Volume 6, Chapter 10: Singing and Dancing in Camp1On the sixth day of the tenth month of the seventh year of Longsheng, Pei Yun, the commander of the Xuzhou Barracks, marched south from between the sources of the Bian and Si Rivers, storming Sikou.2
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
It was deep into the night of the fifth day of the tenth month. In Huaidong’s Chuzhou3 Barracks, the tent of the commander buzzed with cheer and joyous songs, those inside dancing and singing in celebration of peace. Southern Chu’s Luo Louzhen, commander of the Huaidong garrison, was feasting with his generals. In the tent, a dozen-odd female dancers were dancing, lithe and graceful. Their muslin clothes were light and thin. The scant skin they showed was white as snow, making the drunken officers, and soldiers guarding the tent from the outside, drool, their jaws dropping.
Luo Louzhen, who sat in the seat of honor, held two charming young women in his arms, one in the left and one in the right. Every so often, he threw his head back and laughed. The two sixteen, seventeen-year-old young women gave fawning smiles and fed him food and poured him wine. Now and again, one of the young women passed Luo Louzhen wine through her red lips. He never rejected these advances. Very few people would pay attention to it when drunk and clapping along to the beat of the song, but his gaze rarely flitted over the dancers’ bodies. Luo Louzhen wasn’t too interested in these picked and selected women. The majority of the time, his attention was spent on the generals and officers.
Young women in gorgeous attire4 sat next to several high-ranking generals, while the lower-ranking generals and officers focused all their thoughts on the stunning dancers.
Luo Louzhen smiled proudly. He was handsome and excelled at weapons. The only thing he didn’t possess was talented strategists and tacticians in the top ranks of the military. When he received Shang Weijun’s support, he made many changes in one day. After he gained control of the Chuzhou Barracks, he spent a lot of thought on how to consolidate power. He coaxed over the unruly generals and soldiers with the allure of money while shouldering out the truly talented officers so they would not endanger his position. With the allure of money and the military power in his hands, the Chuzhou Barracks was like iron plate. At the very least, no one could prevent them from devastating Huaidong.
Luo Louzhen knew himself from the beginning. He knew that compared to the Lu family, a lineage of generals, he had far too little standing. Although he understood the purpose behind Shang Weijun supporting him against the Lu family’s goals, he had always been too scared to truly offend the Lu family. Apart from this, he simply kept a tight grip on Huaidong. He always did as Shang Weijun said, and Shang Weijun knew the Lu family wasn’t easy to deal with. As a result, Luo Louzhen settled down nicely in Huaidong. As for the threat of Great Yong, it had always weighed on his mind. However, after seven, eight years of no action, coupled with sycophants and flunkies crowding all around him, he had long since gotten a big head. He had essentially forgotten the power of Great Yong’s cavalry.
When Luo Louzhen was tiring of the entertainment, a bodyguard sprinted in and said, “General, Grand General Lu sent a letter.”
“What could be going on? Have the messenger come in,” Luo Louzhen lazily said.
The bodyguard hesitated as he glanced at the debauchery inside the tent but was afraid to raise an objection. Grand General Lu Can was Southern Chu’s highest authority in the military, and Luo Louzhen’s disregard for his messenger was quite rude. Further, the grand general was supposedly very strict on his troops. It would be inadvisable to let the messenger see these sights. However, the bodyguard knew that if he spoke out, he would likely be punished by Luo Louzhen. As a result, he followed orders and gave the messenger an audience inside the tent.
After a moment, the messenger strode in. His eyes grew cold when he saw the happenings inside the tent. He gave a military salute. “This retainer is Lu Qun. Please find the letter sent on the Grand General’s orders, General Luo.” A young soldier with an impassive face walked in from behind him, then saluted.
Luo Louzhen beckoned, and one of his bodyguards came forward to receive the letter, afterwards presenting it to him. Luo Louzhen read it and chuckled. “The Grand General is overly concerned. It’s not eight or nine years ago. These days, our army occupies Jianghuai5 and Sichuan. We also have the Yangtze as a natural barrier. If the Yong armies want to come and go as they did before, they’d be letting their imaginations run wild. This general understands the Grand General’s intent. Please reply to the Grand General that this general obeys the royal decree to take charge of the Huaidong military, not daring to slack off in the slightest. As for the matter the Grand General wrote of in the letter, this general understands. However, reinforcements are not necessary. My Huaidong contains seventy thousand troops. Can we not counter the Yong army’s offensive?”
