo. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

On the Goguryeo side of the war, preparations had been underway for some time. Yeon Gaesomun was no fool and knew that his army would be unable to deal with a protected war. Now they would be forced to deal with two theaters, north, and south. The garrisons had been tired out by the long watch on the border zone and were demoralized. However, the Grand Premier had not given up. He focused his considerable energy on ensuring the defense of Pyongyang, taking measures to ensure the integrity of the city walls and the mountain fortresses that surrounded the capital. Yeon did not take command the garrison in person, however, and instead intended to remain mobile, commanding the capital armies and his personal militia. He also committed other troops to the field, both to support him and deal with Silla.

The much-vaunted Cheolli Jangseong would not play a role this war. While completed in 647 to great fanfare in Goguryeo the nature of the Tang invasion, an oversea surgical strike, meant that it would not come into play in any significant fashion. While Chinese armies did operate in that region, they did not engage the wall.

The initial landing went without trouble. The Tang quickly established a base on the coastline and Gaozong set up headquarters. However misgivings within the court over yet another invasion of Goguryeo, as well as the objections of the emperor’s strong willed consort, Wu Zhao, forced him to withdraw. He left affairs in the hands of his chief commanders: Su Dingfang and Qibi Heli (a Tiele or Siberian chieftain serving Tang). Within weeks, Su had crossed the Taedong River and by late August/early September he had put Pyongyang under siege.

Now the siege began. Besieging Pyongyang was no easy matter and was complicated by the mountain fortresses surrounding the city. An attack direct on the city walls was not probable as long as those strongholds remained intact. From these vantage points, the garrisons could rain down fire on the Tang besiegers, catching them in a crossfire between the walls and the mountains. The mountain holdfasts would have to reduced first before mounting an attack on Pyongyang proper. As the Sui engineers of that dynasty’s third invasion would have testified, trying to crack a fortress built onto the sides of a mountain was difficult.

However, outside developments appeared to aid the besiegers. Yeon Gaesomun knew the Chinese would attempt to link with their allies in Silla (which he was struggling to contain) and put a garrison on the Yalu River to stop the second column from crossing. The attempt failed spectacularly (around October, 661) and one of his sons, Yeon Namsaeng, was almost killed. Morale plummeted drastically. However, Su Dingfang recalled the victorious troops before they could cross the Yalu to take part in a troop rotation, giving the defenders time to recover. Winter proved to be the Tang’s greatest enemy as it proved unusually harsh, even for northeastern Korea. However, Su did not suspend operations but was preparing for a big push in the coming spring.

The following year, 662, the Chinese tried to reinforce their positions. As winter ended Emperor Gaozong dispatched additional forces from northeastern China into Manchuria to aid Su Dingfang in his siege of Pyongyang. Yeon Gaesomun heard of this and set a trap for the relief column at the Sasu River, near the capital. In the battle that followed the Koreans destroyed the Tang column and slew its commander. Su Dingfang now endured a morale crushing defeat of his own but hung on grimly until a spring blizzard wrecked the siege camps. Su ordered a general withdrawal of all Tang forces and suggested that Silla do the same. The second Tang invasion was at an end.

Goguryeo had managed to defeat the fifth major Chinese attempt against it, but the kingdom’s luck was running out. Despite the failure of the besiegers to take Pyongyang or cross the Yalu, the conflict proved the deadly effectiveness of the Tang-Silla alliance. The northern-most of the Korean Three Kingdoms now stood alone. Goguryeo was only able to hold out by virtue of the strength of Yeon Gaesomun and the effect he had on his soldiers. When the Grand Premier died in 666, it all fell apart.

In 663 a major uprising in former Baekje territory occurred to try and eject the Tang from the Korean peninsula as the latest of a series of rebellions over the last three years. This attempt, which was backed militarily by Yamato Japan, failed. This event marked the end of Baekje resistance and solidified the Tang-Silla alliance, increasing their ability to work together.

By now strategists in both Tang and Silla had realized that as long as Yeon Gaesomun lived the possibility of conquering Goguryeo was slim. Instead, they focused on externally weakening their common enemy. Over the next several years, both powers steadily built up along their border with Goguryeo. As a result border clashes intensified, especially in the Liao River Valley.

Then in 666 the situation changed. Yeon Gaesomun died toward the end of spring that year after abdicating his former position in favor the ceremonial post of Supreme Chancellor. Technically his eldest son, Yeon Namsaeng, was supposed to succeed him, but the two younger sons (Yeon Namgeon and Yeon Namsan) rose against him. The court split between the brothers.

