Volume 6, Chapter 22: Crashing, Surging Waves

Volume 6, Chapter 22: Crashing, Surging Waves


In the eighth year of Longsheng, the twenty-second year of the sixty-year cycle, the Yong Emperor secretly decreed the Marquis of the Tranquil Sea, Jiang Haitao, lead the Eastern Sea Navy south. On the eighth day of the second month, the Eastern Sea Navy wreaked havoc in Junshan, Dinghai. On the same day, Zhangsun Ji of the Nanyang Barracks besieged Xiangyang.

Zizhi Tongjiang, Yong Records Volume Four

Satisfied, Shang Weijun set down the scroll in his hands. It was official correspondence from Jiaxing Prefecture. The Ministry of Justice had already passed written judgement on down, approving of the death penalty. The reply letter was already on the road and would only take a few days to arrive at Jiaxing. This was originally an insignificant case about an official fleeing from his post and being sentenced to death. The stately prime minister shouldn’t have had to pay attention to it. However, Shang Weijun was convinced Lu Can would try to thwart him or come to plead for leniency. After some reckoning, he was determined to not allow Lu Can to plead for leniency. Killing Jing Changqing would still be doing Lu Can a favor and would force him to make more concessions. No matter what, Shang Weijun would take the upper hand. His son, Chengye, was improving as expected, as he could think up this plan. But Shang Weijun didn’t know if it was because of Song Yu’s contributions.

While he was deep in thought, Ning Qian ran in and reported, “Prime Minister, Grand General Lu Can is outside seeking an audience.”

Shang Weijun was excited. He said, “Sir Ning, how does Lu Can look?”

“His face was grave, and even though I couldn’t see any changes in his mood, he was clearly infuriated and resentful,” Ning Qian said in distress. “You must tread carefully, Prime Minister.”

Shang Weijun waved it off. “No harm will come of it. I’m on the side of reason this time. He had Hu Cheng, the deserter, beheaded before the army, while I’m just killing one Jing Changqing. In addition, upon detailed investigation, the man couldn’t explain how he’d escaped. Besides, it’s not as if he can’t be charged with collaborating with the enemy. I’m already being generous by not killing the entire Jing clan. All right, follow me to welcome the Grand General.” Shang Weijun stood up and walked out. He would perform the proper etiquette this time and deny Lu Can the ability to seize upon pretext and make a fuss.

On the floor below the study, Lu Can stood with his hands folded behind his back. His face was as grim and cold as the glaciers that didn’t melt for millennia. Pride surged through Shang Weijun. His imposing manner that had been stripped away by this junior for the past several days returned to him. He descended from the stairs with a half-smile on his face, welcoming Lu Can. “I wonder what business the Grand General has come here for. Perhaps there’s been a mistake with the soldiers’ pay? If that’s the case, I can task the officials of the Ministry of War and Ministry of Revenue to spare no effort.”

An icy light glowed in Lu Can’s eyes for a moment. He understood Shang Weijun’s meaning. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to get entangled with Shang Weijun over one person. “Does Prime Minister Shang know the Yong army has already entered our territory?” he impassively asked.

Shang Weijun shuddered. He spoke, “How is that possible? The Yong army just suffered a crushing defeat and returned home. How did they rebound this fast?”

Mockery flickered by in Lu Can’s eyes. “Fifteen minutes ago, I received an intelligence report. The Nanyang Barracks of the Yong army is approaching Xiangyang again. This time, they’re threatening, as it’s not a feint attack. But this is fine. General Rong is defending Xiangyang and is allowed to act with discretion. However, another intelligence report says the Yong navy has captured Dinghai. The Yuhang Navy was short on troops, so could only hold the Qiantang Channel to prevent the Yong navy from penetrating into the interior. If they allowed the Great Yong navy to control Hangzhou Bay, then Wu Commandery and Yue Commandery would have been lost sooner rather than later. As for the possible consequences, the Prime Minister should know.”

Although Shang Weijun didn’t communicate much with the military, he still knew the coastal Wu and Yue Commanderies in the southeast were important for Southern Chu’s taxes. If the Great Yong navy raided the regions, the foundation of Southern Chu would be up in the air. Even with the risk of crossing the Jiang and Huai Rivers, their enemy would still be controlling them. Realizing all this, Shang Weijun blanched. He found it tough to ask, “Why didn’t the Yong navy take Ninghai instead of Dinghai?”

