The prolonged sieges of cities almost always gave rise to extreme situations of hunger and epidemics that ended up decimating the population -sometimes, also the besiegers- and generating extreme behaviors motivated by necessity.
One of the most execrable behaviors, due to its status as an ancestral taboo for Man, is the use of cannibalism, which we already talked about in an article dedicated to the capture of Maraat during the First Crusade. Another one that caused a great impression was the one that took place in the Battle of SuiyangChina, during the An Lushan Rebellion.
This insurrection took place in the second half of the 8th centuryat the time of the tang dynasty. The Tang had succeeded the Sui and gave China a splendor period; expansion of borders, introduction of horse archers into the army, official adoption of Buddhism, development of printing…
A golden age of literature and the arts, and the development of an efficient civil service were some of the characteristics of the Tang dynasty – especially its best representative, the emperor li shiminalso known as Taizong- that favored the enrichment of the people and an extraordinary increase in their standard of living.
But after the boom usually comes the decay and this appeared in the middle of that century in the form of military decline and economic instability. The local caudillos took advantage of the general impoverishment to concentrate the lands in their hands and progressively increase their power to the detriment of the central until one of them was considered strong enough to lead a coup supported by the court, taking advantage of the defeat of the imperial army before the Arabs in the Battle of Talas and the consequent abdication of Xuanzong in his son Suzong.
It was about An Lushana governor of Sogdian and Turkic descent who proclaimed himself emperor in 756 and conquered the eastern capital, Chang’an, founding the yan dynasty. Being at the height of power, in January of the year 757 he was assassinated by his own son, anqingxu.
But the parricide did not carry out the crime out of loyalty to the Tang but to take his father’s place in front of them, so he continued the fight by ordering the general Yin Ziqi lay siege to the city of Suiyang, which was the key piece to dominate the entire region south of the Yangtze River.
A colossal army of one hundred and thirty thousand men, the result of joining the contingents of Ziqi and another rebel soldier named yang chaozong, surrounded the city. Aware of his plight, the governor, XuYuanasked the general for help Zhang Xun, very prestigious for his participation in the Battle of Yongqiu and who agreed to send it to him; Even so, it was only possible to gather seven thousand troops. Xun was in charge of organizing the defense while Yuan, an administrator, took care of the quartermaster.
The Yan army surrounded Suiyang and encountered a hard resistance in which the unusual tactics devised by Xun stood out, such as beating the drums at night to simulate attacks and forcing the besiegers to be constantly on guard, interrupting their sleep.
After a while, the Yan soldiers ended up trusting and ignoring the drumbeat, when the insiders took advantage of it to go out on a devastating raid. However, the overwhelming number of enemies lowered the effectiveness of those actions, so Xun planned kill Yin Ziqi to strike a blow that would truly affect their morale.
Since it was not easy to recognize him from the walls, he ordered his archers to shoot bushes instead of arrows; The besiegers, surprised, ran to show his general those unusual and harmless projectiles, giving away his position and causing, without intending it, his identification by the archers, who shot at him and this time with arrows. One hit his left eye, leaving him out of action for a while.
Those daring blows and the fruitlessness of the attacks, which made him lose twenty thousand men in barely two weeks, certainly affected the spirit of the Yan army, which had to withdraw to rest. Yes indeed, returned two months later and with new troops to cover the casualties.
Also, Xu Yuang had not been idle and began to ask for help to the surrounding provinces with the aim of gathering provisions with which to resist for a year. However, the governors were reluctant to collaborateeither because they sympathized with the rebels -who used to treat them fairly well and keep them in their posts if they surrendered-, or out of fear of them -when they resisted, things changed radically- or out of jealousy of Zhang Xun, so they when Suiyang was besieged again it had not been able to get any food.
In fact, when summer arrives the shortage it was so large that the daily rations were reduced to a small cup of rice mixed with tea leaves, bark and paper that could only be supplemented by eating herbs, roots and all available animals: first the already unnecessary horses, then other minor ones – birds, rats – and finally even the insects.
Aware of the dramatic situation in the city, Yan Ziqi ordered direct attacks, some aimed at tearing down the walls and even ripping off the gates by hooking them to carts, but all were repulsed.
After a month the singular dietary supplements mentioned were exhausted and emissaries had to be sent who, breaking the siege, asked for military and food aid to other sites.
It is said that one of these envoys, the heroic official nan jiyun, he managed to reach Linhuai but the governor was not very cooperative, although he offered him a banquet; Outraged, Jiyun declined the invitation and cut off his finger to leave as a demonstration of his failed mission (according to another version, he bit it). That act changed the governor’s mind, who agreed to let him take three thousand warriors.
Nevertheless, only a third managed to evade the siege and enter Suiyang. On the other hand, those reinforcements came in handy to cover casualties but not only did they not solve the pressing problem of food but they aggravated it because they were a thousand more mouths what to feed; but the defenders of the city trusted that the emperor would send them help, since the fall of the city would suppose a strategic catastrophe.
It was then, faced with the absolute lack of something to put in the mouth, when the Chinese chronicles review the use of cannibalism. “The inhabitants gave their children to eat and cooked the corpses (…) Zhang Xun took out his concubine and killed her in front of his soldiers to feed them” Tang’s books tell, ordering them to eat their meat at their reluctance, to later do the same with their servants and continue like this with those who were not combatants, such as the elderly, women and children.
It is difficult to verify the figures and conditions cited in the aforementioned book, which speaks twenty to thirty thousand people devoured since a good part of them would surely correspond to those who fell in the fight or those who died from various causes. What is truly amazing is that everyone seems to have accepted the terrible initiative as a Necessary evilwithout complaining or trying to organize a mutiny in favor of the surrender.
The point is that Suiyang finally fell in October of that year and when the Yan army entered there were only four hundred defenders, all fainted, no longer strong enough to face them. Yin Ziqi, who admired the courage shown by Xu Yuan and Zhang Xun, tried to convince them to join his side, but faced with the resounding refusal, he ended. running them along with their officers.
With that victory, the rebels took control of southern China for two years, but in the meantime, the time gained by Suiyang’s resistance and depriving them of aid allowed the Emperor Suzong have resources to gather troops until reaching a sufficient number of them to face them and counterattack. Thus, the hitherto victorious march of the Yan rebellion changed and definitely crushed her in the year 763.
China, a new story (John King Fairbank)/Brief history of ancient China (Gregorio Doval Huecas)/Imperial Chinese Military History-8000 BC-1912 AD (Marvin C. Whiting)/An End To Murder (Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson)/Essays on T’ang Society. The Interplay of Social, Political and Economic Forces (John Curtis Perry and Bardwell L. Smith)/Ancient Book of Tang Y New Book of Tang / Wikipedia