The coup was too good an opportunity to pass up. The Tang moved quickly to take advantage of the chaos in Goguryeo, and sheltered Yeon Namsaeng. Military preparations in both China and Silla, which had been keeping pace with the situation, were ramped up. In fall, 667, Tang armies commanded by Chancellor Li Shiji crossed into Goguryeo. The armies of Silla did the same.

On this occasion, the Tang used Goguryeo’s infighting to their advantage. By co-opting the faction loyal to Yeon Namsaeng the Tang leadership hoped to ensure two things:

First they wanted to keep their army supplied. Li Shiji had brought a far larger army than in the previous invasions and knew that naval superiority and Silla would not be able to keep his men in supply. Those in Goguryeo loyal to Namsaeng would be more than willing to help a Tang ‘intervention’ if it meant the end of the chaos.

Second the Tang wanted to keep Goguryeo divided. A Goguryeo divided between court factions would be far easier to destroy than one united under a single ruler’s ambition, as had been the case under Yeon Gaesomun. By manipulating one faction into an alliance with them and setting it against the others, the Tang secured their victory by ensuring that no one would be strong enough to oppose them. It also kept their chosen faction beholden to China’s interests.

Before we move on we will cover what exactly made Goguryeo’s defense strategy work so well and why it failed. In the past, Goguryeo was able to mount such an excellent defense against sieges due to their use of ‘active defense’. As was displayed so well by Yeon Gaesomun and by Eulji Mundeok the generals of Goguryeo preferred to remain mobile rather then command a garrison under siege. Goguryeo had an extensive system of field armies formed chiefly of cavalry. These mobile forces allowed Goguryeo’s commanders to keep ahead of their enemies.

A favored ploy was one of scorched earth and quick raids. In 612 Goguryeo forces under the overall command of Eulji Mundeok had allowed the Sui forces to place their fortresses under siege but denied them supplies through the extensive use of scorched earth strategy. When Eulji defeated Emperor Yang’s vaunted detached force, he had weakened them through hit-and-run tactics in their rear before the battle at the Salsu River. Yeon Gaesomun had also used those same hit-and-run raids to great effect against the Tang in 662, attacking the siege camps of Su Dingfang shortly before the onslaught of that final blizzard.

However, this strategy was eventually defeated. In the first Tang invasion, Emperor Taizong recognized Goguryeo’s system for what it was and thus developed a counter strategy. He deployed his cavalry to fight with Goguryeo’s and avoided being caught between the ‘anvil’ of the fortresses and the ‘hammer’ of the mounted columns. Taizong also recognized the tactical weaknesses of Goguryeo’s field armies ( excessively oriented to heavy cavalry) and exploited it to excellent effect. In the third invasion, Li Shiji kept these lessons in mind and utilized a third. Goguryeo’s defensive garrisons had held off the armies of Sui and Tang through several invasions over the course of half a century. The protracted conflict had worn on them in more than one way. On top of these issues was the near self-destruction of Goguryeo’s royal court and military command. Without a strong, charismatic personality to inspire them the garrisons would not be able to hold out.

The Tang advance went quickly. Li Shiji swept away Goguryeo’s military presence on the Chinese side of the Liao River Valley before crossing over to the eastern side. On October 6th Sinsong, the key to the Cheolli Jangseong’s western flank fell after a short siege because of defectors inside the fortress-city. Li Shiji then continued down the ‘thousand-li wall’ and captured sixteen fortresses in all by the year’s end. Meanwhile, Tang mobile columns had moved to link with the armies of Yeon Namsaeng and were forced into a series of field battles with Yeon Namgeon, which ended in Tang victory. The younger Yeon then moved to set up a defensive perimeter at the Yalu River.

Here on the river the Chinese advance met its first setback. As a result of taunting from a member of Li Shiji’s staff the defensive measures at the Yalu were strengthened and the Tang advance halted at the riverbanks. More bad news arrived from the north with the defeat of the Tang force besieging Ansisong. Li Shiji then declared winter quarters and intended to pick up the following spring. However, despite these setbacks the Tang advance had reached further into Goguryeo then before. Also, as planned, the soldiers loyal to Namsaeng provided much-needed supplies to both Tang’s land and sea forces.

Conflict resumed in the spring of 668. Li Shiji turned away from the Yalu and instead decided to focus on reducing Goguryeo’s northern flank first. In March-April the north end of the Cheolli Janseong, Buyeosong, fell, and the entire northeast was laid bare. When he attempted to recapture the fortress, Yeon Namgeon was defeated handily. The Tang forces then divided into columns and advanced from the north down to the Yalu.

