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 eight years (755 — 763) and took away around 35 million lives.
Zhang Xun and his extraordinary warriors prevented that war from expanding to the south, where people were well protected from colossal destruction.
He led a few thousand 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 official family; he was well-educated and highly interested in the military.
After he grew up, Zhang Xun got an excellent score in the Imperial Examination and was assigned some political positions.
Zhang Xun refused to bribe or get involved in any political conflicts, so he was demoted to a county magistrate, where he managed well and was highly respected by local civilians.
Like other brilliant scholars, he would read and write articles in his free time.
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 garrisoned on the Tang Empire's borders that led independent troops that 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 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 innovative 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 he 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 were lost to the rebel army, the vast plain of the southeast would be defenseless.
The governor of Suiyang asked Zhang Xun for help and respected him as the leading commander.
Together, they had around less than 7000 warriors.
At that time, Li Longji, the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, escaped from 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
Worse, there were no other Tang armies or resources to back up Zhang Xun and this city at that time.
Tang's other armies were focused on fighting other battles and recovering 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 ten months, they encountered over 400 intense battles with such outnumbered enemies.
Ultimately, they were out of food, water, and weapons.
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 breaking out and joining other armies to fight or just combat a final war and then sacrifice for the empire.
But Zhang Xun chose the most difficult path; he insisted on garrisoning this vital site for as long as possible.
He killed his favorite concubine first so that his soldiers could eat, and then they ate some other people in the city.
In the end, 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 it 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, achieved substantial success on other battlefields, and kept winning.
The prosperous southeast China was well protected, so they could keep providing food and money to Tang’s army, and millions of people living there were saved.
However, Zhang Xun and his soldiers and sacrificed civilians didn't get the chance to see the triumph they had participated in and made a significant contribution to; later, he was widely criticized for allowing cannibalism.
But his exceptional military talent, outstanding 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 making the final decision, his reputation, whether to 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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