History Lessons

Fu Jian

Battle of the Fei River

During the state of Sixteen Kingdoms (304 to 439 AD), China was divided into numerous short-lived sovereign states. The Qin, led by Fu Jian, dominated much of Northern China. In 383 AD Fu led his massive force of 870,000, hoping to conquer the Eastern Jin, one of the weaker Southern states.

But despite being outnumbered, the Jin managed to pull a surprising win over Fu in the Battle of Shouyang (modern-day Shou County in Anhui). The Qin [to be completely accurate, its name is the ‘Former Qin’ to distinguish the state from the ‘Western Qin’ and the ‘Later Qin’] lost thousands of men and those that remained were scared and discouraged. Fu decided to push ahead nevertheless. The Qin troops set up camp west of the Fei River in Anhui. The Jin forces, meanwhile, stopped east of the Fei River and could not advance. The Jin generals suggested that Fu’s army retreat a little, so that the (still outnumbered) Jin army could cross the river to finish the battle. Fu thought that his chance had arrived. Most Qin generals opposed, since moving such a large army was too complicated. But Fu refused to listen. He reckoned that it was the perfect opportunity to stage a sudden attack while the troops of the Jin army were busy crossing the river.

So he willingly accepted the suggestion of the Jin army. However, the moment the order to pull back was given, many soldiers in the Qin army began to wonder why a sudden retreat order was given. Already with morale low, some thought it was a sign of defeat and started running in all directions.

Taking advantage of the situation, the Jin army quickly crossed the river and launched an attack. Fu tried to restore order but his army collapsed – 80% of his troops were slain. It marks one of the greatest routs in Chinese military history with the retreating Fu reputedly crying “The heavens have annihilated me.”

After the battle, his state fell into civil war. The Battle of Fei River is considered one of the most critical battles in Chinese history: it demonstrated the importance of troop training, morale and loyalty as well as an organised battle command. A numerically inferior force won victory. The battle was also significant in that it ensured that South China would remain independent until 589 AD – delaying the country’s reunification by almost 200 years. The Fei River no longer exists.


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