An Lushan Rebellion 3-2: 安史之乱: The Meat Grinder 张巡


Music: No Way Out

Would you choose to save a world you knew, even if you would surely burn eternally in hell for it? If you already have your mind set to one thing- even beyond the intention to purchase with your own death, what else would you sacrifice to attain it? Is hell worth it?

This is a story of inhumanity of man and the loyalty of dogs. In many ways, this story could be viewed as a cruel microcosm of the entirety of the An Lusah Rebellion, which utterly disrupted the Tang dynasty at its imperial heights and caused the death of (even by conservative estimates) at least around 13 million- at least 1/5 of the empire's populace (13% of the entire world's population in the 8th century)~ a figure that was only eclipsed by the global genocide of the Mongol invasions and the Second World War.

But this- if you find the heart to look deeper, is also a story of the utmost sacrifice and defiance, all of which is lost in the brutal ways in which the coming battle was fought. Despite the grim spectacle, it will also show the damage an out-manned and utterly devastated Tang dynasty war machine was still able to deal out when they are doomed from all sides.


"Beneath my feet is a life that will reflect the promises I have made, my daily deeds (deeds today) will be a proof of my intentions- or what else is loyalty?" ( “足下平生以忠义自许,今日之举,忠义何在? ” ) The scholar- turned general Zhang Xun once uttered these words when he was stranded in a seemingly doomed city surrounded on all sides by an army over 10 times his army's size. These words- which he spat back at the traitor general that besieged him reflected a certain outlook and a deep glimpse into his stubborn moral fibers. It was these instincts that allowed him to weather through many bitter trials and tribulations at the fortress of Yongqiu. It was also this singular commitment- when combined with his cunning that achieved a most resounding miracle for the Tang dynasty when all hope seemed to have lost. 

756 was a momentous year for Zhang Xun. When the rebel An Lushan instigated a massive, empire-wide rebellion at the head of 40% of the empire's former forces, the entire realm was plunged into an information blackout after the sack of the twin capitals of Louyang and Chang' An. Worse yet for the Tang regime, their defeat on the battlefield meant the very heart of the empire, like a peeled egg, was completely undefended, all of the empire's armies were still on the frontiers and by the time many turned back and converged to face the rebels, An's army would have control of all the lands south of the Yellow River stretching all the way to Vietnam. 

But despite the collapse of the Tang command structure, Zhang Xun, only a county magistrate raised a small resistance army no more than 3,000 against the 300,000 rebel army. Through a stunning series of events, he was able to defeat a rebel army that numbered 40,000 at Yongqiu. Though by this time, An Lushan's rebel army had taken the Tang capital of Chang' An. An Lushan was furious at having been humiliated on his flank by this shoe string army. Thus, by the winter of 756, An marshaled a staggering force of over a third of all of An Lushan's whole rebellion to utterly crush Zhang Xun and his ragtag partisans and slaughter all who rendered them aid. 


Music: The Bitter Steppes of the West

Before the arrival of An's massive counter- insurgent army, sporadic skirmishes never stopped surrounding the Yongqiu area, which lasted all until November, by this point Zhang Xun had developed such a fearsome reputation that whenever any Yan army marched close to or needed to pass through the Yongqiu- Suiyang districts, they always tried to circumvent the deadzones. Though by this point, Zhang's forces had been in the dark for half a year completely oblivious to the situation of the Tang army outside of Henan, Zhang Xun maintained his ferocious raids and several times sallied out with his troops and ambushed the enemy columns from the rear. 

He would do so even if the enemy possessed more men and more cavalry. A combination of covert maneuvering, stalking, and speed allowed him to be the aggressor and attack the enemy from a direction of his choosing. His bold attacks never stopped, and never ceased to repel the enemy forces from the areas close to the city. 

When another Yan general, Li Tingwang (李庭望) at the head of seven thousand cavalry tried to circumvent Yongqiu and attack Ningling and Xiangyi (襄邑) (two adjacent townships in modern Shangqiu, Henan that supplied Yongqiu), Zhang attacked him and forced him to completely break off the attack. 

By now, Zhang Xun had become renowned throughout the region for successfully defending against sieges despite seemingly overwhelming odds, and as a result Yan's army shifted their tactics to become one of grand encirclement and attrition. In December, Linghu Chao- the commander who had formerly besieged Yongqiu returned to the outskirts the city and built a great earthen fortress north to cut off Yongqiu's last supply route. It soon became apparent to Zhang that something else was coming.


At the same time, another Yan general, a traitor former- Tang general named Yang Chaozong (楊朝宗) led 20,000 rebels to the east of Yongqiu, to cut off Zhang Xun's retreat route. Before the encirclement was completed, Zhang Xun decided that he could no longer stay in Yongqiu and again face a combined army numbered over 40,000. After ordering the soldiers to scrounge up all the food and supplies they could carry, Zhang's army packed and prepared for a sudden breakout. Zhang Xun also brought forth the civilians of the city, and always around his person- guarded by his bodyguards, his favorite concubine. They would have to act as fast as lightning to have a chance of escape before the iron vice is closed all around them. 

He led his remaining soldiers to the eastern outskirts of Yongqiu and when the correct weather presented itself, his army swiftly broke through Yang Chaozong's blockade. Zhang Xun then rested his troops in Ningling (寧陵) (in modern-day Henan) for the next few weeks, after having by now endured through a full year of battle. It was at Ningling that Zhang Xun received a letter penned personally by Xu Yuan (許遠), the governor of the nearby Suiyang city. Govenor Xu had heard of Zhang Xun's extraordinary abilities in the defense of Yongqiu and asked him for to personally lead the defense of the city. 

Zhang too knew that if Suiyang- the regional capital of eastern Henan fell, the rest of Tang's territory south of the Yangtze River would be threatened- without this flood gate, all of the resource- heavy south, the massive regions of rice cultivating lands, and the grain bearing Grand Canal would all fell to the hands the rebels and indefinitely prolong the conflict. Thus he immediately agreed to help and rode forth with his men.

