Friday, August 2, 2013

Han Xin VI

The King of Han was about to name his Commander-in-Chief!

The news spread like wind through the soldiers of the three armies.

Who was it going to be? Fan Kuai? Cao Can? Xiahou Ying... the flurry of rumors settled on no single candidate.

Someone went and asked Chancellor Xiao He, who only smiled and made no answer.

So the speculations raged on. In the end, most concluded that it was most likely Fan Kuai.

First, he’d saved the king at the Feast at Hong Gate. Second, he had a closer relationship with the King of Han than any of the other generals-- his wife was the queen’s younger sister.

After three days of fasting, the King of Han made his prayers at the royal shrine. When he finished, he proceeded to the general’s altar and began the ceremony.

“I summon--” the rites official called out, and the crowds anticipated his next words with bated breath. “-- Quartermaster Han Xin to the stage!”


Shock, surprise, suspicion, and a few whispers: “Han Xin?” “Who’s Han Xin?” “Dunno...”

Han Xin walked to the stage with calm, steady steps. He mounted the stage and paid his respects to the King of Han.

The King of Han took the yellow axe from the aide at his side. He held the axe by its head and offered it handle-first to Han Xin. “From this moment, everyone from here up to the heights of the heavens shall be under your command.”

Han Xin accepted the yellow axe. “I solemnly swear this,” he said.

The King of Han took the black hatchet from his other aide. He held the hatchet by its handle and offered it blade-first to Han Xin. “From this moment on, everyone from here down to the depths of the earth shall be under your command."

Han Xin accepted the black hatchet. “I solemnly swear this,” he said. He paid respect to Liu Bang. “I have heard it said, 'A nation cannot be governed from without, and an army cannot be directed by those in the central court. One who is unfaithful must not be appointed to the service of a lord, and he who is irresolute must not be appointed to counter the enemy.' Once your servant accepts your orders, he dares not return alive if he shirks his duties. May Your Highness grant me your word, and I shall dare to command your army.”

The King of Han spoke stiffly, like someone reciting from a book. “"For all matters in the military, do not wait for my orders. When you face the enemy in battle, do not harbour disloyal thoughts. I shall grant you your command."

Han Xin said: “I obey your royal decree.” He again paid respect to the King of Han.

The King of Han said: “I place great hope in you. Fight well, Commander!” He sighed in relief after he finished-- he’d finally reached the end of his memorized lines.

Han Xin prostrated himself thrice in front of the King of Han, then stood and paid his respects to the three armies below. He raised his axe and hatchet.

“Long live--” shouted ten thousand soldiers below. They raised their spears, a metal forest cutting skyward in startling might and unity.


After the ceremony, Han Xin went to the palace banquet the king had prepared for him.

For the first time, the King of Han took a proper look at the young man in front of him. Oh, he was good-looking enough, spirited and handsome, although his old burdens had left the space between his brows faintly careworn. He sipped at his wine and said: “Chancellor Xiao and Commander Xiahou talked to me multiple times about promoting you. If I wanted to conquer the land under heaven, they said, I had to make use of you. Well then, what can you teach me?”

“You flatter me,” Han Xin said. “Your Highness, if you wish to advance east and battle for control of the land, your opponent will be Xiang Yu, correct?”

“Of course,” the King of Han said.

Han Xin said: “Then may I ask you: in terms of prowess, reputation, and strength, how do you think you compare with Xiang Yu?”

The King of Han brooded. Xiang Yu had been born with godlike might; at Julu, he’d slain hundreds of Qin soldiers singlehandedly. How could he compare? And as the descendant of the great Chu general Xiang Yan, Xiang Yu’s breeding and upraising made him an expert at all the fussy etiquette compared to him. He’d been born a peasant, used to acting as dissolutely as he wanted, and learning the stuff had proved beyond him. He habitually slouched and squatted and yelled and cursed, regardless of either his title or that of others. He’d long heard others complain: “Living under the Duke of Pei isn’t life worth living.” How’s that for reputation! As for strength, he couldn’t begin to compare. If it weren’t for the gap in their respective power, would he have entered Xianyang first and still gotten booted to Hanzhong? After some thought, the King of Han could only say: “I’m not his match for any of them.”

Han Xin congratulated him: “I’m glad to serve a king who can admit this. Everyone knows these strengths of King Xiang’s, and I, too, think Your Highness isn’t his match in these areas. However, behind these strengths hide deadly weaknesses, which fewer people are aware of. I used to serve him, and I understand his personality. I’ll briefly explain, Your Highness.”

“King Xiang’s battleroar strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear it; when he enters the battlefield, he sweeps foes aside like leaves. But he doesn’t know how to make good use of other generals. The strength of a single person, no matter how great, can accomplish little without the help of loyal assistants. If he is brave, his bravery is only that of a brute’s.”

“King Xiang treats others warmly and courteously; when his subordinates fall ill, he gives them food and drink from his own table with tears flowing from his eyes. But when any of them accomplish something worthy of promotion, he’ll rub the seal of office shiny before he can bear to hand it over. If he is generous, his generosity is shallow and insubstantial.”

“King Xiang named himself hegemon over all the land, and uses his status to bend the other lords and kings to his will, but abandoned the strategic location of Guanzhong to make his capital Pengcheng. This is a great strategic miscalculation. King Xiang handed out titles based on personal favor, not merit. He went against King Huai’s deal to force you into Hanzhong. Everyone knows in their hearts that it was injustice. King Xiang rose to prominence claiming he fought in King Huai’s name, but after his success, he gave King Huai the empty title of Emperor Yi and exiled him to Jiangnan. The other lords saw and followed his example; when they returned to their kingdoms, they chased out their rightful rulers and named themselves as king. Who sees it and doesn’t shiver in their hearts?  King Xiang’s army leaves desolation in its wake, even burned Xianyang to ash and ruins. The common people hate him, but his strength forces them to obey for now. He calls himself hegemon, but he’s lost the hearts of the people. If he is powerful, his power is easily reduced to nothing.”

“Right now, Your Highness, you only need to do what he’s failed to do: If you employ well the warriors and brave men under heaven, what enemy is too strong for you to defeat? If you use cities and townships to reward capable subjects, who will refuse to serve you? If you advance east with soldiers who long for home night and day, what obstacle can stand long in your way?”

