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Battle of the Fei River


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#1 asiaconqueror

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 10:12 AM

I've heard of the famous battle of Feishui. Can anyone tell me more about it? When did it take place? Who were involved? Why was it so famous? :D

#2 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 10:23 AM

Uhm..the battle of Feishui (淝水之战) [or Fei River] was fought in 384 AD, if I'm not wrong, between Previous Qin (or "Early Qin") kingdom and the Eastern Jin kingdom.

The Previous Qin had almost unified north China and attempted to conquer the south, thus in 382 AD King Fu Jian (苻坚) of Previous Qin launched the 1st military campaign in 382 AD against Eastern Jin, in order to unify China. In 384 AD, he launched a 2nd military campaign with a large army numbering almost 1 million. But, surprisingly the large army of Previous Qin was defeated by the smaller army of Eastern Jin led by General Xie An (谢安) at the battle of Feishui. Because of a small army defeating such a large army, this battle became very famous.

Anyway, I don't know much about the details of the battle. But, our expert Yun, who specialised in this period of history, should be able to tell us more about it. :D
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#3 RollingWave

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 10:33 AM

The defeat was caused by several reason....

1. army make up: while Fu jian united the north, he did it mostly by bringing vast amount of surrendered foe under his belt, so his force while large... was very disorganized and had many commanders who were ready to defect adn back stab at the first chance (which was exactly what happend to Fu Jian as he fled from this battle...) while the Jin's army was a small but professional group knowing that it is do or die for their country.. I belive that many of them also had noble background too so they had quiet a bit to lose themself.

2.stratigic terrain choice: Fie Shui is a crossing.... crossing a river to fight the enemy beyond is always a huge disadvantage for any army from past to present, the Qin army got hit while crossing he river and thus their huge number didn't play into any advantage (as u can only cross with so many at a time) while it acturally turned into a huge disadvantage when coupled with fact 1 of their army make up.... chaos exploded and they routed ... most of the casulty were cause by their own chaotic trample or drowning than the Jin's army.

I think Fu jian probably was just too overconfident of his force, and that he was unfamliar with fighting river crossings... other wise with better strategic choices it wouldn't have been that hard to overrun the Jin.
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#4 Sephodwyrm

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 12:10 PM

There's a most famous painting of the battle of Fei Shui by a Chinese artist. The Jin troops included the elite Bei Fu troops led by Liu Lao Zhi. According to the story, this is how the battle went:

Fu Jian initiated a campaign to unify the whole of China after unifying the entirety of Northern China by mobilizing his entire army. This was against the final advices of Wang Meng as well as the advices of Fu Jian's brother Fu Rong. Fu Jian was reputed to have said that if all his men were to throw their horse whips into the river, the river would cease to flow. The campaign began anyway. 200000 horsemen and 670000 infantry were mobilized, coming from all the ethnicities that were under the reign of Fu Jian's Qian Qin empire. This included the Di (Fu Jian is a Di), Xian Bei, Jie, Rong, Xiong Nu, Qiang and many others. These ethnicities, though living under the same empire, were not happy living with one another. The armies were also disgruntled due to the continuous warfare that have occurred beforehand in the unification of the north.

The Jin dynasty, knowing this campaign, were thrown in great disarray. Xie An brought order by producing a plan to meet the Qian Qin army head on and possibly defeat them. Qian Qin's vanguard army of 15000 was completely annihilated in a battle by the Bei Fu troops led by Liu Lao Zhi. Fu Jian was much angered and frustrated, and ordered the entire army to advance despite the setback. Jin mobilized every force they had and numbered some 80000. The two armies met at the river Fei Shui. The Qian Qin army occupied the northern camp while the Jin army occupied the southern bank.

Beforehand, Xie An had already contacted various dissidents within the Qian Qin army. They worked out a ploy to dissolve the Qian Qin's army that boasted 1 million men (in reality it was closer to 800000). Xie An wrote a letter to Fu Jian asking for a battle, on the condition that Fu Jian withdraw his troops a certain distance from the bank so that the Jin troops could make a landing. Fu Jian thought that he could agree, let the Jin make the river crossing and while they're halfway through, annihilate them in one fatal stroke.