Music: On the Beach


It was after Zhang Xun was welcomed into Suiyang that governor Xu delivered a piece of earth- shattering information to the beleaguered commander. Ever since the massive information blackout created by An Lushan's traitorous rebellion, Zhang Xun and the rest of his defenders have been completely oblivious to the occurrence of events outside of their local region.

And it was when he first made contact with proper Tang remnants that he received that unthinkable news that An Lushan: the traitor, the self- proclaimed Emperor of the Yan dynasty had suddenly been assassinated by none than his own son, Crown Prince An Qingxu.

Apparently, An Lushan, the eponymous villain of the whole empire had succumbed to severe cases of skin ulcer and blindness, which made him both extremely cantankerous as well as paranoid (not to mention invalid,) he would frequently abuse his servants, ministers, generals, and even his own son regularly with canes and whippings. It seemed also said that An Lushan had grew tired of An Qinxu's...personhood and there were many rumors that he might make the infant son by another wife as his new crown prince and kill off An Qinxu. Thus the Crown Prince struck first and ordered a palace eunuch to assassinate his blind father while the man was asleep. After being roused and unable to find his own weapons due to his blindness, An Lushan was struck down and beheaded by the valet. An Qinxu was soon made the new Emperor of Yan while all the Yan generals were shocked at the sudden turn of events. It was an anticlimactic death for the villain of the realm- wide conflict. The head of the serpent had been struck itself. 

It should be noted that as of February 757 A.D,  it had not even been half a year since An Lushan declared himself the Emperor of Yan, nor more than a year from when he initiated the massive rebellion against the Tang. The cantankerous, conniving veteran general who spent decades of his life planning to establish his own empire was slain way too early at the critical pivot of the conflict, dying before he even realized who sent the assassins that killed him. History if anything randomly introduces the most interesting plot twists.

The fact that the Yan state- and the great rebellion had only been been declared merely only one year ago was not lost on many of its newly sworn vassals. Most had hitched their way with the Yan because of the veterancy and reputation of An Lushan and the massive gains he was able to achieve during the early phase of the rebellion. Having their new Emperor die so soon and replaced with a (well known by now) parricide was not only a sacrilege but sheer insanity. Chaos swept throughout the by-now dumbstruck ranks of the Yan army, from the highest ranked officers to the lowest grunts, none was sure of their fortunes in the days ahead.

Music: EON

However, if anything for Zhang Xun and the defenders at Suiyang. The death of An Lushan did not come as a respite or a turning point but instead proved to be a great portent of misfortune against them. The new Yan Emperor, An Qingxu, was both insecure and was possessed by the same megalomania as his father, and in an effort to prove himself to the rest of the realm, to prove his ability to succeed where his father had failed, An Qingxu sent one of his best generals named Yin Ziqi (尹子奇) at the head of a massive 130,000 army- the entire east flank of the Yan army to bore down on Suiyang fortress. 

On their way to Suiyang, they also picked up the Yan general Yang Chaozong (楊朝宗) and added his 20,000 men into the great Yan ranks. In total, more than 150,000 rushed to the fortress that was defended by less than 7,000 soldiers (10,000 including temporarily impressed militias from within the city). 

It would be a duel that would decide the hollow heart of the empire. If An's forces
were able to take Suiyang county, they would be free to conquer the resource-
rich south and take complete control of the grain- transporting Grand Canal, 
thus isolate all of the Tang remnants to starve on the fringes 
of the empire. 


Many historians ranging from Liu Xu, who wrote 旧唐书 the "Old Book of Tang" and Ouyang Xiu, who wrote 新唐书 "New Book of Tang" and several modern PRC historians have expressed astonishment at the massive number of soldiers An Qingxu was willing to hurl against this fortress. But it should be noted, that the overall strategic goal of the eastern army extended well beyond just subduing the fortress and killing its defenders but likely also involved breaching into southern China and completely claim the Grand Canals and the southern provinces.

Although many writers who preferred a flair for dramatic narratives chose to depict the 150,000 as if they were coming directly for the fortress, Suiyang was most likely a bottle- necked entrenchment they must breach through to in order to completely secure all of southern China's arable lands, eastern China's coasts or to swing radically westward and gut the western Tang generals from their exposed underbelly. The fortress was simply the wrong place at the wrong time, or to Zhang Xun, the perfect place at the perfect time.

To understand the sheer scope of such a force, if one were to examine some of the biggest battles of the Middle Ages even 400- 500 years later after the battle of Suiyang, the numbers alone still stands rather peerless. To put things into perspective, the battle of Hastings between the Saxons and the Normans consisted of 6,000 to 12,000 (at most estimated) for each respectively, the decisive battle of Manzikert between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Empire- whole empires that could be put into the field consisted of 70,000 Byzantines and 30,000 Turks respectively.

The battle of Acre between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin consisted of roughly 27,000 each. Even the siege of Constantinople in 1453 some 700 years later after Suiyang between the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks had 10,000 vs 50,000-80,000. In fact- Zhang Xun's standing force of 7,000- 10,000 was the typical size of a whole medieval European or Mid-eastern polity's army well for 500 years until the 15th century.

The force An threw against him consisted of at least 10 times the size of even that. For most of the world it was not until the 12th century with the Mongol conquests do we see numbers bloating over 150,000 for a single faction, Even so, most of the polities that surpassed these figures consisted of Asian (and frequently Chinese) polities. Even by conservative estimation by skeptical historians, the figures of the Yan army was still estimated to be around 90,000- 120,000 at least.

Music: Scaling the Ziggurat

Zhang Xun and Governor Xu Yuan would become important partners in the coming defense of Suiyang, after been warmly greeted by the governor, both men would share the command of the 7,000 soldiers within the city.

