Volume 1, Chapter 9: Military Retainer

Volume 1, Chapter 9: Military Retainer1

In the eighth month of the nineteenth year of Xiande, Southern Chu allied with Great Yong. On behalf of Great Yong, the Prince of Qi swore a sacred oath.2 The Prince of De, Zhao Jue, was named Chief Commander. Receiving the order, he set off for battle. Before he departed, Zhao Jue appointed Jiang Zhe as a military retainer to serve as a counselor on military matters. Worried that the Prince of De’s authority was too great, the king also ordered the court eunuch, Wang Hai, to supervise the army.

Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

Damned Zhao Jue. He truly wanted me to serve in the army. I originally intended to ask others to help, but Zhao Jue now held a high-ranking position3 as the Chief Commander. I could only hold back my tears as I handed over my duties in Hanlin Academy to another, joining the army that was heading west to invade Shu. However, I was comforted by the news that Xiaoshunzi was also accompanying the army. Just before we departed, the king dispatched Wang Hai, a supervisor within the Bureau of Ceremonies, to supervise and oversee the army. Although the utilization of eunuchs of supervise the army was a sign that Southern Chu would ultimately fall, I was happy as Xiaoshunzi was part of Wang Hai’s entourage of eunuchs. I could not but thank the heavens for their blessings. With Xiaoshunzi’s protection, I probably wouldn’t have to face any dangers. But it was best if I could find some guards to protect me as well. I was prepared to discuss this matter with Xiaoshunzi. After I had identified a few candidates, Xiaoshunzi would then test their abilities. I had no intention of being guarded by useless people.4

For this invasion of Shu, Southern Chu’s army was split in two. One army would travel up the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges under the command of the Marquis Who Suppresses Distant Lands, Lu Xin. The other army would be personally commanded by the Chief Commander, Zhao Jue, and travel by land to Ba Prefecture.5 The two armies would meet up at Luocheng.5 As a retainer of the Prince of De, I naturally accompanied his army. But I still held a grudge. I stayed hidden in the carriage of the army supervisor, Wang Hai, for the entire journey. Wang Hai was a fellow clansman of the Eunuch Wang who supervised the palace book repositories. He treated me quite well, constantly bringing up how Eunuch Wang had benefited greatly from the medicinal pellets that I had concocted for him. Understanding his intent, I agreed to help Wang Hai concoct one or two types of medicinal pellets for his own personal use. Xiaoshunzi obediently attended to us. Greatly satisfied with Xiaoshunzi, Wang Hai smiled and said, “This little fellow is the lowly servant saved by my lord zhuangyuan? Everything about Xiaoshunzi is good, except for one matter. He is hardworking, eloquent, and literate, but has no will to better himself. Other lowly servants would compete to the bitter end for assignments and would do anything to be able to directly attend to the King. In comparison, this little fellow is willing to forego that kind of comfortable assignment and accompany me6 to suffer hardships in the army.”

I could not help but to regard Xiaoshunzi for a moment, feeling guilty. This little fellow was always thinking of me. Obediently, Xiaoshunzi responded, “Eunuch7 shouldn’t say such things. Gonggong and Eunuch Wang are related. Under normal circumstances, when you see this lowly servant, you usually bestow rewards. This time, gonggong has received the attention of the King and has been appointed as army supervisor. Once we win and return to the capital, that kind of meritorious service will be rewarded. Concurrently, I will also be rewarded. Otherwise, why would people say that one can find riches and honor in danger?”

Wang Hai smiled widely, almost to the point where his eyes were closed. Just as the three of us were enjoying the conversation, an orderly approached the front of the carriage. He yelled, “Jiang daren, the Prince has summoned you to discuss official business.”

I had no choice but to exit the carriage. From one of the palace guards accompanying Wang Hai, I took the reins of a horse. After climbing on top, I inexpertly rode forward. My riding ability wasn’t all that great and was learned in a panicked and hurried fashion. With difficulty, I arrived next to the mounted Zhao Jue. Clasping my hands together, I greeted the Prince. “Your Highness, this lowly official has arrived per your summons.”