This messenger was a military retainer of the Lu family. He looked indifferent at Luo Louzhen’s words, though with a hint of contempt. A fire rose in his heart in a fit of uncontrollable anger. The young soldier next to him gently tugged on his battle gown. The messenger held back his fury and said, “That being the case, please bestow the return letter, General, so this retainer can take it back.”
Luo Louzhen impatiently told a scribe at the banquet, “Adjunct Huang, pen a return letter to the Grand General for me. After you finish writing it, have him take it back.” Then he pointed at the messenger, his behavior haughty and rude. This time, the young soldier’s expression changed as well, his eyes flashing with killing intent.
Taking the return letter, the messenger and the young soldier turned and walked out of the tent. Once they exited through the main gate of the barracks, they could still hear the distant music coming from the camp. The young soldier said coldly, “We must tell Dad when we get back. If we let Luo Louzhen defend Huaidong, the Yong army is bound to push deep into our territory. Let’s make Dad ready to pick up the pieces.”
“Don’t worry, Young General,” sighed Lu Qun. “The Grand General knew of Luo Louzhen’s conduct long ago. We came here to pass the message simply to do what we could. The Grand General has a solution for later events. After the Young General and bodyguards rendezvous, go to Shouchun.6 The general defending Shouchun, Shi Guan, is strict by nature. The Grand General’s orders are for you to arrive before the twelfth. If you disobey the order, he’ll probably cane you.”
The young soldier couldn’t help but fret. He restrained the urge to rub the punished area. He had to ride for days after getting punished, not a comfortable experience.
Meanwhile, inside the Chuzhou Barracks, Luo Louzhen had chased away the messenger and was overjoyed. Seeing the officers at the banquet were getting antsy, he chuckled and said, “Fine, the song and dance has been enjoyed to its fullest. Generals, enjoy yourselves.”
This was what the generals had been waiting for. Seeing Luo Louzhen being helped out of the tent by two young women, an officer who had long since lost his patience pounced on a dancer. After each of the high-ranking officers carried a gorgeous maid out of the tent, the central tents that should have been in charge of tackling military problems rang out with obscene noises.
Luo Louzhen happily returned to his bedchamber-tent and fooled around for a while, then dozed off. Right after the start of the third watch, a bodyguard sprinted in and said, “General, the messenger of His Lord the Prime Minister requests an audience.”
Luo Louzhen, waking from a dream, broke out in a cold sweat from fright. Although making merry was only human, if he let Shang Weijun’s messenger see his conduct and the envoy spoke of it upon returning, it was certain to lower the prime minister’s reputation. Luo Louzhen’s authority and wealth were all granted by Shang Weijun, and he had married Shang Weijun’s niece. He would never dare to offend Shang Weijun. At once, he had the bodyguard hide the two young women in another tent, while he hurriedly washed his face with cold water. Luo Louzhen personally went to greet the messenger. However, the messenger cared not for the stink of wine and fragrant, feminine perfume on Luo Louzhen. He simply handed Luo Louzhen the letter handwritten by Shang Weijun and hurried off.
After opening the letter, Luo Louzhen felt like cold water had been poured over his head. It distinctly wrote of the approaching Yong army possibly invading Huaidong, telling him to keep a firm grip on Sikou on the Huai, and refusing him reckless battle and repelling of the enemy.
In truth, when Shang Weijun wrote this correspondence, he didn’t believe the Yong armies would actually mount a southern campaign. For seven years, the Yong army had been resting on its laurels,7 which gave Shang Weijun a false impression. With control of Jianghuai and Jingxiang, the Sichuan defensive line was impregnable, and on top of that, the Yangtze River was at their backs. Compared to the constant state of emergency back then, Shang Weijun now felt completely certain that Southern Chu’s four hundred thousand-strong army could protect the vast swath of Jiangnan. The thought of a northern offensive into the Central Plains never even crossed his mind. In contrast, making it as difficult as possible for Great Yong to march south had been ingrained in his thought process. But it wasn’t only him—the majority of Jianye’s assorted officials were unwary. Not only had Shang Weijun disapproved of Lu Can’s petition, he was even disgusted.
Several days ago, Shang Weijun discovered the dayslong disappearance of Lu Yun. Shang Weijun even knew most of what Lu Yun did and why in Chang’an. He originally intended to take this opportunity to blackmail Lu Yun and further seize military power. However, his confidants advised him that there was no conclusive evidence and to shelve it for now. It wouldn’t be too late to wait for evidence of the Lu family collaborating with the enemy before revolting. As a result, Shang Weijun simply strengthened the surveillance on the Lu family. But if it had not been for Lu Can secluding himself in the Jingxia Barracks, barely even taking a step out and keeping silent to the Southern Chu court, Shang Weijun would definitely have used these events as exploitation, even if Lu Yun was sent straight into the camp.
