The comprehensive analysis of the Battle of Changping (長平之戰)

Jul 2018
Hong Kong

It is too difficult to remodel the detail and the course of all major military and political decisions and operations related to the 262-260 BC Changping Campaign due to the scarcity of ancient works — basically we could only rely on the works of Zhan Guo Ce (戰國策, "Strategies of the Warring States") and Sima Qian's Shiji (史記, "Records of the Grand Historian"). The aforementioned two works' narration was too terse and inadequate, leaving enormous "vacuum" for our imagination and conjecture. However, if you seriously think that you already had sufficient acquaintance of the contemporary political situation, warfare and leaders' ability of both sides merely by studying those written sources, you're gravely mistaken — the real circumstance was certainly far more complicated and sophisticated than our knowledge ; always remember that we're just a history learner, the one who try to understand what's actually happening rather than being an "armchair general" who thinks that he could be smarter than those figures on the stage of history.

Just like the Chinese Internet guy 淚痕春雨 commented :



從他 <泪痕漫评三国 那些隐藏在英雄传奇背后的历史 长篇连载> 摘錄

Translated to English :

“We always easily have the sense of superiority when we read the traditional history. Because whether in politics or military, all those moves and decisions look like so simple and straight from the perspective of traditional historical works. In general, those losers lost because their intelligence and ethics were far lower than normal people ; if the loser lost because of this reason, then although the victor was boasted as godlike figure, he / she wasn’t really so awesome at all. Those victors succeeded merely because the other rivals were useless at all.”

“Because of this reason, many ancient historical works’ scene of warfare had not much difference with the fictional tales.”

~ quoted from his work The broad commentary on Three Kingdoms — a long series uncover the history behind the legendary heroism


After reading the history of Battle of Changping, many people always tend to think that King Xiaocheng of Zhao (趙孝成王) was a retard. He incurred the wrath of the powerful kingdom of Qin (秦) by coveting the territories of Shangdong (上黨) under the captivation of a minister ; he foolishly fired the well-experienced general Lian Piao (廉頗) who successfully stalled the Qin army's offensive for a year, and replaced him with a totally-inexperienced Zhao Kuo (趙括) who was reputed "discussing military strategies on paper" (紙上談兵, a very famous Chinese idiom), abandoning the effective defensive strategy for the reckless gamble of all-out offensive. Zhao Kuo was equally as incompetent as King Xiaocheng of Zhao, stupid enough to lead the whole army driving deep to attack the enemy main force, fell into a trap set by Bai Qi (白起) causing his entire 450,000-strong army isolated and trapped in vulnerability as his main army got too far from his main base, leaving his supply line easily cut off and his rear bases captured in ease. And Zhao Kuo continued his "moronic spree" — rather than breakout immediately, he simply waited for another 46 days, took a heavy toll with food completely running out and allowed the Qin reinforcement arrive the frontline to further tighten the siege line trapping his army, ensured the total destruction of Zhao Kuo's entire army. How stupid they were ! Some people really think so from their perspective.

When the ordinary people use such an angle to understand history, they always tend to think that those losers were even less intelligent than the secondary school pupils ; otherwise, why would they commit such the incredible blunders which they regarded absurd !? Unconsciously they generated their own "sense of superiority", thought that they would surely conduct a correct decision in the place of those "losers" and change the tide of history.

Indeed....don't regard anything as a disposable pawn and everything controllable just like playing video games — the real players on the stage of history were a "real thing" with blood and brain. The reallife is not simply black and white. If you think so, you simply treat military and politics as "fairy tales" — indeed, every competition in this world is fraught with all sorts of complicated human factors, possibility and obscurity : the historical timeline and logics spreads out in form of spider, rather than streamline. Option A results in failure, doesn't mean option B would end with success ; option A results in success, doesn't mean option B is a bad choice.

So long you understand this, you'll realize all those decision-makers in military and political history are not a moron at all — the fact that they were able to descend onto such a top position already substantiated that they're not someone you could despise with. Hence, rather than adopting personal "sense of superiority" as your method in generalizing history, why not just listen to other knowledgeable person or experts' viewpoint in humility for widening your scope and knowledge ? Otherwise, what could you learn if you insist "those guys are really stupid" argument ?

Then, how the historic Battle of Changping developed for the whole course ? How the key figures centered around the Zhao-Qin conflict made their own decisions ? I will try my best to figure out what's actually going on for such an important event in the history of the Warring States of China. I plan to write the following chapters.

Chapter 1 : Was really the Kingdom of Zhao's takeover of Shangdong "blinded by lust" ?
Chapter 2 : The early engagement and stalemale of the Changping Campaign — blitzkrieg vs war of attrition
Chapter 3 : King Xiaocheng of Zhao's diplomatic blunder and King Zhaoxiang of Qin's shrewdness
Chapter 4 : The causes of the replacement of the Zhao army's commander-in-chief
Chapter 5 : The "Lord Wu'an" Bai Qi — "trap card" activated !?
Chapter 6 : The final showdown ! — the famed general's son who was inexperienced vs the "human butcher" who was ever-victorious
Chapter 7 : The last moment of the bloodcurdling battle
Chapter 8 : The truth of the great slaughter of Zhao soldiers
Chapter 9 : The consequence and repercussion after Zhao's catastrophic defeat at Changping
Sep 2017
United States
I see this as a big problem in military history in general.

