Volume 6, Chapter 17: The Strategy to Conquer Southern Chu

Volume 6, Chapter 17: The Strategy to Conquer Southern Chu


In the eleventh year of Tongtai, the twenty-first year of the sixty-year cycle, Grand General Lu oversaw the military in Jiangnan, and the Yong army suffered a crushing defeat and was beaten back.

The Yong Emperor personally visited the Cold Courtyard to ask for advice. Zhe sensed the Emperor was sincere and offered a strategy to conquer Southern Chu. Monarch and minister sat together and had a heart-to-heart, staying up all night. Later generations say this was the start of the end for Southern Chu. Zhe accomplished unparalleled feats for Yong and bears all the blame for this tragedy.

Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun

After sending off Xiahou Yuanfeng, I sat down in the pavilion and continued appreciating the snow. Since he had convinced me to decide to offer advice to the emperor on how to conquer Southern Chu, I should begin to think of a way to state my thoughts and thinking. These past few days, I had numerous ideas, but I had kept them to myself. But now when I put my mind to it, I was out of sorts and my thoughts were in turmoil for some reason. Although I'd long thought up strategies, these strategies only looked good on paper. If they were put into practice, they would bring about carnage and the ravages of war, and I felt terribly anguished.

Thinking carefully, I realized those rumors were true—I still yearned for the old country. Now that I thought about it, Li Zhi hadn’t treated me wrong on that day. If I hadn’t still felt something for my former country, I would have contended with the emperor on strong grounds and explained the unfavorable situation Great Yong was in, as well as putting forward a strategy to solve it. I shouldn’t have made the baseless claim that Great Yong would lose. After Great Yong suffered defeats, I refused to reconcile with or offer advice to Li Zhi because he once suspected me. It wasn’t because my stubborn temper had flared up again, but rather because I didn’t wish to offer advice that would topple my former country.

What did I matter? I was of two minds. I had turned my back on my state and exiled myself, so why was I still keeping up this farce of yearning for my former country? Great Yong had treated me with the utmost patience and magnanimity, but did I want to watch the troops of Great Yong lose their lives for glory in Southern Chu? The more I thought, the more awful I felt. I couldn’t bear it and downed several cups of wine in succession.

The Deep Spring may have been mellow, but the kick was tremendous. I had already drunk a dozen cups earlier, so I began to grow tipsy. I was a little dizzy and my vision swam. The emotions I had made a conscious effort to ignore welled up inside me, and I felt even more agony. I couldn’t stop from walking past the threshold of the pavilion, resulting in snowflakes assaulting my face. They scattered onto my extensively embroidered, soft fur clothes. The cold attacked my senses, and I, who had always feared the cold, stood transfixed in the snow, thinking of how long it had been since I’d left Southern Chu. I finally had the opportunity to return home, but as an enemy. Tears fell unbidden from my eyes, and the frigid wind instantly froze the tears to ice on my cheeks. I barely felt the cold.

Xiaoshunzi had been off to the side watching Jiang Zhe drink wine and now saw that something was wrong. He ran over to Jiang Zhe and half-carried, half-cradled him back into the Overlooking Wave Pavilion. He grabbed a cloak and wrapped it around Jiang Zhe. But when he saw Jiang Zhe drifting off, he sighed under his breath and said, “Young master, why torture yourself? If you’ve decided to offer advice to conquer Southern Chu, you must set your heart on it. You can’t long for your former country any longer. If you’ve decided to no longer offer advice, why wrack your brains for those heartless people!”

I had fallen into a drunken stupor and was reclining on the snug chaise lounge in the middle of pavilion. I turned a deaf ear to Xiaoshunzi’s words as tears kept flowing from my eyes. When facing some issues, it was impossible to have a heart of stone after all. Although I had long since decided I would never again yearn for the old country, I still couldn’t get a grip on myself when the time came. Okay … I’ll indulge myself once more tonight. Tomorrow I will put my heart and soul into tackling Southern Chu. I didn’t know if the present would have been easier if I hadn’t surrendered myself to the Prince of Yong all those years ago.

