Battle of Chengpu (632 BC)

Battle of Chengpu (632 BC)

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770476 BC), the southern state of Chu spread north across the Yellow River (Huanghe) causing the state of Jin and its northern counterparts to join forces under Duke Wen of Jin (previously known as Chong’er). This conflict was the first great battle between two states in the Yellow River valley and the states of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River valley. The exact location is unknown, but it is thought to have taken place in today’s Chenliu County, Henan (Honan) Province, and the southwest part of present Juan County, eastern Shandong (Shantung) Province.On April 4, 632 BC, the battle began. The Battle of Chengpu showed for the first time a well-organized and professionally constructed military since individual combat began in the early history of Chinese warfare. Armies grew vast in size due to the newly installed system of conscription. The two armies that went against each other had similar equipment, doctrines, organization, and tactics.

Each side had three divisions facing each other that included a center and two flanks. The Jin field army under Duke Wen of Jin used over 700 chariots and maintained infantry personnel consisting of from 22,000 to as many as 52,000 troops. The size of the Chu army remains unknown, but chariots were used along with infantry. Since the latter half of the century, the use of chariots increased military strength by a factor of five, and the strength of armies was measured by how many chariots or vehicles could be put into the battlefield. Chariots were armored with strong leather, fashioned for heavy duty, and outfitted with foot-long bronze blades attached to the outer portion of the wheels to cut down soldiers who were too close in proximity. The chariot carried the usual aristocratic warrior crew consisting of a driver, archer, and a striker as support.

The Jin army moved in by advancing both flanks, and Xu Chen, the left flank commander, attacked Chu’s right flank, which was thought to be weakest. Through the use of armored chariots, Chu’s right flank was easily demolished and their troops became scattered, making the attack extremely successful. Jin’s left flank became the holding force that protected the Jin center division and maintained the Chu center and therefore removed Chu’s center division’s ability to support their left flank. The Jin right flank meanwhile fought a small skirmish and faked a retreat by carrying the banners of the Jin commander. This led to the Chu left division to follow in pursuit, but their vision became obscured by chariots dragging tree branches to raise dust, which allowed time for the right flank to re-form.

The Jin troops maintained a fixed position on the Chu center, still cutting off support to their enemy’s left division.The Chu left attacked in an advance but was intercepted by Duke Wen’s division of close followers creating a flank. The Jin right wing reformed and was supported by a division of chariots. As both wings of the Chu army were devastated, Zi Yu (also known as Cheng Dechen) of Chu ordered a retreat of all forces but was later executed by King Cheng of Chu for not following orders. After gaining a decisive victory, the state of Jin won hegemony for Duke Wen of Jin by being recognized by the King of Zhou, whose efforts kept Chu out of the north for another generation.

Daniel Mason Linsenbarth

See also: Qin Dynasty; Qin Shi Huangdi, Emperor; Warring States Period; Zhou Dynasty.


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