People never seem to understand how complex situations were and how many factors had to be considered and accounted for. Think about Hannibal; if, during Cannae, his center troops had broken faster than anticipated (or he was hit by a lucky stray pilum, giving he was right behind the lines riding along) and the Romans punched through and split his army in half, he'd be regarded as a general who managed to give Rome a few bruisings but ultimately couldn't handle the juggernaut in battle. There was no way to know for sure that his troops wouldn't be broken, or that the Romans wouldn't be so tightly compressed they physically couldn't strike, or any of that. He just spotted a weakness and moved to exploit it as best as possible with the factors he could control.

A leader always has a reason when making a decision. Not that there weren't genuinely bad decisions and poor leaders, but hindsight really blinds some people.
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
Do you think these extreme numbers of hundreds of thousands are anywhere close to accurate? :think:
Usually these figures claimed in ancient historical works are grossly exaggerated or inaccurate, just take with a grain of salt. But I estimate the Zhao and the Qin army did mobilize over at least 150,000 men (very likely some of them is non-combatant) respectively for the Changping Campaign considering it was the "greatest clash" between both of most powerful states in the contemporary era and both sides sent reinforcement in the later phrase of the campaign.

I have finished the Chinese draft of Episode 1, soon I'll translate them into English and post it within 2 days.
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
The first update descended !

Chapter 1 : Was really the Kingdom of Zhao's takeover of Shangdang "blinded by lust" ?

The Western Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian (司馬遷) criticized Lord Pingyuan (平原君) Zhao Sheng (趙勝)'s decision of takeover of Shangdang "blinded by lust" (利令智昏), which subsequently became the Chinese proverb describing people become foolish being seduced by petty gains. He said :

"Lord Pingyuan (Zhao Sheng) misbelieved Fengting's honeyed words, caused the catastrophic defeat of Zhao at Changping with over 400,000 soldiers lost and almost the fall of Handan (邯鄲, the capital of the Kingdom of Zhao)."

~ quoted from Shiji — the biographies of Lord Pingyuan and Yuqing (史記.平原君虞卿列傳)

Thus this stereotyped viewpoint was inherited by later generations, the modern scholar Boyang (柏楊) even depreciated him to the extent that as he represented the greatest folly in the world, rashly remarked :

"Shangdang...was just like a hot potato...yet Zhaosheng acted like a moron. This noble who was proud of brotherhood spirit was merely a vainglorious person...only gazed at territories, not noticing of the Kingdom of Qin's powerful army. The weak countries should adopt the strategy of inferiority and never challenge the powerful neighbour. Any state violating this rule would be surely thrashed or even destroyed. The takeover of Shangdang was a mistake, the poor warriors and subjects, as high as 450,000 in number, sacrificed their life for the top officials' blunder."

Such a comment seems eloquent and appeaiing. Indeed...don't be fooled by them. What's their difference with those "keyboard warrior" who boasted himself foresightedness when criticizing other people like torrential storm ? Zhao Sheng was a moron !? So was Sima Qing and Boyang much smarter than him ? Such "black-and-white-thinking-mode" overly exaggerating and magnifying the impact of a single choice or person was not helping us grasping the truth, only showing their meaningless sense of superiority. First of all, the decision-maker was King Qiaocheng of Zhao (趙孝成王), not Zhao Sheng. Although the King of Zhao was still young, he already took over the reins of government. No matter how Zhao Sheng's suggestion persuasive was, the King of Zhao certainly could not be moved if he did not agree with the plan of the takeover of Shangdong. Hence, rather than being "captivated" by Zhao Sheng's speech, the truth was Lord Pianyang (平陽君) Zhao Bao (趙豹)'s advice was in disagreement with the king.

Moreover, do you know what kind of person Lord Pianyuan Zhao Sheng was ?

Undeniably his noble bloodline and birth as a royal prince helped greatly for forging his top position of the Zhao court. Yet he assumed the top position in the Zhao government in the reign of both King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王, the father of King Xiaocheng) and King Xiaocheng of Zhao ; he raised approx. 1,000 "retainers" (食客) as his advisors and assistants, renowned for his generousness in recruiting talented people and listening to advice. Some of these retainers was extraordinarily outstanding and valorous such like Mao Sui (毛遂), Gongsuan Long (公孫龍), Zou Yan (鄒衍). Would these awesome guys willingly spent time and energy for helping Zhao Sheng achieve great deeds if they didn't think that Zhao Sheng was a great person whom they respected or admired worthy for service and saw much prospect from him ? And needless to say, Zhao Sheng would very likely discuss the state business with these "excellent advisors" for exchange of opinions. Though the interaction with these talented, it was impossible Zhao Sheng ignorant of politics, diplomacy and military. If he was merely a "dandy prince" ignorant of state matter, it was impossible for him to be a core member of the Zhao state leadership for a long time and even reputed one of the "Four Great Princes of the Warring Period" (戰國四公子).