That fall it all came together. The various columns reformed into a central army at the banks of the Yalu after the fall of the last of the northern fortresses. They then forced their way across the Yalu and put Pyongyang under siege. Forces from Silla, victorious in the south, marched up to join them, and the attack commenced around September, 668. On October 17th, King Bojang and Yeon Namsan attempted to surrender, only to be prevented from doing so by Yeon Namgeon, who refused to accept the inevitable. On October 22nd, the city fell for real when his generals betrayed Namgeon. Li Shiji occupied the city in triumph soon after, and Goguryeo officially annexed that winter. The kingdom became a Tang province like Baekje, and the long wars between China and Goguryeo were at an end.

Tang’s preeminence in Korea was not destined to last long. Almost as soon as the kingdom fell a slew of revival movements rose, with the greatest one led by Prince Anseung (a relative of King Bojang) and Geom Mojam. To make matters worse Silla was covertly backing these movements as a result of a falling-out with the Tang. This falling-out was because of the differing aims of the two states: While both sought the end of Goguryeo, Tang intended to bring Korea under its control while Silla sought unification.

The uneasy peace continued until the outbreak of war in 670. The Silla-Tang War lasted for six years with Tang unofficially admitting defeat by moving the headquarters of its ‘Eastern Protectorate’ into Liaodong. The region between Liaodong and the Taedong River, marking the border of ‘Unified Silla’, remained a frontier zone until 698 when a Goguryeo revival movement led by Dae Joyeong created Balhae.

Sun Jian and the Alliance against Dong Zhuo

In 189 AD the Later Han 後漢 Emperor, Liu Hong (posthumous name: Han Ling di 漢靈帝), died, and a succession struggle erupted between the He 何 consort clan and the eunuch clique. In the chaos created by the fighting, the powerful western warlord Dong Zhuo 董卓 entered Luoyang and seized control. The following year Dong deposed the late Ling’s successor, Liu Bian (posthumous name: Prince of Hongnong 弘農王). He raised Prince Liu Xie (posthumous name: Han Xian di 漢獻帝) to the throne instead. Dong Zhuo soon proved to be a tyrannical and authoritarian dictator who heaped rewards on himself (including reviving the post of Chancellor of State 相國) while stifling all dissent with brutality.

This angered the powerful provincial lords on whom the Han had come to depend on for support. Among those angered by Dong’s excess was the dominant Yuan clan 袁 of Ru’nan1. In February, that same year a series of accusatory letters circulated in the provinces, drafted by the Grand Administrator of Dongjun, Qiao Mao 橋瑁. Yuan Shao 袁紹, Grand Administrator of Bohai and head of the Yuan clan, took the leadership position of a growing body of angry lords. This body was called the Guandong (East of the Pass2) Coalition 關東聯軍 better known by the familiar name of the Alliance against Dong Zhuo. Dong unexpectedly then gave fuel to the fire of rebellion when he murdered the former emperor and his mother the following month.

In this article, we will follow the actions of one of the most successful lords in the coalition, Sun Jian 孫堅.

Now about the time the alliance was formed Sun Jian was Grand Administrator of Changsha. He had been appointed to that position by the Han Court to take down the rebel Ou Xing 區星. Sun Jian had already proven to be a talented general through a career of good service to the throne. First against the Yellow Turbans (under General Zhu Jun 朱儁) and then against the Liangzhou rebellions (under Minister of Works 司空 Zhang Wen 張溫) Sun had propelled himself forward.

After Ou Xing had been crushed, the Han Court decided to post Sun Jian in the region more or less permanently with enfeoffment as Marquis of Wucheng 烏程侯. This did not work well as Marquis Sun often clashed with his nominal superior Inspector Wang Rui 王睿 of Jingzhou, who treated him rudely. During this time, Sun Jian expanded his active control to the neighboring commanderies of Lingling and Guiyang.

When news arrived in Jingzhou of Dong Zhuo’s coup and the formation of the Guandong Coalition the Marquis prepared to march north to aid to join the other lords. When he reached Hanshou to meet with Wang Rui Sun Jian discovered orders to execute the Inspector. The Grand Administrator of Wuling, Cao Yin 曹寅, had forged the orders out of fear of Wang. When Marquis Sun moved against his superior, the latter committed suicide. Sun Jian absorbed his army and continued marching north. At Nanyang the Grand Administrator, Zhang Zi 張資, refused the Marquis supplies because he thought he left his territory without authorization. In response Marquis Sun invited Zhang to his camp, killed him, and took over Nanyang. After absorbing the local troops, he continued north.