In Shang Weijun’s opinion, since the Lu family and Chang’an secretly communicated to no end, if Great Yong truly intended to mount a southern campaign this year, Lu Yun and Lu Can’s two trusted military retainers couldn’t possibly return peacefully from Chang’an. By Shang Weijun’s own standards, he too would have left Lu Yun behind to coerce his father, so Lu Can’s alarmism was mostly to vie for military authority. The Yong army’s assault on Jiameng Pass was, in Shang Weijun’s opinion, just a deterrence. After all, the nonpayment of the tribute was indeed a stain on Great Yong’s reputation.
Unlike Jianghuai and Jingxiang, Jiameng Pass hadn’t been quiet all these years, though there hadn’t been any major battles. Further, Yu Mian may have obeyed Lu Can’s orders and passed false intelligence along. Even if that was not the case, could Jiameng Pass’s natural barriers not halt the Yong armies? Moreover, the main force of Southern Chu—composed of the thirty thousand men under Yu Mian at Jiameng Pass and the fifty thousand men under Rong Yuan in Xiangyang—added with the Jiangxia and Jiujiang Barracks’ force of sixty thousand men each totaled two hundred thousand. They were all under the direct control of Lu Can. While Lu Can didn’t have jurisdiction over Huaixi’s8 fifty thousand-strong garrison in name, Lu Xin had promoted Commander Shi Guan to general. So Shi Guan was very respectful toward the Lu family. In addition, out of Jianye’s one hundred thousand royal guards, forty thousand favored Lu Can. The remaining sixty thousand royal guards didn’t have much combat strength. If not for Huaidong’s seventy thousand troops, a regime change wouldn’t have been out of the question.
However, for caution’s sake, Shang Weijun still wrote a letter to Luo Louzhen. Better safe than sorry, after all. If the Yong army actually attacked Huaidong, stopping their offensive shouldn’t be a problem with the terrain advantage of Sikou on the Huai. He had even reminded Luo Louzhen that if he beat the Yong army in battle, he couldn’t pursue them so as to not enrage them. If all of Great Yong’s armies came attacking, it would be turning victory into a crushing defeat.
Luo Louzhen didn’t know Shang Weijun’s original intent. To the contrary, because he understood some of Lu Can’s skill, coupled with Shang Weijun’s power and influence, he immediately believed the information that the Yong armies might mount a southern campaign. He thought for a long time. Great Yong’s Military Commissioner of Huainan, Pei Yun, had assumed personal command of Xuzhou to more easily aim at Huaidong. His Chuzhou Barracks would be the first to bear the brunt of a push south from Xuzhou following the Bian and Si Rivers. Thinking of all this, he angrily said, “Where’d you men leave the Grand General’s letter? Bring it to me.”
A bodyguard hastily presented the letter that Luo Louzhen had disregarded. His hands shaking, he opened the letter and quickly read the part that was his primary concern. The previously hackneyed words turned into precious advice.
“To defend the Yangtze you must first protect the Huai. Huaidong is based on Chuzhou, Sizhou,9 and Guangling.10 It can be used to shield Yangzhou and Liyang.11 If these two regions are lost, Jianye will be in grave danger. The General’s Barracks will hold Chuzhou; the Northern Barracks will hold Sizhou; the Southern Barracks will hold Guangling. This way Sikou on the Huai will have no worries. Only Sikou, where the Si River flows into the Huai, is a strategic point. On the other side of Chuzhou, the Yong army will march south. If they do not pass through Sikou, they cannot invade Chuzhou. Generals, please heed my words. Split off a huge force to defend Sikou. This strategy can protect the peace of Huaidong.”
After he finished reading the letter, Luo Louzhen yelled, “Meeting, now! Military business: this general needs to mobilize troops.”
“General,” the bodyguard said in surprise, “all the deputy generals, Adjunct Huang, and the honorable deputies are all asleep from drunkenness.”
Luo Louzhen anxiously rubbed his hands and let loose a torrent of curses. But he knew he was the culprit. After thinking for a long time, he said, “Go look for Sun Ding and have him come here.”
The bodyguard froze. Luo Louzhen nearly booted him out of his bedchamber-tent, shouting, “Why aren’t you going!”
The bodyguard scrambled away.
Sun Ding was quite a talented general, but because of his upright nature, he’d repeatedly offended Luo Louzhen. So Luo Louzhen demoted him from deputy to colonel. However, Luo Louzhen was still discerning and understood the man’s talents. He never chased him out of the Huaidong army, instead not listening to or asking anything of him. He even soothed Sun Ding at times. Today, a critical moment had arrived, so Luo Louzhen thought of this man.