Seeing the sorry figure that I cut on the horse, Zhao Jue smiled and said, “Jiang daren, you should learn how to ride properly. Otherwise, you will find it extremely difficult to follow the army.”

I almost gnashed my teeth. It wasn’t like I wanted to accompany the army. But as I was a subordinate, I could only lower my head and respond respectfully. “This lowly official will do as you bid. Is there anything that this lowly official can do? I await Your Highness’s orders.”

Slowly, Zhao Jue allowed his horse to begin to move forward, indicating that I should follow. Flustered, I urged my horse to follow. After we had proceeded for some distance side by side, Zhao Jue inquired, “Jiang daren still holds a grudge against this Prince?”

I faked a smile and replied, “This lowly official dares not. This lowly official is paid by Southern Chu. How dare I refuse the government’s order?”

Smiling wryly, Zhao Jue continued, “It isn’t that this Prince wishes to make things difficult for daren. For this campaign against Shu, we must acquire the greatest benefit while paying the lowest cost possible. War is within this Prince’s ability and purview. I will not trouble daren. But after we have pacified Shu, we must reach an accord with Great Yong on the division of spoils. If at that point we do not have someone like Jiang daren, who understands the reality of our predicament, sagacious and unwavering, we would likely suffer disastrously. Therefore, this Prince could only trouble Jiang daren.”

Feeling aggrieved, I thought, It’s only bandits dividing the spoils. You probably won’t wait until you’ve won to divide them.

As if reading my thoughts, Zhao Jue continued, “In addition, I have seen sire’s ability and wisdom. Jue also wishes to listen to your teachings and learn. In this time of calamity for our country, I wish that Jiang daren will also spend some time thinking about military matters as well, and make contributions to our country.”

Hearing these words, I thought deeply and realized the truth behind his words. As I was already accompanying the army, I might as well take the opportunity to learn about military matters. Coming to this conclusion, I bowed low, signaling that I had accepted his suggestion. Smiling faintly, Zhao Jue gave his horse a whip and sped forward. My own mount seemed to wish to follow and twisted its body in an impatient matter. Scared, I swayed from side and side. Luckily one of Zhao Jue’s personal guards helped steady me. Blushing furiously, I thanked him, vowing to learn how to properly ride a horse.


Setting down the brush, I massaged my shoulders. I had been handling military matters ever since we had camped. After speaking with Zhao Jue, I began to participate in the handling of these issues. I did not spend much time before I went from a complete novice to someone adept and skilled. I learned how to set up camp, how to organize and structure an army, and how to reward and punish accordingly. Most important was the handling of documents and proper organization of intelligence reports. In comparison to my work at Hanlin Academy, these military matters were just as difficult. Amongst Zhao Jue’s retainers was a Confucian scholar hailing from the Heishan named Rong Yuan, who was greatly valued. He would frequently be beside Zhao Jue offering his advice. These assorted tedious matters were handled by the other aides. My participation reduced their workload, especially as I was able to quickly familiarize myself with their system of documentation. Relying upon my photographic memory and keen judgement, I quickly became highly valued, especially when it came to analyzing intelligence reports. They had originally only wanted me to try, not knowing that analysis of a few pieces of broken intelligence8 was my specialty. I did not have to take any notes and regardless of how tedious the intelligence, I could understand the context just from reading it over once. As a result, those retainers decided to hand all of the intelligence analysis to me, having me organize the reports for Zhao Jue to consider. It was only after this did I become one of the most important aides to Zhao Jue, second only to Rong Yuan.

Looking at the color the sky, I realized that night had fallen long ago. Seeing as the army still needed to march on tomorrow, I quickly collected the organized intelligence reports, preparing to deliver them to Rong Yuan. Feeling a bit thirsty, I picked up the teapot on the table. It was already empty. I shook my head ruefully. Just then, I heard a slight cough come from outside the tent before Xiaoshunzi entered carrying a food box. In an neutral tone, he said, “Jiang daren, Army Supervisor Wang knows that you are busy handling military matters. He has asked me to bring you some midnight foods and also wanted me to thank you for providing him with the medication yesterday.”