Xiaoshunzi was rather alarmed. In all the years they’d been together, he’d never seen Jiang Zhe this despondent. He didn’t understand how Southern Chu was worth longing for. Wasn’t the young master concerned about how Great Yong would defeat Southern Chu the past few days? Why is he so mournful now that he’s agreed to offer advice to conquer Southern Chu?

As Xiaoshunzi stood there in bewilderment, footsteps suddenly crunched in the distance. Xiaoshunzi was surprised, for he was very familiar with the visitor’s footsteps. He raised his head and looked outward, and as expected, Li Zhi was leading some imperial guards and walking in his direction. Xiaoshunzi couldn’t let anyone see the young master like this, so he went to help Jiang Zhe up and escape for the time being. He glanced outside and saw the pair of Leng Chuan and Duan Lingxiao following alongside Li Zhi. The others didn’t matter. As he had to carry Jiang Zhe, he had no way to hide from these two people’s eyes and ears.

With some momentary hesitation on Xiaoshunzi’s part, Li Zhi walked into the Overlooking Wave Pavilion with a smile on his face. He asked, “Is Suiyun here? We can no longer wait.” He then stopped speaking because he saw Jiang Zhe laying on the chaise lounge, seeming to have passed out from drink and apparently muttering. Li Zhi lowered his voice.

Xiaoshunzi stifled his anxiety and answered, “Young master drank too much and has gotten drunk. I didn’t know Your Imperial Majesty would visit in person. Please forgive me.”

“Rather, it is We who were too impatient; it is not Suiyun’s fault. It’s all right, We will stay in the Cold Courtyard tonight,” Li Zhi said with a smile. He then sat beside Jiang Zhe and was about to examine Jiang Zhe’s drunken state when he glanced down and saw the tears in the corners of Jiang Zhe’s eyes. Afterwards, he heard Jiang Zhe speak only two drunken sentences before slight changes appeared on his face. Deeply moved, he happened to look up and see Xiaoshunzi, discovering Xiaoshunzi was clenching both fists with anxiety shining in his eyes. Li Zhi’s mind was moving at a million revolutions a minute, but he smiled and said, “Xiaoshunzi, We want to share the same bed with Suiyun tonight. Please arrange for it.”

Xiaoshunzi jerked his head up and showed an expression of astonishment.

It was heavily guarded inside the Cold Courtyard tonight. Gazing at the dim light inside the sleeping quarters, Xiaoshunzi couldn’t help pacing around the room. If not for Li Zhi’s tenacity and Jiang Zhe not waking up from his inebriation, he would have prevented this situation from occurring no matter the price he had to pay. He was very worried Jiang Zhe would again say something he wasn’t supposed to and aggravate Li Zhi. At this moment, someone knocked on the door. Xiaoshunzi didn’t go to open the door, instead coolly saying, “Please enter, elder young master Duan.”

The door opened and in walked Duan Lingxiao. He smiled and said, “So Demonic Shadow Li Shun also has moments when he’s not calm and collected. What a rare sight to see.”

“Even I didn’t expect elder young master Duan to accompany the Emperor on a visit,” Xiaoshunzi coldly replied.

Duan Lingxiao took it in stride and said, “I remain in the Yong capital as a hostage. This is a fact. I have no need to hide. However, I came today because I wanted to see what advice Marquis Chu would offer to conquer Southern Chu and topple his former country. I never expected to see him drown his sorrows, but it was a worthwhile trip. I just don’t know how His Imperial Majesty will punish the Marquis. I presume this is why you are so restless?”

“It’s none of your business,” Xiaoshunzi coldly said.

“It is none of my business, but fourth brother sent a letter inquiring about us,” said Duan Lingxiao with a smile. “I just wanted to read it for you, that’s all.”

Annoyance glimmered in Xiaoshunzi’s eyes. He gazed at the pale light in the sleeping quarters again and pondered how to deal with the coming storm.

Inside the bedchambers, I groaned. Although Deep Spring didn’t make one’s head hurt from the hangover, I still didn’t feel that good. I truly had drunk too much. I yelled, “Xiaoshunzi, pour a cup of tea for me!” I heard someone walk over, after which that person raised a teacup to me. I took a sip with my eyes still closed and felt much better.