So on the next day, orders were given for the entire Qian Qin army to withdraw. The entire army was thrown into confusion because they did not know the reason why. All of a sudden, all the dissidents within the Qian Qin army raised a huge shout that Fu Jian was slain in battle and everyone should run for their lives. The whole army panicked and fled their positions. The Jin army led by the Bei Fu troops and Liu Lao Zhi made a successful landing and rampaged through the large but broken army of Qian Qin. The battle of Fei Shui was over. Most of the soldiers that died that day were trampled by their own. Most, however, died because of attrition and the cold. The Qian Qin army was worn down by attrition and dared not attempt any counter attacks, for they were so frightened by the experience that they even thought that the sound of the wind and the cries of the cranes were the sounds of approach of the Bei Fu troops. Out of the "million men" army, only 100000 made it back to Qian Qin. The previously subjugated ethnicities rose up quickly and the north fractured again into warring factions.
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#5 Yun

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 10:01 PM

I was out for the whole of yesterday, so it's good that GZ, Rolling Wave and Sephodwyrm stepped in to answer the question. However, now I'll have to clarify some things about this famous but not very well understood battle.

First of all, I'll paste a passage that I wrote for All Empires quite recently. It was also in response to a mention of the Battle of the Fei River painting by Sephodwyrm (AKA Chap1984 ;) ):

That magnificent painting (which I've also seen in the Military Museum in Beijing) is of course a modern oil on canvas in the Western style. The Chinese of that time weren't often inclined to paint something as distasteful as a battle.

The Battle of the Fei River is celebrated in China as a brilliant victory by a vastly outnumbered force that saved the future of Chinese civilisation from the barbarians, something like Chalons or Tours in the West. But Bo Yang of Taiwan (of "Ugly Chinaman" fame) believes it was a tragedy because Fu Jian was no "barbarian" and would have ruled a reunified China at least as well as Li Shimin (Tang Taizong) did 250 years later. That he failed to do so, and paid the ultimate price for failure, doomed China to another two centuries of bloodshed.

I'm inclined to agree with Bo Yang on this, although I also wonder whether the ethnic situation in Fu Jian's Qin empire could have remained stable enough for long. Another area of controversy is whether the battle even took place at all. Michael Rogers of UC Berkeley (who was by profession a Korean language lecturer, and not a historian) argued in a book some decades ago that the whole Fei River battle was a "myth" constructed by the Eastern Jin, and later used by the Tang historians who wrote the Jin History to dissuade Tang Taizong from invading Korea.

Not surprisingly, few Chinese historians have taken this seriously. But quite a large part of academia in the West seems to have accepted this theory without further question, because it fits into the whole spirit of post-modernist deconstructionism. Because this concerns the reliability of ancient Chinese sources as a whole, it's high time someone reopened the case and tried to prove that Fei River actually happened, instead of just taking that fact for granted.


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#6 Yun

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Posted 07 June 2004 - 11:43 PM

The Battle of the Fei River was fought in the early winter of 383 AD.

Rolling Wave made a major error in saying that the Former Qin 前秦 was defeated while crossing the Fei River. In fact, it was because the Former Qin was standing off with the Eastern Jin's Army of the Northern Garrison 北府兵 on opposite banks of the Fei River (a small river easily fordable on horseback) that Fu Jian 苻坚 decided not to risk a river crossing and to instead allow the Eastern Jin to cross over to his side. His idea was to attack the Eastern Jin while they were halfway across the river, as Sephodwyrm has pointed out. This is entirely in keeping with Sun Zi's Art of War: "When an advancing enemy crosses water do not meet him at the water's edge. It is advantageous to allow half his force to cross and then strike." However, Fu Jian made the mistake of not following another famous dictum from Sun Zi - to know one's enemy and know oneself.

Fu Jian did not understand his enemy well. Although he had defeated Eastern Jin armies on several previous occasions, he had never met the Army of the Northern Garrison in battle before this. The Army of the Northern Garrison was actually the only truly credible military force in the Eastern Jin. While it was nominally led by aristocrats of the Xie 谢 family, better known as fops and dandies than as military leaders, the bulk of that army was drawn from refugees from the same Huai River valley where the battle was now taking place (the Fei is a small tributary of the Huai). The Huai 淮 River area was a constant borderland and battleground between the Eastern Jin and the "barbarian" states to the north (contrary to popular belief, the border was not at the Yangzi River), and the people living there had become fierce and hardy warriors - this included the tough and wily General Liu Laozhi 刘牢之 who led the Northern Garrison vanguard. Furthermore, they knew the marshy ground there much better than the Former Qin soldiers, who mostly hailed from the drier regions of the north.