The King of Han grew more and more enthusiastic as he listened. When Han Xin finished, he hurriedly said: “Then in your opinion, when should we advance?”

“August,” Han Xin said.

Taken aback, the King of Han said: “That soon? Isn’t... isn’t that a bit rushed?”

Han Xin said: “It must be this soon! Right now, the soldiers long to return east, and it heightens their morale. If we wait too long, their eagerness will pass, and they’ll grow too complacent to fight any longer. Things will be harder then.”

The King of Han slapped his leg. “True, true, why didn’t I think of that?” Then he suddenly sat down again, dismayed. “No, that still won’t work. How are we supposed to get out of Shu? We’ve burned the plankway!”

“I’ve considered that already. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we destroyed the plankway.” Han Xin shifted his seat to the front of the King of Han’s dining desk. “May I borrow your chopsticks, Your Highness?”

The King of Han said: “Go ahead, go ahead.”

Han Xin picked up a jade chopstick, dipped it in wine, and drew a few lines on the table. As he drew, he spoke: “This is the Baoxie plankway. The fire’s destroyed it from this point to this point. You can order your men to start construction here to repair the plankway. The more publicized you can make it, the better. Draw Zhang Han and the others’ attention here. They’ll think you intend to leave on the same route from which you came and concentrate all their troops in the valley mouth. Meanwhile, our armies will first march toward Baoxie Valley, then turn northwest. There’s an old, forgotten passage here called Chencang Passage. Few know about it, but I now hold a detailed map. We can enter Guanzhong here and take the enemy by surprise.”

Delighted, the King of Han murmured: “Too ingenious! Too ingenious! Repairing the plankway in broad daylight while crossing Chencang in secret.[1] When they hear of this, who under heaven will dare claim he’s your match in war?”

It took a while before the King of Han had recovered enough from his appreciation to say: “Once we’re past Chencang, we’ll have to face Zhang Han, Dong Yi, and Sima Xin. These three are veterans of the battlefield. You can’t underestimate them.”

Han Xin set down the jade chopstick. “Don’t worry, Your Highness. These three used to be Qin generals, leading countless sons and brothers of Guanzhong to their deaths and maimings. After the battle at Julu, they surrendered to Xiang Yu, who proceeded to bury his two hundred thousand prisoners of war alive at Xin’an. Only the three of them were left unharmed. The elders and siblings of the Qin heartland resent them to their marrow. Xiang Yu used his authority to make them kings of Guanzhong, but the common people will never support them. On the other hand, Your Highness has done no wrongs from the moment you stepped into Xianyang. You only scrapped the old, harsh laws of the Qin government and replaced it with simple laws agreed upon by the people. The people of Qin will support you as their ruler wholeheartedly. Everyone knows the deal King Huai made with his lords: ’The first to enter Guanzhong receives kingship over it.’ They all regret that Xiang Yu forced you aside to Hanzhong. With the support of the people, all you’ll need to do is advance east, and the Three Qins will be yours!”

To the King of Han, Han Xin’s words felt as if someone had pulled aside the clouds to reveal radiant sunlight. No one had analyzed their situation and their plan of attack so clearly for him before. He laughed heartily. “Why did I only meet you now? Ai! Too late, too late. I should have listened to Xiao He and the rest earlier!”


On the second day of August, the Han armies began their rapid advance along Chencang Passage.

Han Xin reined in his horse at the road’s edge, watching his armies.

He’d succeeded, but even he didn’t know how the success had come about.

Before the month’s start, he’d secretly sent six separate scouting expeditions here. Every scout had returned with the same report: the location on the map was completely impassable, the trees reaching to the sky, the vegetation thick on the ground, the hillsides devoid of people. They couldn’t find anyone clearing a road.

But on the first day of August, his scouts reported that the passage was perfectly clear!

He wasn’t sure what he felt at the news. Surprise? Excitement? Suspicion? No, none of them. Inwardly, he’d almost expected that something like this would happen, though he had no explanation for it.

He calmly wrapped up the last of his preparations for the advance, then spoke with Xiao He about bringing their civilians to Guanzhong after the main armies. Xiao He, puzzled at the hurriedness of the proceedings but trusting absolutely in Han Xin, agreed to his plans without hesitation.

On the morning of the second day of August, Han Xin ordered the armies to set off.

The journey went quite smoothly. They traveled northwest from Hanzhong through Baoxie valley, turning northeast at Feng County, and entered a small passageway through the mountains. This was Chencang Passage, which wasn’t even supposed to exist.

It was evening by the time they reached the foot of Guyun Mountain. Han Xin ordered his armies to make camp and rest; next morning, they would cross the passes and confront the enemy.

Most of the soldiers hailed from east of Xiao Mountain; few wished to stay in Hanzhong for the rest of their lives. They rubbed their hands in anticipation of their departure, every one of them, grateful for their new commander. They were ready to fight well come morning.

Han Xin was unused to sleeping early. He inspected a few campsites, found himself still unwilling to sleep, sat alone on a tree stump with his knees pulled up to think.

The moon of August shone charmingly clear. As the clamor around him quieted, it seemed closer by than any person. A meteor swept a thin line of light just overhead, south to north, disappearing in the distance.

Xiahou Ying came over. “What, you still aren’t asleep?”

Han Xin said: “I’ve never needed much sleep. Besides, you’re awake too.”

“I’m too excited to sleep.” Xiahou Ying came to sit by his side. “Hai! Commander-in-Chief, how did you find this road? I’m impressed, I can tell you that! I looked for so long in Nanzheng without finding anything.”

Han Xin smiled a little, silent.

From somewhere in the distance came the cries of wild pheasants: Luo! Luo! Luo! Their voices were thin and a little distorted.

Xiahou Ying said: “Strange to hear pheasant-cries this late.” His eyes suddenly brightened. “Wait here, I’ll get you a gift!” He dove into his own tent and exited a moment later with bow and arrow.

“What are you doing?” Han Xin asked quizzically.

Xiahou Ying laughed. “They say it’s good luck to catch a wild pheasant before a battle. Isn’t that why they put pheasant tailfeathers on a general’s headdress? Wait a bit, I’ll get one for you.”