I turned over and prepared to keep sleeping. However, in my stupor I suddenly felt that something was off. The person who gave me tea seemed unfamiliar with the action, and their footfalls were forceful and vigorous. This was clearly not Xiaoshunzi. “Who’s there?” I said as I sat up, shocked into a cold sweat.

In the dim light, I saw only one man standing there, his hands folded behind his back. When I saw the man’s features, I got so scared I instantly sobered up. Climbing to my feet and disregarding that I was only wearing undergarments, I jumped out of bed and prostrated. “This subject, Jiang Zhe, pays his respects to Your Imperial Majesty. Please forgive this subject’s breach of etiquette.”

Li Zhi took a step forward and helped me to my feet. He sighed. “We are in the wrong. If you did not wish to participate in matters related to the Southern Campaign, We don’t have to trouble you.”

I was surprised. I raised my head and looked upon Li Zhi’s face, seeing no hint of indignation. Furthermore, he was wearing bright yellow undergarments, appearing very casual. In the time I didn't know what to say, Li Zhi pulled me over to the soft couch and seated me, while he sat facing me. He said with deep emotion, “We remember when We forcibly brought you back to the Yong capital. It was in this residence that We wracked Our brains for a way to make you work for me. We remember the past like it happened just yesterday.”

I had settled down by this time. Li Zhi had presumably seen my drunken state already. No matter what happened next, I was ready. As such, I said plainly, “This subject also remembers. The memory of composing poetry in the Overlooking Wave Pavilion while appreciating snow is still fresh in my mind. It was in the Prince of Yong’s residence that this subject repeatedly disappointed Your Imperial Majesty’s great kindness and forced Your Imperial Majesty into a quandary.”

Li Zhi gave a deep sigh. “Not only was it a quandary, We attempted and planned to kill you with poisoned wine when you bade farewell.”

I shuddered. Although the two of us, monarch and subject, were well aware of this event, neither of us had pierced the veil. I never expected Li Zhi to speak of it today. A cool breeze seemed to blow from behind my head. Could it be that Li Zhi planned to settle the score? When I thought of all the things I’d done over the years, and counted how many could be considered the crime of deceiving the emperor, I was ashamed.

Seemingly picking up on my discomfort, Li Zhi smiled and said, “But We managed to act in the nick of time before We made a huge mistake. We kept you as a minister of state. If you hadn’t put forward strategies and ideas over the years, how could We be here today? In reality, We’ve also thought We couldn’t trouble you for the sake of conquering Southern Chu. But in the end, We still had to trouble you. Suiyun, if you truly prefer not to get involved, We promise to let you retire from politics after today. If you do not wish to remain in the Yong capital, We won’t stop you from returning to the Eastern Sea.”

I was shocked at his words. When I thought of how the two of us met and how well we got along, an upsurge of emotion swelled inside me. I contemplated Li Zhi’s weary yet earnest face. Finally, I bowed my head and prostrated. “Your Imperial Majesty, how you can speak such words? The favor Your Imperial Majesty has shown this subject has no precedent in history. With the current frustrations for Great Yong’s Southern Campaign, as well as the worries and troubles of Your Imperial Majesty, how could this subject act like the wild crane and become a recluse with no fixed abode?1 Your Imperial Majesty, this subject already has a strategy to conquer Southern Chu in mind. Only three to five years are required for the lands to be united.”

Li Zhi rejoiced at my words. “Suiyun already has a sound strategy, as expected. Tell Us,” he said as he helped me up again.

The two men, monarch and minister, looked at each other and smiled. They both felt the resentment that had built up over the past few days vanish into thin air.

I organized my thoughts before saying, “The reason our army was defeated in battle was because we underestimated our enemy. If we had dispatched a senior general to attack Huaixi, we may not have suffered a crushing defeat. But that’s not what happened. Lu Can controls all of Southern Chu’s military, so it’s impossible to break through the defenses of Jianghuai.