In 379, the Army of the Northern Garrison with 50,000 troops had soundly defeated a 20,000-strong Qin attempt to build a bridge across the Huai River and invade the south. Fu Jian blamed this on the incompetence on the Qin generals involved, and punished them severely. But the quality of the Northern Garrison was again well demonstrated on the morning of the Fei River battle when its vanguard of 5,000 crossed the Luo Creek 洛涧 (another small tributary in front of the Fei River) and inflicted a major defeat on the Qin vanguard of 50,000 (Sephodwyrm says they numbered 15,000, but that was actually the number of casualties they suffered). This unexpected defeat at the hands of Eastern Jin troops apparently had a big impact on the morale of the Qin army, and even on the confidence of Fu Jian himself.

Nonetheless, the Qin army at the Fei River numbered 308,000 - this was the advance force commanded by Fu Rong 苻融; another 600,000 infantry and 270,000 cavalry had been left behind by Fu Jian on the northern side of the Huai River in his hurry to catch up with Fu Rong. Fu Rong had reported that the Eastern Jin force was small and the only fear was that they would escape, hence the eagerness to engage them in battle as soon as possible. Thus Fu Jian had hurriedly crossed the Huai with only 8,000 light cavalry to link up with Fu Rong's force at Shouyang 寿阳. Even this much reduced Qin army was more than three times larger than the Eastern Jin forces, which numbered 80,000. If they had met on equal terms, the Eastern Jin would still have been overwhelmed. The problem was that the Qin army collapsed even before the Eastern Jin finished crossing the Fei River to attack them.

This is because Fu Jian did not know his own army well either. It's not true that many of the Qin forces at the battle were Murong Xianbei and Qiang who were not truly loyal to the Qin anyway. Actually the Murong Xianbei and Qiang were at other positions much further west along the front, and were not involved at the Fei River - which is why they were able to preserve their forces intact to rebel against the Qin. The troublemaker at the Fei River was a Han Chinese who had been captured by the Qin army and then recruited as a minister by the over-trusting Fu Jian. He was Zhu Xu 朱序, the general formerly commanding the garrison of Xiangyang 襄阳, which fell to the Qin in 379, opening up a vital point in the Eastern Jin defense and making the southward invasion possible. In 383, Zhu Xu was sent to the Jin forces at the Fei River to encourage them to surrender- instead, he urged them to take the offensive (but there is no evidence that he made a real plan with them to sabotage the Qin army).

When the Qin army was commanded to withdraw a short distance to give the Eastern Jin army enough room on the riverbank, order and discipline collapsed. It seems that the main reason was the poor training of many of Fu Rong's troops. Fu Jian had hastily conscripted one out of every ten men in his empire to enlarge his invasion force, and more than 30,000 of his cavalrymen were young aristocrats under the age of 20 who were seeing their first taste of battle. Command, control and communications in a large army are made far more difficult by inexperienced troops, and it's likely that when the units at the rear were told to move backwards without knowing why, they were thrown into confusion. Zhu Xu seized this chance to start shouting that the Qin army had been beaten, turning the withdrawal into a full-scale stampede. Still, Fu Rong could probably have restored order at the front of his army if his horse had not fallen down in the chaos, leaving him at the mercy of the Eastern Jin troops who cut him down. The death of their commander finally shattered the morale of the Qin army and they fled by the only route possible - swimming across the roaring Huai River. Those who were not trampled to death or killed by pursuing Jin soldiers still had to make it across the river in their armour - if they reached the opposite bank, they were still likely to die from hypothermia in the cold winter night. 70% to 80% of the 308,000 Qin soldiers lost their lives that day, probably including most of the younger members of the Qin aristocracy.