Han Xin said: “You’re joking! How are you supposed to catch anything in the middle of the night? Won’t they fly away?”

Xiahou Ying said: “They’ll be easier to catch because it’s the middle of the night! Pheasants have poor night vision. They’ll stay in one place when it’s dark. This one in particular sounds like it’s close by-- it’ll be this one’s own fault, being so loud! Watch me!” Bow and arrow in hand, he tiptoed into the tree thickets.

Han Xin laughed and shook his head.

About an hour later, Xiahou Ying at last returned, discontent.

“Strange,” Xiahou Ying said, wrinkling his brow. “The cries were obviously coming from there, but I couldn’t find anything.”

Han Xin said: “Enough, enough. Heaven wants it to live, so let it go. Battles aren’t decided by wild pheasants-- I’ve never cared about this sort of thing. It’s late. You should go to sleep. We have a battle to fight tomorrow.”

Xiahou Ying walked back to his tent, scratching the back of his head, his expression suspicious. “Strange,” he muttered. “Too strange!”

Luo! Luo! Luo! That wild pheasant began again, as if to express its triumph.

Han Xin laughed. He looked at the position of the moon, then stood and walked towards his own tent.

The moon shone bright on a scene silent but for the occasional pheasant-cry.

Another meteor glided across the sky, dragging a thin, bright line south to north, and gradually disappeared into the vast darkness of the night.


Han Xin’s armies took and garrisoned Chencang Town.

Chencang Town was a completely different deal from Chencang Passage; Chencang Passage lay to the southwest of San Pass, while Chencang Town was a small fortified town northeast of San Pass.

Zhang Han had never dreamed that the Han force would emerge from here, and had concentrated his main forces at the mouth of Baoxie valley. When he received the report, Han Xin’s armies had easily crushed the paltry garrisons of San Pass and Chencang Town, conquering their first foothold in Guanzhong.

Zhang Han frantically readjusted his troops and brought them west.

He had to destroy the enemy forces while they were freshly emerged from the passes, nip them quickly in the bud!


Standing on the ramparts of Chencang Town, Han Xin raised the mat awning over his head and gazed eastward. The vast territory of the Three Qins sprawled before him.

A few subordinates followed behind him, giving Xiahou Ying significant looks. Xiahou Ying cleared his throat and said: “Commander, we... we should be about done resting here, right?”

Han Xin turned his head. “Oh? What do you mean?”

Fan Kuai’s patience ran out. “We mean that we should hurry and attack while we’re fresh from victory! Why are we wasting our time in this little place? The King of Han’s waiting to hear about your great triumph over Zhang Han!”

Han Xin smiled a little. “The report will be sent. We have a good position. I plan to fight a battle here first.”

Fan Kuai said: “What’s the point? Much more satisfying to go straight for Zhang Han’s den at Feiqiu!”

Han Xin said: “If we’ll fight a battle either way, why bother to go looking for him? Let him go looking for us.”

Fan Kuai stared blankly, uncomprehending.

Xiahou Ying seemed to understand. “Ah! You mean... wait at leisure while the enemy labors?”[2]

Han Xin looked at Xiahou Ying, nodding appreciatively. “The one to wait at leisure while the enemy labored should have been Zhang Han, with our long journey to get here. But we can reverse the roles, make him run all the way here from Baoxie Valley, and strike him hard before he can catch his breath. This King of Yong has hard times in front of him.”

Only now did realization strike the other commanders, accompanied by admiration.

Han Xin continued: “We’ll need to take Feiqiu at some point, of course, but not right now. I don’t like besieging cities by brute force. It’s too wasteful; cities are made for defense, and they’ve only evolved to be better and better at it as time passes. The defenders have a huge advantage over the attackers. Think: it takes three months to build siege ladders, three months to build a dirt ramp. And then there’s the long stalemate. You cut my supply lines, I block your relief troops, back and forth-- how long will it all take? But we happen to be on Zhang Han’s territory now. He has to try to reconquer everything we conquer. So we’ll pull him back and forth by his nose, wearing away at his strength where we can. Once we’ve done that a few times, weaken him enough, we’ll attack Feiqiu. By that point, Feiqiu will be reduced to an empty shell. Will it not be easy to take it then?”

The commanders, persuaded wholeheartedly, knew their new Commander-in-Chief for a stroke of great fortune.


At night, Han Xin wandered the Chencang Town ramparts aimlessly.

Luo! Luo! Luo! A pheasant called somewhere in the distance. Or perhaps nearby. It was difficult to tell.

Han Xin stood and listened for a while.

A meteor slid across the sky above.

He’d seen an abnormal number of meteors lately, and strange-looking ones at that. They burned bright and flew low, as if one could reach out a hand and catch them mid-arc.

Another meteor swept past; Han Xin watched its flight thoughtfully. Even the guard behind him noticed: “There’s been a lot of meteors these few days, east and west and everywhere. Commander, this is a fine portent!”

Han Xin said: “Oh? Really?”

“Aye,” the guard said. “They say that when King Wu of Zhou fought King Zhou of Xia, a meteor appeared and descended onto King Wu’s chariot awning, where it turned into a red crow and gave a resounding cry!”

Han Xin laughed. “A red crow?”

“What’s so strange about that?” another guard said. “They say that a white crow appeared while Qin kept Crown Prince Dan of Yan as hostage!”[3]

Han Xin said: “Fine, a better question would be, ‘what color of crow hasn’t there been!’” The guards laughed.

Han Xin stood there, pondering as he gazed into the distance. After a while, he descended from the ramparts and walked towards the fort’s northeast.

In that sector stood Chencang Temple. Grand in scale but visibly fallen into decline, all its priests had deserted but for their chief. When that high priest saw the new head of Chencang Town, he hurriedly invited him to the temple.

Han Xin signaled his guards to wait for him outside.

The interior of the temple was well-swept and relatively clean, but everything in there showed the wear and fade of long years. He didn’t see any icon or image on the center altar, only a stone case of no impressive size. Yet the offerings table was lavishly arrayed with roasted sheep, oxen, and pig heads.

Han Xin said: “What god is so respected that you’d offer a dalao sacrifice?[4] A royal ancestor of Qin?”

“No,” The high priest carefully answered. “The pheasant god.”