“Great Yong and Southern Chu are in a north-south stalemate due to the Yangtze River, a natural barrier. Its upper reaches pass through Sichuan, its middle section cuts through the Jingxiang region, and it flows east into the Wuyue region.2 The upper and lower reaches coordinate and support each other. If the Yangtze River were lost, the fall of Southern Chu would take almost no time at all. However, Southern Chu still controls all the defenses of the Yangtze River, and they are using Huainan to shield the Yangtze River. Our army, on the other hand, occupies the strategic territory of Huaibei. Both sides share control over the strategic Jianghuai region. Lu Can is skilled enough to know to deploy a massive force in Huainan, always keeping a watchful eye on Huaibei, so Your Imperial Majesty requires a massive force to protect the entirety of Huaibei. As a result, the two sides find themselves in a stalemate.

“The ancestors said, ‘Those who desire a stable southeast must fight for the Yangtze and Han Rivers; those who desire to gain the Central Plains must capture the Huai and Si Rivers. With the Yangtze and Han but without the Huai and Si, the state is weak; with the Huai and Si but without the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Han, the state is in danger.’ The current situation in the world: Jingxiang and Qing Province3 make up the two flanks of the Jianghuai region, with Jingxiang able to cover the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Han Rivers, while Qing Province can cover the upper reaches of the Huai and Si Rivers. At present, Southern Chu occupies Jingxiang, so they can defend Jianghuai, but Qing Province is in our hands. Southern Chu had better not think of marching north to seize the Central Plains, as though our army can’t win, we can ensure we won’t lose either.

“In light of this, if Great Yong wants to march south, it is crucial to capture the territory of Jingxiang. If Jingxiang doesn’t fall, our army won’t be safe even if we take the Huainan region. However, Jingxiang is a strategic location that Southern Chu has administered for decades. It is easy to defend and difficult to attack, and Jiangling and Jiangxia act as its foundation. If one wishes to capture Jingxiang, it is as difficult as climbing to the Heavens. Repeatedly during Great Yong’s Southern Campaign, the armies went around Jingxiang, because they were attacking from Jianghuai. In this fashion, however, they could never stay for long even if they gained victory. Moreover, if Jingxiang is in Southern Chu’s hands, once Great Yong gets exhausted, Southern Chu can order a senior general to sally out of Xiangyang and capture Nanyang. Once Nanyang falls into Southern Chu’s hands, Huaibei will be in jeopardy. That’s why it’s said that if one wants to conquer Southern Chu, Xiangyang must be captured.”

Li Zhi had been nodding his head the whole time, but now he furrowed his brows and said, “Suiyun’s words have enlightened me. However, the defenses of Jingxiang have seldom been seen. The several times Great Yong has attacked Xiangyang, the armies have returned unsuccessful. Rong Yuan, the current commander of the garrison of Xiangyang, is a former subordinate of the Prince of De. He’s well-acquainted with the military principles and geography. As long as he’s there, Xiangyang is not easy to capture.”

“If Jianghuai and Jingxiang cannot be captured,” I smiled and said, “why not take a different approach? Wasn’t the reason why Your Imperial Majesty and the Prince of De joined together to attack Shu because the former Kingdom of Shu contained Hanzhong in the north and Sichuan in the east? The north of Shu could threaten the strategic region of Guanlong,4 while the east could sail downriver to Jiangling and take the southeast. Today, our Great Yong controls Hanzhong, and Yangping Pass is also in our hands. Why not attack and capture Jiameng Pass and march east out of Sichuan? It would make the defenses in Jianghuai useless. The frequent feints Your Imperial Majesty makes on Sichuan are a bad waste of a huge opportunity.”

“I also know the importance of Sichuan,” said Li Zhi, furrowing his brows. “But if we want to enter Sichuan from Hanzhong, we must outflank and capture Jingxiang, Jiameng Pass, Fucheng, Chengdu, Ba Prefecture, Wanzhou, and Kuizhou. The entire route is full of pitfalls and dangers, so this path isn’t easy to go down either.”