The united army of Zhang Xun and Xu Yuan, around 7,000 men, soon began to prepare for the defense of Suiyang. They first divided the soldiers so each had a group directly under their command, then both also divided up their duties as well. Xu Yuan would focus on supplies management and after-battle repairs while Zhang Xun, would focuse on battle tactics. Zhang would also empress most of the men who were capable of bearing arms and swell his thin ranks to roughly10,000. 

To instill a constant sense of battle readiness- Zhang Xun divided up the soldiers and the citizenry into numbered units that would be responsible for a specific segment of the wall. Each section of the wall would be constantly patrolled, and if it was assaulted, the soldiers under it would rush to plug up its defenses, behind them, the citizendry would be responsible for delivering arrows and supplies to the wall and if needed, they would join in the battle to plug up any holes left open within the soldier's ranks. Soon, a common fixture also began to appear on the sections of the walls- Zhang Xun's many war drums. 


Despite daily sieges by the Yan army, the Tang soldiers never let up. Zhang Xun's troops played the war-drums during the night, acting as if they were going to fight (a tactic that proved extremely useful during the previous siege of Yongqiu.) Because of the nightly raucous, the Yan army were forced to stand on guard during the night, and suffered from the lack of sleep. In times like this, it would have been tremendously useful if Zhang Xun's old rival, Linghu Chao was here. Linghu had once faced Zhang Xun for the span of almost a year at Yongqiu and had repeatedly fell to Zhang's ploys in his attempts to breach through Zhan's defenses. 


But neither Linghu Chao nor his fear-stricken army was here to give advice on a dozens of tricks Zhang would repeatedly employ on General Lin Ziqi's forces. Napoleon once said: "You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war." Well, fortunately for Zhang Xun, he must have been quite relieved to realize that he could try all of his dozens of his "classic" tricks on thousands of fresh, naive enemies who predictably raced out of their tents, dumbfounded and with full armaments. Eventually, as the beating of war drums at night continues, some of Yin's troops simply did not bother to put on their armor at all when they heard these battle drums, and- as with Linghu Chao's army, simply kept sleeping. 

After the Yan army lowered their defenses, Zhang Xun's veterans- like at Yongqiu again raided their camps to deadly effects. He would be able to retry nearly all of his ploys at Yongqiu. And very soon, in less than a week, Zhang Xun became feared throughout Yin's camps.


But Yin did not slow down neither the pace nor the ardor of his attacks. Whenever Zhang Xun would deal damage to the great host, Yin would respond by a counter assault- and would do so even if he was met with repeated losses. His reasoning- something that Zhang Xun would have probably quickly guessed as well, was likely pinned on the fact that for every few soldiers that Yin would loose- they would take several of Zhang's soldiers as well. Soon Zhang became troubled at the dogged persistence of Yin. Both men knew that Yin was right in the long term. He had much more men than Zhang could ever hope for, and in this enactment of a human meat- grinder, even with heavy losses its just a matter of time before Yin would win out. 

Where as amateur- magistate- turned generals such as Linhu Chao could be intimidated until he became paralyzed, Yin seemed to be possessed by the same dogged tenacity as Zhang Xun himself. Zhang would have to find some way to kill Yin himself- for the man possessed the most dangerous factor that could leads to Suiyang's fall, the will to see it through and the willingness to spent numbers until victory. But therein lies something that would trouble anyone before the age of photography. Neither Zhang Xun nor anyone in Suiyang had ever see the face of Yin Ziqi. He could literally be any of the milling officers encased in an elaborate armor, not to mention that many of the generals would be constantly surrounded by a square of bodyguards.

During the second week of the great siege, something strange happened. As the Yan army's soldiers encroached closer and closer to Suiyang's walls, instead of receiving a hailstorm of arrows, it was a shower of thatch, twigs and straws fired from the bowmen. The men below, who must have been a little shocked at first looked at the harmless weeds and soon began to pick them up and laugh. To them it became so obvious that the Tang soldiers had ran out of their supplies of arrows. After several rounds of cheers, the happy band ran across the camps, shouting and laughing all the way.

They promptly ran to Yin Ziqi to report that the Tang army had already run out of their supply of arrows. They instantly knelt before the armored man and began to describe in detail of their findings. Just then, a shower of arrows pierced through their ranks, all directed at the most elaborately armored figure among them. A single arrow flew directly into Yin Ziqi's left eye socket.

Yin Ziqi fell instantly, and had to be quickly taken to a shelter, his pavise bearers and bodyguards rushed to him as his entire army watched the shocking spectacle. For all they knew, Yin was as good as dead. The Yan army was instantly plunged into chaos. Zhang's sniper had delivered a major blow to the Yan morale.

General Yin would survive the encounter, but he would also be incapacitated by the wound. After loosing his eye he had to be bedridden and thus unable to personally give command for the many assaults he definitely would have liked to had. This, combined with the frequent night raids within the 16 days since he had laid siege to the city finally lead to a general paralysis on the Yan army's part. Within merely two weeks, they had already lost 20,000 men and had their general incapacitated. 

General Yin then decided that his army was too tired to fight, so he ordered a temporary retreat to regroup, after resupplying his provisions and having the wounded treated. Yin Ziqi would return to besiege Suiyang two months later with an additional 20,000 fresh troops, the Yan forces was thus restored to its full strength. For Suiyang's defenders, they could not have returned at a more inopportune time. 


Music: No Way Out

Originally, Xu Yuan had prepared for the upcoming siege by storing at least 1 full year of food supply inside of Suiyang. But the district governor had insisted that he should share the large food supply with other outlying fortresses, and thus with this depletion, by the time Yin Ziqi returned the food supply had became much less than what Xu Yuan originally planned. They had overspent their supplies and now a fresh vice of siegeworks was locked all around them.

By July, the Tang soldiers had fallen into a desperate food shortage. Tang soldiers were given very small daily rations of rice each day. And if they wanted more food, they would need to settle for whatever animals, insects, and tree roots that could scrounge in their vicinity. Many of the soldiers were forced to contend with a mixture of rice, tea leaves, paper, and bark. Soon, there was not any fowl, sparrows or bats within the city.