Fu Jian himself survived the crossing despite having suffered an arrow wound - this was probably because the villagers on the northern bank fed him some rice and pork. Most of his army was still intact, and the Qin state could have recovered fairly quickly from this defeat. But the Xianbei general Murong Chui 慕容垂 rebelled soon after returning to the north, and when the Qiang general Yao Chang 姚苌 was sent to suppress this rebellion and failed, he too decided to rebel rather than face Fu Jian's wrath. He later captured Fu Jian and had him murdered. Between them, the Xianbei and the Qiang tore the Qin empire apart. Fu Jian had tried to create an empire in which all the ethnicities could live in peace and equality, despite the advice of some of his ministers to exterminate the Qiang and Xianbei or at least not to use them in the government and army. His good intentions proved to be his undoing when they were not appreciated by his subject peoples.
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#7 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 08 June 2004 - 01:50 AM

Nice contribution, Yun., Rollingwave and Sephodwyrm, I enjoy reading this thread :D
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#8 Yun

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Posted 08 June 2004 - 03:29 AM

BTW, if you ask me the Battle of the Fei River (assuming it actually happened as described in the histories) was probably the greatest fluke in Chinese military history. The Eastern Jin Army of the Northern Garrison may have been a pretty well-trained and well-motivated force, but they went in without any real plan of attack, much less a cunning plan to defeat the enemy. Xie Shi 谢石, the overall commander, was actually terrified by the size of the Qin army and wanted to fight a defensive battle across the Luo Creek, which would have been suicidal. It was his kinsman Xie Yan 谢琰 who, encouraged by Zhu Xu's secret advice to strike before the main Qin force arrived, urged taking the battle to the enemy and thus made possible the first victory at the Luo Creek.

The battle at the Luo Creek was nominally commanded by Xie Xuan 谢玄, but the real commander was the non-aristocratic Liu Laozhi, and the Jin victory was indeed a great achievement for a force outnumbered ten to one. But the Jin soldiers could not have hoped to repeat the miracle, and must have been astounded to see the Qin army falling apart while they crossed the Fei River, rather than massacring them in the water. It's interesting to imagine the Jin army's mood turning from grim despair to gloating delight as they hunted the fleeing Qin soldiers like rabbits.

As for Xie An 谢安, the father of Xie Yan and Prime Minister of the Eastern Jin, he had totally no clue what to do before the battle. Instead, in keeping with the values of the aristocracy at the time, he resigned himself to facing defeat in as nonchalant a manner as possible, so that he would at least preserve his reputation as a cool cucumber. Rather than going with the army to the frontline, he went off to his hill villa outside the capital without leaving any instructions to the generals. When news of the victory at the Fei River reached him at the villa, he was playing weiqi with a friend. He read the message, hurriedly composed himself, and continued playing. When his friend asked him what had happened, he slowly replied, "The kids have won." But when he had finished the game and went back into his room, it's said that he was so shaken that he knocked the heel of his wooden clog on the threshold and broke it.

The Battle of the Fei River doomed the promising Former Qin empire to destruction, but it didn't really save the Eastern Jin from the same fate. Within 15 years, the Eastern Jin was collapsing from peasant rebellions and civil war, and although a general named Liu Yu finally restored order, he did so only to usurp the throne for himself in 420 and found the Song dynasty (known in history as Liu-Song so as to differentiate it from the better-known Song dynasty of 960-1276).
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#9 RollingWave

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Posted 09 June 2004 - 05:01 AM

A lot of things in history we can only interpert from results and the words written... it's hard to really know what they were thinking during those times or if certain things really played out the way some were written....

Though it is true that aristocrate in the Jin days were notorus for their seemingly otherworldly attitudes towards everything while not really achieveing anything .....

But there were exceptions and you never know...

It is worth meantioning that Liu Yu was acturally a friend of Tao Yuan Ming, considered by far the great poet until Li Bei... Liu was of peasent birth and lead a expedition that acturally suceeded in reconquering much of the north again but lost it shortly after when he hasilty retreated in fear of political rivals back stabbing him in the court :/
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#10 Yun

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Posted 09 June 2004 - 11:04 PM

Actually, there's no indication that Liu Yu and Tao Yuanming were friends. Both once served in the staff of the warlord Huan Xuan (son of Huan Wen), but Liu Yu turned against Huan Xuan after Huan usurped the Eastern Jin throne (of course, he himself did the same thing later).

As for Tao Yuanming, he had resigned from the job after just one year (and two years before Huan Xuan usurped throne), and went back to the countryside to stay out of politics. He never took another post and spent his time writing poetry instead.
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#11 Sephodwyrm

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Posted 10 June 2004 - 11:40 PM

The aftermath of Fei Shui was pretty bad for Fu Jian. He met disaster after disaster. He might as well be the world's most unluckiest man at that time. He suffered defeat after defeat ever since Fei Shui and was finally killed by Yao Zhang who established the Hou Qin dynasty. Northern China fractured into ethnic states once again and it took another period of near-continuous warfare that the Tuo Ba Wei were able to unify northern China again.