Soon afterward the army arrived in Luyang. Sun Jian’s plan had been to link with Yuan Shu 袁術, General of the Rear 後將軍, as the Luyang encampment was the closest of the Coalition bases to his territory. Yuan Shu was impressed by Marquis Sun and offered him court rank as General Who Smashes the Caitiffs 破虜將軍 and the post of Inspector of Yuzhou. Sun Jian accepted and began to settle his army in Luyang for winter quarters and training.

Dong Zhuo, who remembered Sun Jian from the fighting in Liangzhou (and respected him), then moved to dislodge the allies from Luyang. When the attack came, the Marquis kept his cool and made an orderly withdrawal into the citadel of Luyang. Dong Zhuo’s forces were amazed at the composure of the allied troops and began retreating to Chang’an (Luoyang having been razed earlier in the year, in April).

Early the following year, February 191, Yuan Shu moved to make the first serious offensive of the war, Sun Jian acting as his vanguard. Even though the former imperial capital was now a burnt-out shell, Dong Zhuo kept a notable garrison there. Dislodging this garrison would go a long ways to removing Dong himself from the government. However at Liang County the allied advance was halted when Dong general Xu Rong 徐榮 succeeded in surrounding Sun Jian. The Marquis managed to escape through trickery3 and regrouped his forces at Yangren in early March.

There the forces of the Coalition scored a great victory when Sun Jian exploited a rift between the Grand Administrator of Chenjun, Hu Zhen 胡軫, and Lu Bu 呂布 (Dong Zhuo’s adopted son and bodyguard). Hua Xiong 華雄, who held rank as Chief Controller, was captured in this battle and executed on the Marquis’ orders. This victory lifted Coalition morale, which had been flagging in the aftermath of Liang and the defeat of Wang Kuang 王匡 (Grand Administrator of Henei) at Meng Crossing.

At this point Yuan Shu, fearing Sun Jian’s success, withheld supplies from him. When Marquis Sun heard this, he raced to Luyang, over a hundred li, and swore his undying loyalty to the cause and the Yuan clan4. Yuan Shu was ashamed and resumed sending supplies to Sun Jian.

The fall of Dong Zhuo’s southern front changed the course of the war. Dong Zhuo, fearing Marquis Sun, tried to bribe him with a marriage proposal and government posts5. He furiously rejected the proposal. Sun Jian’s vanguard forces surged ahead and at Dagu Pass faced the forces of Dong Zhuo himself. Dong was routed and forced to fall back to Mianchi (on the Chang’an road), entrusting Luoyang to Lu Bu. Lu was in turn also routed, leaving the husk of Luoyang to the Coalition.

Sun Jian entered the city in triumph and soon set about attempting to repair the damage. During the razing of the city, Dong Zhuo had dug up the Han imperial tombs and ransacked them. The Marquis sealed the tombs and buried them again. During this time, Sun Jian may have found the Great Seal of State 傳國璽, more popularly known as the Imperial Seal.

File:Jade Seal.png

By The picture above is a print from a Qing Dynasty edition of Luo Guanzhongs Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Franz Kuhn: Die drei Reiche) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

However, records concerning this are confused and contradictory. The most likely sequence of events is that Sun Jian did indeed find the Great Seal of State in the Imperial Pottery Works, and without much further ado handed the object over to Yuan Shu. The Seal eventually returned to the Han when Yuan Shu fell in 199.

In any case, Sun Jian evacuated the city when he was sure he did enough and retired to Luyang. He could not do much else, as the rest of the Coalition was in no position to support him in Luoyang. Besides that, Dong Zhuo’s (who had completed his relocation of the capital) positions on the Chang’an road were too heavily fortified to assault.

Soon afterward the Guandong Coalition fell apart. Despite the success of Sun Jian, the other lords of the Coalition proved unable to act on the initiative and gradually the war ground to a halt. Infighting set in soon after. Yuan Shao had schemed against the Governor of Jizhou, Han Fu 韓馥 and manipulated the hapless man into giving up his territory in the summer/autumn of 191. Yuan Shu fell out with his elder brother in the aftermath, and open warfare resulted between them6.

Meanwhile Dong still held control of the central government, and his conduct worsened, dropping all pretense of restraint.In May 192 the dictator fell victim to an internal conspiracy within the Han Court led by Minister over the Masses 司徒 Wang Yun 王允 and was assassinated by Lu Bu7. The Guandong Coalition officially disbanded, but it had been fiction for months by then.