“Junshan in Ninghai is the strategic point where the Yangtze flows into the ocean. If it’s lost, then Taizhou1 and Yangzhou will both be in imminent danger. If the Yong navy sails upstream, Jianye will suffer the devastation of war. But for this reason, the navy in Junshan, Ninghai dared not be lax and took advantage of favorable terrain and a happy populace, so the Yong navy didn’t capture Ninghai. On the other hand, while Junshan in Dinghai covers the flanks of Hangzhou Bay, there had been no hostilities there for a long time. They were ill-equipped, so it’s no surprise the Yong navy choose the easier route,” Lu Can said evenly.

Lu Can’s tone may have been even, but Shang Weijun still heard the iciness in his voice. Emperor Wu of Southern Chu had constructed the two Junshans, one each in Dinghai and Ninghai. They were to serve as strategic garrison towns to defend against pirates. They had always been under the direct jurisdiction of Jianye, and Wuyue hadn’t seen war in recent years. Shang Weijun suspected the two Junshans were a huge and costly waste, so had reduced military expenditure several times. Although Lu Can admonished him multiple times for the actions, he still was not swayed. However, the two Junshans were not treated equally. Zhao Qun, the commanding general in Junshan, Ninghai, was part of the royal family, so Shang Weijun turned a blind eye to him; whereas the Junshan in Dinghai barely received enough provisions and funds to feed and clothe the troops. It wasn’t even possible to repair their ships. He never expected the Yong navy to actually break through Junshan in Dinghai. How couldn’t it reflect poorly on Shang Weijun? If he weren’t the one in charge of the government, the guilt would have been enough to force him to lose his job and to resign from office. He hesitated for a moment before saying, “The Yong navy’s capture of Dinghai was unforeseen. Grand General must have advice for me in coming here. How should we respond to the enemy?”

“Dinghai has been lost, so Hangzhou Bay has become a vulnerable area,” Lu Can said coolly. “Yuhang must be strictly defended during this incursion to prevent the Great Yong navy from entering the Qiantang. Otherwise, Wuyue will be lost. Next, Kuaiji, Yuyao, Zhenhai, Jiaxing, Haining, and Pinghu all need to divide their forces in defense. The invading Yong navy must be the Eastern Sea Navy this time. They were originally pirates, so they’re unrivaled in naval combat. Our navy can only hold the coast and cannot allow the Yong navy to penetrate further to have any possibility of victory. But by doing this, Wu and Yue Commanderies will consume an untold amount of provisions and troops. I humbly ask the Prime Minister to order tax relief for the two regions and to order each commandery to form volunteer armies that will fight the enemy to protect the country. Only by doing this will the pressure on our armies and navies in Wu Commandery and Yue Commandery be reduced.”

Shang Weijun’s heart ached at the words. The region of Wuyue was populous and wealthy. Even reducing taxes by one one-thousandth of a tael made his heart ache in pain at the loss. But with the current crisis, he had no choice. If they didn’t raise volunteer armies and relied on the weak and incompetent garrisons, Wu Commandery and Yue Commandery would be lost. If he didn’t agree to lower taxes, how would the commoners have the energy to go through training to organize into an army? He kept thinking. The majority of the officials in the region of Wuyue were sons of aristocratic families, a miniscule portion of whom were capable. He needed to recall them. If they lost cities and territory or died from the devastation of war, he would have to deal with it again and again. At the thought of that, he was compelled to say, “Everything will be as the Grand General decided. I will now transfer the military power over the Yuhang Navy and Dinghai’s Junshan to the Grand General’s control.” Though the situation was dire, Shang Weijun still left out Ninghai’s Junshan deliberately. The Junshan in Ninghai was still safe and sound, so he wasn’t willing to give this navy to Lu Can.

Lu Can understood his intention and simply gave a cold smile. Then he bade farewell and departed, leaving behind an ashamed and regretful Shang Weijun pacing uneasily.

The land in Yue Commandery located in and around the inlet of Hangzhou Bay were Daishan, Dinghai, and the Putuo Islands. Emperor Wu, Zhao She, established Dinghai as a county and founded Junshan, which held jurisdiction over both Daishan’s and Putuo’s navies. At the largest extent of Junshan, Dinghai’s influence, it governed Pinghu, Haining, Yuyao, and Zhenhai. After Shang Weijun came into power, he repeatedly reduced funding for Junshan, Dinghai because nothing happened in the coastal regions. As a result, the navy rotted and manpower ran low, which allowed the Eastern Sea Navy to take Daishan and Dinghai in a single strike. Although Putuo was still in the hands of the Southern Chu navy, it was already in imminent danger.