For King Qiaocheng of Zhao, lamentably there was scarce of source about his life, so I am unable to delinate his characters, ability and leadership. But I don't think that any person bornt in imperial court was "foolish" and "short-sighted" since he / she usually receive the best education, opportunity and experience for polishing his skills in statecraft and military affairs — such could be only envied by those "low-bornt people" who even had to struggle for survival by finding food and shelter in that turbulent period fraught with ceaseless wars.

For Sima Qian's critic for Lord Pingyuan making wrong decision attributed to being misguided by Feng Ting, and Boyang's claim that the calamity befell thanks to the shortsightedness and stupidity of the Zhao state leadership, it were totally absurd ! While the Zhao government was pondering whether should he accept Shangdang, the Qin army was already attacking the region held by the weak state of Han (韓), everybody knew that what tha takeover of Shangdang from Fengting's offer meant — war with the powerful Kingdom of Qin ! Do you seriously think that King Xiaocheng and Zhao Sheng was stupid enough not even realizing that ? Also, would King Xiaocheng of Zhao simpily summon a single or two royal members for consultation and then made a crucial decision for such a grave matter in haste with very short conversation of few lines !? It was unimaginable the state matter would be decided in such a way. The real process of decision-making by state leadership certainly wasn't like that — the reasonable assumption should be the king had preplanned the counter-measure to the Kingdom of Qin's imminent retaliation through ample discussion with many ministers and advisors, adopting the suitable strategy, choosing the ideal battlefield, allocating how much troops and provisions, assigning which general to the frontline...etc.

Returning to our topic, was the Zhao state leadership's decision of takeover of Shangdang "blinded by lust" ?

Seemingly, Lord Pingyang Zhao Bao's opinion got a point. According to the story depicted by Zhan Guo Ce Volumn 18 — the King of Qin's words to Prince Ta (戰國策卷十八. 秦王謂公子他), he dissuaded the King of Zhao :

"Qin nibbled up the realm of Han, cut apart his territories to isolated pieces, ready for annexation of Shangdang (which of his line-of-communication with the Han capital Xinzheng 新鄭 had been already severed). Besides, Han's granting of territories was just purported for transferring disaster to Zhao. Qin strived hard for conquest, yet Zhao captured it without there any reason my king intends to grab it ? Also, Qin is flourishing in agriculture with ploughing oxen and irrigation system, pervaded by countless men of ferocity and brutality not afraid of death, disciplined with harsh laws, we should not have war with him. Please reconsider your decision, my king !"

Unquestionably, Feng Ting's offering of Shangdang to Zhao aimed for the Zhao army's "'protection" of the former Han realm and subjects in exchange, this also averted the disaster for Han but Zhao would surely incur the wrath of Qin with this move. By that time, the Kingdom of Qin was the most powerful among all the major states, so the king's decision was very risky. Nonetheless, the king had decided the issue, thus was displeased of Zhao Bao's "exhortation", angrily retorted :

"Even a single fortified city could hardly be subdued after a long siege with huge army. Now I could earn seventeen fortified cities without battle. By what reason I should not accept it ?"

Zhao Bao distastefully got out of the king's sight. Afterward, the king summoned the two other royal members Lord Pingyuan Zhao Sheng and Zhao Yu (趙禹). Both men expressed their agreement explicitly :

"Not a single fortified cities could fall so easily with long campaign. Now we gain a string of fortified cities without fight, it is very advantageous for us."

Such a sketchy narration of the Zhao state leadership's process of decision-making easily mislead the readers, tempting readers into a fallacy that the King of Zhao and his supporters covetous of territorial gain totally ignored the consequence of enraging Qin, ended up arbitrarily deducing that the stupidity and shortsightness of the Zhao statesmen was a major factor of the Zhao debacle at Changping where 400,000 Zhao soldiers perished in carnage. Well, do you seriously think that King Xiaocheng of Zhao and Zhao Cheng's intelligence was inferior than yours, could not even realize the situation as what you know by logics and common sense ? Some readers might counter-argue, isn't that so ? There would be no crushing defeat of Changping if the Kingdom of Zhao hadn't taken over Shangdang ! Well, the typical fallacy of judging right and wrong by result is one of the most often tendencies displayed by rookie history-learners — choice A caused the utter failure, so choice B was correct ! Can't you see the problem ?

Indeed, all sorts of important political and military decisions in history, whether ancient or modern, whether East or West, were the crystals of detailed planning and discussion involved with longtime research and investigation — warfare and politics are not "fairy tales" ; they look like so fantastic, simple and colorful giving you an illusion like of those of TV dramas is largely because of those misleading content from historical works or historical fictions. Of course, political leaders and military commanders might make mistakes, they're a human anyway. But their mistakes are certainly not the stupid one or ill-considered one as some people thought.
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Jul 2018
Hong Kong
First of all, what kind of place Shangdang was ?