Soon after, Sun Ding came to see him. Sun Ding hadn’t yet reached thirty years of age and looked handsome and strong, unlike Jiangnan people. He had lived in Huaidong for many years, but he was unsuccessful and moody. As a result, he looked cheerless. After entering the tent, he took no notice of the perfume and wine smells on Luo Louzhen. He bowed and saluted. “Sun Ding greets the general. Please give commands, General.”
Luo Louzhen forced himself to calm down and said, “This general will give you five thousand men. Immediately lead your force to Sikou, then take control of the defenses there. Be on guard for the Yong armies’ invasion.”
Sun Ding was stunned. He was a colonel, and they could only lead one thousand troops. How could Luo Louzhen give him five thousand men?
“This task urgent. This general is giving you a field promotion to the position of deputy. After we ascertain the Yong armies’ movements, this general will personally go petition the Court to make your rank official,” added Luo Louzhen.
Sun Ding understood what he meant. The Yong armies must have moved and Luo Louzhen didn’t have any men on the front lines, so he thought of me. But Sun Ding didn’t mind. If he had the chance to distinguish himself, why not? Although Luo Louzhen was envious of his betters, there were some benefits. Even if Luo Louzhen robbed him of his military success, at least his position as a deputy couldn’t flee. As such, Sun Ding immediately gave a stern affirmative, left the tent, and selected five thousand soldiers. Of these five thousand men, a thousand had been under his leadership and had always rigorously trained. The other four thousand could begrudgingly be used. The Chuzhou Barracks didn’t have any cavalry.
Because of Luo Louzhen’s neglect, Sikou had a garrison of only five hundred. If the Yong armies invaded overnight, there would have been no possibility of holding on to it. When Sun Ding thought of this, he burned with worry and rushed to Sikou. He took his five thousand troops to Sikou, marching day and night.
Near Sikou, they could see the garrison barracks of the Southern Chu forces there. Dawn was breaking, though it was still dim and sunless. Sun Ding first ordered his bodyguards to go to the Sikou garrison’s commandant to notify them. When he saw that his bodyguards were stopped and challenged by the night watch patrol outside the camp, he suddenly furrowed his brows. Suspicion welled up inside Sun Ding. If this place was supposed to be a garrison, having troops on night patrol was more than reasonable. However, Sun Ding happened to know that the Sikou garrison’s Commandant Hu was a cowardly peer and had extraordinarily low military discipline. If not for the rotating defenders of Sikou, change of positions, and promotions, as well as seven years of inaction from Great Yong, that man would never have come to such a dangerous location. With the skill of Sun Ding’s trusted bodyguards, the camp might not even notice them by the time they reached the camp gates if it were the commandant’s barracks.
Looking at the not too distant Si and Huai Rivers, then back at the silent and foreboding barracks, a strange thought popped into Sun Ding’s mind. He whispered an order to have the troops ready their arms and armor. Then he took a dozen accomplished bodyguards with him and walked slowly toward the entrance to the camp.
Before they could get to the gates, a handsome young man dressed in dark robes hurried over with fix or six soldiers. He greeted Sun Ding, “You must be Colonel Sun daren. Our commandant caught a cold yesterday, and he still cannot be on his feet. This subordinate is Tian Cheng and obeyed orders to welcome Colonel daren.”
Sun Ding’s gaze fell upon the young man. His accent, trappings, and tale were without problem, but the chill grew within Sun Ding. If Commandant Hu had talent like this under him, the commandant would have rejoiced to no end. Additionally, the expression on this young man’s face was one of arrogance and confidence. It definitely was not the numb and vacant expressions that could be found everywhere in the Huaidong army. More importantly, the young man had the faint smell of blood on him. Sun Ding would never overlook this. He took a deep breath and said as calmly as possible, “So that’s how it is. Please, lead the way.”
The young man turned around and was just about to walk forward when Sun Ding drew his blade and struck. This strike was fast as lightning, as well as a sneak attack from behind. It should have been impossible for the young man to have dodged it, but he seemed to have already taken precautions against it. He instantly snapped backwards, his back less than a chi12 away from the ground where he suddenly stopped, as if a slope on the ground. Sun Ding slashed downward, and the young man straightened up while drawing his blade and counterattacking. The blades clashed with a clang, and Sun Ding was forced back by the force of the blow. The young man shook off the influence and control of Sun Ding’s blade. The other soldiers spread out and vaguely surrounded Sun Ding and his bodyguards.
