Volume 6, Chapter 9: Signal Fires Blazing Everywhere
In the autumn of the seventh year of Great Yong’s Longsheng era, in the twenty-first year of the sixty-year cycle, the Yong Emperor denounced Southern Chu for going too long without paying tribute. He decreed that the King of Southern Chu present himself for an audience. When the King of Southern Chu heard, he became frightened out of his wits. He abdicated, citing illness, after many days not holding court. When the Yong Emperor heard, he was furious. He vowed to his troops to march south. The armies departed on three routes simultaneously, and war resumed.
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume ThreeIn the eleventh year of Tongtai, the Yong military marched south, without Suiyun.
—Southern Chu Dynastic Records, Biography of Jiang Suiyun
In the seventh year of Great Yong’s Longsheng era, the eleventh year of Southern Chu’s Tongtai era, on the second day of the tenth month, on the central drill grounds of the Jiangxia Barracks in Southern Chu, soldiers were practicing mounted archery. Applause thundered from time to time.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Three arrows hit the bullseye in a row. Cheers rang out again on the drill grounds. The one loosing the arrows wasn’t tall and wore silver armor. He sat on a buckskin horse, a rare and fine steed. Galloping and shooting, every arrow hit the bullseye. Archery this skilled was worthy of the applause of the soldiers, especially as the rider was their beloved lord’s eldest son.
After every arrow in the quiver had been shot, the rider finally stopped. Twenty-four arrows riddled the bullseye with not a single gap between them. He removed his helmet and revealed a face that was still young. He wiped some beads of sweat from his head and urged the horse to the edge of the drill grounds. Jumping off the warhorse, he lovingly rubbed it for a moment. Then he said with a smile to the soldiers who had come up and surrounded him, “All right, shooting off a quiver of arrows relaxed me a lot. The generals haven’t begun to discuss military matters in the tent?”
A few soldiers laughed and said, “Young General, your archery just gets more splendid. The Grand General returned during the wee hours, so no discussion will be held today, probably.”
The young man knitted his brows together. “Movement from over there has become more frequent recently. Does the Grand General know the situation now that he’s gone to Jianye?”
“Young General, you should ask Adjunct Yang in private, as the Grand General definitely won’t tell you,” said one of the soldiers. “Perhaps Adjunct Yang will drop some hints.”
“Nonsense,” scolded the young man. “If Adjunct Yang dropped hints that easily, the Grand General would never trust him as he does.”
“By the way, Master Wei’s party just arrived. They already went to see the Grand General,” one of the other soldiers remembered.
The young man furrowed his brows. Why would Master Wei come? He never goes anywhere without reason. Realizing this, he hurriedly explained things to the soldiers and ran toward his father’s tent, not caring that he was drenched with sweat and covered in dirt.
Soon, he arrived at his father’s tent. Outside were bodyguards who began to greet him but stopped when they saw him shake his head. He dragged one of them to the side and asked in a whisper, “Are the Grand General and Master Wei talking inside?”
The bodyguard nodded. “Yes, he’s been here for a long time. The Grand General acted the same as you. Why be so polite to this man?”
The young man glared at him and said, “What do you know? If this man wasn’t here to mediate, the Grand General and that old fox would’ve fallen out with each other long ago. What’s more, he’s well-informed about Great Yong. If not for his help, you’d have to wait for the Ministry of War to send intelligence. Humph. By the time the Yong armies crossed the river, the intelligence still wouldn’t have arrived.”
The bodyguard muttered a few words under his breath. Though this young man was the young general, he had always mixed freely with them, so he wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind to the young man. The bodyguard knew that although the young man had reproached him, it wasn’t out of malice. The young man wouldn’t gossip about it either. So he just grumbled a little. After all, in his opinion, Master Wei was an immoral, insubordinate man. He was himself a coarse fellow, but he just couldn’t look down on Master Wei.
The young man paced outside the entrance to the tent for a long time but didn’t see his father come out. Eventually, he couldn’t hold himself back and approached the flap of the tent, straining to hear the conversation. The bodyguards looked at each other and smiled. They winked at each other and turned a blind eye to him. The young man ignored them. He tried his hardest to eavesdrop on the faint voices coming from the tent.
The furnishings in the tent were simple and plain. The room was bare and empty except for a spartan cot and a square table with two chairs. Besides the few books on top of the table, the tent was no different from a normal, low-ranking general’s quarters.
