Han Xin was one of the more quirky generals that served Liu Bang, the King of Han who emerged as the first Han emperor after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. The Qin forces were toppled by 207 BCE, and in 206 BCE, China was once again shattered into numerous kingdoms, with Liu Bang dominating the west from Han and Xiang Yu lording over the east from Chu. When civil war erupted between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, other minor kings and rogue generals had to choose a side. It was around 206 BCE, when the anti-Qin rebel leaders were claiming their kingdoms, that Han Xin defected from the camp of Xiang Yu and joined Liu Bang.
According to the Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Han Xin was a man of undiscovered talent when he joined the Han army. He had no money, no noble lineage, and although he had been in the rebel coalition for years, he had not been able to distinguish himself in battle. Yet, he was a brave man and had an unorthodox way of envisioning military strategy. Even though Han Xin had thus far not been able to prove his talents, several notable Han officials recognized a spark of something special in the man. Lord Teng and Prime Minister Xiao He allegedly vouched for Han Xin and, following their counsel, Liu Bang granted the defector a rank of commissary colonel in the Han military. By 204 BCE, Han Xin had been promoted to the rank of major general and became a prime minister.
That same year (204 BCE), Han Xin and Zhang Er were sent by the king of Han to conquer the kingdoms of Zhao and Dai. The kings of those two regions, Xie in Zhao and Chen Yu in Dai, were close friends and they combined their forces to defend against the Han army.
The armies clashed at the Jing Gorge, located southwest of Dai and northwest of Zhao. Han Xin and Zhang Er allegedly possessed an army of around 20,000-30,000 men strong, which was positioned in the mouth of the gorge. The forces of Dai and Zhao was apparently much larger, supposedly reaching around 200,000 troops.
When the opposing generals came into contact, it was uncertain who had the terrain advantage. The Han troops were in the mountainous gorge and as long as they stayed on the mountainside, they had a favorable position. Yet, they were the invaders and their army would have to move eventually. On the other side, the forces of Zhao and Dai set up a fortified encampment on a strong position overlooking the mouth of the gorge, from which they could defend against a Han invasion. As long as they stayed in their fortifications, the defenders would have a significant advantage.
The two sides held their positions for some time, each waiting for the other to move first. Eventually, the Han forces looked to the ingenuity of Han Xin for a solution to their current predicament. Han Xin, for his part, would not disappoint.
Sima Qian wrote that Han spies had infiltrated the opposing fortification and were sending back information to Han Xin. One of the conclusions that the general made from the information he received was that the Zhao and Dai forces were confident—fatally confident—and that Chen Yu, the lead opposing general, underestimated the strength of the Han troops. Han Xin constructed his strategy around this information, planning to use the confidence and ignorance of the Zhao and Dai forces as a weapon to turn the battle in his favor.
To encourage the enemy to underestimate the Han forces, Han Xin began breaking basic military axioms known to all ancient Chinese warriors. First, Han Xin split his already outnumbered army into two halves and sent one of them to a vulnerable section of the gorge. As an extra embellishment, he had that portion of the army back itself against the river that ran through the gorge—an action that Chinese military proverbs warned against. It was such a breach of accepted military strategy that the defenders in the Zhao and Dai army could supposedly be heard openly howling with laughter.
Han Xin stayed with the half of the army still on the mountainside. There, he split off another group of soldiers, a force of 2,000 light cavalry, and had them hide where they could inconspicuously watch the battlefield. When the cavalry had disappeared, Han Xin led the rest of the army down the mountain to a position not too far from the rest of the Han forces by the river.
From their defenses, the Zhao and Dai troops could not believe their eyes. The Han army was willingly lining up with its back to the river, ready to be pushed into the deadly water by the much larger defending force. The opportunity was too enticing for the Zhao and Dai troops to ignore. So, a large portion of the defenders charged against the half of the Han army personally led by Han Xin. After the battle raged for a time, Han Xin withdrew his troops back to the river, joining up with the other half of the Han army on the riverbanks. When the rest of the defenders in the Zhao and Dai fortification saw Han Xin retreat to the river, their bloodlust got the better of them, and they too charged out of the camp to join the battle, leaving only a scattering of men in the fort.
This second charge from the Zhao and Dai camp was exactly the sign that the 2,000 hidden Han cavalry were told to look for. When the horsemen saw that the enemy camp was virtually deserted except for a scattering of men, they took off down the mountainside. The Han cavalry successfully evaded the eyes of the occupied Zhao and Dai army and reached the walls of the enemy fortification without being discovered. There, they dismounted and grabbed their secret weapons from their bags—each of the 2,000 horsemen had a single bright red Han flag. With these flags in hand, the horsemen rushed into the fortification and went to work.
Back by the river, where Han Xin and Zhang Er were desperately trying to keep their troops from being pushed into the water, things were looking grim. The Zhao and Dai forces had pinned down their opponents, but the Han army was putting up a valiant stand. Still, the Zhao and Dai soldiers had been confident of victory ever since they rushed out of their camps, all they had to do was break the will of the trapped Han forces. Yet, it was the Zhao and Dai armies that would break first. When troops in the back lines of the Zhao and Dai forces looked back at their camp, they saw a startling sight—all of the Zhao flags on the defensive walls had been cut down and replaced by vibrant Han standards.
The unexpected flags apparently caused a sense of insurmountable panic to flood the minds of the Zhao and Dai troops. Had another Han army arrived? Had their kings or generals fallen during the battle? Did they fall into an elaborate trap? Faced with such questions, the Zhao and Dai soldiers lost all of their confidence and, instead of finishing the battle, they began to flee. The panic only increased when an unseen band of Han cavalry crashed into the back of the Zhao and Dai army.
In the end, the battle at the Jing Gorge turned out to be a crippling defeat for the Zhao and Dai forces. The Han army managed to capture both King Xie of Zhao and King Chen Yu of Dai, the latter of which was executed by his bitter rival, Zhang Er, who was crowned as the new king of Zhao by Liu Bang.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Horsemen carrying flags from Ming Dynasty Departure Herald, from the Jiajing reign period in China(1522-1566 AD), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.