“Pheasant god?” Han Xin’s gaze shifted. “You’re sacrificing livestock to a bird?”

The high priest said: “Yes. This entire town, in fact, was built for its worship!”

Han Xin said: “What’s the point of sacrifices when you don’t even have an image of your god?”

Taken aback, the high priest said: “Who says we don’t have one? Isn’t this it?” He pointed at the stone case on the altar.

Han Xin said: “That’s the pheasant god?”

The high priest said: “No, the pheasant god is inside it.”  He took the stone case from the altar, opened it, and carefully lifted something out. “Look, Commander.”

Han Xin looked, and was surprised. He saw a rounded piece of white jade the size of his fist, pleasing enough in appearance, but hardly precious, and seemingly unrelated to pheasants. “This is your pheasant god? I don’t see what it has to do with pheasants. Why do you call it a pheasant god?”

The high priest set down the stone and picked up an oil lamp. “Please look here, Commander,” he said, walking towards a side wall.

Han Xin, after a pause, followed him. Only by closer inspection did he realize that this dusty wall was covered with a massive mural. Time had chipped and dulled the pigments, but he could still make out the general shapes.

It was a massive hunting expedition.

Thousands of archers roamed amongst mountains and forests and rivers,  searching for prey. Hunting hounds by the hundreds wove between them, some running, some sniffing. Innumerable birds of every size fled, startled, from the woods, and every sort of beast-- roebuck, rabbits, deer-- were scattering in the four directions.

Upon closer inspection, he realized something strange. These hunters’ attention didn’t seem to be focused on the beasts. They blithely ignored prey an arm’s length in front of them. Instead, they looked as if they were searching with all their might for something else.

The high priest gazed at that aged mural, lamp in hand. “That was the great hunt of the nineteenth year of Duke Wen’s reign...”

Han Xin said: “Duke Wen?”

The high priest said: “Oh, that’s our Duke Wen of Qin. He was from the beginning of the Spring and Autumn Period, even earlier than Duke Mu. It’s been... hmm, about five hundred and forty years. It’s been so long that the story must have changed in the retelling, but the important parts should still all be there.

“That year, the people here kept hearing the cries of pheasants at night, but found no trace of them when they went looking. There were strange lights flying past in the sky, too. They didn’t know what was going on, so they reported to Duke Wen. Suspicious, he sent men to investigate, but they couldn’t find anything either. So he ordered five hundred of his finest cavalry and one thousand infantry here for a great hunt. They weren’t after bears or tigers, but that elusive pheasant.

“They searched for ten days before coming across this piece of jade. The soldiers who found it saw with their own eyes how a long band of light flew across the sky and into the stone. When they picked it up, the strange pheasant cries around them suddenly stopped. That’s how they knew it for a treasure. They gave it to Duke Wen of Qin, who ordered a divination. The results were very auspicious. With this in hand, they said, you could become a hegemon among the lords at the least, and become king if all went well. Duke Wen was delighted. He ordered this temple built here, and dalao sacrifices for the stone.

“Later, the rulers of Qin indeed became hegemons, and became kings, and even became emperors... but Qin still fell, in the end. Ai! I suppose five hundred years is enough to exhaust its life force. The First Emperor and the Second Emperor never cared about sacrificing to this god. But lately, the pheasant god is manifesting itself again. Commander, have you noticed the pheasant-cries? And the light of those meteors? Perhaps they herald the appearance of a new hero to become king or hegemon. Commander...”

The night deepened. Of the guards waiting outside the temple, some leaned against the wall, napping, while the others idly wondered why Commander Han was so interested in this broken-down temple.

At last, Han Xin walked out.

The high priest attentively accompanied him to the doors. “I wish you well, Commander.”

Han Xin gave an absent-minded affirmation. His brows were slightly furrowed, as if preoccupied with some difficult matter. The guards didn’t dare ask about it, and only hurried after him.

One of them furtively asked the high priest: “Hey, what were you and the Commander talking about earlier?”

The high priest smiled a little. He made no answer and only patted him on the shoulder. “Brother, you’re following the right man!” he said cryptically. “Do your best! You have prosperous times ahead.”

Commander Han must have gone here for a divination, the guards realized.

Once the high priest saw them disappear into the distance, he reentered the temple, lamp in hand. Gazing toward the stone case on the center altar, he murmured: “The will of heaven, nothing less. Zhang Han’s occupied Guanzhong for so long, and he never got his hands on it...”

The stone case was empty.


Zhang Han’s one hundred and fifty thousand troops arrived at Chencang, to be greeted by Han Xin’s one hundred thousand.

One battle, and Zhang Han’s defeated army was forced to retreat. Another battle, another loss, another retreat towards Feiqiu.

For every step that Zhang Han retreated, the Han army advanced a step. As planned by Han Xin, the King of Han and his court smoothly returned to Guanzhong from Hanzhong.

The King of Han felt as if he were dreaming.

Under Han Xin’s constant onslaught, Zhang Han, strongest of the three kings of Qin, found his territory shrinking day by day. Eventually, all that was left was his capital of Feiqiu, surrounded by the iron vise of the Han army. The King of Sai, Sima Xin; and the King of Zhai, Dong Yi, surrendered.

The King of Han was beside himself with joy. In March the next year, he heard that Xiang Yu had arranged the assassination of Emperor Yi at Jiangnan, and decided it would make a perfect excuse to attack Xiang Yu. Too impatient to wait for the full pacification of Guanzhong, he allied with the other lords in the name of avenging Emperor Yi, striking for Xiang Yu’s base at Pengcheng.

The King of Han took the best troops of Hanzhong with them, increasing the difficulty of taking Feiqiu. But Han Xin worked around it; after examining the local terrain, he waited for the rainy season, then dug channels from the river to flood Feiqiu. Its garrison was forced to surrender. The last great adversary in Guanzhong, Zhang Han, committed suicide.

With Guanzhong fully pacified, spirits everywhere rose.

Xiao He bustled in court and out: reassuring the populace, announcing general pardons, reassigning the old Qin government-owned parks and hunting grounds to peasant farmers, replacing Qin authority with Han authority...

After the ceremonies concluded and the officials began to disperse, Xiao He called Han Xin over.

