Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Siege of Sianyang

In the year 1268 the army of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis the famous conqueror, made its appearance before the stronghold of Sianyang, an important city of China on the southern bank of the Han River. On the opposite side of the stream stood the city of Fanching, the two being connected by bridges and forming virtually a single city. Sianyang, the capital of a populous and prosperous district, was the most important stronghold left to China, and its fall would be almost fatal to that realm. Hence Kublai, who had succeeded to the empire of the Kins in Northern China, and was bent on making the rest of that country his own, made his first move against this powerful city, which the Chinese prepared with energy to defend. In all the history of its wars China showed no greater courage and resolution than in the defence of this important place.

The army of Kublai consisted of sixty thousand veterans of the Mongol wars, with a large body of auxiliary troops, an army large enough to occupy all the neighboring heights and form an intrenched camp around the city ten miles in length. This done, and all communication by land cut off, steps were taken to intercept all supplies sent by water. The Mongols had no vessels, but they set themselves with their usual activity to build a fleet, and in a short time had launched upon the Han fifty junks larger than those used by the Chinese.

Meanwhile Lieouwen Hoan, governor of the two cities, was strengthening their works and vigorously repelling every assault of his foes. The city was surrounded by thick and lofty walls and a deep fosse, was amply garrisoned, and was abundantly supplied with provisions, having food-supplies, it was said, sufficient "for a period of ten years." Thus provided, the gallant commandant, confident in his strength and resources, defied the efforts of the enemy. Threatened by the Mongols with massacre if he should continue a vain defence, he retorted by declaring that he would drag the renegade general in command of their troops in chains into the presence of the master to whom he had proved a traitor.

These bold words were sustained by brave deeds. All the assaults of the Mongols were valiantly repulsed, and, although their army was constantly reinforced by fresh troops, the siege made very slow progress. The position of the besiegers was several times changed, their lines were here extended and there withdrawn, but all their efforts proved vain, they being baffled on every side, while the governor held out with unyielding fortitude.

A flotilla of store-ships on the Han was met by the Mongol fleet and driven back with serious loss, but this success was of no great service to the besiegers, since the cities were still well supplied. Thus for three years the siege went on, and it was beginning to languish, when new spirit was given it by fresh preparations on the part of the two contestants. Kublai, weary of the slow progress of his armies, resolved to press the siege with more vigor than ever, while the Chinese minister determined to do something for the relief of the garrison.

A large Chinese army was put into the field, but it was placed under the command of an incapable officer. whose dilatory movements promised little for the aid of the valiant defenders. Nothing would have been done had not abler and bolder spirits come to the assistance of the beleaguered host. Litingchi, governor of Ganlo, a town on the Han south of Sianyang, incensed by the tardy march of the army of relief, resolved to strike a prompt and telling blow. Collecting a force of three thousand men, from which he dismissed all who feared to take part in the perilous adventure, he laid his plans to throw into Sianyang this reinforcement, with a large convoy of such supplies as he had learned that the garrison needed.

The attempt was made successful through the valor of the Chinese troops. Several hundred vessels, escorted by the band of devoted warriors, sailed down a tributary of the Han towards Sianyang. The Mongols had sought by chains and other obstacles to close the stream, but these were broken through by the junks, whose impetuous advance had taken the besiegers by surprise. Recovering their spirit, and taking advantage of the high ground above the stream, the Mongols soon began to regain the ground they had lost and to imperil the success of the expedition. Seeing this, and fearing the defeat of the project, Changchun, at the head of one division of the escort of troops, devoted himself and his men to death for the safety of the fleet, charging so vigorously as to keep the Mongols fully occupied for several hours. This diversion gave the other Chinese leader an opportunity to push on to Sianyang with the store-ships, where they were joyfully received by the people, who for three years had been cut off from communication with the outside world.

So great were the excitement and joy of the garrison that they flung open the city gates, in bold defiance of their foes, or as if they thought that the Mongols must be in full retreat. Their enthusiasm, however, was somewhat dampened when the mutilated body of the heroic Changchun came floating down the stream, in evidence of the continued presence and barbarity of their foes. The work of reinforcement done, Changkone, the other leader of the party of relief, who had succeeded in bringing to the garrison certain needed supplies, felt that he was not wanted within its walls. Outside, Litingchi was hovering near the enemy with a force of five thousand men, and the gallant admiral of the fleet resolved to cut his way out again and join this partisan band.

Calling together his late followers, he extolled the glory they had on and promised them new fame. But in the midst of his address he perceived that one of the men had disappeared, and suspected that he had deserted to the Mongols with a warning of what was intended. Changkone, however, did not let this check him in his daring purpose. Gathering the few war-junks that remained, he set sail that night, bursting through the chains that crossed the stream, and cutting his way with sword and spear through the first line of the Mongol fleet.

Before him the river stretched in a straight and unguarded course, and it seemed as if safety had been won. But the early light of the dawning day revealed an alarming scene. Before the daring band lay another fleet, flying the Mongol flag, while thousands of armed foes occupied the banks of the stream. The odds were hopelessly against the Chinese, there was no choice between death and surrender, but the heroic Changkone unhesitatingly resolved to accept the former, and was seconded in his devotion by his men. Dashing upon the Mongol fleet, they fought on while a man was left to bend bow or thrust spear, continuing the struggle until the blood of the whole gallant band reddened the waters of the stream. The Mongol leader sent the body of Changkone into the city, either as a threat or as a tribute of admiration. It was received with loud lamentations, and given a place in burial beside that of Changchun, his partner in the most gallant deed that Chinese history records.

This incident, while spurring the garrison to new spirit in their defence, roused the Mongols to a more resolute pressure of the siege. As yet they had given their attention mainly to Sianyang, but now they drew their lines around Fanching as well. The great extent of the Mongol dominion is shown by the fact that they sent as far as Persia for engineers skilful in siege-work and accustomed to building and handling the great catapults with which huge stones were flung against fortified places in the warfare of that age. By the aid of these powerful engines many of the defences of Sianyang were demolished and the bridge between the two cities was destroyed.

This done, the siege of Fanching was vigorously pressed, and, after a severe bombardment, an assault in force was made. Despite the resolute resistance of the garrison, the walls were forced, and the streets became the scene of a fierce and deadly fight. From street to street, from house to house, the struggle continued, and when resistance had become utterly hopeless the Chinese officers, rather than surrender, slew themselves, in which they were imitated by many of their men. It was a city of ruins and slaughtered bodies that the Mongols had won.

The engines were now all directed against the fortifications of Sianyang, where the garrison had become greatly dispirited by the fall of Fanching and the failure of the army of relief to appear. Lieouwen Hoan still held out, though he saw that his powers of defence were nearly at an end, and feared that at any moment the soldiers might refuse to continue what seemed to them a useless effort.

Kublai at this juncture sent him the following letter: "The generous defence you have made during five years covers you with glory. It is the duty of every faithful subject to serve his prince at the expense of his life; but in the straits to which you are reduced, your strength exhausted, deprived of succor, and without hope of receiving any, would it be reasonable to sacrifice the lives of so many brave men out of sheer obstinacy? Submit in good faith, and no harm shall come to you. We promise you still more, and that is to provide all of you with honorable employment. You shall have no grounds for discontent: for that we pledge you our imperial word."

This letter ended the struggle. After some hesitation, Lieouwen Hoan, incensed at the failure of the army to come to his relief and at the indifference of the emperor to his fate, surrendered, and thenceforth devoted to the service of Kublai the courage and ability of which he had shown such striking evidence in the defence of Sianyang.