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Zhang Xun — A Heroic and Controversial General of the Tang Dynasty

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

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.

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

Zhang Xun refused to bribe or get involved in 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. 

Unearthed Jade Cup Carved with Lonicera Japonica Pattern

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

Transforming into a Brave and Exceptional General During Wartime

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

An-Shi were two generals stationed on the borders of the Tang Empire, each commanding independent troops composed of well-trained, professional warriors.

On the other side, the 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

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 earned him renown, leading to his promotion.

The Battle of Suiyang: Greater Responsibilities, More Challenging Missions, and Fiercer Warfare

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, 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.

Capital Chang An City of the Tang Dynasty

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

Moreover, there were no other Tang armies or resources available to support Zhang Xun and the 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

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


Some suggested breaking out and joining other armies to continue the fight, while others advocated for engaging in one final decisive battle and sacrificing themselves 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 wouldn't surrender.

Stone Lion of the Tang Dynasty

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

Great Contributions 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. 

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

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

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 who 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, Zhang Xun likely cared little about his future reputation, whether it be eulogized or criticized.

Crystal Cup of the Tang Dynasty

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

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