Han Xin said: “What is it, Chancellor?”

Xiao He said: “Follow me. There’s something I want you to see. The King of Han, Sir Zifang, and I have yet to understand it even now. With your great intelligence, maybe you can make something of it.”

Xiao He led Han Xin to a secret room.  Han Xin noticed that its door took three keys to open.

In the middle of the room stood a massive grey-green object. The rest of the room was empty.

“Twelve feet eight inches high, five feet three inches long and wide,” Xiao He said. “I can’t think of what the dimensions might symbolize, and certainly not how it might be used.”

Han Xin circled the object and noticed a square gap at the bottom of one of the sides.

Xiao He said: “I think this is a space through which to light a fire. You could fill the inner part with kindling and light it from there, but for what? You wouldn’t make something so tall for cooking. Zhang Zifang told us to light a fire and see what happened, but it didn’t amount to anything. But he thinks this is no ordinary object, and told us to take good care of it.”

Han Xin said: “Why can’t it be anything ordinary?” He reached out a hand, feeling the cool, smooth surface of the object above the opening. Bit by bit, he moved his hand upwards.

One foot, two feet...

Xiao He said: “It was hidden in a secret chamber under Qin Shihuang’s bed, guarded by powerful hidden crossbow mechanisms. A hundred and twenty-seven of our men died to retrieve it. A hole underneath one’s bed violates a terrible taboo; feng shui calls it ‘digging one’s own grave.’ Qin Shihuang was famously superstitious, but for this, he chose to risk inviting great misfortune. It’s definitely something important.’”

...five feet, six feet. He could indeed feel a thin crack. Han Xin’s hand didn’t stop, but continued casually moving upwards.

Xiao He said: “Commander Han, what do you think this is meant for?”

Han Xin lowered his hand, examined the object silently for a while, then shook his head. “I don’t know.”

Xiao He, visibly disappointed, said: “If even you don’t know, it looks like no one will ever know. Ai!”

Han Xin said: “Maybe it’s a symbol of authority. Chancellor, look, it’s square on the outside and round on the inside. Doesn’t it look a bit like a jade cong, only much larger?”

The disappointment deepened on Xiao He’s face. “If that’s the case, it wasn’t worth the price. Zifang’s never been wrong before, but I fear he’s misjudged this time.”


The situation in Guanzhong remained strong, but the King of Han’s theater of war was in shambles. He’d led five other kings and a total of five hundred and sixty thousand troops against Xiang Yu’s hurried relief force of thirty thousand, and managed to lose ruinously. After the horrific battle at Sui River, the corpses of Han soldiers had so piled up that they’d dammed the waters. The King of Han barely managed to escape. During his flight, he’d repeatedly pushed his own children off his carriage to lighten the load. Repeatedly, Xiahou Ying retrieved the children. The King of Han had been so frantic, he’d nearly killed Xiahou Ying.

To salvage the situation, Han Xin rushed his newly organized Guanzhong army east to Xingyang[5], where it joined with the King of Han’s remnant forces and dealt the Chu army a sound defeat between Jing and Suo. The Chu army’s westward advance was at last halted.

But the defeat at Sui River had left its mark. Many of the rulers who’d allied or planned to ally with Han saw the wind and set the helm, allying once more with Chu against Han. Frustrated and enraged, the King of Han commanded Han Xin to take care of these treacherous lords first. It would kill two birds with one stone-- exact revenge, and limit the mobility of the Chu armies.

That August, Han Xin attacked Wei as ordered. He tricked King Bao of Wei with a decoy army, ferried his troops across the river with rafts of wooden jars, took the necessary towns and cities, captured King Bao of Wei, and thus pacified the kingdom of Wei.

Come September, Han Xin proceeded north without halt to attack Zhao and Dai. He quickly defeated Dai and captured its chancellor Xia Yue.

Just as he was about to set off for Zhao, the King of Han sent men to transfer all of Han Xin’s best troops to Xingyang to resist the Chu advance.

Han Xin immediately began recruiting replacements, but even then, his army couldn’t compare with Zhao’s. He didn’t fear a numerical advantage, though he felt some concern about Zhao’s Lord of Guangwu, Li Zuoju. He wasn’t as famed as the Lord of Cheng’an, Chen Yu, but Han Xin knew his capabilities were greater than Chen Yu’s. Fortunately, his scouts reported that Chen Yu had proved too obstinate to listen to Li Zuoju’s battle advice. That was one potential worry eliminated.

So Han Xin set up his battle ingeniously, arraying his forces at Jingxing Pass with the river at their backs, and throwing the Zhao troops into panic with Han battle flags at their main camp. In a morning’s work, he crushed two hundred thousand veteran Zhao soldiers with his own twelve thousand raw recruits, slew Chen Yu, Lord of Cheng’an, and captured the King of Zhao. Han Xin ordered his troops not to kill Li Zuoju, Lord of Guangwu, but offered a bounty of a thousand gold pieces to whoever captured him alive. Soon, someone brought him in, bound and captive. Han Xin untied his ropes with his own hands, invited him to sit by him, and asked for help with the terrain of Yan and Qi. Li Zuoju knew his own loss to be well-deserved, and, moved by Han Xin’s generous treatment, aided him wholeheartedly.

After the battle, Han Xin’s puzzled subordinates asked him: why did he break the general rule of military strategy and arrange his formations with their backs to the water, and how had he managed to win despite it?

Han Xin smiled a little. “The rules of military strategy aren’t supposed to be obeyed to the letter. Look at this army of ours: ruffians and peddlers and newly surrendered soldiers, and everything in between. Can the ordinary rules of battle govern such an unruly mob? I placed them into a desperate situation where retreat was impossible, forcing them to fight for their lives, to bring them to their greatest potential. This is called ‘achieving survival by fighting from a position of certain death.’ It, too, can be found in the military books if you look! If I’d put this army into a more flexible position, as per conventional strategy, half of them would have run off before the battle even started.”

His subordinates could only admiringly say: “Your insights are on a higher level than ours, Commander.”[6]


Not long after, Han Xin’s messenger returned from the kingdom of Yan with good news. Intimidated by Han Xin’s might, they surrendered bloodlessly.

