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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Nov 2, 2020

“In the world there is the spirit of righteousness, taking many forms, 

bestowed on the ever-changing things.

Below they are the rivers and mountains; above they are the  sun and stars,

With people it is called the spirit of honour and fearlessness, so vast it fills the universe.

When the empire is tranquil one pours forth harmony in the splendid court.

When times are extreme true fidelity is seen, and goes down in history case after case.”


    So goes a poem written by one of the last defenders of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang, as translated by Feng Xin-ming. Held prisoner by Kublai Khan after the fall of the Song Dynasty, Wen Tienxiang wrote this poem as a part of his refusal to accept to Mongol rule before his ultimate execution. Such defiance was a surprising hallmark of the final years of the fugitive Song court, reduced to a collection of hardliners and loyalists unwilling to peacefully surrender the Mandate of Heaven to the house of Chinggis Khan. Today, we look at the flight of the fugitive Song court after the fall of their capital of Hangzhou in 1276. We will follow brave men like Wen Tienxiang, Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu in the final days of the Song Dynasty, a hopeless struggle culminating in the bloody waters of Yaishan in 1279. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Our previous episode brought us to the early months of 1276 with the surrender of the Song capital city of Linan, modern day Hangzhou. The child emperor, Gong of Song, and the elderly Empress Dowager, were brought into the hands of Mongol general Bayan, who escorted them north to bow before Kublai Khan. Organized Song resistance seemed broken, and while the Mongols would need to ensure the official submission of the southernmost regions of Song China, such actions were a mere formality compared to the effort needed to seize the Yangzi River cities. Most of the Mongolian army returned northwards soon after, intent on sparing Mongols and their horses from the worst of the south’s summer heat and humidity. There was but one issue: two of the Song Emperor’s young half-brothers had been smuggled out of Hangzhou under a small guard of soldiers. Bayan had sent riders to pursue them, but the fugitives escaped them in the mountains south of Hangzhou. Fleeing to southern Zhejiang province, they made it to Wenzhou, a city on the coast. From there, they took ships to Fuzhou, just across the straits from Taiwan, where they were joined by other loyalists who had abandoned Hangzhou in the days leading up to Bayan’s arrival. These included the general Zhang Shijie, who had repeatedly fought with the Mongol fleet on the Yangzi in the last episode; Chen Yizhong, the former Song chancellor who had succeeded Jia Sidao; Wen Tienxiang, Yizhong’s brief successor who was temporarily held captive by the Mongols before escaping; and other courtiers and generals, like Li Xiufu and Xia Gui. News of the gathering at Fuzhou spread across the south and brought other hiding loyalists to come out of the shadows in early summer 1276, encouraged by the Mongol withdrawal back over the Yangzi River.


    By June 1276, the older of the two half brothers, the five year old Zhao Shih, was declared the 17th emperor of the Song Dynasty, temple name Duanzong of Song. The enthronement prompted a wave of loyalist uprisings in the south and over the summer, growing into an actual offensive against the Mongols. Citizen armies retook cities in Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces. Most of the south and southwest of the Song realm were still outside of Mongol control, and in Sichuan those still resisting found new heart. At Fuzhou, the court built a new navy from those ships which had escaped destruction on the Yangzi, some provided by patriotic ship owners in the south, and some which were forcibly seized from private hands. For a few weeks, there was actual momentum against Mongol rule.


By the fall of 1276, this momentum had largely burnt itself out. The infighting which had been endemic to the Song court reared its head in this fugitive court. Chen Yizhong, who had only come out of hiding after the royal boys had arrived in Fuzhou, had again been made Chancellor, despite the fact his performance as Chancellor in Hangzhou was generally ineffective. Once more the Song Chancellor, Yizhong immediately fought with the others for influence over the young emperor, a stupendously stupid act when all of their energies should have gone against the Mongols. His conflict with Wen Tienxiang forced the latter to abandon the court to fight on his own in his home region of Jiangxi, raising troops there to resist the Mongols. From his base in Jiangxi, Wen Tienxiang led hit and run attacks against the Mongols as far as Lake Poyang. With Tienxiang out of the way, Yizhong butted heads with the most important and capable military leaders left in the fugitive court, Zhang Shijie and Xia Gui. Xia Gui grew so frustrated that he defected to the Mongols, bringing with him a number of districts in Huainan. The infighting predictably hamstrung the already limited capabilities of the Song court. With a mere boy as emperor, there was no one to mediate over Yizhong’s actions, causing them to hemorrhage much needed men they couldn't afford to lose. 