A man in his early thirties stood in the center of the tent, his hands clasped behind his back. He was looking at a map suspended on a wall of the tent with heavy eyes. He had a martial appearance and a cultured air. He cut an elegant figure, though he was greying at the temples and his face had been weathered by time. If he had not been clad in armor, it would have been difficult to believe he was Southern Chu’s foremost military man.
The other man appeared dignified and elegant. He didn’t look a day over thirty. His face showed a touch of sarcasm, and with his graceful bearing, nobody would think he was already thirty-five years of age. Furthermore, the armored man was three years his junior but already looked much older.
Seeing the armored man deep in thought, the dignified man snorted. “What are you looking at? This time, the Yong army won’t let this opportunity slip by. Other than your King, who in the world doesn’t know that Great Yong is looking to pick a fight? They’re ready to graze their horses south. Northern Han has been destroyed for a whole seven years, and Great Yong has incorporated their manpower.
“Li Zhi isn’t young anymore either. Do you think he doesn’t want to see all the land united in his lifetime? How can he let others sleep soundly in his own bed?1 Even if Southern Chu doesn’t disobey or make a single mistake, Great Yong won’t abandon their southern ambition. A while back, the Young General returned from the north. Didn’t he say very clearly that Great Yong even had a prince of the second rank who looked forward to killing on the field of battle? The plan of southern invasion is as clear as day.2
“Will you not wake up to reality? Seven years ago, you had the courage to carry the Southern Chu monarch on your back and take Jiameng Pass by surprise. If I had not seen that you still had a bit of spirit, how could I have done my best for you? Now Head Yan of the Fengwu Hall and Head Ji of the Yihuang Hall, as well as Shang Weijun, the old fox, have an even better understanding. Although they aren’t brazenly3 trying to take over the court, they have gradually consolidated power. If not for Shang Weijun retaining a hint of vigilance, and with my Chen Hall watching out for you, I’m afraid you, Grand General, would’ve had a hard time maintaining your place.”
“Brother Wei is a good friend,” sighed the armored man. “I, Lu Can, know at heart that without you around, I couldn’t have coexisted with those people in the court. Those days, whenever I rejected the women when they brought up the subject of marriage, Prime Minister Shang would deliberately delay the provisions and wages for the troops. Without brother Wei’s support, I don’t think I could have passed this challenge.”
The dignified man sighed, “Actually, this had nothing to do with me. You control over seventy percent of the troops of Southern Chu. Prime Minister Shang doesn’t know that I simply gave them a way out. In fact, you were right to refuse to let Young General marry those women. Nobody understood what they were doing in Great Yong; not even I could bear it. It looked like a mess from the outside. It was good they went through internal strife and fell apart. You said I supported you, but if I didn’t have your backing, my Chen Hall would’ve long since been stifled by those women. After all, they controlled the economic authority. So us two mutually benefited. Grand General Lu, if you’re willing to rise up in revolt to cleanse the court, I’ll lend you a hand.”
“Brother Wei, I’m afraid that if we keep talking, I’ll have to see you out.” The armored man smiled wryly.
The dignified man chuckled. “I knew you wouldn’t agree. If you had half the ruthlessness of Jiang Zhe, you wouldn’t have been forced out of Jianye by Shang Weijun.”
The armored man gave the barest of smiles and said, “Brother Wei’s hate for Teacher has lessened greatly over the years. When he is brought up, you don’t gnash your teeth anymore.”
“The Prince of Qing is doomed, Northern Han has perished,” the dignified man said coldly. “Great Yong may enjoy numerical superiority, with Li Xian’s heroics and Li Zhi beloved by the people, but without that man strategizing, it wouldn’t be that easy. I personally know I’m not his match. I just want one way to retaliate against him. Did he not betray Chu and cast his lot with Yong, whereas I cast my lot with Southern Chu? Did he not want to help Li Zhi unify the land, whereas I wanted to divide the lands into two halves? Even if I could not take his life by my own hand, I had to ensure he wouldn’t find peace. If this were not the case, why would I work with you? With your relationship to him, I should be making things difficult for you. However, nobody in Southern Chu can replace you, so I must put up with you.”
The armored man gave a weak smile, not taking offense. Only he was brave enough to place the man before him in an important position. Since they now had the same goal, this man was trustworthy. For the sake of Southern Chu, he didn’t mind the shortcomings of this man.