***


I was standing on a bluff and gazing into the distant horizon. On the other side of this sapphire sea was Zhenhai of Yue Commandery, and sailing northwest from there would find one in Pinghu of Wu Commandery. West of Pinghu was Haining, and after landing at Haining, it wouldn’t take more than a day to arrive at Jiaxing by riding at a gallop. That was where I was born, as well as where my mother’s bones were buried. I thought back on how I almost sold myself into servitude to bury my father after he died in Jiangxia of illness. I was utterly powerless to send my father’s coffin to Jiaxing to bury him with my mother. Later, I became zhuangyuan, but I hadn’t yet reconciled with the Jing family. So I didn’t move the coffin, as the Jing family also owned the cemetery my mother was buried in. My father wouldn’t have wanted to live under someone else’s roof. When I thought of my mother’s dreary and lonely grave, I couldn’t help feeling upset and softly sighed.

Xiaoshunzi came forward and said, “Young master, the wind’s strong up high. Please return.”

“Is Cong’er still qualified to be by Haitao’s side?” I calmly asked.

Xiaoshunzi was forced to sigh in response. “Junshan, Dinghai may have been neglected for years, but all the documents, maps, and census registers are still there. It’s just that they were buried deep in dust. Young master Cong has followed you for years, so was effective and efficient at tidying up these documents. Marquis Jiang depended on him greatly.”

At this moment, a dark figure walked up the bluff. Xiaoshunzi didn’t need to look back to smile and say, “Young master Cong has arrived. Presumably, the documents have been organized and tided up.”

Before I could reply, Huo Cong hurried over and bowed low. “Sir, this disciple has finished organizing all the documents. A precise nautical chart of Hangzhou Bay is included among them. Marquis Jiang asked Sir to go and discuss the next step of the war.”

I gazed back at the sapphire sea for a second. It was unfortunate that Mount Yun blocked the sightline to home. I couldn’t see my hometown. Softly sighing, I turned and walked down. Every soldier in the Stalwart Tiger Guard at the bottom of the bluff, save for several, were new faces. After all these years, most of the Stalwart Tiger Guards who accompanied me to conquer Northern Han had been promoted already. However, these new guards were an even stronger force. The Stalwart Tiger Guard had kept improving upon the saber formation I imparted to them back then. Now, not even Xiaoshunzi could beat them in desperate moments. In fact, Huyan Shou remained the commander of my personal guard on this outing. I assume the emperor arranged it, as it was quite the inconvenience for this chief commander.

Huo Cong followed beside me and excitedly said, “This disciple greatly admires Sir’s strategy. The northern and southern regimes have constantly been struggling for the world and always sought victory in Jianghuai. I never expected Sir would strike his own path and capture Wuyue from the sea. Even if this doesn’t tear apart2 Southern Chu, it will be sure to shake the very foundation of Southern Chu.”

“I wasn’t the first to think of this strategy, though. Emperor Wu of Southern Chu originally planned it, and I used it against them,” I said evenly.

Huo Cong was shocked, a look of doubt showing on his face. Even Xiaoshunzi looked interested and curious.

Seeing their reactions, I smiled and said, “Years ago, I was given an imperial order to organize the emperor’s writings. Among them were Emperor Wu’s written comments. Emperor Wu ran a very hardworking administration, and such comments abounded aplenty. They touched on many major issues in the military and the government. For instance, he was deeply concerned with the two Junshans in Ninghai and Dinghai and personally planned the fleets’ strongholds and bases. He also added to the original funding several times and ordered people to draw nautical charts of both regions with meticulous detail.

“Reading between the lines revealed his aggression. He was absolutely not content with holding a small amount of territory for the rest of his life. When I carefully read his personal letters written over the years, I finally surmised he had intended to build up the two large Junshans into sharp offensive and defensive weapons. In peacetime, they could defend against pirates and Great Yong’s navy. In critical times, the fleets would sail north along the coast and seize the coastal provinces of Qing, You, and Ji.