With four allies conquered within the space of a year, Xiang Yu was beginning to grow concerned about the situation in the north. He sent troops across the Yellow River to attack Yan and Zhao, hoping to recover some cities. Han Xin and his army met them wherever necessary, easily repelling the futile counterattacks, and still had room to send the occasional relief force to help out the King of Han.

But the King of Han was truly too poor a commander, losing the advantageous situation Han Xin had created for him at Xingyang a bit more with every battle. He fled from Xingyang to Wan County, from Wan County to Chenggao, and at last couldn’t even hold Chenggao. He and Xiahou Ying broke through the Chu line on a lone chariot, crossed the Yellow River to the northeast, and drove straight for Han Xin’s base at Xiuwu.

At Xiuwu, the King of Han could finally let out a sigh of relief. But he didn’t immediately approach Han Xin, and instead quietly found an inn where he could spend the night. Early the next morning, he visited Han Xin’s camp. He didn’t reveal his identity, but used the tally of a Han messenger to gain access.

He had trouble finding Han Xin’s tent; unlike most other commanders, he ate and drank and slept the same as his footsoldiers. The King of Han had to ask several passerby to find the main tent, where Han Xin still lay sleeping. He told Xiahou Ying to guard the entrance while he snuck inside.

The tent wasn’t large. The King of Han glanced around and quickly found the military tallies on a low side table. He eyed the sleeping Han Xin, inhaled lightly, and carefully tiptoed towards the table. As he walked, he couldn’t help but steal glances on Han Xin.

When Han Xin shifted, the King of Han could feel his heart jumping furiously. Nervously, he watched Han Xin.

Han Xin rolled over without opening his eyes. He continued sleeping, now facing inward.

The King of Han exhaled, darted to the table, took the commander’s seal in one hand and the military tallies in the other. He backed out of the tent, still watching Han Xin.

Han Xin, totally asleep, didn’t so much as twitch.

The King of Han turned and rushed out of the tent.

“Your Highness,” Xiahou Ying said. “Did you see Commander Han?”

“I saw him sleeping like a log. Look!” The King of Han raised the objects in his hands self-satisfiedly. “I got these.”

Xiahou Ying could only stare. “Your Highness, you--”

The King of Han said: “What’s the big deal? When a wall’s about to fall, everyone joins in the pushing. With my bad luck lately, he might not obey me anymore. This is the surest way! Hurry, let’s go to the central tent and announce ourselves now!”

Han Xin rolled over. Once he heard the King of Han and Xiahou Ying’s footsteps fade away, he sat up and unhurriedly dressed himself, then called in his chamberlain.

Li Zuoju walked in as he was washing his face. “Commander, I don’t understand what you’re doing! The King of Han is giving orders out there with your seal and tallies. He’s taking all your best troops, and you’re letting him?”

Han Xin finished washing his face, tossed the cloth back into the bowl, and waved his chamberlain away. “Why not? He’s the ruler and I’m his minister. Call it me repaying him.”

Li Zuoju said: “Who’s heard of this sort of repaying! What kind of ruler sneaks around like a thief? Why do you still have to play minister to someone like him?”

Han Xin looked into the mirror, adjusting his pheasant-tail headdress. “I have my reasons.”

When Han Xin entered the central tent, the King of Han had finished with his transfers. Seeing Han Xin, he was only momentarily taken aback, before remembering that he’d taken care of everything important. He quickly relaxed.

Han Xin, as before, knelt deferentially and paid his respects.

The King of Han helped him up. “No need, no need,” he said cheerfully. “Xiang Yu’s given me a bad beating. Surely you don’t mind me borrowing a few troops?”

Han Xin stood and said: “To share the burden of the ruler is a minister’s duty. Does Your Highness have any other instructions for me?”

At the King of Han’s side was Xiahou Ying, who hurriedly assured him: “Ah, no, we don’t--”

“Of the northern kingdoms, only Qi remains.” The King of Han smiled innocently. “Can you think of a way to take Qi?”

Xiahou Ying stared at his king, aghast.

Did the King of Han realize what he was saying?

The kingdom of Qi possessed two thousand li of fertile farmland and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The king Tian Guang and his chancellor Tian Heng had governed Qi for three years, and their family was vast in power. Asking Han Xin to take Qi with his few remaining soldiers was like hitting a rock with an egg.

Han Xin said: “Of course, although I’d like to ask something of you, Your Highness.”

The King of Han said: ‘Go ahead.”

Han Xin said: “If I take Qi, can you give me kingship over it?”

The King of Han laughed. His request had been intended to allow himself a graceful retreat, in the hopes that Han Xin would be too preoccupied with his new assignment to dwell on the theft of his army. He hadn’t expected that Han Xin would take it so seriously-- it seemed that this brat was still innocent in the ways of the world outside battles!

“Haha! Of course! If you can take it, it’s all yours! Haha...” Buying goodwill with the enemy’s territory was just too fine a deal.

Still laughing, the King of Han selected a bamboo tally from the desk and swanned off. Xiahou Ying gave an apologetic look to Han Xin and followed him, head lowered.

Han Xin looked at the remaining tallies. “Brother Xiahou, stay for now.”

Xiahou Ying stilled, then turned his head. He mumbled: “Commander Han, I... I truly didn’t know...”

Han Xin said: “Brother Xiahou, come over.”

Xiahou Ying walked over, his embarrassment apparent. Han Xin fiddled with the remaining tallies. “The King of Han took the wrong tally. That one wasn’t the troop transfer tally.” He selected a smaller tally, about five inches in length. “Give this one to the King of Han, so he doesn’t run into problems later when he actually tries to take the troops-- my soldiers recognize only their tallies, not the men holding them.”

Xiahou Ying took the tally. For a moment, guilt choked his voice. It took a while before he could manage: “How about... how about... when the situation around Xingyang improves, we’ll give some of the troops back to you--”

“That won’t be necessary,” Han Xin said. “I have my own ways-- it’s your side I’m worried about. Remind the King of Han when you can: don’t keep sending my soldiers to their deaths.”

Xiahou Ying’s guilt deepened. “We fight... badly, it’s true. But the Chu army is too powerful. They’re truly... truly very difficult to fight.”