Many suffered from illnesses of hunger and sleep deprivation. To make the matters worse Yin resumed his vigor and increased the frequency and magnitude of his assaults. Despite this, Zhang continued to fight off attack after attack, often (almost always, as variously recorded) leading the counter attacks personally. As the ranks of his soldiers became thinly stretched due to their large casualties, and many posts on the city walls became totally unmanned. Zhang divided the defense zones with Xu, with Zhang himself defending the northeast sections of the city and Xu defending the southwest side, both spending the days and nights with the soldiers in hardship and wall duties.

Yin Ziqi eventually took noticed the famine that was plaguing the Tang army; he therefore ordered more troops to surround Suiyang. He made many siege attempts with siege ladders, but they were all repelled by the determined Tang troops. Yin Ziqi eventually resorted in using hooked pulled carts to try to pull down the towers of the fortress, one could imagine these weapons like a melee catapult, where instead of a stone being thrown, instead, a giant, beamed metal blade or metal mattock- blade was attached to the top, combining the power of a catapult with a battering ram and operated by pavised siege crews.

(Left) A The "fork" cart would have been used by the attackers to chop at the walls. One of the most fascinating yet least known was the Fork Cart, a massive wagon-mounted spike that combined the technology of the catapult with the battering ram to claw its way through the packed earth walls of defended cities. The pivoting beam terminating in long claws would sometimes have been attached to a long ladder for extra height. (Right) 饿鹘车 Eh hu Chuh (hungry falcon cart), a similar Chinese siege engine used to hack at walls and parapets, dating from the Three Kingdoms period.

These attacks were met with limited success and soon, several sections of the wall (and many towers) were cracked open and pulled until rifts appeared. The Tang soldiers were able to destroy the hook of these carts, before major damage was made. But even with the battle success, Zhang Xun knew that with only around 1,600 soldiers left, and most of them sick or hungry, the battle would soon be a lost cause. Where in Gods name is anyone coming to his relief? Had the empire fallen completely? Hadn't each of the frontier armies on the empire's fringes had at least some 20- 40 thousand soldiers each? If any of them would come to his rescue, it would be much easier.

By August, all the dogs were eaten within the city, all the cats, all the mice, and all the beetles, in the besieged area had been eaten. At this state, any days from now they would have to slaughter even the warhorses and the horses for the courier. Gods knows, its been weeks without a proper meal, its been days without every a mockery of a meal. No cicadas, pillbugs or even roaches. When was...that last battle again? Surely those lying unburied are still-


No, Something must be done and at this point Yin Ziqi does not even need to assault the walls directly, all he needed was to sit and wait and watch the city die...something that An Xingqu, that father- killer usurper would do to the whole empire if he would take the whole Grand Canal right beneath Suiyang to the south of the city- he would do that to the whole empire. Where is anyone at all?

In a desperate bid, Zhang Xun called forth 30 of his best soldiers, including his champion- captain Nan Jiyun (南霽雲), paired them with the fastest horses they could still find and ordered them to break through and ask for help from nearby fortresses. They would find an opportune time and breakthrough one of the most unmanned areas of the enemy siege lines then ride at a breakneck speed to the nearest allied fortress they could still reach.


Nan Jiyun and 26 other cavalry successfully broke through the enemy arrays without stopping and rode fast to their desired destinies. Within days they rode throughout the south, which was- unlike the other pockets of the empire totally untouched by the ravages of An Lushan's wars.

Music: Shores of Kokonor (Tang) "青海波"

Food was aplenty and life in general continued as they had before the calamity. Girls in the latest fashionable garbs sauntered in their long night strolls with lanterns, and many had scores of pets with them whenever they went, even the layman southerners talked of the purchasing power of various grains over long dinners.

However, none of the nearby local governors were willing to offer either troops nor food supplies. It seems, they had to a man- like the most practical of politicians already have hedged their own bets for the possible winners of the entire conflict. Each had stocked up their own soldiers, fortifications, and foods, they are only waiting for the wind to blow to the right direction before pledging fealty to whoever would emerge as the winner in the great brawl several provinces above.

The southern governors knew well that An Qingxu desired the south (White represent their southern claim) and like practical survivors, all had gathered their own small private army. They knew well that the Tang regime had been driven off the field, and that the hollowed heart of the empire was soon to be under Yan's control. Thus, many simply waited until the Yan won on the field and when their envoys arrive they would pledge fealty to the new regime.

Finally, Nan Jiyun raced to Linhuai (臨淮, in modern Huai'an, Jiangsu in eastern China) to seek aid from the Tang governor general Helan Jinming (賀蘭進明), who had the strongest Tang force in the area.

When Nan arrived at Linhuai, Helan refused to render aid—believing that by the time that he arrived at Suiyang, Suiyang would have fallen already and he would have merely put his own army at risk. Fact remains that Helan- like most of the southern military governors where also keen for the preservation of their own powers. Remember that when Louyang fell, the Yan army was able to quickly ride around Henan, Hebei, and Shanxi and receive the fealty of many local governors. 

Surely- he wagered, should the Yan achieve victory at Suiyang- which was likely any day now, he would like many to do well to have a clean hand and a clear record before bowing to the Yan. Matters not of the insane Gog and Magog like struggle at Suiyang, if he helped them in anyway (for a hopeless cause) he would be sullying his own chances of surviving in the new rising regime.

Historical accounts also indicated that Helan was jealous of Zhang and Xu, and also feared attacks from another Tang general, Xu Shuji (許叔冀), an ally of the chancellor Fang Guan, to whom Helan was a political enemy. Instead, Helan tried to keep Nan on his own staff owing to how the captain was willing to risk his own skin for his masters. Even to this day, historians do not know whether what Helan unveiled next was either to flaunt his own faction's stash, or intended to be a sadistic sting of cruelty that was intended to get back to Zhang Xun.