The situation prior to the Battle of Changping.jpg

Adjoining with the Kingdom of Qin, Zhao, Wei, Han (four kingdoms respectively occupied portion of Shangdong), it was a strategic borderland with a dominating high-altitude ground and a string of mountainous ranges, the Taihang Mountains (太行山) passes were the crucial accesses linking the region east and west, the very focus of targets in ancient era's military operations. Hence, it was extraordinarily critical for the Kingdom of Zhao's defense against foreign countries since the region was an artery to the Zhao capital Handan.

In other words, the Qin occupation of Shangdang meant dissolving Zhao's "natural barrier", while simultaneously push the Qin frontier much further close to Handan — taking a simple metaphor : just like the pre-WW2 Nazi Germany's occupation of the entire Czechoslovakia with Prague fallen, this "threatening bulge" greatly extended the Polish borderline and seriously weakened the Polish's defense-in-depth as vast region of the state was only in short distance to the German new border ; in such vulnerable position, once the war break out, Poland would suffer the German invasion from multitude of directions — the Polish garrison would be either forced to spread thin or abandon immense territories for concentration of troops, either choice would put him in grave disadvantage ! Therefore, the German annexation of entire Czechoslovakia inflicted a crushing blow to Poland. The region of Shangdang meant basically the same to the Kingdom of Zhao. Under this context, how could Zhao allow Qin to occupy the entire Shangdang without action ? Hence, the takeover of Shangdang was not the matter of coveting territories or provoking great powers, but the vital question of national security and strategic position. Hence, the takeover of Shangdong was an imperative for the Kingdom of Zhao ; for securing the "natural barrier" of Shangdang, the Kingdom of Zhao ought not to recoil and have got to do it even risking full-scale military conflict with the Kingdom of Qin resulting in horrendous losses of manpower and resource !

Some theorists claimed that the Kingdom of Zhao will not suffer Qin's invasion had he not seized Shangdang. This is very ridiculous ! Do you seriously think that the Kingdom of Zhao would be safe as you imagine that the long-term peace could be secured by maintaining cordial relations with Qin if the Zhao takeover of Shangdang hadn't happened !? Are you dreaming that the real-life history is something of fantasy novels gleamed with bright hope ? Have you forgotten that this was the "Warring Period" (戰國時代) ? In such an age, various kingdoms clashed each other, waged incessant wars and invasion hungering for land and expansion ; imagine you're the king, do you seriously think that your kingdom would be safer merely because you covet less territories ? Even the neighbour kingdoms have no motivation to attack you today. How about tomorrow ? The day after tomorrow ? For one day he would ultimately invade your land. Would you dare to say the Kingdom of Qin would never attack Zhao after conquering the entire Shangdang ? The answer was obvious. Refusing the granting of territories from Feng Ting, watching the dangerous Qin army subjugate the entire Shangdang highland threatening the choke of Zhao and composing the greater threat to Handan by doing nothing, were a truly retarded option from my perspective ! But do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that Zhao Bao who opposed the king's decision was a retard — his apprehension was utterly understandable ; waging the full-scale military confrontation with Qin was tantamount to gambling the entire fate of the Kingdom of Zhao. Certainly it should not be carried out without ample consideration.

In spite of the superiority of Qin in military strength, the Kingdom of Zhao was still one of the strongest major power by the time of the mid-3rd century BC, though inferior than Qin, but stronger than Wei, Han and Yan, capable of mustering hundreds of thousands in number of military force, with decent combat strength, training and discipline of troops, and some excellent commanders such like the old-aged Lian Po (廉頗). Do you think that it was justified for the Zhao state leadership for not sending these considerable military resource for vying with the powerful Kingdom of Qin in order to consolidate the security of the state ?

In addition, the conflict between Qin and Zhao wasn't merely the question of both countries — the result of the war wasn't simply decided on the battlefield, but in the complexity of diplomatic game — in the contemporary time, various non-belligerent states were watching from the sideline and staying neutral. In short, once the other kingdoms such as Yan, Wei, Han, Chu, Qi "interfered" and reinforced either Zhao or Qin, the entire situation would be totally different ! So long the Zhao court performed the skillful diplomacy for persuading other states to reinforce him, claiming that if Zhao is unable to protect himself and even crumble under the mighty threatening force of the Qin grand army, all other states would lose the precious "buffer state" for alleviating the increasing threat from Qin and surely regret for that for their failure of sending reinforcement to support Zhao ! Whatever, don't think that you monarchs and minister could just sit by and do nothing as the Qin invasion of Zhao is not your business. Once we Kingdom of Zhao realize that imminent defeat is certain, we could surely beg for peace and eventually become a "vassal state" of the Kingdom of Qin in desperation for survival ; then for compensating our huge losses caused by the Qin invasion, we would even launch the invasion of other countries by joining hands with the powerful Qin ! By that time, you would tremble in insecurity as the formidable Qin-Zhao alliance sweeping through your land in hurricane ! And by this time, do not ask why do we join hands with Qin ! Blame your inactivity for not rescuing us from the threatening Kingdom of Qin !

Of course, the talented Zhao minister would prepare the much better speech in convincing other states to support Zhao. Anyhow, the diplomatic game and the military operation were inseparable and being conducted synchronously.