I lightly said, “Sichuan may contain perilous defiles everywhere, but if we approach from the west and go east, it won’t be so arduous. Furthermore, we can tie up the enemy’s main force in the southeast and empty out Sichuan. Your Imperial Majesty, why not order the Eastern Sea Navy to sail south to the Yangtze River Delta and have them recruit fleets from Dinghai, Daishan, Putuo, and other regions? Have them constantly watch over Hangzhou Bay, seldom slacking off, then use them to invade the interior via the Yangtze River. To ensure the safety of their southeastern prefectures and counties, Southern Chu will deploy a massive navy in Wuyue. In this way, Southern Chu’s forces will be concentrated in Wuyue and Jianghuai, so the western Sichuan territory will empty itself out. Our army can seize this moment of weakness to invade.”

Li Zhi abruptly stood up at these words and paced around the bedchambers several times with his hands folded behind his back. Then he said in excitement, “Good, what a good plan! Why did We never think of using the navy in this way? We had planned to first occupy Jingxiang and Huainan before ordering all of Great Yong’s navies to cross the Yangtze and attack. But we never thought to mobilize the Eastern Sea Navy to tie up Southern Chu’s forces. In doing so, our side is concentrated while the enemy is divided. No matter if Southern Chu is in Sichuan, Jingxiang, Huainan, or Wuyue, every location will show vulnerabilities. All our armies can seize this moment of weakness to invade.”

I stood up too. “That may be the case, but the defenses of Jiangnan are solid. If Lu Can pinpoints a few regions as critical and must be defended to the death, our armies will be hard-pressed. Therefore, a plan is still necessary. No matter how firm the lines of defense, opportunity exists if the defenders have weaknesses. Yu Mian of Sichuan has more than carried on the accomplishments of previous generations, but he hasn’t made enough progress. He’s only propping up the Lu family’s remaining prestige. It’s not enough to fear him. Once changes occur in the court of Southern Chu, there’s bound to be resentment in Sichuan, so they must be appeased at any cost.

“Rong Yuan of the Xiangfan region may be capable and experienced, but sadly, he’s narrow-minded. This time, Lu Can performed an unparalleled, outstanding service. Yet Rong Yuan had to hold fast in Xiangfan, surely unhappy. If he’d let someone take advantage of the moment, as the situation gave rise to resentment and a struggle for great deeds, the region of Xiangfan could be seized. Even if Xiangfan couldn’t be taken in one fell swoop, the main force in Xiangfan could’ve been wiped out, which would make Rong Yuan no longer able to support the forces in the Jianghuai region.

“Shi Guan of the Huaisi region performed great deeds this time around, so he came to be seen as part of Lu Can’s faction. If Lu Can is defeated, this man will be implicated.

“Although Lu Can controls the military power nowadays, the affairs of state are still in Shang Weijun’s hands. And the King of Southern Chu is about to come of age. I’ve often heard Zhao Long is of limited ability, so Shang Weijun is sure to use him to oppose Lu Can. And though Lu Can is a loyal subject, he’s not a stickler for antiquated rules. To preserve the combat strength of Southern Chu, he will carry out a series of actions bound to make Zhao Long and Shang Weijun unhappy. With the civil and military interests in discord, the monarch and ministers at each other’s throats, the toppling of Southern Chu will be nothing but a matter of time. It’s just that the events in between are unpredictable and need to be managed carefully.”

Li Zhi kept nodding his head as he said, “As always, once Suiyun puts his mind to it, he thinks of every possibility. The specific details don’t need to be described. We’re determined to finance the establishment of the Jiangnan Command Post with the Prince of Qi in command. He’ll be conducting the Southern Campaign. Would Suiyun be willing to accompany the army as an adviser?”

At ease, I answered, “How could I disobey? However, shouldn’t Your Imperial Majesty appoint His Imperial Highness, the Crown Prince, as the deputy commander-in-chief so he can supervise the procurement of provisions and funds as well as the baggage train? First, it would help to unburden the Prince of Qi, and second, it would give the Crown Prince experience.”

A light gleamed in Li Zhi’s eyes. Jiang Zhe had unraveled his private worry. He smiled and said, “Might as well. Sixth brother and Us joined the army in childhood. Jun’er turned sixteen this year, so he should get some experience. There’s even no harm for Lin’er to accompany the army on the campaign. After a few years pass, the Empire will gain another great general. I’ve heard that Lu Yun and Shi Yujin of Southern Chu are youths thirteen and fourteen years of age, but they were able to cut down one of Our valiant generals. As they say, heroes more often come from the youth. But I don’t think Jun’er and Lin’er should be inferior to them.”