From the tone of Xiaoshunzi’s voice, I knew that there were others outside my tent. Smiling, I replied, “Please extend my thanks to Army Supervisor Wang on my behalf. In reality, the Army Supervisor is too used to living in the palace. These last few days, he has been exhausted and couldn’t sleep properly, thus harming his body. The medication I provided should help the Army Supervisor sleep and allow him to quickly regain his energy.”

After placing the food box on the table, Xiaoshunzi said, “Daren, please eat while the food is still warm.”

Shaking my head, I responded, “I need to first deliver some documents. You should first go back and rest. Tomorrow, the army will continue onwards.”

Xiaoshunzi pushed a small folded piece of paper into my hand before bowing and departing. Unfolding the paper, I read the words written: “It is difficult to come and go while within the army. Zhao Jue has numerous skilled martial arts beside him. Rong Yuan seems to be jealous of daren. Today, he told Zhao Jue that daren is too intimate with the Prince of Qi and likely to be colluding. In order to be safe, daren should not be allowed to handle important military matters. Zhao Jue half believed him.

I smiled distantly. This kind of situation was difficult to avoid. My sudden emergence9 could not but worry Rong Yuan. However, it didn’t matter if his slander was successful. I wasn’t particularly interested in being placed in an important position by the Prince of De. I walked out of the tent. Accompanied by a soldier assigned to me, I proceeded to Rong Yuan’s tent, delivering the documents. He accepted them, speaking words of encouragement as if he trusted and appreciated me. It really was a matter of not judging a book by its cover.10 I sighed in my mind as I left his tent. Outside, the weather was cold.

After half a month of advance, the army arrived at the border of the Kingdom of Shu. Our subsequent sieges were successful. But after ten days, we arrived at Ba Prefecture. Originally, I was suspicious of how weak Shu’s defenses were. Later, I learned that Shu did not have enough troops to defend everywhere and could only heavily garrison important areas where there was rugged terrain or mountain passes. As for Ba Prefecture, it was our army’s first major barrier. After Ba Prefecture was a difficult and dangerous road with twenty passes,11 all of them easily defended and difficult to attack. The real war would begin soon.

On the twenty-third day of the eighth month, the Southern Chu army arrived before the city of Ba Prefecture. Riding a docile horse especially chosen by the Prince of De, I considered the high and wide city walls of this prefectural city. On the walls, there was a sea of swords and spears. A countless number of Shu soldiers, all solemn, stood upon the walls. One look and I could tell that they were an elite army. Holding the reins of his horse, the Prince of De stood at the front of the Southern Chu army, calculatedly regarding the city walls. Above, amidst the soldiers stood a general wearing red armor. From what I could see, I concluded that he was about fifty years old. He had a bold appearance, was short of stature, and had a beard that covered his chin and upper lip. That person yelled aloud, “Southern Chu and my Kingdom of Shu are allies! Why have you broken this alliance without reason and come to attack us?”

The Prince of De laughed faintly before replying in raised voice, “The Kingdom of Shu holds a small bit of territory and sets up an independent regime. Today, Great Yong has established its empire in the Central Plains and yet Shu refuses to pay its obeisance. What are your intentions? My Southern Chu is a vassal of Great Yong and has been ordered to attack. First, I am following the Emperor’s orders. Second, I have come to avenge the years of Shu’s bullying. Listen well, warriors of my Southern Chu! The Kingdom of Shu relies upon its advantageous geography to constantly mistreat our border citizens. They use trade to unilaterally raise prices in order to plunder money belonging to our people. Today, my Southern Chu has raised this army and come forth to defeat Shu and take revenge!”

After he had finished speaking, he raised his whip. The Southern Chu army cried out in a singular voice and the drums beat like thunder. A unit of a thousand men began to shout and advance. Each soldier carried a sword and shield, protecting the ladders as they charged towards the city walls. Taking advantage of the fact that the archers on the wall could not shoot directly downwards, the Southern Chu soldiers quickly set the ladders against the wall and began to climb. Another twenty to thirty soldiers pushed a battering ram before the city gates and began to ram the gates. After only a few hits, the drums atop the city walls sounded and a wave of tree trunks and rocks began to dropped. The ladders and the ram were destroyed, causing a number of Southern Chu soldiers to fall from a great height, their bodies splattering.