In the incoming Qin-Zhao war, surely Qin had the upper hand with military superiority and it was difficult for Zhao to prevail in frontal confrontation. However, the Kingdom of Zhao could utilize the mountainous region of Shangdang for war of attrition and defense-in-depth, certainly would be able to hold off the powerful Qin for some time. While the war was ongoing, it was uncertain that would other countries abandon neutrality and eventually join the fray on behalf of any side of both belligerent states, it was largely depending on the diplomatic efforts of Qin and Zhao. If whether other states supporting either Zhao or Qin, or taking advantage of their conflict, was a factor of uncertainty, the result of the war was pretty much unpredictable with so many variance factors might occur during the Qin-Zhao confrontation. With such complicated situation, the Kingdom of Zhao actually had substantial probability for victory (despite of also great probability for defeat). Inasmuch as the circumstance was so fluctuated, by what basis we claim that Zhao's defeat was certain and had no chance to turn the tide ? Prior to the Battle of Changping, who dare to assert that Qin would surely win and Zhao would surely lose !? Only the God knows it !

In conclusion, the theory of the Kingdom of Zhao's crushing defeat at Changping resulted by the great Qin army's invasion caused by the stupidity of the Zhao state leadership "blinded by lust" was absolutely ludicrous and childish ! Only those who never soberingly analyze the situation themselves would be so arbitrary in making rash conclusions claiming that "it's all the fault of some people, or any specific organization" ! It is very easy for people to possess such kind of "cheap sense of superiority" by merely reading the literary description of historical events written by those ancient historians who were usually characterized by heavy bias and strong tendency of glorifing heroism, despising villainism based on their or their era's prevalent ideologies, unlike the modern age's professional historiography. Even for nowadays' historians' viewpoints, you have to be skeptical, how could you easily trust the ancient historians' words without doubt and fact-checking ? Especially the source of ancient history was usually scarce in number, further limiting our scope and perspective in viewing historical events — usually victors were depicted as a godlike-competent-person with indomitable will and leadership, while losers were debased as a coward, incompetent, unethical, tyrannical, foolish...etc.

Put it very simply, if Zhao Kuo was successful to defeat Bai Qi's army in the battlefield, or at least preserve majority of his troops in successful withdrawal action, would anyone dare to say that he was a guy "discussing strategies on paper" ? The key is....he suffered the crushing defeat at Changping. The defeat was so ignominious and terrible for the Kingdom of Zhao ; and Zhao Kuo never obtained any military victory beforehand ; so he became the legendary "grossly-incompetent" military commander as his opponent Bai Qi's aura of "God of War" was elevated to paramountcy with such crushing victory. The key is...was the matter so simple and so "black-and-white" !?

For the next chapter, I would elaborate on the strategic planning of both sides and the early phrase of the war.

Next time ! Chapter 2 : The early engagement and confrontation of the Battle of Changping — Blitzkrieg vs War of attrition
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Jul 2018
Hong Kong
More update. Attach a map as the opening for your reference.

Chinese Warring States in 262 BC.jpg

Chapter 2 : The early engagement and confrontation of the Battle of Changping — Blitzkrieg vs War of attrition

In 263 BC, the Kingdom of Qin made an onslaught on the Kingdom of Han, seized Nanyang (南陽), then captured Yewang (野王) in the next year (262 BC), choked the vital path of the Taihang Mountain (太行山) and thus cut off the line of communication between part of the Han possession Shangdang (上黨) and the Han capital Xinzheng (新鄭). The weak state of Han suffered a series of defeats under the Qin army's ferocious offensive. King Huanhui of Han (韓桓惠王) shuddered in terror, ordered the Shangdang County's governor Feng Ting (馮亭) capitulate to the Kingdom of Qin in order to appease Qin begging for cease-fire. But Feng Ting and the Shangdang inhabitants were terrified of the famed brutality of the Qin army, unwilling to surrender ; despite that, they did not have adequate strength to fight against the mighty Qin, thus decided to offer their home territories to the Kingdom of Zhao in trading of the Zhao army's protection. The Zhao state leadership accepted the granting of land and consequently triggered the full-scale military conflict between two great powers — Qin and Zhao.

Battle of Changping overview.jpg

The Kingdom of Zhao bestowed the title of Lord Huayang (華陽君) to Feng Ting for rewarding his granting of territories, naming him the governor of Shangdang, and rewarded the Shangdang local officials and civilians with treasure and official ranks for winning their hearts, and was prepared to dispatch the army to garrison various strategic chokepoints at the frontline for holding against the oncoming Qin invasion. Acquainted of the news, the Kingdom of Qin sent a general Wang He (王齕) lead hundreds of thousands of soldiers to attack the Kingdom of Zhao. In facing with the storming offensive from the powerful Qin, how the Kingdom of Zhao was able to counter ?