Han Xin thought for a while, then said: “Tell the King of Han to avoid confronting Xiang Yu directly. Find deep gullies and high ramparts, and use the terrain to help you defend. Then send twenty thousand troops to help Peng Yue...”

“Twenty thousand to Peng Yue?” Xiahou Ying was taken aback. “Why? We’re tight on troops ourselves.”

Han Xin said: “Don’t worry, let me finish. Peng Yue already has more than forty thousand troops. He’s always wanted to take the Liang[7] territory, but fears he doesn’t have enough troops. If you give him twenty thousand, he’ll gain enough confidence to launch an all-out attack on Liang. Liang holds great importance for Chu; Xiang Yu must give up Chenggao and Xiangyang to return east and deal with Peng Yue. Wouldn’t that solve the King of Han’s problem? Giving away twenty thousand men so Peng Yue draws away all the attention has to be a better deal than using those twenty thousand to attack Xiang Yu head-on!”

Struck by realization, Xiahou Ying said: “Ah! A fine plan! Truly a fine plan! Ai, with such a brilliant strategy, you should go tell the King of Han himself!”

“It’ll be the same if you tell him,” Han Xin said.

Xiahou Ying said: “This is a great contribution to our cause. How can I steal credit from you?”

Han Xin smiled lightly. “I’ve made enough contributions already. I’ll gift you this one! After all, you saved my life.”

Xiahou Ying looked at Han Xin, the rims of his eyes damp.


Qi held enormous influence in the other kingdoms, more than Han Xin could afford to face. He therefore decided on a strategy of surprise, beginning with a lightning raid on the Qi garrison at Lixia.[8] That done, he ignored the city and immediately turned to attack the capital of Linzi.[9] The main Qi forces had all been redeployed to relieve Lixia, leaving Linzi empty; Han Xin took it in one fell swoop, then swiftly pursued the Qi king Tian Guang east to Gaomi.

With the capital fallen and the ruler in flight, the Qi army lost all will to fight. The remaining resistance forces soon crumbled on their own.

The news threw Xiang Yu into panic. With the fall of Qi, the territories of Han, Dai, Zhao, Yan, and Qi formed an unbroken perimeter, surrounding him in the west, north, and east. He couldn’t let himself be hemmed in from three directions. He’d never gotten along with Tian Guang, but he had no choice but to help him now. Xiang Yu sent Long Ju with two hundred thousand Chu troops to save him.

Two hundred thousand was no small number. With his campaign not yet concluded, Han Xin had no way of scraping together an army of equal size.

He could only borrow the power of nature. By night, he ordered his men to pile ten thousand sandbags upstream across the Wei River, damming its flow. Then he enticed Long Ju into crossing the river to pursue his retreating forces.

Long Ju was overjoyed. He knew that he held an absolute advantage over Han Xin’s meager troops, and eagerly sent his army after them. Just as the first portions of the Chu army made it to the other bank, the sandbags upstream were pulled aside, and the the long-amassing waters roared down, swallowing the Chu soldiers slogging across the riverbed without a trace! The Chu army had been cut in two, and Long Ju was left stranded with his paltry ranks on the far side of the river.

He suddenly realized that his absolute advantage had turned into an absolutely disadvantageous situation.

Han Xin counterattacked.

With that battle, Long Ju was slain, and the Qi king Tian Guang was captured. Two hundred thousand Chu soldiers died, surrendered, fled, vanished altogether.


By December, the seventy-plus cities of Qi were fully pacified, and Han Xin retired with his army to Linzi. He planned to rest and reorganize his army while he sent a messenger to the King of Han, asking him to grant him his kingship to better govern the region.

The royal palace at Linzi had begun its life under Jiang Ziya, Duke Tai of Qi. At that time, the buildings had been fairly modest and crude. Only when Duke Huan of Qi declared himself hegemon did its exterior grow in grandeur. After the Tian family took over Qi, King Xuan, King Hun, and the rest had vastly expanded the palace to its current state to accommodate their hedonistic lifestyles. Despite the wars and lootings it had experienced, it still possessed an air of majesty and uncommon beauty.

Han Xin strolled along the main walkway to the palace, Li Zuoju and Kuai Che by his side.

Kuai Che was famed in Qi and Zhao as a diplomat skilled in the way of words. He’d voluntarily joined Han Xin before the attack on Qi, becoming a valued strategist. He, like Li Zuoju, had gained Han Xin’s full trust. The three of them spoke amongst themselves in utmost openness.

At that time, to their side, several officials were organizing the vast ranks of Qi concubines and handmaidens who’d lived in the palace, deciding who would be sent home and who would stay. Kuai Che, looking at the noisy, bustling crowd, laughed. “Your Highness...”

“Ai--” Han Xin said, “don’t call me that. The King of Han hasn’t given me the edict.”

“That’s only a matter of time,” Kuai Che said. “Hey, Commander, why don’t you go over and see who they’ve picked for you?”

Han Xin glanced over. “I don’t need to. I’ve told them that I don’t care about appearances, just efficiency and diligence.”

Kuai Che said: “Hai! If efficiency and diligence are all that you’re looking for, you might as well use eunuchs. Women have their own uses! I have to say, Commander, you don’t show much interest in women.”

Han Xin said: “Says who? That’s human nature itself, but I’m busy! You’ve seen. I don’t have the time to think about this sort of thing.”

Kuai Che said seriously: “But by outside consensus, you don’t care about women because you prefer men.”

Li Zuoju failed to hide a laugh.

“Bah!” Han Xin cheerfully swore. “Nonsense! Where did that rubbish come from?”

Kuai Che said: “They do have evidence! What other general doesn’t take their captives’ concubines for their own use? But look at you, you turn them all in straight to the King of Han without a glance! Last year, you defeated the King of Wei. They say his Concubine Bao is peerless! And you handed her to the King of Han without so much as touching her finger.”

Torn between anger and laughter, Han Xin said: “Let those gossips try holding my office! Of every year, I spend at least three hundred days in battle and the other sixty on the march. And I’m supposed to have room to think about women?”

Kuai Che said: “Then stop selling away your life for the King of Han’s sake. It’s not worth it! He’s a petty man.”

Li Zuoju joined in: “Aye, Commander. You’re King of Qi now, so rest for a while. Take the opportunity to think about naming a queen.”