And of course, the Mongols were not keen to allow these fugitives to claim legitimacy or strike at such newly taken territory; though they held by now no hope of truly overthrowing Mongol rule. News came of the fall of the Yangzi cities of Yangzhou and Chenzhou after prolonged resistance to the Mongols, soon followed in the autumn with a Mongol invasion of the south. More accurately, we should describe this as a Yuan invasion. While serving the Mongol Khaghan, often commanded by Mongols and Central Asians and with a core Mongol cavalry, the main body of these troops were Chinese, largely northerners but a great number of former Song soldiers and levied southerners. In large part, this was due to the conditions and environment; the climate of the south was difficult on those used to the drier and cooler north, and much of the geography was simply unsuited to large scale cavalry warfare, though Mongol horsemen were employed when appropriate. Under the command of the Uighur, Ariq Khaya, the armies of Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty came in a great pincer movement towards Fuzhou late in 1276. By the end of the year, the boy emperor and his court took to the sea to escape Fuzhou, which soon fell to the Yuan armies. 


The young emperor and court had begun what was to be a dreadful pattern. Their ships would find some coastal city to make their new sanctuary, only to be forced to flee in a matter of days, weeks or months as Yuan armies or ships converged on their position. From the last days of 1276 to until 1278, this was the wretched life the court lived, a constant fear for when the banners of the Yuan would arrive on the horizon. From Fuzhou they stayed in Quanzhou, perhaps the wealthiest port in the world and a gateway to the seatrade of southeast Asia. Here, the court sought to ally with their former subject, Quanzhou’s Superintendent of Maritime Trade, the immensely wealthy Fu Shougeng. A highly talented fellow, Fu Shougeng was a descendant of Arab traders, his wealth, influence and veritable armada of ships making him a powerful ally for anyone seeking to control the southern Chinese coast. Both Kublai and the Song court sought to gain his support, but the Song had little patience for carefully cultivating a relationship. The Song general Zhang Shijie attempted to sidestep Fu Shougeng and just commandeer ships and resources for their purposes. Alienated, Fu Shougeng tried to trick the boy emperor into following him in order to capture him for the Mongols, but the ruse was spotted and the court escaped. With their flight, Fu Shougeng officially declared for Kublai, who rewarded him by making him the military governor of much of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. As revenge, Zhang Shijie blockaded Quanzhou’s port late into 1277 until Yuan ships drove him off. Fu provided his ships and resources to the Yuan, enlarging their growing presence on the South China sea, while Fu encouraged other holdouts in the region to submit to the Khan. 


As the Song court moved from port to port along the southern coast over 1277, the Yuan continued to strengthen their hold on the mainland. Ariq Khaya focused on holdouts in the south in a methodical campaign; not a great tidal wave of destruction like Chinggis Khan had unleashed upon Khwarezm nearly 60 years prior, but a thorough effort which instituted civilian administration as he went. The area Ariq Khaya took was immediately brought into the Yuan Empire, rather than left a ruinous buffer. Another general, Sogetu, meanwhile pursued the Song along the coast, mirroring their movements from the land and falling upon any city which gave shelter to the emperor. The Mongol advance even encouraged local uprisings against the Song; one fellow leading such an uprising in the interior of Fujian was caught and executed by the loyalist Wen Tienxiang, but it was a minor success as the Yuan hold on the south grew. Wen Tienxiang and his army was forced to the coast, and over 1277 and 1278 Song territory along the southeast was reduced to a few well fortified but isolated coastal holdouts.

