China witnessed frequent battles on its land during the thousands of years of history. Some battles stood out for their significance at that time. We are presenting to you the 13 famous ones on this “Splendid Chinese Culture” website:
Battle of Muye
The Battle of Muye (牧野之戰) was launched by King Wu of Zhou (周武王) around 1046 BCE. King Wu of Zhou attacked the Shang regime (商朝) when the main troops of Shang were marching towards the east. After being defeated by the Zhou army, King Zhou of Shang (紂王) burnt himself to death. The battle resulted in the end of the Shang dynasty and the establishment of the Western Zhou dynasty.
Battle of Chengpu
The Battle of Chengpu (城濮之戰) took place in 632 BCE during the Spring and Autumn Period between the State of Jin (晉) and the State of Chu (楚). The battle ended in failure for the Chu army, leading to Prime Minister Ziyu’s (子玉) suicide. After the battle, Duke Wen of Jin (晉文公) eventually became the hegemon, which hindered Chu’s northward invasion in its search for hegemony.
Battle of Changping
The Battle of Changping (長平之戰) was the largest military campaign during the Warring States Period and took place from 262 to 260 BCE at Changping. King Xiaocheng of Zhao (趙孝成王) at first dispatched the veteran general Lian Po (廉頗) to safeguard Changping. He later changed his mind and ordered Zhao Kuo (趙括), who excelled in reciting military philosophies but lacked practical battle experience, to take over the command of the Zhao army. At last, the Zhao army was surrounded and annihilated by the Qin army, causing the death of 450,000 soldiers. The battle enabled the State of Qin to advance eastwards and greatly accelerated Qin’s progress on its mission to conquer all the Warring States and unify China.
Battle of Julu
By the end of the Qin dynasty, the nobles and the remaining officials of the six states, who had been considering rejuvenating their states, rose again. In 208 BCE, the State of Qin state attacked the reconstructed State of Zhao with an army of 400,000 soldiers. As a response, Xiang Yu (項羽) led 50,000 Chu soldiers to rescue Zhao. In the following year, Chu was determined to fight with all their efforts. They successfully defeated the Qin army in all of the following nine battles, killing 200,000 Qin surrenders. The battle destroyed Qin’s elite army, dooming the dynasty to fall.
Battle of Mobei
During his reign, Emperor Wu of Han (漢武帝) launched many battles against Xiongnu (匈奴). In 119 BCE, Emperor Wu ordered Wei Qing (衞青) and Huo Qubing (霍去病) to lead a few hundred thousands of cavalry and infantry to invade Mobei (漠北, the northern area of the desert) from two directions. In the battle, Wei and Huo killed 20,000 and captured 70,000 enemy soldiers. The Battle of Mobei was the largest battle between the Han regime and Xiongnu during Emperor Wu of Han’s reign. After the battle, Xiongnu dared not approach the Monan area (漠南, the southern area of the desert).
Battle of Kunyang
In 23 CE, Wang Mang (王莽), who usurped the throne and established the Xin dynasty (新朝), ordered the Minister of Works Wang Yi (王邑) and the Minister of the Masses Wang Xun (王尋) to move south and attack Kunyang (昆陽). It was occupied by Lulin forces (綠林軍) by that time with merely 9,000 soldiers stationed there. Liu Xiu (劉秀), who joined in Lulin forces, managed to break through the siege with a cavalry of 13 overnight, and called upon a cavalry and infantry of nearly 10,000 to launch a counterattack. During the counterattack, Liu led 3,000 brave soldiers to attack Xin’s main camp. At the same time, the Lulin forces inside Kunyang burst out of the city and launched an attack, completely surrounding the enemy. The battle ended in defeat for Xin. Wang Xun was killed in the battle and Wang Yi was forced to flee with his remaining troops of several thousand soldiers back to Luoyang (洛陽). The battle led to the collapse of the Xin dynasty and laid a solid foundation for Liu to establish the Eastern Han dynasty (東漢).
Battle of Red Cliffs
Several vassals scrambled for territories at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. After defeating Yuan Shao (袁紹), Cao Cao (曹操) controlled the northern areas and planned to expand his territory by capturing the Jingzhou (荊州) and Jiangnan (江南, the south of Yangtze River) areas. He, therefore, launched the southern military campaign in 208, during which Sun Quan (孫權) and Liu Bei (劉備) had to ally with each other for resistance. The Chief Commander Zhou Yu (周瑜) of Eastern Wu (東吳) accepted Huang Gai’s (黃蓋) strategy of feigning surrender to approach Cao’s ships and was ultimately able to defeat Cao’s army. The battle led to the tripartite division of China among the States of Wei (魏), Shu (蜀), and Wu.