My expression shifted and I bowed low. “This subject committed a capital offense when he let Lu Yun off scot-free. Please punish me, Your Imperial Majesty,” I said.

Li Zhi shook his head and said, “This is no big deal. We heard Jun’er say that our Great Yong has as many valiant generals as there are clouds in the sky. How could We be afraid of a child? Although, if Our minister wishes to save someone after Southern Chu has been conquered, feel free to tell Us.”

“This subject is truly grateful for Your Imperial Majesty’s deep friendship, but this subject has long been aware of the loyalty of the Lu family. I’m afraid it will be difficult to save them,” I said with a heavy heart.

Li Zhi gave a long and deep sigh, downcast as well.

The sky outside was still pitch-black. Li Zhi and I sat in the lamplight and explored in depth the various strategies to conquer Southern Chu, not at all aware of the passage of time.

Snow began to fall to the earth silently outside the window. A bleak atmosphere settled upon the world.

At an indefinite time, the east began to brighten before Li Zhi and I had had our fill of talk. Song Wan entered and urged Li Zhi to return to the palace. As Li Zhi dressed, he smiled and said, “Suiyun, I remember when we were appreciating the snow and composing poetry, Suiyun’s talent surprised everyone there. Today, snow is blowing uninterrupted outside the window. Why doesn’t Our minister compose a poem to express his thoughts.”

My mind had cleared up by this point. I felt the intensity of the blowing snowflakes carried a touch of spring as they scattered in the air. I pushed open the window and gazed into the courtyard covered with snowdrifts. I recited in a loud voice:

“Stretching to the horizon, snow falls pure as the daylight,
I recall the meeting of clear river water and sand.
I hear the gurgle and burble of the river at night,
I see the bends and channels of the river in the morn.
The blowing wind creates a whirling, swirling dance of snow,
As nature opens the floodgates to let snowflakes pour down.
I’m doing my utmost, and I’m chilled and tired to the bone.
There’s no harm in letting the youth spend their time as they wish.”5

Li Zhi clapped and said, “What a nice ‘I hear the gurgle and burble of the river at night, / I see the bends and channels of the river in the morn.’ We also have a poem singing of snow.” He then pushed open the building door and walked to the middle of the courtyard. In a loud voice, he recited:

“The five champions6fought with sword among rainbow and cloud,
So mighty were they that they captured Heaven’s Capital.
The battle done, the Jade Dragon and three thousand thousands
Were beaten, scales and broken armor falling thick and fast.”7

After I listened to it, I couldn’t help acclaiming, “Your Imperial Majesty’s poem is heroic and noble in style. It’s a hundred times better than this subject’s poem.”

Li Zhi roared with laughter. Trekking through the snow, he was already past the attending imperial guards and eunuchs, who hurried to catch up to him.

Only Duan Lingxiao still stood before the window, watching Li Zhi’s departing figure. He said, “If not for this illustrious individual, how could the genius of Jiang Suiyun be controlled? I’ve finally realized that our defeat is right and proper.”

From behind him, Xiaoshunzi snorted under his breath and turned and exited the building. He went to wait upon Jiang Zhe by himself.


Footnotes:

  1. 闲云野鹤, xianyun-yehe – idiom, lit. floating clouds, wild cranes; fig. withdraw from society to do as one pleases as a hermit
  2. 吴越 – the modern-day Jiangzhe region encompassing southern Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, southern Anhui, and eastern Jiangxi
  3. 青州, qingzhou – most of modern-day Shandong Province, the exception being the southwest corner
  4. 关陇, – a strip of land encompassing the Guanzhong Plain and the east of modern-day Gansu
  5. This is a poem entitled “A Poem Singing of Snow” (咏雪诗) by Song Dynasty poet Huang Tingjian (黄庭坚).
  6. 五丁, wuding – In myth, these were five men whose strength was unparalleled and accomplished great things for the State of Shu.
  7. This is a poem entitled “Snow” by Song Dynasty poet Zhang Yuan (张元).
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