In the first month of 1278, while in the midst of once again sailing to a new port, the Song fleet was caught in a storm, sinking several ships. The young emperor was among those who fell into the cold waters. Though he was rescued, the poor lad fell ill.  The stress of the flight coupled with illness rapidly eroded his strength. In May of 1278, Zhao Shih, temple name Duanzong of Song, succumbed, not even 9 years old by the European reckoning. The fact the disillusioned Song court did not immediately dissipate is due to Zhang Shijie and Lu Xiufu, who rallied them around the late-emperor’s even younger half brother, the 6 year old Zhao Bing, who they quickly enthroned. It was not enough for some, and no one was happy to fight for the third child-emperor in a row, when most of China was now in Mongol hands. Chancellor Yizhong suggested the court could find refuge in Dai Viet in northern Vietnam, the kingdom known to the Chinese as Annam. Yizhong offered to go himself as an envoy, but the reception among the court was cool. He left for Vietnam anyways; judging by summons by the Song for him to return, this may have just been him abandoning the cause. Yizhong never returned to the fugitive Song court, spending a few years in Dai Viet before fleeing to the Kingdom of Sukhothai in Thailand for the last years of his life.


In June 1278, the Song imperial fleet, now largely under the thumb of Zhang Shijie, settled on Yaishan, some 120 kilometres west of modern Hong Kong. Yaishan was a difficult to reach island nestled in the Chinese coast; surrounded by rivers, mud flats sides and mountains. The island has access to the sea via a narrow waterway, a lagoon on its south side which cuts between two steep cliffs, from which the area’s name is derived. It was a defensible base and large enough to hold the considerable population they brought with them. The sources speak of 200,000 aboard over 1,000 ships: soldiers, ships crews, families, court officials.  Zhang Shijie ordered them onto the island, where they immediately built a small city, cutting down trees for palaces and barracks. The river systems around Yaishan led deeper into Guangdong province and to the city of Guangzhou, from which the Song court was supplied. Zhang Shijie had had enough of running, and was intent on making Yaishan the location from which they would retake the Song realm, or make their final stand. 


As the Song settled on Yaishan, the remnants of their empire fell to the Mongols. The western end of the Yangzi River in Sichuan was, after decades of effort, finally subdued over 1278. New offensives into Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong strengthened the Yuan hold over China’s southwest, bringing them dangerously close to Yaishan.


Just as Bayan had been placed in supreme command in 1274, Kublai wanted a supreme commander to control the Yuan forces operating in the south and bring them all to bear on wherever the Song court was hiding. In June of 1278, the same month that the fugitive court took shelter on Yaishan, Kublai appointed Zhang Hongfan to be this commander. Zhang Hongfan was a man of northern China who had never served the Song; yet, in one of those twists of fate, he was related to the Song’s great general, Zhang Shijie. Zhang Hongfan had led in the river warfare along the Yangzi, and now Kublai wanted him to personally supervise the Yuan’s new ocean fleet as well. This also highlights the nature of the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan: an ethnic northern Chinese was, for the first time, being placed in supreme authority over Mongol, Central Asian and Chinese forces in order to destroy the remnants of a Chinese dynasty. A diligent and loyal subject of the Great Khan, Zhang Hongfan worked with great speed. The offensive he led at the end of 1278 swallowed up what was left of the Song Dynasty. In an arc from east to west, Zhang Hongfan led his ships along the southern coast, collecting men and ships as he went and turning over every stone for the Song emperor. Assisting them were many former Song commanders and their ships who had thrown their lot in with the Mongols, eager to demonstrate their loyalty to their new masters. Zhang Hongfan’s second-in-command, a Tangut named Li Heng, led the second prong of the assault on land, linking up with Zhang Hongfan’s fleet for those coastal sites still holding out. In the first weeks of 1279, Li Heng surprised and captured the brave Song captain, Wen Tienxiang, handing him over to Zhang Hongfan as prisoner at the start of February. 


From there they advanced west, making their way to perhaps the most significant city still resisting Mongol rule, Guangzhou. The Yuan commanders did not know it yet, but Guangzhou was only a few kilometres north of where the Song court was hiding at Yaishan. Guangzhou had thrown off a few Yuan assaults before finally falling to a combined effort by Li Heng and Zhang Hongfan. Twice, ships came up the Xi River in an attempt to relieve Guangzhou. On the second attempt, ships under the command of Omar, grandson of the Yuan governor of Yunnan Sayyid Ajall, followed them, tracking the Song ships right back to Yaishan.  Quickly, Omar confirmed it was the Song hideout and sent messengers back to Zhang Hongfan. It was time to prepare the final battle against the Song.


