Zhang Xun — A Heroic, Controversial General of the Tang Dynasty that Put Loyalty Before Everything

Zhang Xun (708 — 757) was one of the most important and heroic generals in the destructive An-Shi Rebellion war of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

The An-Shi Rebellion lasted for eight years (755 — 763) and took away around 35 million lives. 

Zhang Xun and his extraordinary warriors prevented that war to expand to the south, where people were well protected from huge destructions. 

He led a few thousands of soldiers garrisoned two cities for over two years, fought hundreds of intense wars, and perished around 120,000 enemies.  

However, after they were out of resources, he and his soldiers ate human flesh, which made him a controversial general.

Painted Pottery Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhang Xun's Early Life As A Well-Educated Scholar  

Zhang Xun was born into a decent politician’s family; he was well educated and showed great interest in the military.

After he grew up, Zhang Xun got an excellent score in the Imperial Examination and was assigned some political positions.

However, he displeased the most powerful minister, the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang's favorite imperial concubine Yang Yuhuan’s evil brother. 

Zhang Xun refused to bribe or get involved in any political conflicts, so he was demoted as a county magistrate, where he managed well and was highly respected by local civilians. 

During his free time, he would read and write articles, just like other brilliant scholars. 

Jade Cup Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern of the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Turning Into A Brave, Exceptional General In the War 

In Zhang Xun's 40s, the An-Shi Rebellion outburst.

An-Shi were two generals that garrisoned on the borders of the Tang Empire that led independent troops that were consisted of well trained, professional warriors.

On the other side, Tang Empire was under the Great Reign of Kaiyuan, one of the most prosperous eras in the history of China, and most of the Tang's people hadn't seen any wars for a long time.   

Therefore, they didn't believe a big war was about to come until they saw those aggressive rebel armies, blood, and countless dead bodies.

Some county magistrates escaped or surrendered, which gave many cities and resources to the rebel army.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Zhang Xun, the county magistrate, was a civil officer with no army; so he started to recruit volunteers to defend his city.

Soon, around 3000 soldiers joined him. They used this small city as their base, to fight against the well-trained rebel troop with over 15,000 warriors. 

Zhang Xun was besieged in this small city, so he used many smart strategies to steal food, arrows, and other necessary resources from his enemies. 

Facing such outnumbered troops, Zhang Xun encountered hundreds of intense battles and protected this city for almost a year.

His excellent military skills and unpredictable strategies made him renowned, and then got promoted. 

Battle of Suiyang — Bigger Responsibility, More Difficult Missions, and Fiercer Wars

Soon, the rebel army sent about 130,000 soldiers to a big city named Suiyang, an important military site. 

Suiyang was the gate to southern China. If Suiyang was lost to the rebel army, the vast plain of southeast would be defenseless. 

The governor of Suiyang asked Zhang Xun for help and respected him as the main commander. 

Together, they had around less than 7000 warriors.

 

At that time, Li Longji, the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang already escaped out of the capital city and went to a safer place. More people gave up fighting and escaped because the emperor himself had fled.

Restored Picture of Part of the Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

What's worse, at that time, there were no other Tang's armies, nor resources, to back up Zhang Xun and this city. 

 

Tang's other armies were focused on fighting other battles and to recover their lost capital city.

But Zhang Xun and Suiyang's governor Xu Yuan and all of their soldiers insisted on their loyalty to the Tang Empire.  

In the next 10 months, they encountered over 400 intense battles with such outnumbered enemies. 

In the end, they were out of food, water, and weapon.

Tri-coloured Glazed (Tang San Cai) Military Official Figurine of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Struggling in Desperation, and the Epic Final Sacrifice

Others suggested to break out and then join other armies to fight, or just combat a final war then sacrifice for the empire. 

But Zhang Xun chose the most difficult path; he insisted to garrison this important site as long as possible.

He killed his favorite concubine first so that his soldiers could eat, then they ate some other people in the city.

In the end, there were only about 400 civilians and 36 warriors left with Zhang Xun; they didn’t even have enough strength to hold their swords and bows.

After a solemn and stirring final battle, the city fell into the rebel army’s hands.

General Zhang Xun and his soldiers were captured and slaughtered, after they made clear that they won't surrender.

Stone Lion of the Tang Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Contribution and Criticisms of General Zhang Xun

Seven days after their epic sacrifice, another army of the Tang Empire arrived in this city, defeated the rebel armies, and took it back.

Ten days later, Empire Tang’s main force recovered other important big cities, including their capital, and achieved substantial success in other battlefields and kept winning.

The rich southeast China was well protected so that they could keep providing food and money to Tang’s army, and millions of people living there were saved. 

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Zhang Xun and his soldiers and those sacrificed civilians, however, didn't get the chance to see the triumph that they had participated in and made a great contribution to; later he was widely criticized for allowing cannibalism. 

But his exceptional military talent, great contribution, and loyalty were also praised by the emperors of Tang.

Besides, civilians that could live in peace because of his sacrifice built many memorial temples of Zhang Xun, to show their admiration and respect. 

After having made the final decision, his reputation, him will be eulogized, or criticized in the future, probably was the last thing that Zhang Xun cared about. 

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty — Tang West Market Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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