Perhaps because the dignified man had vented, he loosened up quite a lot. “Great Yong has sent a denunciation,” he added, “saying that Southern Chu has gone three years without paying tribute. I looked over the records, and it’s so very ridiculous. Fu Yulun was truly audacious. In the ninth year of Tongtai, he received orders to travel to Yong to pay tribute. He was robbed en route by bandits. The bandits seized the tribute but gave him a fake reply letter and half of their spoils. He feared being blamed, but he actually got away with it. Once he had a taste, he couldn’t get enough,4 and for the following two years, he colluded with the bandits. They split the tribute and forged credentials. Meanwhile, Great Yong’s clerks and official documents never brought up this matter for the past three years, until this year’s rebellion. They want the King to go to the Yong capital to apologize for this offense. If you told me there’s not a conspiracy afoot, I wouldn’t believe it.”
“Fu Yulun is talented but corrupt, weak, and greedy,” the armored man lightly said. “And he relies on Prime Minister Shang’s power to run amok.5 But if no one coerced or egged him on, he’d be too scared to do a deed like this. Once he was on the pirate ship, he had no way to go back. Presumably, Great Yong wracked their brains to come up with this arrangement. They raised money for three years just to air this dirty laundry, then sent a punitive expedition to denounce our crimes.”
The dignified man sighed. “Who can say? Fu Yulun is clearly shielded by Prime Minister Shang. Perhaps he gave half of the tribute he stopped from being delivered to Prime Minister Shang and one-tenth to Head Ji. If I hadn’t been hindered by Heads Ji and Yan, how could I have just found out about this? I also wouldn’t have been completely unprepared. The ancients were indeed honest when they said that women jeopardize the state. For these petty little benefits, they ignored the big picture. Were they proud of being able to harm Great Yong’s interests? Did they really think Great Yong would turn a blind eye to this?
“I’ve learned now how foolish it is to be blinded by hatred and desire. If I had had this insight in the past, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today, with a home but no family, and a country but no king. I’m all alone, with just my shadow for company.”
The armored man furrowed his brows and said, “I went to Jianye to see Prime Minister Shang. The King hasn’t held court in many days. I asked Prime Minister Shang to behead Fu Yulun and present him to Great Yong as an apology. Prime Minister Shang refused to agree, instead demoting Fu Yulun. This will have to be justified in time too.” He sighed.
The dignified man gave a look of scorn. He was silent for a long time before saying, “Killed or not, it’s too late. This is a rare opportunity, and Great Yong won’t let it slip from their grasp. Prime Minister Shang has already dispatched an apology letter, but I don’t see it being of much use. Great Yong is probably pledging to send troops right now.”
As the armored man went to speak, a clamor roared from outside the tent. He furrowed his brows, hearing many people running, some of them shouting, “Grand General, Grand General, Jiameng Pass has sent a messenger who requests an audience.”
The armored man sighed at the news, raised the tent flap, and walked out. “Grand General!” said his bodyguards, bowing and saluting to him. The armored man glanced at his son who was hiding behind the bodyguards and recoiling in fear. “Lu Yun disobeys military orders, spying on the tent. Take him away and punish him with five lashes,” he coldly said.
The young man was Lu Yun, and he became so frightened he fell on his knees. “This subordinate is aware of his crime,” he said.
The bodyguards kept quiet out fear, too afraid to beg for leniency for Lu Yun. They were guilty of the crime of keeping a lax watch, and if the grand general punished them all at once, could they let others protect the grand general? Not to mention how disgraceful it would be.
Lu Can ignored them, greeting the onrushing Adjunct Yang Xiu and a travel-weary messenger. The messenger came forward and prostrated, declaring, “This subordinate received General Yu’s orders to come report on the military situation. On the twenty-third day of the ninth month, Qin Yong, Military Commissioner of Hanzhong, oversaw a mass assault on Jiameng Pass. An eight-hundred-li urgent report was sent to the Ministry of War long ago, but the Ministry of War still hasn’t replied to this day. General Yu ordered me to come to ask the Grand General for instructions.”
Lu Can’s expression didn’t change, but a powerful light glinted in his eyes.
A scout galloped into the camp right at this moment. He tumbled off his mount and threw himself before Lu Can. “Grand General, General Rong has sent correspondence. The vanguard of Zhangsun Ji’s army has already arrived at Nanyang, and the Xuzhou army has also marched south. Please make a decision before it’s too late, Grand General,” he delivered.
All the generals in the camp had run over, hearing what the scout said. They all stepped forward and said, “Grand General, the court is still bickering without rest over punishments, over negotiating peace. The Yong armies have marched south today. Does the Grand General still intend to wait for the King’s decree?”