Instead, he offered Nan Jiyun a huge feast, of various assortments of finely cooked meals, meals that neither Nan nor his men had seen for not only days, several weeks but nearly a whole month to try to convince him to join his ranks.

Seeing the ostentatious display, and no doubt thinking of his own comrades that are- even as he relished the sight of the great number of foods before him staving to their death in Suiyang, Nan replied, "The reason why I risked my life to come here is because the local civilians and my comrades have no food to eat for over a month. How can I eat such a huge feast when I know that my comrades are facing? Although I failed my mission, I will leave a finger with you, as evidence that I did come here."

Immediately after, Nan Jiyun cut off (or, in some versions, bit off) one of his own fingers. Then brusquely rode away from Helan's camp without touching the food. Despite the failure at Helan's camp, Nan did not stop in his mission and continued begging at all of the neighboring governor's doors for aid. 

Nan Jiyun's bravery finally convinced a local governor at Ningling (if you recall, was the township Zhang had stayed in after his victory at Yongqiu) named Lian Huan (廉垣) who lend 3,000 soldiers to him. However, when they arrived back at Suiyang and tried to fight into the city, they suffered heavy losses, and only 1,000 of the soldiers from the outside made it inside the now most certainly doomed fortress.


It must be said that if anything, Zhang the shy scholar was able to inspire the deepest loyalty in his staff, and more to be said about soldiers such as Nan who would keep his words and his loyalty in service of such a man despite everything. Nan's ride out has been a jarring transition. For the brief span of a week, he had had a "palette change" and "tonal change"enacted upon him. He had, in his hard ride pierced through the membranes of a microcosm (an MMORPG instance?) transitioned from a world of despair, suffering, and daily consequences, of eating pillbugs, cicadas and roaches, was daily expected shedding of one's blood, seeing one's loved comrades killed, seeing one's limbs and life taken, to a world utterly untouched by the brutal war itself. 

Nan found himself riding in a verdant land (or was it an age) that is almost completely untouched by the conflict, still full of the abundance of both food and luxury, of leisure night strolls, many pets and social faux pas, that is still utterly spoiled with its haughty- out of touch privilege. He had seen a world that he could safely embrace and disappear in, but he returned to a dying city that will surely die in the coming days. And yes, the city that he returned to was already dying, it had already began to devour the dead. 

Music: Descent into Darkness

The Old Book of Tang says this of the dire conditions within the fortress:


Yin Ziqi had besieged the city for an extended period of time. The food in the city had run out. The dwellers traded their children to the merchants and for morsels of meat and dough to eat and cooked bodies of the dead soldiers and civilians alike. Fears were spread and worse situations were expected.

By now, the starving Tang soldiers only numbered no more than 1,600 in total and with no chance of outside help, fell into despair. Daily, almost everyone tried to convince Zhang Xun to surrender or find some way of escaping to the south. Zhang Xun and Xu Yuan discussed this, and Xu Yuan concluded, "If Suiyang falls, Yan will be free to conquer the rest of southern China. And on top of it, most of our soldiers are too tired and hungry to run. The only choice we have left is to defend for as long as possible, and hope that a nearby governor will come and help us." Zhang Xun agreed with him. Zhang Xun announced to his remaining troops, "The nearby governors might be inelegant, but we cannot be disloyal. Another day that we can hold out is another day for the rest of the Tang to prepare defenses. We will fight till the very end." Even when Zhang had said this, he knew well that there will be no more reinforcements anywhere in the coming months. All within Suiyang were stuck protecting a bubbling cauldron.


When at last the commanders decided that it would be impossible to breakout the city on horseback and it became too much to feed the horses, Zhang Xun ordered all of the warhorses be slaughtered, including personally slaying his own warhorse and distributing it. The people ate the horses, drank the marrows, even ate the fodders left for the horses. However it was not enough.

The situation did not improve at all, fierce hunger and sickness eventually drove nearly all of the residents to have to devour the corpses of the dead. And when that ran out, and fresh battles were fought, they would in turn devour both the slain enemies and their comrades. It was said by that time none cared, nor cared if after they died, they would be consumed. A hollowing madness born of hunger and severe mental strain simply made the entire city numb~ so as to say shell shocked to the grim realities that each must abide. They had became survivors, and bleached of emotions such as shock, or outrage, surprise, or even hatred, driven only by the instincts of safety and subsistence. 

Music: The Scavager's Den

The entire episode rings similar tones to the grim realities of the starvation caused by nightmarish episodes such as Holodomor (Ukranian starvation caused by the USSR.) WWI. and the WW2 Easter Front's Siege of Stalingrad, where the defenders of the starving city also resorted to devouring the dead. And soon people- especially children began to die in droves due to the famine. One is reminded of the scene recalled by the famous Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's autobiography "Night" where he recounted the last days of the concentration camp inmates- where, as the situation in the camp deteriorated,  even the smallest bit of food was unable to be found within the camp during a harsh winter, most of the inmates simply did not cared if one of their fellows died in their vicinity, and when one of them died, all around him would soon strip his corpse and claim the fallen man's coat and boots.

Same with when the entire camp was forced out on a death march during the bitter winter and hundreds, thousands died by the wayside beside the road. Elie recounted how his own father fell during the march and had his own skull bashed in by a German guard, but while he recounted it, while he remembered him watching his father then, he recalled having felt no emotion at all because by that point, that's all he could muster. His father was weak, his time was up in this harsh world of consequences, and he couldn't stand up for himself, and thus the totality of hid existence was up. Something weak that was broken by the forces of the uncaring and ever present punishment.

By now the city had been starving for more than three months, people would go on for days without food, all were still in a total information blackout in regards to the state of the Tang. Their only inertia and motivation driven by the flicker of blind (almost mad) faith in their fanatical commanders.  Two weeks would progress as thus, but by the end of it, it was still not enough, his soldiers- many who had followed him from the first days at Yongqiu and had raided outside several occasions had dropped to below 1,000 men. What he did next would be both discussed and damned throughout thousand years of history and certainly one of the most infamous of war criminals of Biblical porpotions in a modern viewer's eyes. It was here where the naked soul of Zhang Xun the man became made clear to all.