At the end of February 1279, Yuan ships began to join Omar outside the sea entrance to Yaishan, a 1.5 kilometre wide lagoon protected by steep cliffs on either side. Over the following days, the rest of the Yuan fleet joined them. The news prompted panic on Yaishan, and many demanded Zhang Shijie organize another escape. But Shijie was done running. “Lo these many years we have voyaged on the seas. Now we must decide between us and them the victor and the vanquished.” Setting fire to the palaces and buildings of Yaishan, he ordered everyone aboard the ships. The plan was simple. From reports his scouts had gathered, his fleet outnumbered the Yuan greatly, perhaps 1100 Song vessels to 300 for the Yuan. Shijie also considered his men the superior fighters at sea. But morale was low, and in open water the men could find it more persuasive to flee rather than fight. Figuring the Mongols would gamble on an immediate assault to put an end to the campaign, Zhang Shijie needed to make best use of both his greater numbers but worse morale. He settled on chaining his ships together in a great, fortified line. Not at the entrance of the lagoon, where some ships might be able to slip away, but situated deeper down the waterway, where their flanks were securely protected by the steep cliffs. Anchors were dropped, and ramparts and towers were built on the ships, a massive, immobile floating wall. The young emperor, Zhao Bing, was placed in the largest ship at the centre under a secure guard. To protect against incendiaries, the ships were coated with mud and provided long poles to push away fire ships. Finally, catapults were set up to send projectiles at any approaching vessel. Set up, Zhang Shijie prepared for the expected attack.


Shijie’s Yuan counterpart, Zhang Hongfan was no fool and recognized a frontal attack against this entrenched position was very risky. He sent first a small ship with negotiators, among them the captive Wen Tienxiang, who Hongfan hoped would convince Shijie to step down. Tienxiang refused however, and negotiations went nowhere. An effort to send fire ships into the Song line was likewise repulsed, the poles of the defenders keeping the fireships at bay until they burned themselves out. Zhang Hongfan then did the unexpected. He waited.


In doing so, he had the one tool which Shijie had no defence against. Locking the Song ships into place as he had done gave all the mobility, and the initiative, to the Yuan fleet. With so many men and families aboard the Song ships, they quickly used up the food and freshwater that they had brought aboard. Destroying their island buildings and pulling all troops onto the ships meant they had no land forces to scavenge for them or fall back to. Quickly, Yuan scouts found a small creek the Song had considered impassable for ocean vessels. The Yuan instead sent smaller craft up this creek, coming out behind the Song line and surrounding them. Zhang Shijie sent out small sorties to attempt to get through the Yuan lines and acquire supplies, but each time these were pushed back. Unintentionally, Zhang Shijie had settled on the plan that left the remnants of the Song trapped in place.


The two fleets sat in place for two weeks. Running out of freshwater and firewood, the Song soldiers resorted to drinking seawater and eating uncooked meals. Dysentery, sickness and starvation ravaged them. Zhang Hongfan sent one final letter to Zhang Shijie, imploring his kinsman to surrender. Three times letters were sent to Shijie, carried by Shijie’s nephew Han, who alongside Hongfan served the Mongols. The letters carried by Han told Shijie of the rewards that awaited him if he surrendered, but warned of the destruction that awaited him if he refused.