By now, the Kingdom of Qin had experienced the Shang Yang Reform (商鞅變法) which drastically centralized the government's authority and increased the kingdom's military and economic strength to the scale exceeding all other major states at the east, and also conquered the region of Ba-Shu (巴蜀) which were known for fertility in resource. As a result, the Kingdom of Qin's population and productivity skyrocketed with massive immigrants attracted to cultivate the farmland in the Qin domain, rose to be a top-rated great power from a regional power through huge reformization. Zhan Guo Ce — Qin Strategy Chapter One (戰國策.秦策一) described the prosperity of the Kingdom of Qin since the Shang Yang Reform :


Translation :

"The people of Qin was delighted for the past ten years of the implementation of the Shang Yang Reform. Nobody would pick up lost articles strewn on their path. There're no brigands perching in mountains. Every household and inhabitant were able to maintain their livelihood. The subject was brave in battlefield, and cowardice in private feud. The rural towns were in good order."

Shang Yang.jpg

It demonstrated that the Kingdom of Qin's social order was stable and well-disciplined as the economic development was flourishing and the laws could be efficiently implemented throughout the state. Meanwhile, the Qin folks showed greater doughtiness than other countries' subjects. Therefore, the Kingdom of Qin's devastating military force was forged on the foundation of the aforementioned factors. When this gigantic war machine had been operated into full gears, none of the other kingdom could withstand it.

Then, facing with such a powerful foe, did the Kingdom of Zhao have any chance to win ? This was exactly what King Qiaocheng of Zhao (趙孝成王) perplexed at. After pondering on this question, the Zhao politicians finally gave their answer.

Prioritize on defense and wait for development of events

I have done a mini-survey by Google Map, realizing an important stuff — the distance between Changping (長平) and Handan (邯鄲) was 170 km, while the distance between Changping and Hanyang (咸陽) reached 416 km.

Advantage of distance.jpg

What does that mean ? The Kingdom of Zhao possessed one clear advantage : in comparison with the Qin army which carried out the long-marching expedition, the Zhao army had a great advantage in logistics with much shorter supply line, enabling him to be much facilitated than the counterpart in transporting reinforcement and food to frontline. In combined with the Zhao strategy of holding multitude of vital routes and chokepoints along mountain ridges, it seems very advantageous for the Zhao army to adopt the war of attrition and defensive warfare. The Qin army's offensive could be curbed and stopped with defensible strongpoints secured, then the Zhao army could wait for the opponent to make mistakes creating an opportunity for his counterstrike in static confrontation. This strategy sounds flawless, but it wasn't easy in practice.

And the key question was, who should be appointed the commander-in-chief ?

At that time, there're two obvious candidates : Lian Po (廉頗) and Li Mu (李牧). Yet Li Mu was guarding the northern frontier for fending the Xiongnu incursion, so Lian Po became the only option. What kind of person Lian Po was ? He was renowned for valiancy throughout all states as the Kingdom of Zhao's military commander, a famed general living in the same age as Bai Qi. His art of military tended to prudence and did not prefer risky strategy. At the eve of the Battle of Changping, he was close to 70 years old. 9 years before the Battle of Changping, the Zhao strategic border town E Yu (閼與) was under siege by the Qin army commanded by Wu Yang (胡陽), the contemporary monarch King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王) intended to sent Lian Po command the army for rescuing the besieged town, inquired the latter's opinion. Unexpectedly, Lian Po replied, "the destination is too faraway and the path is narrow and winding, the operation is impractical." (道遠險狹,難救。) Apparently he was lack of confidence for scoring success. Hence, he refused to command the army. But another Zhao general Zhao She (趙著, the father of Zhao Kuo 趙括) retorted, "the destination is too faraway and the path is narrow and winding, was like two mice wrestling in cave, the braver one shall triumph." (其道遠險狹,譬之猶兩鼠鬥於穴中,將勇者勝。) At last, King Huiwen of Zhao appointed Zhao She as a commander.

Battle of E Yu in 270 BC.jpg

Zhao She did not fail him, soundly crushed the Qin army in the Battle of E Yu and even killed the enemy army commander by surprise assault. Hence, Zhao She became the only Zhao general ever defeated the Qin army on field.

Lamentably, this valiant general did not survive to the time of the Battle of Changping, so King Qiaocheng had no choice but appoint Lian Po as the commander. Perhaps Lian Po did not have courage to challenge the Qin army head-to-head, yet his copious military experience and charismatic leadership made the Zhao strategy of blunting the Qin army's offensive largely viable. Nonetheless, the strategic situation was hardly optimistic — in the previous campaign, the Qin army had captured all the vital paths along the Taihang Mountain north of the Yellow River (黃河), not only cut off the line of communication between the Shangdang County and the Han capital Xinzheng, but also meant the Zhao army would undergo the "flanking threat" from the Taihang mountain paths. As a result, the Zhao defense line was greatly extended and not easy to be entirely covered with sufficient force ; the Qin army might easily outmanuever and trap the Zhao army in subsequent campaign. Encountering with such a thorny problem, how would Lian Po solve it ?
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Jul 2018
Hong Kong
Defense-in-depth — Lian Po's solution

Triple defense lines.jpg

The historical works recorded that Lian Po set up the "triple defense" in counter of the Qin grand army's incoming offensive — the first one was the "Kongcang Ridge Line" (空倉嶺防線) ; the second one was the "Dan River Line" (丹河防線) ; the third one was the main defense line with the strongest fortified position, known as the "Hundred Li Rocky Long Wall" (百里石長城). Three defense lines stretched east and west over 26 km, scattering all over the vast front with a ring of mutually-supported fortresses. Obviously, Lian Po intended to carry out the "defense-in-depth" strategy, constructed the multiple-layers fortification along the mountain ridges and rivers centering on several key linchpins, aiming on steadily wearing down and topple the Qin army by tenacious defense with strong garrison along the line while simultaneously covering the weakness of overextended front. Even the Zhao army is crumbling under the Qin army's robust offensive, he would be able to execute the steady withdrawal towards the rear concentrating the retreating allied troops and other garrisons scattered all over the wide theater for redeployment at the rear fortified position. This was a prudent yet masterful strategy, though could not guarantee victory, sufficient to stand in an unassailable position.