After two weeks of starvation, Zhang Xun led his concubine before his troops and in front of the soldiers and beheaded her (some versions stated that she was forced to commit suicide before them. Suicide was by now commonly found within the city- but having her do so publicly has the potency of a statement.) He then ordered that the body be cut up and made available so as to be able to eaten by the soldiery.

He was recorded to have called out, "You have been working hard at protecting this city for the country wholeheartedly. Your loyalty is uncompromised despite the long-lasting hunger. Since I can't cut out my own flesh to feed you, but how can I keep this woman and just ignore the dangerous situation?"

All the soldiers cried, for they did not want to eat. But Zhang Xun ordered them to eat the woman's flesh. Xu Yuan also killed his servants, which was recorded in The New Book of Tang:


"Xu Yuan was deeply moved and also slew servants to feed the soldiers..."

Despite this grim spectacle it was nowhere enough. Soon, it came to the women folk's turn in the city. After the women were sacrificed, it came to the old and the young males, in total, 20,000 to 30,000 (sic) people were eaten- though it should be mentioned that the figure was inaccurate as it included all of the civilians casualties within the city since the beginning of the siege- which included many that died from starvation, the siege efforts, or suicide and not exclusively those that were eaten, regardless, Zhang Xun's soldiers would still have sacrificed over thousands of civilians. It was recorded in the New Book of Tang that


"After the city was besieged for a long time, at the beginning, the horses were eaten, after that they ate sparrows and rats.. After horses ran out, they turned to the women, the old, and the young. 30,000 people in total were eaten. People knew their death was close, and nobody rebelled, It was said that although everyone knew that he or she would die, no one resisted."

It should be noted that one is free to interpret the last part of the phrase above with their own biases and discretion. One must understand at this point that the story that became the story we know of the defense of Suiyang was not written nor documented by any survivors. 


The Tang soldiers would fought on for two more months with cruel and bitter tenacity throughout late October. Until finally on November 24, 757, with fewer than a thousand men alive, and without even the strength to shoot arrows, Yan forces scaled the walls of the city en masse, and the Tang forces were unable to fight them off. Suiyang's ramparts fell completely to the Yan army. Zhang Xun said before the fall, "We are out of strength, and can no longer defend the fortress. Although we have failed the emperor in life, we hope to keep killing enemies after death."

After slaughtering the Tang soldiers through the empty streets and from buildings to buildings, the gates of Suiyang were flung open and the whole of Yan army raced within the city and surrounded the few defenders that remained in the city's magistrate.

Zhang Xun, and Xu Yuan were all captured, along with a few dozen of the officers such as Captain Nan Jiyun. When the Yan general Yin Ziqi (now half blind) came before the prisoners Yin Ziqi strode before Zhang and asked,"I have heard that every time you fight, you open your eyelids until they rip, and you bite your teeth until they crack...Why do you do that?" 

Zhang Xun answered, "I want to eat you traitors alive. The damages to my eyes and teeth are nothing." Yin Ziqi then used a dagger to hold open Zhang Xun's mouth, and to his surprise, all but three of Zhang Xun's teeth were indeed cracked. Zhang Xun finally said, "I die for my emperor, so I will die in peace."

And it was here that something strange happened. Yi Ziqi, despite having been made partially blind by Zhang actually respected the defeated Zhang and very much admired the latter's bravery and commanding abilities. But no matter how hard Yin tried to persuade Zhang Xun, Nan Jiyun, and Xu Yuan, they would not join the Yan ranks. 

In the end, fearing the wrath from Emperor An Qinxu if they should live, and also fearing that his own long suffering soldiers would mutiny in spiteful anger, Yin killed all the commanders, along with 33 other of Zhang's veteran officers. including Captain Nan Jiyun. In the end, the Yan army had conquered not a city but a ruined charnel house. The walls were battered, broken, and in critical stage of disrepair, and everywhere were piles of white- gnawed bones. In total, of the 30,000 civilians within the city (figure incorrectly stated to have all been cannibalized) only 400 remained. The battle of Suiyang, and the struggle for the hollowed heart of the Tang empire was over. 

Many historians are puzzled by the lack of support the Tang Dynasty gave to Zhang Xun, even though he was very successful in two major battle. If the Tang- or any outlaying commanders in the south had given Suiyang support just a week before the fall of the fortress, Zhang Xun might not have died at that point. In at least one recorded incident, a Tang imperial order was to send troops to assist Zhang Xun was given to a local governor, which was ignored by the governor. This governor was later punished by death. 

Most latter historians- the likes of both eastern and western scholars believed that many local governors simply believed that if the Yan finally defeated the Tang, they could still maintain their power by surrendering to the Yan, along with their titles and their regional soldiery. After all, one of the most successful Yan policies early during An Lushan's rebellion was extreme friendliness to newly surrendered Tang governors. On the other hand, the Yan were also extremely brutal to governors who fought against them. This policy was one of the main reasons why Yan was able to raise such a huge army in such a short span of no more than two months and garner so many supplies from the surrendered governors. 

Governor Xu Yuan became one of the only high ranking survivors to be personally pardoned by Yin Ziqi. Having determined that such a resourceful man must be able to serve the Yan loyally, Xu was delivered as a prisoner to the Yan capital at Luoyang. However on the way to Luoyang, Yan soldiers heard that the Tang have smote deep against the Yan lands.

Li Chu- the Prince of Chu, grandson of Emperor Xuanzong had smashed the Yan armies from the flank with various Tang generals, and the capital was retaken by the resurgent Tang. Now fearing for their own lives and fearing that should anyone knew that Xu was still alive and in captivity his talents would be sought after by Tang rescuers, the Yan escorts took Xu Yan to the forests near Yanshi (偃師, near Luoyang) and had him beheaded.