I became nervous when I saw this. But I saw that others—the Prince of De, the generals, and the other retainers—remained tranquil and calm with no sign of nervousness. Soon after, a gong was beaten to signal the retreat and the attacking soldiers gradually returned. I had been watching carefully. The vast majority of the soldiers had not even begun to climb the ladders. As a result, the number of deaths and wounded were far fewer than I had thought. After a while, the Southern Chu army launched a second attack, while the city’s garrison began to repel them.

On this day, the Southern Chu army launched twenty attacks, but all were half-hearted.12 The garrison was also extremely cautious and did not wastefully use up all of its rocks and tree trunks. As the time approached nightfall, the Southern Chu army launched a ferocious attack that seemed unstoppable.13 The soldiers fearlessly climbed the ladders and were able to gain a foothold upon the city walls. A bloody battle began upon the city walls, but ultimately the Southern Chu forces were beaten back.

Watching all this unfold, my mind was rattled. Today’s attacks should probably have cost us two to three thousand men. Although our losses weren’t heavy, that kind of dreadful, imposing manner left me disturbed. That night, I tossed and turned restlessly in bed. The losses from the siege would only grow and become heavier. I had learned that there were many more such city walls that needed to be taken. If each and every city required heavy casualties, then the end result would be extremely miserable.

The next day, the siege was extremely bitter. Just after the sun had arisen, the soldiers had pushed forward several dozen catapults. With one order, they began to fire massive boulders against the city walls. As the Ba Prefecture’s city walls were tall and thick, they did not shake. However, crushed and broken rocks began to fly across the city walls, and the shouts of the city guard began to waver. Pulling back my gaze, I watched the massive boulders crush and blow apart countless defenders. I saw the defenders brave the flying boulders to return fire. The catapults on the city wall were extremely powerful. Even though it was difficult to aim, the boulders that they fired destroyed only half of our catapults, but they also inflicted terrible losses upon our soldiers, crushing and flattening many men. The corpses began to pile up. Although the battle between the catapults lasted only about thirty minutes, my hands and feet were already freezing. Blood and flesh filled my eyes. My eyesight was too good, even seeing the gloomy and mournful expressions on the face of the soldiers as they died. Probably as a result of lacking sufficient boulders, the firing speed of the catapults slowed before ultimately stopping. Southern Chu troops pushed forward siege towers and carried ladders as they renewed the attack. Although the siege towers were shorter than the city walls, they were high enough to stop the wall’s return fire. Countless arrows flew through the air in beautiful arcs before piercing through flesh and blood. The blood of both sides began to intermingle upon the city wall. As the Southern Chu soldiers attacked, they were met with oil and lime.14 Just as the hard-pressed Southern Chu soldiers began to fall, a countless numbers of torches appeared on top of the city wall and were thrown down. The area below the city became a sea of fire. Only a small number of nimble and agile soldiers were able to escape, while everyone else was surrounded by flames and burned to death. The scene was appalling.15 The miserable screams of those caught within was world-shaking.

Seeing this, I really hated that my senses were so acute. I could not endure it and could only turn my horse and charge towards the back. I found a secluded area and vomited until I tasted bile in my mouth. When I straightened, I caught sight of an armored Xiaoshunzi standing before my horse. He handed me a canteen of water to allow me to rinse my mouth. After my state of mind had calmed, I asked, “Why did you come? Shouldn’t you be accompanying Eunuch Wang?”

In a low voice, Xiaoshunzi replied, “I told the eunuch that I did not want to know what war looked like, so I came to take a look. Eunuch Wang was also worried, so he agreed to my suggestion.”

Regarding the distant battlefield, I responded with lingering fear in my voice, “It’s so frightening. I should leave.”

As I was about to urge my horse along, Xiaoshunzi grasped my horse’s bridle and stopped me. “Daren, you mustn’t. Although I am ignorant, I do know that if daren were to act so cowardly now, then you would never be able to hold your head high in front of the army’s officers and soldiers. Furthermore, after today, daren may still have to go to war. Will you hide every single time?”