“The ancient north-south conflict is most often decided in Jianghuai. However, Emperor Wu believed southerners were cowardly, not as brave and fierce as northerners. Rather than fight a bloody battle on dry land, it was better to invade from the sea. After capturing the coastal regions, he would invade by sailing inland on the rivers. He would match his country’s advantages against the enemy’s disadvantages. It beat going on a long, overland march and tiring his troops. It’s an unprecedented war plan.

“After I read it, I was overcome with emotion and also got influenced by Emperor Wu. That’s why I suggested we seize Junshan in Dinghai to invade Wu Commandery. It’s a pity Emperor Wu passed away so early that there was no one to inherit his grand undertaking. Later generations only knew the two Junshans protected the coastal regions and could not be lightly moved. They didn’t know the original purpose for constructing the sites, to the point that the Southern Chu court even cut military spending for Junshan, Dinghai such that it’s now run low on everything. They underestimated us in peacetime.”

By the time I finished speaking, we had already walked down from the bluff. Huyan Shou gestured, and the Stalwart Tiger Guard flanked the three of us. This was the first time Dinghai had been conquered, so it was inevitable that surviving Southern Chu soldiers or spies would still be on the island. As a result, Huyan Shou didn’t relax for a moment in order to keep me safe. We followed the long road overgrown with weeds to the mansion of the military commander of Dinghai. The Dinghai Navy didn’t have the funds to do maintenance for the past several years. Even the roads on the island were choked with weeds. The naval base was in an even worse shape. The only thing that could be seen was the office of the military commander of Dinghai. The building was still lavishly decorated with carved beams and painted rafters, magnificent and imposing. Seeing a luxurious mansion among all the wilderness, Xiaoshunzi couldn’t help but laugh. “The general in command of this place is so foolish. No wonder the Dinghai Navy fell apart when attacked. They have no combat strength.”

I felt the same and vigorously nodded. This was likely the result of the commander embezzling military funds and having nowhere to spend it but on the mansion. Wasn’t this a deliberate provocation to make the soldiers hate him? It made me wonder if the general in command of Dinghai was really a secret agent from Great Yong.

Before we could reach the entrance to the mansion, Jiang Haitao hurried over with his subordinates and greeted us. He was close to thirty this year. After the Eastern Sea submitted to Great Yong seven years ago, the Marquis of the Eastern Sea, Jiang Yong, renounced his high post and generous salary. Since then, he had been sailing the seas. As a result, Jiang Haitao took over command of the Eastern Sea Navy. Although he was a little candid and unfamiliar with officialdom, he had a good wife assisting him. In addition to his outstanding naval command—as well as the Yong emperor, Li Zhi, and the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, looking after him—he didn’t have many problems blocking his way.

This time, the Yong emperor ordered him to go south and seize Wuyue. This was no problem for him. The only thing that gave him a headache was that Jiang Zhe was sailing south on the ships, surprisingly. It wasn’t that he didn’t want Jiang Zhe to be beside him gesticulating while talking and giving advice; rather, he worried something might happen to Jiang Zhe. He certainly could not take responsibility.

Coming close to us, Jiang Haitao got ready to bow low to greet me. Though he and I were separated into titles of disciple and master, respectively, he was still higher ranked than me if we looked at it from the perspective of nobility. Wouldn’t his subordinates and generals feel awkward if he greeted me as a disciple greeting his master? So I quickly stopped him and said, “If you bow to me, forget what they’ll say in private. Do you really want your subordinate officers to also bow with you?”

Jiang Haitao looked back and saw the host of officers behind him. He blushed and saluted me instead. “Sir, the situation in Dinghai is stable. I would like to hear Sir’s advice. How should we capture Wuyue?”

I walked into the mansion toward the sanctum with Jiang Haitao, replying, “You must already have a plan. I wonder, how do you want to go about it?”

“If we can capture the Yuhang Naval Base, Hangzhou Bay will contain no more enemies. It’s just that the Yuhang Navy has always been exceptionally strong. I fear we won’t succeed. I’m inclined to capture the coastal regions first,” answered Jiang Haitao.