Lu Can looked around. His two eyes, which had appeared exhausted and weathered, seemed to explode with an overwhelming aura in the blink of an eye. Every officer and soldier who made eye contact with him couldn’t help but bow and salute him. Lu Can said in a loud voice, “Great Yong’s ambition for Jiangnan is long-standing. In the twenty-second year of our Xiande era, Li Zhi sacked Jianye and seized the former king and officials of all ranks and descriptions. He wrested away the people’s money and cloth and spilled rivers of blood, plunging the people into misery and suffering. After eleven years, the Yong armies peer at Jiangnan again, not letting our Jiangnan military and civilians get a single night of peaceful sleep. Today, Lu is determined to fight a battle. Are all soldiers willing to unite and fight to the death to protect the state and its people‽”
The generals all raised their fists at the words and called out, “The Yong people are savage! Our ten-year-old grudge is eternally unforgettable! We are willing to fight to the death with Grand General!”
“Beat the drums and enter the tents.” Lu Can laughed. “Yang Xiu, transmit orders to the armies for me. From this moment forward, send all military intelligence to me. Also, send a written statement to the King for this Grand General, asking for a decree to meet the enemy.” Lu Can then flourished a sleeve of his brocade robes and walked toward the marshal’s tent.
Joy was written all over the generals’ faces. They quickly followed Lu Can in.
The dignified man walked out of Lu Can’s bedchamber-tent and gave a grim smile, thinking, Lu Can, oh, Lu Can. I don’t know whether you’re smart or stupid. Normally, you are modest and make concessions, but in wartime you reign supreme once more, ignoring Shang Weijun’s blind commands. Only, this war is quite unusual. When the Yong armies retreat, I’m afraid that if you want to make peace with Shang Weijun, that will be impossible. Who knows how long your loyalty will last?
By the time Lu Yun arrived in the tent after being beaten by the cane, the discussions had already begun. He also counted as a bodyguard of Lu Can, and was the eldest son of the first wife of the Lu family. So he was allowed to sit in, slipping into a corner of the tent, where he listened closely.
At this time, Adjunct Yang Xiu was eloquently stating, “Grand General, the Yong armies have split their attacks along three routes this time. Qin Yong of the Hanzhong army stormed Jiameng Pass. This man, Qin Yong, is a trusted follower of the Yong Emperor. The Yong army under Qin once journeyed to meet up with the important figure these days, succeeding in rescuing him. Qin Yong is also steady and prudent and has deep devotion to Great Yong’s Imperial Family.
“Four years earlier, the Yong Emperor appointed him the Military Commissioner of Hanzhong. He established a command post at Nanzheng for the purpose of retaking Jiameng Pass, attacking the Sichuan region, then following the river downstream to take Xiling, Jingmen, and other territory. However, this is a treacherous route that passes through mountains and forts. Even though the Yong army is powerful, they cannot accomplish this feat in a single bound. General Yu can certainly hold out; we don’t need to worry about this route.
“The second route is led by Zhangsun Ji, who was the Yong Emperor’s beloved general before he ascended to the throne. Zhangsun Ji can wage a good campaign. The ambush and encirclement of Northern Han’s Long Tingfei was all due to him. Long Tingfei used his own body as bait, and with the Daizhou army charging the advance guard, he lived to fight another day. However, the majority of the Qinzhou army, Northern Han’s best troops, were destroyed under his command.
“Zhangsun Ji has already reached Nanyang,6 so the main attack ought to be at Xiangyang. When under the Prince of De, General Rong defended Xiangyang. The land is favorable and completely garrisoned, and the people are friendly, therefore he should be able to resist Zhangsun Ji.
“The third route is led by Pei Yun. When Great Yong was at the height of its power, this man confronted the Grand General in Huainan.7 Back then, if we hadn’t controlled Xiangyang and Jiangling,8 I’m afraid this man would’ve had the thought of crossing the river long ago.
“In the fifth year of Tongtai, the Yong armies began to counterattack Northern Han after winning the Battle of Zezhou. At the time, Great Yong’s eastern Sichuan region wasn’t stable, the northern lines of battle cemented. Pei Yun’s forces retreated to Huaibei,9 and he assumed personal command of Xuzhou.
“For seven years, Great Yong has conserved their strength.10 In contrast, Pei Yun has been training his soldiers every day in Xuzhou, and the Yong Emperor personally appointed him the Military Commissioner of Huainan. Now, Great Yong marches south in strength. With Pei Yun familiar with and knowledgeable about Huainan, I fear it will be like a hot knife cutting through butter.
“Grand General, if you wish to disrupt Yong’s southern campaign, you must rapidly defeat the Xuzhou army, then rush to relieve Xiangyang. When the Yong armies taking the other two routes both retreat, the enemy of Hanzhong will not fight and withdraw instead.” After Yang Xiu finished speaking, he exchanged glances with Lu Can and sat to the right of Lu Can, waiting for the assembled generals to give their opinions.