I was ashamed after hearing his words. Compared to Xiaoshunzi, my will was far less resolute. Giving him a look of gratitude, I urged my horse back to the frontline. When I returned to Zhao Jue’s side, the officers and retainers accompanying him looked at my pale face with approval. In a favorable tone, Zhao Jue remarked, “Suiyun possesses ample courage. When this Prince first fought on the battlefield, my response could not even compare to yours. Everything will become better once you’ve experienced numerous battles.”

I bowed from my seat upon my mount, asking, “Your Highness, this lowly official does not understand military affairs, but it seems like our siege is not going particularly well?”

Forcing a smile, Zhao Jue agreed. “You’re correct. Ba Prefecture is one of Shu’s most important strategic defenses. Its commander is a good general and its soldiers are brave. The city defenses and supplies are both plentiful. It is difficult to capture. This Prince is deeply concerned. Thankfully, the subsequent twenty or so cities should be easier.”

“Then, in Your Highness’s view, how long would it take to capture?” I continued to ask.

After some calculations, Zhao Jue professed, “It will be pretty good if we are able to capture Ba Prefecture within half a month.”

I also calculated. Great Yong’s advance from Yangping Pass through Dongchuan to attack Jiameng Pass would also require them to attack numerous difficult positions. But Great Yong was well prepared. If our Southern Chu were to seize the advantage, we must use a stratagem. In my mind, I began to go over the information that I had previously read. How could we resolve the immediate problem?

I could not think of anything. I began to go over the information regarding Ba Prefecture one by one. I gazed into the distance, focusing on the, the red-armored general issuing commands on the city wall. Under his commands, the city defenses were watertight. Whenever the Southern Chu troops showed an opening, he would immediately spot it and ruthlessly exploit it.

Hold up a moment … someone who pursues closely and is ruthless … I suddenly remembered some information about the commander of the garrison: Tian Wei, upholds rigorous military discipline, a valiant and good commander, adept at defending cities, able to defend as if he was a mountain, especially adept at raiding and attacking enemy encampments. No wonder the Prince of De set up the defenses of our encampment so strictly and tightly. Our opponent was someone adept at raiding encampments. Slowly, a crafty scheme began to form in my mind. Would it be successful? After thinking it over, I spurred my horse alongside the Prince of De and informed him of my plan in a low voice. At first hesitant, the Prince of De gradually became intrigued. After some time, he smiled slightly and nodded his head before ordering our army to retreat. The bloodiest day of the battle for Ba Prefecture ended.


  1. 幕僚, muliao – are personal retainers who serve as advisers for officials
  2. 歃血为盟, shaxueweimeng – idiom, lit. to smear the lips with blood when taking an oath; to swear a sacred oath
  3. 一人之下,万人之上 – lit. refers to someone who holds a position below one person and above everyone else; in this context, refers to someone whose authority and power is just below the King
  4. 酒囊饭袋, jiunangfandai – idiom, lit. wine sack, food bag; useless persons only fit for drinking alcohol and eating food
  5. 巴州, Bazhou – modern-day Eastern Sichuan and Chongqing
  6. 雒城, Luocheng – modern-day Guanghan
  7. 公公, gonggong – a phrase used to refer to eunuchs
  8. 只言片语, zhiyanpianyu – idiom, lit. just a word or two; a few isolated phrases
  9. 异军突起, yijuntuqi – idiom, lit. to emerge as a new force to be reckoned with
  10. 人不可貌相, renbukemaoxiang – idiom, lit. you can’t judge a person by appearance
  11. 关, guan – refers to fortresses used to defend strategic locations, typically easily defended and difficult to attack due to natural rugged terrain
  12. 浅尝辄止, qianchangzhezhi – idiom, lit. to dabble and stop; to attempt half-heartedly
  13. 如火如荼, ruhuorutu – lit. like wildfire; unstoppable
  14. The highly flammable substance, not the fruit
  15. 惨不忍睹, canburendu – idiom, lit. spectacle too horrible to endure; tragic sight, appalling scenes of destruction
Previous Chapter Next Chapter