Battle of Fei River
After the Western Jin dynasty (西晉) was captured by five barbarians (Xiongnu [匈奴], Jie [羯], Xianbei [鮮卑], Di [氐] and Qiang [羌]), the Jin court moved south and established the Eastern Jin dynasty (東晉). During this time, Fu Jian (苻堅), the ruler of the Former Qin regime, gradually unified the north. In 383, Fu sent over 200,000 soldiers to invade the south, and the Eastern Jin dynasty mobilised the 80,000-strong Beifu Army (北府兵) to resist. The two sides confronted at Fei River (淝水). The Jin army crossed the river and attacked the Former Qin army as the latter retreated, and was able to claim the victory of the battle. Fu, who lost control of the north, was murdered after the battle. The north once again fell into turmoil, ending all hopes of invading the south. This allowed the Eastern Jin dynasty to consolidate its position as the ruler and retain temporal peace.
Tang's Military Campaigns to Conquer the East
Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) and Emperor Gaozong (唐高宗) of Tang launched three military campaigns with the goal of conquering Goguryeo (高句麗) on the Korean Peninsula. From 666 to 668, the Tang army made three successful expeditions to Goguryeo and besieged Pyongyang (平壤), the capital of Goguryeo. Finally, the people of Goguryeo opened the gate and surrendered to the Tang army, signifying the collapse of Goguryeo. The battle helped the Tang dynasty safeguard its north-eastern territory.
Battle of Yancheng
The Battle of Yancheng (郾城之役) is the most famous battle of Yue Fei’s (岳飛) resistance against the Jin (金朝) army. The battle took place in 1140 and unfolded in Yancheng and Yingchang (潁昌) successively. In the battle, Yue’s army repeatedly defeated Jin Wuzhu’s (金兀朮) elite army and marched towards Zhuxian Town (朱仙鎮), only 22.5 km from Kaifeng (開封), the eastern capital of the Jin Empire. It was very likely that Yue’s army could recover the territory south to the Yellow River. Emperor Gaozong of Song (宋高宗), however, summoned Yue Fei and incited Qin Hui (秦檜) to have Yue executed by fabricating perjury. Emperor Gaozong then signed the Shaoxing Treaty (紹興和議) with the Jin Empire, stating that Southern Song would become a tribute state of Jin, to whom it would pay tribute and cede territory, to exchange for its peace and occupation of Jiangzuo (江左, the east of the Yangtze River).
Siege of Diaoyucheng
Möngke Khan (蒙哥) aggressively expanded the territory during his reign. In 1258, the Mongol army invaded the Southern Song dynasty (南宋) from different directions. Möngke Khan himself led an army to attack Sichuan (四川). He then attacked Diaoyucheng (釣魚城) in Hezhou (合州) with great momentum in the following year. However, the Mongol army was repeatedly frustrated due to the solid defence of Hezhou and the high morale of its soldiers and people. Later, Möngke Khan was seriously wounded by a flying rock launched at him while commanding the siege. He died soon after (although some also say that he died from an epidemic). After his death, the Mongol army that had been marching westwards to invade the Southern Song began to retreat. The siege extended the reign of the Southern Song dynasty for about 20 years and has a great significance in world history. It is known as the battle breaking God’s flail in the West.
Battle of Ningyuan
Under the leadership of Nurhaci (努爾哈赤), the Later Jin army attacked Ningyuan (寧遠), a military stronghold town in the north-eastern territory of the Ming dynasty (明朝) in 1626. Yuan Chonghuan (袁崇煥), the General of the defending forces, repeatedly repelled the invading enemy with the use of Hongyipao (紅夷炮), a European-style muzzle-loading culverin. As Nurhaci was seriously wounded in the fierce battle, the Later Jin army was forced to retreat. Nurhaci died from the injuries sustained in the battle after seven months. This battle greatly encouraged the morale of Ming soldiers in the north-eastern frontier defence.
Siege of Fort Zeelandia
Zheng Chenggong (鄭成功) was determined to resist the Qing dynasty (清朝) and restore the Ming dynasty (明朝). He launched battles to take Taiwan (台灣) from the Dutch invaders as he was hoping to use it as the anti-Qing base. In 1661, Zheng led 25,000 soldiers and nearly 300 warships across the Taiwan Strait from Jinmen (金門). He soon captured Fort Provintia (普羅民遮城) and besieged Fort Zeelandia (熱蘭遮城). Early in 1662, the Dutch invaders were forced to surrender and withdrew from Taiwan. This battle put an end to the Dutch’s 38-year colonial rule in Taiwan, and opened the prelude of the Zheng regime against the Qing dynasty.
The outcome of a battle often determines the changes of the times, such as the rise and fall of a dynasty. From prewar deployment and strategies building, to different characters showing courage and determination during the war, one can tell that every battle is an embodiment of drama, passion, and wisdom. The 13 articles of “Famous Battles in Ancient China” aim to enlighten our readers and provide them with the cause, process and influence of each battle.