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.