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.
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: http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/index.php?showtopic=8150&hl=Poyang