“Jianye has had the initiative for the last few days. Shang Weijun has always been the best at taking all the credit while blaming others for failure. As we’ve captured Dinghai, he will be sure to hand Junshan, Dinghai over to Lu Can, but he won’t let go of his military power over Junshan, Ninghai, so we don’t have to worry about the Ninghai Navy sailing south to assault Dinghai. Instead, we should be on guard for Lu Can’s counterattack,” I said. “Since the Yuhang Naval Base isn’t easy to seize, our navy need not be anxious to attack Yuhang. Kuaiji, Yuyao, Zhenhai, Jiaxing, Haining, and Pinghu are all strategic locations in Wuyue. And they lack arms. Our navy should take this chance to plunder the treasuries of these strategic locations for provisions and loot before Lu Can can arrive in Yue Commandery. By taking supplies from the enemy, our navy will still have the means to establish a foothold even if Lu Can recaptures Yue Commandery. Moreover, you can raid the coastal population for young and middle-aged men, place them on isolated islands, and force them to farm on the islands to make up for the shortfall in money our navy receives as grain. This way, even if the Ninghai Navy can prevent our navy from gaining the supplies in Qing Province, it will be to no avail. As long as you can find stable footing, Wuyue will fall into our navy’s hands sooner or later.”

Jiang Haitao smiled at my words and said, “We often took these actions as pirates, seizing grain money and people. It damaged the enemy while benefiting us. I didn’t expect we’d be doing the same thing nowadays. The Putuo Islands are best suited for holding captives. I had planned to go on the offensive again after several days passed, but now I see I should be acting quicker. Please don’t worry, Sir. Within ten days, all the young and middle-aged men along the coast in Yue Commandery will fall into our hands. By the time Lu Can arrives in Yue Commandery, he’ll only be able to sigh sadly and sit and watch as I pillage Wuyue.”

I shook my head. “That’s not necessarily true. When the time comes, it will mostly be a stalemate. He doesn’t have the manpower to chase you out of Dinghai, and you don’t have enough military strength to occupy Wuyue. But don’t worry. Lu Can can’t stay in Yue Commandery for long. Zhangsun Ji received orders to assault Xiangyang. This time, it’s sure to be completely successful. When that happens, Lu Can will no longer be able to remain in Yue Commandery to oppose you.”

Looking thoughtful, Jiang Haitao declared, “Don’t worry, Sir. For the next several days, I’ll be sure to trap Lu Can in Yue Commandery and work in concert with the fighting at Xiangyang.”

I smiled. This kid became very quick-witted when the conversation turned to troop movements and waging war. I slightly disclosed my intentions and he knew the main target was Xiangyang this time.

I thought of why I had insisted on accompanying the navy south, having made the excuse that I wanted to see a naval battle. In reality, I wanted to seize the opportunity to make a return trip to Jiaxing and resolve the problem of the Jing family. Along the way, I could pay my respects to my dead mother. I wondered if Haitao had the courage to give me the go-ahead. Thinking of this, I showed an eerie smile.

Walking beside me, Jiang Haitao shivered. He turned away, a sense of foreboding rising inside him.


***


Meanwhile, Lu Can was rushing straight to Yuhang by boat. He was bringing along the ten thousand soldiers of the Jiujiang Navy. He had decided to reinforce the Yuhang Navy with them if he didn’t have a single full-strength army. There was no place for raising volunteer armies, as they first had to beat back the Yong navy before volunteer armies could be formed.

In no mood to look at the scenery on either bank, Lu Can thought, Just give me three years, and I’ll train elite troops in the region of Wuyue and recapture Dinghai, expelling the Yong navy. However, private concerns welled up inside him. Was the Yong army’s siege of Xiangyang truly just a feint? The Eastern Sea Navy invading Wuyue was already beyond his expectations. If things changed in Xiangyang, he feared they would be in a precarious position. Sighing softly, Lu Can knew he had no alternative. Shang Weijun had never allowed him to interfere in Wuyue. If not for the Yong navy invading Wuyue by sea, Shang Weijun still wouldn’t have permitted him to take over Wuyue’s military and political power. And if he didn’t personally head to Wuyue, he was afraid the region would start supplying the enemy. And after all, Rong Yuan was still at Xiangyang. He should be able to hold out.

Having mentally comforted himself, Lu Can finally paid full attention to the perfect defenses of Yue Commandery, which were preventing the Yong troops from invading inland.


Footnotes:

  1. 泰州, nowadays a prefecture-level city in Jiangsu Province
  2. 摧枯拉朽, cuiku-laxiu – lit. breaking and tearing apart dead and rotten branches; fig. destroy something already in a state of ruin, sweep away all obstacles
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