Posted 30 July 2004 - 09:15 PM
This is one of the most famous incendiary attacks in Chinese military history. The account is narrated in Ralph Sawyer's "Fire and Water", and gives a good idea of the drastic swings of fortune that could occur among the Warring States:
Decades earlier, in 333 BC, the eastern state of Qi had exploited Yan's mourning to invade and seize some ten cities. Although they were eventually returned, the affront continued to rankle. However, two decades later civil war caused such disaffection among Yan's populace that they refused to defend the state, allowing King Min of Qi to occupy it in 314 BC. Persuaded not to annex it, in 312 BC King Min supported the accession of King Zhao [of Yan], who immediately committed himself to the task of reviving his vanquished state. Assiduously cultivating hs Virtue in the prescribed fashion, he nurtured his people, sought out talented men, revitalised the military, and adroitly avoided conflict with other states. Finally, prompted by King Min's arrogance and recent conquest of [the state of] Song, King Zhao embarked upon a campaign intended to punish Qi for its predatory behaviour.
Having recently defeated armies from Chu and the Three Jin [i.e. the states of Han, Wei and Zhao that had once constituted the larger state of Jin], attacked Qin, destroyed Song, and aided Zhao in extinguishing [the small state of] Zhongshan, Qi's power and territory were unsurpassed. Yan therefore cobbled together an allied force consisting of the states of Han, Wei, Zhao, and Qin and invaded Qi in 285 BC with Yue Yi 乐毅 [a very famous statesman and general of the time] as commander in chief. The coalition was disbanded shortly after they severely defeated Qi's forces west of the Ji River, though Yan's armies continued to sweep through the countryside, seize the capital, subjugate several cities, and persuade others to voluntarily submit, all within six months. However, despite King Min having been slain, two Qi cities resolutely resisted demands to surrender and Yue Yi's tempting promises of leniency.
Unwilling to needlessly incur heavy casualties, Yue Yi undertook a virtually interminable siege. However, detractors back in Yan assailed his failure to swiftly reduce the remaining cities and accused him of wanting to prolong his authority or even become King of Qi. Since King Zhao perspicaciously disbelieved these slanders, the siege continued for nearly five years. However, when King Zhao died in 279, Tian Dan 田单, who had been named [Qi] commander in chief at Jimo [one of the two besieged cities] by popular acclaim, exploited the new monarch's flaws and inexperience to sow discord by employing double agents who successfully reiterated the same accusations, resulting in Yue's replacement by Qi Jie.
Tian Dan then embarked on a multi-stage effort to simultaneously undermine the enemy's will and rebuild the defenders' spirit. First he created an "auspicious omen" by having food left out in the courtyards whenever the people offered sacrifice, thereby attracting flocks of birds, a phenomenon which puzzled Yan's soldiers. Second, he imparted a transcendent veracity to his measures by pretending to receive spiritual instruction. Third, correctly anticipating it would make his troops resolute, he ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of prisoners held in Yan's camp by volubly worrying that Qi's spirit would be adversely affected if their noses were cut off. Fourth, he had double agents bemoan the severe consternation they would suffer if the outer graves were exhumed, thereby tricking Yan into enraging the populace when they burned the corpses. Next, his family led in the fortification work, he personally feasted his officers, and he nurtured Yan's overconfidence by concealing the able-bodied, visibly displaying only the weak and wounded. Finally, Tian Dan not only exploited the antique ruse of false surrender to induce laxiy, but further augmeted its effectiveness by bribing Yan's generals.
As recorded in his Shiji biography, Tian Dan then implemented his famous unorthodox measures:
Tian Dan herded the thousand cattle within the city together and had them covered with red silken cloth decorated with five-coloured dragon veins. Naked blades were tied to their horns and reeds soaked in fat bound to their tails. They then chiseled dozens of holes in the walls and that night ignited the reeds, releasing the cattle through them. Five thousand stalwart soldiers followed in the rear. When their tails got hot, the cattle angrily raced into Yan's army.
Being the middle of the night, Yan' troops were astonished. The brightness from the burning torches on the cattle was dazzling. Everywhere Yan's soldiers looked there were dragon veins [and they thought they were being attacked by dragons?], everyone the cattle collided with died or was wounded.
Accompanied by a great drumming and clamour from within the city, 5,000 men with gagged mouths [to ensure silence before the attack and thus preserve the element of surprise] exploited the confusion to suddenly attack. The old and weak made their bronze implements resound by striking them, the tumult moved Heaven and Earth. Terrified, Yan's army fled in defeat. Thus, through psychological operations, unorthodox tactics, and a touch of fire, just 7,000 exhausted soldiers and another 10,000 inhabitants trapped in Jimo defied a siege force of perhaps 100,000. Thereafter, aided by uprisings in the occupied cities, Qi's reinvigorated armies quickly drove Yan's disorganised forces out beyond the borders, allowing Qi to reclaim its position, however weakened and tarnished, among the extant states.
The dead have passed beyond our power to honour or dishonour them, but not beyond our ability to try and understand.