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.