But in this strange nihilistic story, composed of various scenes of nihilistic pictures, Xu would be one of the absolute few to die with a rare glimpse of...meaning. Somehow, unlike the many unanswered prayers of Suiyang's defenders (and besiegers) the world gave him a revelation, and answer before his death.

He would die knowing that he had rightly been the anvil, and that the hammer blow- backed by the full might of the reconstituted Tang army is coming.

Music: Prince Qin Breaking Through His Enemies (Tang)


Because of Zhang Xun's stubborn determination, the resource-laden southern China did not come under threat from the rebels for almost two years. Having successfully delayed the entire Yan eastern front, the Tang was able to still safely collect the vast resources of food and taxes from their southern governors and gather more troops for combat despite the region being mostly poorly garrisoned. This gave Tang enough time to regroup and strike back at Yan, spearheaded by extremely competent cavalry generals such as Gou Ziyi (whom we will cover the next chapter) who would crash down from the exposed (and unwatched) backside of the Yan army and become the hammer that would smash the Yan forces in the rear, ultimately culminating in turning the tide for the entire rebellion. 

And although one would be every bit to be inclined to damn Zhang Xun continuously throughout the centuries to come for his indisputable war crimes. His name and his legacy was muddled by the most complicated factors that threw this man's entire historical context in flux, namely, that he had was right in his judgement, and that his decisions was instrumental in ultimately saving the entire Tang dynasty.


For even when they bit down and ate their own, more than anything else, Zhang's army also chewed through their foes, and it was only when one was able to "zoom out" from the grim corpse strewn battlefields one was able to either appreciate or fully be appalled by the damages Zhang was able to inflict. With no more than a few thousand soldiers (2,000 and 10,000) respectively, Yongiu and Suiyang combined had costed the Yan army over 80,000 (20,000 + 60,000) casualties in total.

To Yan, the losses were enormous, although Yan ultimately won these extended sieges. Before the Battles of Yongqiu and Suiyang, Yan- with initiative in hand as well as having its enemy paralyzed had every intention to conquer all of the Tang Dynasty. Their total army size across the whole country, was well over 300,000 men, greatly outnumbering any Tang army that could be put in the field at the time. The totality of the 80,000 suffered here, along with the 150,000 soldiers that was needed to secure the east meant that the whole rebellion lost nearly 1/4 of its whole troop strength against an army that was only 2/10 of its size. Ultimately...for Zhang who always had tricks in his sleeves, even his greatest woe and misery turned out to be a rightful ploy as well.  

And after these two battles, the tide had turned and the Tang army held the upper hand in both manpower and equipment. If Yan had conquered the whole Suiyang district even one year earlier, the Tang Dynasty might have ended by 757AD. Suiyang, and Zhang Xun had been the instrumental turning point of the whole war. Though he died blind to all the changes he made in the darkness. The hollow- undefended heart of the empire was saved by his stubbornness and...heartlessness. 


Eventually in the years to come when the Tang forces were able to retake the cursed fortress, they too were confronted with the remnants of the horrors that had been spelled out on the ruined city. Confronted with the vast numbers of the bones of its former citizens and warriors, a new dilemma soon arose for the weakened but by now recovering Tang dynasty. Namely, what to do with the name and legacy of its...most controversial of commanders who died proclaiming his eternal loyalty.

It was akin to have the owner of a house be suddenly beaten, wounded, and driven away by a band of bandits, and the dilemma of returning some months later to find the bones of a dog (one of your many dogs) that you never knew was THAT loyal, surrounded by the bones of the many bandits that could have- if given the chance came after you in pursuit. To have realized that while those bones was alive, it remembered of you and fought on daily in the memory of you through all hardships. And then you realize that it was those bones that made it possible for you to fight back to your home at all. What do you do when all you have are loyal bones? While both of them- the owner and the dog lived, did the owner even knew that heaven (or hell) had bequeathed him such a beast?

What else could they do? What could any regime do? After Emperor Suzong expelled out the rebels from western China and returned to the reclaimed Chang' An, he posthumously honored a large number of officials who stayed faithful to Tang and died fighting the Yan forces. In time, he would also- like a spurned lover completely meter out punishments against all who had betrayed his dynasty at this most critical time- for they had shown their true colors in the chaotic storm.

However, the matter of whether to honor Zhang and Xu became an immediately controversial matter due to the cannibalism that had occurred at Suiyang. A friend of Zhang's, Li Han, wrote a biography of Zhang's in an impassioned defense of Zhang, arguing that without Zhang's actions, Tang would have lost the war entirely. What is almost unthinkeable was that at all of the times before the end, should Zhang Xun have chose to surrender, none of it would have became such a bone field, if he chose life itself, or defection, or any other path, it would be a choice as light as a feather without all of the punishments that he willingly endured. Li Han was joined in his opinion by several other officials, including Li Shu (李紓), Dong Nanshi (董南史), Zhang Jianfeng Fan Huang (樊晃), and Zhu Juchuan (朱巨川). Emperor Suzong accepted their defense of Zhang's, and honored Zhang, Xu, and Captain Nan in particular, as well as the other officers who died in the siege. He also gave their families great rewards.


However despite these temporal rewards. The true legacy of Zhang Xun was in flux. After the fall of the Tang dynasty some 200 years later- and by extension, the deprivation of a living dynasty who directly benefited by him and would lend verbal defense to his actions. Zhang Xun's legacy again became extremely controversial to all assortments of Chinese historians.

Nearly all of the ensuing dynasty's historian all have different opinions about Zhang. What is interesting is that most of the people who either chose to defend him or denounce him were not clear cut characters either, none of them were full fledged heroes nor archvillains. For example, the Song Dynasty official Wen Tianxiang, who was himself greatly praised for his faithfulness to Song and refusal to submit to Yuan Dynasty, who stayed with the captured Song Emperor during imprisonment and starved himself to death in protest, listed Zhang in his Song of Righteousness (Zhengqige, 正氣歌) as one of the persons to admire for their righteousness. However, some, including the Qing Dynasty scholar Wang Fuzhi, severely criticized him for not only permitting but encouraging cannibalism. While some others, such as the modern historian Bo Yang, while not as critical, nevertheless pointed out the lamentable nature of Zhang's actions.