Han Xin shook his head. “I don’t have the time to rest. I still owe a debt, and I’ll need to begin a construction project soon--”

Mid-sentence, someone charged out of the throngs of palace women, confronting Han Xin. “Your Highness, why didn’t you pick me?” she yelled. “Is it because I’m ugly? You said yourself you didn’t care about appearance!”

Han Xin’s surprised guards began to move, but paused when they saw it was a skinny young girl, surely no more than thirteen or fourteen. They looked toward Han Xin, who gave them the don’t worry hand signal. He examined the girl.

Swarthy of skin, she looked like one of the fishermen’s daughters common to the shores of Qi. With her broad forehead and lips, thin hair, she was no beauty, but not quite ugly either. Only her eyes were striking: wide and round and black as lacquer. Han Xin met her glare with a smile. “Says who it’s because you’re ugly? You’re too young.”

“Me, young?” The girl looked even angrier. “Hmph! They all say that! I just happen to be a bit short. I’ll be sixteen next month!”

“Sixteen?” Han Xin said, amused. The girl didn’t look remotely sixteen. “Fine, then, we’ll call you sixteen. Tell me, why do you want to stay? Do you think that it’ll be fun serving me? You should know, I’m far harder to please than your former king. You’ll be equally busy day and night. Not to mention--” he put on a fearsome expression--” I kill people!”

“Don’t try to scare me with that!” the girl said, annoyed. “I told you, I’m not a child. I know you kill people, but that’s on the battlefield! I want to serve you because you’re a great hero who’s fought a hundred battles and won all of them. I admire you. I’d be happy to serve you! What was Tian Guang worth? His uncle Tian Heng did everything for him. He didn’t have a scrap of ability himself!”

Han Xin was beginning to feel interest. This girl’s words were childish, but fierce of opinion, and more insightful than he expected from a servant girl. “Can you read?”

“Can I read?” The girl looked as if she’d been mortally insulted. Her brown cheeks flushed red. “I’ve memorized the Spring and Autumn Annals!”

“Oh?” Han Xin, taken aback, examined the girl more closely. Her face was unremarkable, but her wide eyes shone with quick intelligence. He smiled and said: “Very well, then. Tell me, how do you plan to serve me?”

The girl stared blankly, stumped into silence. It took her some thinking before she said: “I... I can comb your hair for you.”

Kuai Che and Li Zuoche burst into laughter.

Han Xin, too, laughed. Seeing the small yellow poplar-wood comb pinned in her hair, he pointed at it and said: “Then how about you give me a demonstration? If you do a good job, I’ll keep you.”

“Aye!” the girl said happily. “Sit here, Your Highness.”

Han Xin obeyed. The girl unfastened his topknot, separating the strands before combing them out. Her technique was indeed excellent. She combed quickly and smoothly, without pulling a single hair, but not so gently that the comb merely skimmed. A moment later, she’d redone his topknot.

Han Xin said: “Hmm, not bad. You really are quite skilled.”

“Of course,” the girl said proudly. “I don’t brag.”

Han Xin reached up to feel his topknot. Suddenly, his expression changed. “What did you do with my hair? Stop playing around and change it back.”

The girl said: “Hah, you were too much of an outsider to get it right, and now you’re complaining that I fixed it.”

Han Xin said: “Nonsense! Do outsiders even exist for something like this? I didn’t bind my hair this way for decades for you to mess with it. Redo it right now!”

The girl got angry. “Mess with it? Who’s messing with whom? You’re not King of Chu, so why should your topknot be on the right side? We people of Qi tie our topknots on the left. You’re king, but you insist on going against the ways of your ministers and your people? Fine, I’ll change it back right away!” She reached up.

Han Xin paused, then hurriedly raised his hand to block hers. “Wait! Don’t! I may have wronged you.”

“It isn’t ‘may.’ You wronged me, plain and simple!”

Han Xin said: “Fine, Fine, I wronged you. Why are you so angry, anyway? I’m from Chu, after all. I don’t know the customs of Qi!”

“Then you should be more humble, listen around more, look around more!”

Han Xin smiled. “Interesting, you’re lecturing me now. All those other people barely dare breathe in my presence. How come you’re not afraid of me?”

The girl said: “Why should I be afraid? Reason is on my side, and even kings have to listen to reason!”

Han Xin laughed. “You’re a bit different from the other girls. Hmm, I rather like that. Very well, I’ll keep you! But stop calling me king; I’m not one yet. Tell me, what’s your name?”

Delighted, the girl said: “My name’s Ji Jiang.”



All my thanks to Lady_Wu, who helped with the dialogue in the commander-naming ceremony in the beginning. I have full sympathy for Liu Bang; Classical Chinese is vicious to the uninitiated.

[1] In Chinese, this is has become the idiom 明修栈道,暗渡陈仓, signifying the use of a diversion to accomplish things elsewhere.

[2] This is the fourth of the Thirty-Six Stratagems: 以逸待劳.

[3] After he returned to his state, Crown Prince Dan sent Jing Ke to assassinate the future First Emperor. This is probably the most famous of the assassination attempts on him. Jing Ke used a traitor's (donated) severed head to gain audience with the King of Qin, then tried to stab him with a dagger he'd hidden in a rolled-up map. The attempt failed, and the King of Yan ordered his son executed to try to appease Qin.

[4] Most sacrificial offerings of livestock used sheep and pigs, and were called shaolao. Any offering using oxen was called dalao.

[5]Xingyang is a city and county in modern-day Henan Province.

[6] This book operates under the assumption that the reader already knows the basics of Han Xin's campaigns. Indeed, Han Xin has probably inspired more Chinese idioms than any other historical figure, largely as a result of his rather spectacular battles. Some parts are pretty over-abbreviated if one doesn't have prior knowledge, though. Here's a Wikipedia article on Han Xin's Zhao campaign:

[7] Liang is the eastern part of the old state of Wei; King Bao of Wei only got the western part from Xiang Yu. It encompasses portions of modern-day Henan and Shanxi provinces.

[8] Lixia is a city located in modern-day Shandong Province, later incorporated into the city of Ji'nan.

[9] Located in central modern-day Shandong, Linzi is known as Zibo today, and was one of the greatest cities in China during the Spring and Autumn Period.

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