“What a good Iron Plank Bridge,”13 Sun Ding sighed. “So a true successor of the secret Shaolin Arts. Who is Sire, under the command of General Pei, to Military Commissioner of Huainan, Pei Yun?”
The young man raised his eyebrows and declared, “Since you saw through me, I might as well speak the truth. I am Du Lingfeng of the White Uniform Camp. General Pei is my martial uncle.”
Sun Ding had expected this for a while now, but he was still devastated.
The White Uniform Camp were Pei Yun’s personal creation. More often than not, the people in jianghu were wild and unruly, unaccustomed to military rules and the laws of the land. Pei Yun established the White Uniform Camp to recruit talented people, the restrictions for entrants extremely loose. They just had to inform Pei Yun they were retiring before they could take off their armor and return home. If they set their mind on gaining rank, they could formally join the army. The barracks’ men all had first-rate or higher skills. The most they had at a time was eighteen men because of Pei Yun’s status; the majority were Shaolin or other famous virtuous sects’ outstanding disciples. If they appeared, it meant Pei Yun considered Sikou imperative to hold. These men had to have been ordered by Pei Yun to stealthily take out Sikou’s garrison and prepare to supply the Yong armies’ march south.
Sun Ding was anguished and deeply bitter.
However, Sun Ding was an excellent soldier as well. He immediately became convinced of an idea. Since Du Lingfeng intentionally tried to lure him into the camp, it meant the Yong army was short on men here. He still had a chance to recapture Sikou. Thinking of this, Sun Ding raised his arm and called out, “Kill!”
Following his shout, the Southern Chu force charged the barracks. The handsome young man personally covered the retreat, withdrawing back into the camp. Hundreds of men surged out from inside the barracks and formed up to face the five thousand enemy troops.
They even have the courage to get into formation, admired Sun Ding. However, if they didn’t leave the camp, that would be even better as he only needed to surround the barracks, make some fire attacks, and secure the victory.
Amid the clamor, the two forces began a bloody battle. Both sides knew just how important Sikou was; nobody had the slightest hesitation. This engagement worried Sun Ding. On his side, apart from his own one thousand troops, the remaining four thousand were nearly green in battle and their martial arts unrefined. It was difficult to find a use for them. Although they had the numbers, they couldn’t effectively constrict the enemy. And though the enemy had fewer men, each was brave and skilled at war. More so, Du Lingfeng was braver than most, killing countless Southern Chu warriors in a row.
In two hours, battle was cemented. Sun Ding worried the Yong force would receive reinforcements and unwittingly frowned. He had wanted a quick victory, but he got bogged down instead. He thought for a bit, then deployed two hundred out of his own one thousand troops and had them shoot arrows from the periphery. These troops were experienced in naval combat, so they weren’t bad with the bow and arrow.
In this way, the Yong force gradually weakened. While Sun Ding was motivating the troops, preparing to wipe out this Yong force, the encircled Yong force broke out into loud cheers. The cheering became louder, as if coming from far away. Sun Ding was shocked. Looking up, he saw the sky had lightened and instinctively looked at the Si River. He saw fluttering banners on boats and ships so numerous they concealed the river. On the prows, the fluttering silk banners displayed the huge character of pei (裴).
Footnotes:帐下犹歌舞, zhangxia you gewu – lit. under canopies, still singing and dancing; likely a reference to a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Gao Shi entitled “A Song of the Yan State” (燕歌行) that disparages An Lushan and his rebellion泗口, Sikou – lit. mouth of the Si River; many cities during this period were named in this fashion; Sikou was located in the southwest of what is modern-day Huai’an Prefecture, Jiangsu.楚州, Chuzhou – Chu Prefecture, modern-day Huai’an Prefecture花枝招展, huazhi-zhaozhan – lit. flowering branches bloom to beckon; fig. describes the beautiful clothes of a woman, seductively dressed, pretty江淮, jianghuai – the plains between the Yangtze and Huai Rivers; modern provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu寿春, Shouchun – lit. long-lasting spring; modern-day Shou County, Anhui Province固步自封, gubu-zifeng – lit. solidifying one’s step while proclaiming oneself or confining oneself; fig. rest on one’s laurels, become complacent, stand still, stuck in one’s ways, stuffy淮西, Huaixi – the western reach of the Huai river; modern-day Anhui Province泗州, Sizhou – Si Prefecture, modern-day Xuyi County, Jiangsu Province广陵, Guangling – the historical name for modern-day Yangzhou Prefecture历阳, Liyang – a city in He County, Anhui ProvinceOne chi is 24.6 centimeters (over nine inches)Similar to a stand-to-stand bridge but no hands; seen in many martial arts movies