But for the most part his legacy was split up by two camps of thinkers. Those who largely considers their political platform from a moralist perspective, and those who valued discipline, practicality, and has a streak of fondness for ends justifies the means mentality. Strangely, Zhang was one of the few characters in Chinese history that would unite the liberal and the conservative ideologues who valued ethics and foundational principles to denounce his inhumanity- be they ultra conservative Song ministers like Sima Guang or ultra liberal communist feminists of the 20th century,

while at the same time also inspire people who believed themselves to value patriotism and understood practicality to come to his defense. Many generals, soldiers, and ruthless revolutionaries would rise to his defense for more than a 1000 years. But despite the scholarly debates- Zhang Xun remained in a strange hell of his own, namely because of his inhuman sins, very few people truly claimed him as an exemplar or a name to be reminded in their daily memories.

The truly heroic defense of both Yongqiu and Suiyang should have stood as tall as some of the most famous battles in the whole of military history. It should have been on par with the likes of the Brest Fortress, the Alamo, Saragarhi, and Masada, each a heroic doomed struggle that preserved the honor of the fallen faction. The Alamo, Saragarhi  and the defense of the Brest Fortress all also served to completely delay the enemy until their desperate allies were able to regain their footing for a victorious counter attack. Zhang Xun should have stood as tall as a Mototada or an Admiral Yi, given how much his rear guard action delayed the enemy. But for the remainders of much of China's history, Zhang Xun's ghost was unclaimed and unknown by many, the curse that was his own actions forever left untouchable.

But what of you then? Would you choose to save a world you knew, even if you would surely burn eternally in hell for it? If you already have your mind set to do one thing- even beyond the intention to purchase it with your own death, what else would you sacrifice to attain it? Is hell worth it?


This is a story of inhumanity of man and the loyalty of dogs. I was not dying to you when I began the tale, and like many, when i first read of this story, I was utterly disturbed by the scenes and carnage and inhumanity, in all, it was like something that came from a post- apocalyptic high fantasy story, like as if it was transposed from the demented chapter of a Fallout game or a high fantasy nightmare.

But what eventually make me chose to ultimately tell this story was because the story stayed with me. The utter nihilism of it, the inhumanity and the hopelessness of it all. I believe it was fitting that as I related it all to you I chose most of the accompanying "soundtrack" from "Tomb Raider." For the story itself seemed too grim of a picture that to retell it was liking treading upon and shifting through a field of bones and resurrecting the stories of those bones. Another set of tracks that I usually favored was from the movie,  "House of Flying Daggers" the original title of the movie being 十面埋伏, which meant "Surrounded and ambushed on all sides."

Music: The Crater

The book "Heart of Darkness" told not only a story of evil, one's inhumanity when left alone in the edge of the world, and his endless capacity for oppressing his fellowman, but the story was also a mirror to the reader of the story, illustrating how the seeker, and founder of such darkness incarnate ultimately has the same sparks of darkness laying dormant within his own soul. And ultimately I think that to name the story the Hollow Heart of the Empire is rather befitting.

Here is an object lesson of one man's attempt to hold his own virtues, his own memories, his own loyalties, and all he loved in the face of war and a world that ultimately simply didn't care. For all became irrelevant in this place where such former notions of virtue, honor, or even decency (remember the southern governors?) were not only banished but utterly meaningless.Where in the empty, meaningless world there was no definition nor glimpse of victory- just endless punishment and consequences even should one chose to still try to believe himself to be some kind of hero. I bet as you once read the first chapter of this story, you- like myself quite liked our protagonist.

This story apocalyptic in the sense that Zhang Xun for the most part, perhaps the best part (naive hubris) of him still clung on so fiercely to the world before all fell apart, and it was that which ultimately damned his own soul.

I realized that this was a microcosm of the greater An Lushan Rebellion at large. Remember that right outside the walls the Suiyang, 13 million Tang civilians and soldiers also died of famine and ravages of war. And perhaps from this example we are able to realize that in prolonged wars such as this, is that there is no beauty nor glory or even an untarnished legacy waiting at the end of the race course- only a hollowing of all that you have lost and have to keep on walking with the darkness you learned, you sinned with.

Here we see a man, a man with the rarest and most ardent of convictions, and tenacity to follow through and suffer whatever the consequences. Yet it was this same factors which made him with his own hands destroy all he hand claimed he loved and cut down all he had sworn to defend, until the stage was littered with dead bodies of familiar ones, and without a reprieve from his supposed authority he had dedicated everything to. He lived perhaps too long in the worst part of the conflict, long enough to see himself turned into from the hero to the villain of the story. And the words: "Beneath my feet is a life that will reflect the promises I have made, my daily deeds (deeds today) will be a proof of my intentions- or what else is loyalty?" ( “足下平生以忠义自许,今日之举,忠义何在? ” ) would have such a perverted double meaning.

In the grim face, the forefront of wars so much bigger than oneself, even the original intentions of its actors would be utterly twisted by the nature of the battles and brutality around them eventually, driven by the impersonal demands of the circumstances well beyond one's control until it pushed you to the perverse logial extension of your fundamental traits.

Perhaps this is why soldiers and generals still tries to defend him, and were few of the last ones to make an effort to forgive him. Perhaps if Zhang Xun would come to life again and met face to face with several Soviet commanders who led at Leningrad, and Japanese commanders in the final phase of WW2 who guarded Iwo Jima and fought and died with fatal fanaticism. If the ghosts of those long battle warriors, could talk of their fighting, their decisions, perhaps they'd be the only ones in all of history who could claim each other as...remotely even human. Even though the body and the hollow heart of the empire was saved, it's hard to comment about its soul. All that was great about the Tang died in those years. 

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➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
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