Lian Po chose Changping (長平) which was situated at the eastern bank of the Dan River (丹河) as his headquarter. From the perspective of military geography, this place had the extraordinary value in strategic position. It was a vital chokepoint not only in the Shangdang region but shielding the west and the south of Handan — whether aiming for the conquest of Shangdang, or thrusting towards Handan, there were only two mountainous routes accessible for the Qin expeditive army : the first one was taking the western path of Wu Ridge (烏嶺) --> Kongcang Ridge (空倉嶺) ; another was the Taihang Mountains Route by treading the southern path of Yangchang Slope (羊腸坂) --> Tianjing Pass (天井關). No matter which route the Qin army would take, Changping blocked on their front whether he purported to pacify Shangdang or approach Handan. Moreover, Changping's north and west were surrounded by an array of mountains highly defensible with the impregnable chokepoints such like the Changping Pass (長平關) and the Gu Pass (故關). Furthermore, the valley plain encompassing Changping provided tremendous convenience for large-scale troops movement and supply convoy transportation, thus ensuring the capability of maintaining adequate supply of huge army for long time.

Two routes approach Shangdang.jpg

Lian Po established his command center and the food-storing base at the Daliang Mountain (大糧山, literally meant "the mountain with large granary", close to nowadays Gaoping in the Shanxi Province 山西省高平市) ; here was the highest point among all the mountains around Gaoping with the Dan River's water flowing through the hillside from north-west to south-east. Utilizing this place as a "reconnaissance point" and a "command center", Lian Po not only had a panoramic view of enemy strength and movement menacing the Dan River Line, but also had much better control of his army in command with this excellent observation post, ensuring the enemy troops could not outmanuoever him to cut off the Zhao army's supply line and his line of communication with Handan at the back. It was particularly important in the age of cold weapon warfare without modern technology of communication.

Besides, Lian Po also fortified a vantage point Hanwang Mountain (韓王山) nearby, forming the “triangle formation” with Daliang Mountain and Hundred Li Rocky Long Wall in the sector.

Lian Po resembles the outstanding WW2 German commander Walter Model, excelled in defensive warfare and careful planning. Both of them ever organized multiple-layers fortification in the most famous military operation under their command, certainly an exemplar of "defense-in-depth" master.

For the Qin army's pre-planning, very lamentably, I could not find out a clear picture of that through ancient historical works and the course of campaign. But one thing is certain : the Qin army adopted the strategy of blitzkrieg, aiming on shattering enemy resistance in short time with utmost rapidity and ferocity. Hence, in the first phase of the Battle of Changping, the Qin army was on the attacking side, in turn, the Zhao army was on the defensive side. This was how the magnificent war begun.
Jul 2018
Hong Kong
Phase One of the Battle of Changping : strategic offensive vs strategic defense
Lian Po vs Wang He — the Zhao army was falling back under the Qin army's incessant onslaught

First encounter at the Yuxi River Valley.jpg

In April of 261 BC, the first engagement between both sides occurred at the Yuxi River Valley (玉溪河谷) situated at the west of the Kongcang Ridge Line. About the course of this battle, very little is known. Sima Qian depicted the battle with mere 16 words in his work Shiji — the biographies of Bai Qi and Wang Jian《史記.白起王翦列傳》:


Translation :

"The Zhao troops fought against the Qin army's vanguard, yet ended up the Zhao Vice-General Jia being slain."

裨將 meant the Vice-General. Even the Vice-General was killed in battle. Obviously the Zhao army already sustained a major setback in the first encounter with the Qin army. As a result, the Zhao army retreated eastward to the Kongcang Ridge Line and turned into all-out defense, constructing temporary fortification for holding against the enemy. The ridge line's overall length reached 40 km, with the "Western Fort" (西壁壘) as the crucial strongpoint ; simultaneously, there were two fortresses erected at the eastern foothill situated on the western bank of the Dan River respectively named "Xizhang Fort" (西鄣城) and "Dongzhang Fort" (東鄣城), collectively named "Twin Zhang Forts" (二鄣城), four captains (都尉) were disposed for garrisoning both fortresses. Another fortress "Guanglian Fort" (光狼城) was installed behind "Twin Zhang Forts" ; all those strongpoints could mutually support each other, forming the formidable line with scattering fortresses closely linked up each other. Facing with this well-arranged defense line, could the Qin army break through it ?