‘Generals of the South: Chapter 2: The Founder of the Family: Sun Jian’ as available at by Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

‘To Establish Peace: Being the Chronicle of the Later Han dynasty for the years 189 to 200 AD as recorded in Chapters 59 to 63 of the Zizhi Tongjian of Sima Guang, Volume 1’ as available at by Sima Guang, translated by Dr. Rafe de Crespigny.

‘Sanguozhi: The Record of the Three States: Biography of Sun Jian’ as available at by Chen Shou, translated by Jack Yuan.

‘Three Kingdoms Comprehensive Biography: Sun Jian (Wentai)’ as available at by Jonathon Wu.

Author’s Notes:

1: At first Dong Zhuo attempted to appease the Yuan clan and keep them close to him. Dong reasoned that if a family with a century’s worth of prestigious service to the empire backed his regime, the rest would fall in line. However, when Dong attempted to depose Liu Bian he angered Yuan Shao. A heated argument broke out, recorded in Pei Songzhi’s notes to the Sanguozhi biography of Yuan, which resulted in him leaving the capital. When Dong went forward with his scheme, Yuan Shao fumed in exile (in Bohai) and was the first to respond to Qiao Mao’s call-to-arms. In response Dong Zhuo executed Yuan’s uncle and other family members living in the capital.

2: ‘East of the Pass’ here refers to Hangu Pass, the vital strategic gateway separating the center of government at Luoyang from the rest of China. The pass today is near modern Lingbao County. The gate itself was constructed in 361 BC by the State of Qin, to protect its heartland regions.

3: Sun Jian wore a distinctive wooly red headdress in battle to allow his men to identify him quickly in the field. While escaping from Xu Rong he gave the headdress to his trusted man, Zu Mao 祖茂. Zu then led off the majority of the pursuers down one road while Sun went down a less known path. The two men met up again later at Yangren, Zu Mao having escaped by ditching the red headdress onto a burning stick.

4: The Sanguozhi has the following speech after Sun draws out a line on the ground. “Above I am attacking a rebel in the name of the Emperor, below I am aiding the private vengeance of your clan, my general. This is the reason that I fight without consideration to my own safety, for the clans of Sun Jian and Dong Zhuo have no enmity. But you attend to the words of liars, and turn around with your unfounded suspicions.”

5: The Sanguozhi has the following attributed to Sun Jian in his reply, spoken to Li Jue 李傕: “Dong Zhuo opposes Heaven and is without morality; he has destroyed and overturned the Imperial clan. Now, unless I destroy you and your three generations as a sign to all within the four seas, I will not be able to close my eyes when I die. How can there be marriage relations between our clans?

6: Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu were half-brothers (and cousins by Shao’s posthumous adoption by their uncle, Yuan Cheng) and never got along. Both men were ambitious, and this put them at odds more often than not. Yuan Shu had flung the first shot by doubting his brother\cousin’s paternity and his status as a Yuan clansman. Yuan Shao, having taken over Jizhou around this time, was incensed. While Sun Jian was busy in Luoyang, Yuan Shao attacked his rear supply dump at Yangcheng through the Zhou brothers of Kuaiji, appointing one of them as Sun’s replacement as Inspector of Yuzhou. When Yuan Shu heard of it, he was angered, and counterattacked. He sent the younger cousin of his ally Gongsun Zan 公孙瓒 (General Who Suppresses Enemy Captives serving under Liu Yu 劉虞, Inspector of Bingzhou), Gongsun Yue 公孫越. While the Zhou brothers were repulsed, young Gongsun was killed and the elder launched a full-scale invasion of Yuan Shao’s territory. In response, Shao allied with Liu Biao 劉表, Wang Rui’s replacement as Inspector of Jingzhou. Yuan Shu sent Sun Jian to deal with the threat to his rear, leading to Sun’s death in battle against Liu Biao during the siege of Xiangyang City.

7: The incident forms the historical basis for the fictional story of Diaochan. Wang Yun’s fellow conspirators were Huang Wan 黃琬, Lu Xu 魯旭, Shisun Rui 士孫瑞, Xun Shuang 荀爽 (Xun supported the coup, but died before it went forward), Yang Zan 禓瓚, and Zhang Wen. All of these men were high ranking members of the Han government who could no longer abide Dong Zhuo’s autocratic and dictatorial rule. Lu Bu had joined the conspiracy because Dong had begun to mistreat him, and had attempted to kill him. There was also the matter of a chambermaid that Lu Bu had seduced, over which he felt guilty and was afraid of being found out. Dong was killed on May 22nd.