Zhang Shijie’s reply, as recorded by Yuan Dynasty sources, ran thus: “I know that if I surrender I would have life, and also noble titles and riches, but my ruler lives and I cannot desert him. If you wish me to surrender, lift your blockade and permit me to sail out.” But Zhang Hongfan knew he could not trust this. For the next five days, Hongfan and his officers made the final plans and moved ships into place. At dawn on the 19th of March, 1279, anchors were weighed and the Yuan fleet advanced onto the Song from both north and south. Zhang Hongfan led his flagship against the most dangerous section of the Song line. The Yuan ships crashed into the larger Song vessels, the Yuan soldiers climbing aboard to fight on the Song decks, Mongol archers picking off Song defenders. The decks ran red with blood, men locked in combat fell into the churning waters and were crushed between ships. Spears pushed climbing Yuan soldiers back into their ships; grasping hands pulled Song defenders off the decks. Zhang Shijie’s catapult crews fired until they ran out of projectiles. The Song fought with courage, battling for every metre. It was a full day of fighting, but the sickness and hunger of the Song troops was a knife in their backs. Dropping from exhaustion, the Yuan soldiers stepped over their bodies as they steadily advanced along Zhang Shijie’s makeshift wall. Unexpectedly, one Song ship dropped its colours, the signal to surrender. Then another, and another. Such an order had not been given, but in the confusion of battle it could not be undone. The Song began to surrender en masse. Zhang Shijie desperately ordered troops to withdraw to the centre ship housing the emperor, but it was clear the day was lost. As fog rolled in that evening, Zhang Shijie ordered some ships to be cut loose to break out. 16 out of the 1100 Song ships escaped Yaishan with Zhang Shijie, evading the Yuan pursuers in the fog and the confusion. The Emperor, Zhao Bing, was not among them, the imperial barge too large and too slow to break free. 


The courtier Lu Xiufu stayed close to the boy emperor, but there was now no escape left on those bloody decks. The last emperor of the house of Zhao would not fall into these barbarian hands, Xiufu decided. Tearfully, Xiufu forced his own wife and children to jump into the sea. With Zhao Bing still in his royal robes and clutching the imperial seals, Lu Xiufu took the 7 year old Son of Heaven into his arms, and carried him beneath the waves. Yuan sources assert 100,000 distraught Song loyalists followed in a mass suicide, the lagoon red and filled with bodies. Whoever still lived surrendered along with some 800 ships. The Song Dynasty’s 300 year rule was over. 


Zhang Shijie did not flee far: not long after the battle, while sailing to seek shelter in Vietnam his small fleet was caught in a storm and sunk, and he joined his emperor beneath the waves. Zhang Hongfan commemorated the battle with a simple stone inscription at Yaishan, stating “here the great Yuan general Zhang Hongfan destroyed the Song,” and was richly rewarded by Kublai Khan for his victory. He could not long enjoy his spoils. He died the next year, an ailment brought on by the heat and humidity of the south. Later nativist Chinese historians ravaged Hongfan’s reputation as a Chinese “betraying” the Song to serve northern barbarians. But Zhang Hongfan and his family had never been Song subjects. Their native area had been controlled by the Khitan Liao Dynasty since 939, before the Song Dynasty had even been founded. In fact, Zhang Shijie had briefly served the Mongols, making him the traitor to his emperor. 


    Wen Tienxiang outlived both Zhang Shijie and Zhang Hongfan, offered a respectable position in Kublai’s empire. But Tienxiang refused again and again, unwilling to betray the memory of the Song. Spending his last years imprisoned, he wrote poetry and proudly denied Mongol offers, until finally executed in the early 1280s, the last patriot of Song. 


Yaishan was perhaps the largest naval battle in Chinese history after Lake Poyang in 1368, if the sources are accurate with their numbers. It was a major and decisive victory. While some regions in the south still needed to be fully incorporated into the Yuan Empire, and there would be local uprisings, organized resistance against Mongol rule was broken. The Song Emperors were dead, the loyalist infrastructure crushed. Kublai Khan had unified China for the first time since the fall of the Tang Dynasty almost 400 years prior, and was the first non-Chinese to do so. Kublai was now the ruler of All Under Heaven, master of China and the single most powerful man on earth. Those Song loyalists who had escaped to the Vietnamese kingdoms of Dai Viet and Champa would need to be pursued, and Kublai was not a man to believe China was the limits of his empire.  Even as the last Song Emperor disappeared beneath the waves at Yaishan, Kublai’s eyes darted to those kingdoms on his horizon, revenge against Japan plotted and his relatives in Central Asia punished. More battles were planned beyond the waters of Yaishan; but not many of them would be victories. 


Before we discuss Kublai’s further military ventures though, we must discuss Kublai the man, and the actual empire he built in China, so be sure to subscribe to our podcast. If you’d like to help us continue to produce great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one!