Kongcang Ridge Line.jpg

Sima Qing depicted the subsequent course of the battle in his work Shiji — the biographies of Bai Qi and Wang Jian《史記.白起王翦列傳》:


Translation :

"In June, the Zhao army was vanquished, with Twin Chang Forts fallen and four captains lost. In July, the Zhao army held the line with newly-constructed forts, the Qin army striked again, killed two captains, shattered the Zhao army and seized the Western Fort."

According to this narration, the Zhao army seemed losing badly without winning any battle. The Kongcang Ridge Line which was built with much effort was completely overran in just three months, with the Guanglian Fort fell into the enemy hands. By this time, the Qin army was able to dash headlong into the western bank of the Dan River, confronted with the Zhao army by riverline. From the perspective of Zhao army, the well-experienced, crafty Lian Po probably either realized that there was little chance of victory by fighting against the Qin army in field battle, or intended for preservation of his army's strength for holding the reserve defense line, thus withdrawed to the eastern bank of the Dan River along the mountainous range in order to secure the advantageous terrain focusing on strengthening the Dan River Line based on the natural barrier of the Dan River.

Associating with the above-mentioned geographical advantage of the Dailang Mountain, surely you'll understand why Lian Po set up his main defense base around the Changping area east of the Dan River. Rather than concentrating all his strength on the fortified line of the Kongcang Ridge Line, he chose the "fallback position" at the eastern bank of the Dan River for final confrontation with the Qin army since the Qin army already controlled the Taihang Mountain's southern mountainous accesses. If Lian Po deployed the vastly majority of his troops to defend the Kongcang Ridge Line and neglected the dangerous "flanking threat", his vulnerable rear might be easily enveloped by the enemy army's detachments.

Second phase of the Battle of Changping
The impregnable line halting the Qin army's offensive — "Hundred Li Rocky Long Wall"

Lian Po executed the highly-skillful withdrawal operation even with a series of defeats, preventing his army being routed under the Qin army's dreadful offensive. This veteran certainly knew the best strategy of countering the mighty Qin army — the Qin expeditive army trudged so far and long, hoping for a quick victory, thus his greatest nightmare was the war of attrition. Lian Po's only greatest difficulty was finding a base for long-term confrontation with the Qin army. Eventually, he found the answer, that was the "Hundred Li Rocky Long Wall" (百里石長城), which was the flawless position for defense founding on the mountain array from Danzhu Ridge (丹朱嶺) to Ma'an Ravine (馬鞍壑), with cliffy slope pointing southward to the Qin army — the ideal place for stopping the Qin army's onslaught.

Turned into stalemale at the Dan River confrontation.jpg

Therefore, Lian Po ordered strengthening the fortress complex by rocks stemmed from there. The "Rocky Long Wall" 's bottom width was 4 meters in total, with fortresses constructed at intervals, extending afar along the mountains. The only entrances were situated at the westernmost and the middle of the long wall, known as the "Gu Pass" (故關) and the "Changping Pass" (長平關) respectively. They were the axis connecting the north-south access. The fortress gates were built on these vital chokepoints, perfectly in integration with the rocky cliff wall.

After numerous setbacks in the initial stage of the war, this veteran who had been going on campaigns for many years was finally able to stabilize the front, constructed a single line of impregnable Rocky Long Wall by exploiting the favorable ground of the lofty ridges at the eastern bank of the Dan River, successfully blunted the Qin army’s offensive for the first time and thwarted its further advance. Despite Wang He attempted to spot this strong fortified line’s vulnerability, yet ended in vain. Both sides constructed a fortress line totalled nearly 10 km stretching in north-south direction along the banks of the Dan River, confronting by a river. Neither side was able to overcome the counterpart.

By this time, Shiji — the biographies of Bai Qi and Wang Jian 《史記.白起王翦列傳》 narrated :


Translation :

“Lian Po countered against the Qin army by fortification. The Qin army made several provocations, yet the Zhao garrison refused to come out.”

By such circumstance, Lian Po managed to hold his ground and wait for development of events with advantageous position he occupied favoring his strategy of the war of attrition, refused to have a decisive battle with the Qin army, utterly thwarted Wang He’s strategic plan for quick victory. Wang He’s military expedition gone far from the Qin territories had lasted more than a half a year, yet was obstructed in front of the insurmountable fortification and could not advance for long, caused the Qin army’s morale and strength severely sapped due to the gigantic logistical burden caused by the far-extended supply line. If this dire situation continue, the Qin army was likely to collapse without battle.

However, the Zhao army was simultaneously affected by the huge logistical pressure. Both sides were in serious trouble of the shortage of provisions owing to the suffocating deadlock.

There was a folk tale circulating in Changping : in order to stabilize the troops’ morale, Lian Po camouflaged food with sand, piled those “rice” a mountain, then established a “faked granary” purported for showing how plentiful the Zhao army’s food storage was to both his army and the enemy’s, intending for dealing a heavy blow upon the enemy army’s morale while galvanizing his soldiers to brace up.

How would both sides attempt to break the stalemale ? Both sides began to embark on diplomacy.

Next time ! Chapter 3 : King Xiaocheng’s diplomatic blunder and King Zhaoxiang of Qin’s craftiness