When the generals finished listening to Yang Xiu’s speech, they all nodded their heads. A veteran general in his fifties stood up and said, “Grand General, the Jiangxia and Jiujiang Barracks are both under your direct control now. Generals Yu and Rong will undoubtedly follow your orders, Grand General. If Pei Yun advances on Huainan, we won’t be afraid. However, if Pei Yun follows the Bian and Si Rivers downstream to take the Huaidong region,11 what then? Luo Louzhen, Prime Minister Shang’s trusted subordinate, commands the Huaidong garrison, and he has never been on good terms with the Grand General. The man is mediocre and incompetent, absolutely not Pei Yun’s match. If Pei Yun captures Huaidong, invades Huaiyang,12 and then captures Jianye, I fear Southern Chu will again suffer past humiliations.”
This veteran general served under Lu Can’s late father. Lu Can had always held him in high esteem, so he had motioned for him to sit down and talk slowly. After listening, he knitted his eyebrows closer together, while the other generals felt peeved or helpless.
Luo Louzhen was Shang Weijun’s trusted general. In previous years, the Lu family had gained control of the military power, which made Shang Weijun uneasy at heart. After that, Lu Can had seized Jiameng Pass while Great Yong’s eastern Sichuan region went through instability, not heeding Shang Weijun’s hindrances. Shang Weijun was jubilant after all was said and done, but he became ever more fearful. After the Duke Who Suppresses Distant Lands, Lu Xin, died of illness, Shang Weijun wanted to seize Jiangxia’s military power. After he failed, he took advantage of the Yong army’s contracting defensive line to place a trusted subordinate in Huaidong. Luo Louzhen, the General Who Suppresses the East, was the general Shang Weijun trusted the most and nowadays was Shang Weijun’s niece’s husband. He received his post in the same way Rong Yuan had in Xiangyang, and had even climbed higher in Jiameng Pass than anyone else.
In reality, Luo Louzhen was good at flattery and bragging. But when it came to marching troops and conducting war, it would be better to let an average high-ranking officer from the Jiangxia Barracks lead. If Pei Yun stormed and captured Huaidong, it would be a very difficult issue to combat.
Lu Yun thought carefully for a moment, then said, “By now, the Yong armies marching south is a certainty. Prime Minister Shang won’t make things difficult for us at this point, at any rate. Wait for me to write a letter to General Luo and give him a briefing and instructions. If he can comply, Huaidong will still be safe; but if he disobeys the kind words, I must ask for a decree to go to Huaidong and take his military power from him.”
The assembled generals looked at one another. Although this was the only way to prevent the Xuzhou army from entering Huaidong, would Shang Weijun—eyeing the little military power in their enemy’s hands—allow this to happen?
- This line is attributed to Emperor Taizu of Song, Zhao Kuangyin. It means he will not allow others to encroach on his sphere of influence.
- 昭然若揭, zhaoran-ruojie – idiom, lit. exposed to the light; fig. plain/clear as day, open and shut, crystal clear
- 明目张胆, mingmu-zhangdan – idiom, lit. braving open eyes; fig. flagrantly, brazenly, blatant
- 食髓知味, shisui-zhiwei – idiom, lit. suck marrow and learn its taste; fig. start doing something (usu. a vice like adultery) and can’t stop; antonym of “what you’ve never had you never miss”
- 胡作非为, huzuo-feiwei – idiom, lit. act wildly against the law; fig. do as one pleases, run amok, break the law
- 南阳, Nanyang – formerly an important and influential prefecture, nowadays a city in Henan Province
- 淮南, Huainan – a prefecture during the Han Dynasty, meaning “lands south of the Huai River,” nowadays a city in Anhui Province
- 江陵, Jiangling – southern capital of the Tang, now a modern-day county in Hubei Province
- 淮北, Huaibei – a prefecture north of the Huai River, named similarly to Huainan and also in modern-day Anhui Province
- 养精蓄锐, yangjing-xurui – idiom, lit. nurture spirit and save vigor; fig. conserve one’s strength, hone one’s strength for the big push
- 淮东, Huaidong – the eastern reach of the Huai River, where it meets with Lake Hongze and Lake Gaoyou; encompassed the majority of modern-day Jiangsu Province and the eastmost middle part of Anhui Province
- 淮扬, Huaiyang – during the Tang and Song Dynasties, this region would have occupied the area of modern-day Yangzhou and Huai’an Prefectures