At the same time, East Jin dynasty should have seized the opportunity but they lacked the ambition and the emperor distrusted his generals. Liu Yu's rise to power might have established an era of reconquista but again this opportunity was lost again when Liu Yu rushed back to deal with political problems, leaving the people that "cheered and celebrated with the return of Han troops to Chang An" to the abuse of his own nephew and the very troops that should have liberated them. When the Wei counter-attacked, the Jin troops withdrew but not before pillaging everything they could. So much more for the "liberation".
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#12 General_Zhaoyun

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Posted 30 June 2004 - 10:49 AM

I've been reading a page about the battle of Feishui in a chinese book, which says that when the news of victory came to the ears of Xian An, he was actually playing weiqi chess with his guest. In fact, it was Xian An's stable character that helped to stablize the morale of the Eastern Jin troops.
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#13 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 30 June 2004 - 01:28 PM

I'm curious why western scholars don't think this battle existed, I've came across this claim too? What are their reasons?

#14 Yun

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Posted 30 June 2004 - 09:19 PM

In fact, it was Xian An's stable character that helped to stablize the morale of the Eastern Jin troops.

That's the usual story that's told, and it was obviously told to save Xie An's reputation. I personally believe that like all the others in the Xie clan, including his son Xie Yan and brother Xie Wan, Xie An was useless when it came to military matters. He was only good at acting cool and muddling through.

I'm curious why western scholars don't think this battle existed, I've came across this claim too? What are their reasons?


Michael Rogers had a few reasons for doubting the reality of the Fei River battle.

1. The numbers of the Qin army are clearly inflated (but so were the numbers for lots of other Chinese battles!)

2. There were just too many omens and portents in the account that must have been added in by the Tang historians, so if they could do that why couldn't they make up the battle? (Rogers doesn't seem to fully understand the importance of omens to history-writing throughout Chinese history)

3. The Xie family had it in their interest to invent a glorious victory for themselves (in reality, within a few years of the battle, Xie An had fallen out of power and favour because of rivalry from the emperor's brother Sima Daozi)

4. The Tang historians wrote the account at a time when they wanted to dissuade Tang Taizong from attacking Korea (by that reasoning, was the account of Sui Yangdi's invasions of Korea also fictional?)

5. There are hardly any records outside the Jin Shu of the battle (but I've found a mention of it under the description of the Fei River in Li Daoyuan's "Shuijing Zhu" [Annotations to the Book of Rivers], and he was writing in the Northern Wei. Li is usually regarded as a reliable source, and he states that the Fei River battle was a very significant and decisive one)

There are probably other reasons, but my photocopy of Rogers' book (which is long out of print) is back home in Singapore (I'm in Shanghai right now), so I can't go check it. Needless to say, I question his theory and plan to disprove it in one of my future books.

David A. Graff is slightly more charitable when it comes to the "Myth of the Battle of the Fei River" - he merely states that it's likely that at least a skirmish took place at the Luo Creek, but declines to offer any further conclusions.
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#15 Borjigin Ayurbarwada

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Posted 01 July 2004 - 01:52 PM

These theories doesn't sound convincing at all.

"1. The numbers of the Qin army are clearly inflated (but so were the numbers for lots of other Chinese battles!)"

Chang Ping, Chi bi, and numerous and yang Di's invasion of Korea also has recorded number as high as half a million- a million. So are the Persian wars. He can say that the numbers are exaggerated, but saying that the batle as a whole didn't exist is preposterous.

"2. There were just too many omens and portents in the account that must have been added in by the Tang historians, so if they could do that why couldn't they make up the battle? (Rogers doesn't seem to fully understand the importance of omens to history-writing throughout Chinese history) "

As Zhi Zhi tong Jian itself records, the Tang dynasty itself had an Omen, during the end of Sui, it is said that someone with the surname of Li will rule the world. So Yang Di started persecuting people with surname of Li and many generals changed their sir name to Li to gain support. Does that mean all this is made up and the Tang dynasty itself didn't exist? :rolleyes:


Yun, are you a proffesor with PHD that right books?




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