Battle of Ge-葛之战

During the Eastern Zhou period in ancient China (770 BCE to 256 BCE), the actual rule of the Zhou royal family had weakened, leading to a phase where various states operated relatively independently, engaging in struggles for supremacy. This period is mainly divided into the Spring and Autumn period (770 BCE to 476 BCE) and the Warring States period (476 BCE to 221 BCE).

Zheng State emerged as a new vassal state during the late Western Zhou period, with Duke Huan of Zheng as its founding ruler. Duke Huan was the younger brother of King Li of Zhou, the brother of King Xuan of Zhou, and the uncle of King You of Zhou. Having close ties with the Zhou royal family, he served as a minister in the Zhou court. After receiving his fief, Duke Huan followed the advice of the Grand Historian and, leveraging his prestige and reputation, led his clan and some former Shang people to migrate the wealth, tribes, and populace of Zheng State from the Guanzhong region to the newly established city of Xinzheng between the states of Dong’guo and Kuai’guo (near present-day Xinzheng, Henan). Positioned at the heart of the Central Plains, Xinzheng quickly developed, becoming a significant power among the vassal states.

During the reign of King You of Zhou, Duke Huan of Zheng sacrificed himself in resisting the invasion of the Western Rong. His son, Duke Wu of Zheng, succeeded him and became the first to lead troops against the Rong, supporting and escorting King Ping of Zhou during the eastern relocation of the capital to Luoyang. Consequently, he gained the favor of the Zhou royal family, taking over his father’s role as a minister in the Zhou court, overseeing central government affairs.

As the Western Zhou declined, relinquishing the capital of Haojing, and relying on the strength of vassals, Duke Wu of Zheng played a crucial role. Continuously serving as a minister for three generations, nearly a century, he held substantial power in the Zhou Dynasty. Additionally, with Luoyang, the new capital, adjacent to Zheng State, Zheng could effectively control the royal family. During the early Spring and Autumn period, Zheng State, wielding the authority of the Son of Heaven, absorbed several neighboring small states, standing out as a powerful and prestigious entity among the vassal states.

Upon the succession of Duke Zhuang of Zheng, the state leveraged its military strength, collaborating with major states to annex smaller ones. It allied with Qi and Lu, striking and weakening Wei, Song, Chen, and Cai, eventually eliminating Xu State. This established the dominance of Zheng State, forming a situation known as the “Hegemony of the Spring and Autumn.”

With the growth of political and military power, Duke Zhuang of Zheng gradually showed disrespect for the authority of the Zhou royal family, essentially ignoring the emperor’s authority. Duke Zhuang of Zheng controlled the central government power, becoming overbearing and arrogant. Concerned about the potential threat to the royal family’s position, King Ping of Zhou decided to decentralize power by giving more authority to Duke Wen of Guo, diminishing Duke Zhuang of Zheng’s power.

Upon learning of this decision, Duke Zhuang of Zheng became furious and openly challenged King Ping’s authority. Fearing that Duke Zhuang might harm the royal family, King Ping denied the plan, but Duke Zhuang, unconvinced, initiated an exchange of hostages. King Ping reluctantly sent the crown prince to Zheng, and Duke Zhuang reciprocated by sending his son, Prince Hu, to Luoyang. This event is known as the “Hostage Exchange between Zheng and Zhou.” The fact that the Son of Heaven had to consider the opinions of a vassal state reflects the precarious position of the royal family.

In the 24th year of Duke Zhuang’s reign (720 BCE), King Ping passed away, and King Huan of Zhou, Ji Lin, ascended to the throne. Eager to make a mark and restore the weakened Zhou Dynasty’s rule, King Huan actively suppressed the flourishing Zheng State. Unwilling to let Duke Zhuang monopolize the central government, King Huan intended to transfer significant powers to Duke Lin of Guo. In response, Duke Zhuang, learning of this, promptly demonstrated his displeasure. He dispatched troops twice to seize the crops in Wangdi (present-day Wen County, Henan) and Chengzhou (present-day Luoyang, east of Henan) as a demonstration of strength. Duke Zhuang openly defied the authority of the Son of Heaven, intensifying the conflict between Zheng and Zhou. Subsequently, King Huan officially appointed Duke Lin of Guo as the right minister in the Zhou court, sharing power with Duke Zhuang.

Duke Zhuang of Zheng, a shrewd and strategic ruler, realized that direct confrontation with the royal family at this time would not benefit Zheng State. He decided to adopt a conciliatory attitude toward the Zhou court while actively expanding territory and strengthening his influence. Later, internal turmoil erupted in Zheng State as Duke Zhuang’s brother, Shu Duan, plotted to seize power. Focusing on resolving this matter, Duke Zhuang temporarily lost his position as the chief minister to King Huan, who took advantage of royal privileges to exchange twelve plots of land owned by the Su clan (not originally owned by the royal family) and ten plots of land belonging to Zheng State. This maneuver resulted in Zheng State effectively losing four plots of land.

Shortly afterward, Duke Zhuang successfully resolved the issue with Shu Duan. Outraged by King Huan’s actions, he started to challenge King Huan, openly defying the Son of Heaven. In the last meeting with King Huan, Duke Zhuang, on his way back to Zheng State, intentionally marched under the banner of the Zhou Son of Heaven to campaign against those vassal states with conflicts with Zheng.

Duke Zhuang’s insolence and defiance, challenging the authority of King Huan, reached a point where King Huan could no longer tolerate it. Fearing that Duke Zhuang might pose a threat to the royal family’s position, King Huan decided to personally lead an army to punish Zheng State and uphold the dignity of the royal family. In the autumn of 707 BCE, King Huan personally led the elite forces of the Zhou royal family and mobilized the armies of vassals like Chen, Cai, Wei, and Guo to launch a joint attack against Zheng. Among them, Duke Lin of Guo, being King Huan’s trusted ally, commanded the right army along with the affiliated forces from Cai and Wei. Duke Heijian of Zhou commanded the left army with the associated Chen army, and King Huan himself led the main force of the Zhou army, constituting the central army and serving as the overall commander of the three armies.

Upon learning of the approaching Zhou army, Duke Zhuang of Zheng took charge as the commander-in-chief to resist the mighty Zhou army. He, along with generals such as Zi Yuan, Ji Zu, Gao Qu Mi, Xia Shu Ying, Yuan Fan, Man Bo, and Zhu Dan, formed their defense at Ge (north of present-day Changge, Henan), preparing for a decisive battle with the Zhou army.

To counter the three divisions of the Zhou army, Duke Zhuang of Zheng also organized his forces into three sections: the central army and the left and right divisions. Man Bo (Gongzi Hu) commanded the right division, attacking the left wing of the Zhou army. Ji Zu led the left division, attacking the right wing of the Zhou army. Yuan Fan and Gao Qu Mi jointly commanded the central army, following Duke Zhuang and coordinating with the tactics of the two divisions, launching a strategic attack when the opportunity arose.

During the Western Zhou period, there was a fixed system of military rituals guiding warfare activities. Emphasizing ritual as a priority and foundation, it served as a fundamental guiding principle in warfare. The traditional method of combat focused on the clash of the three armies, with the central army advancing first, followed by the left and right armies. Before the battle, Duke Zhuang of Zheng accurately and deeply analyzed the composition of the Zhou royal family’s allied army. He pointed out that the central army led by King Huan was a well-trained elite force with strong combat capabilities, while the left and right armies were composed of allied forces from various states, lacking unity and constituting a disorganized mass. Particularly, Chen State had just experienced internal turmoil, resulting in unstable military morale and a lack of fighting spirit. Consequently, he recommended that the Zheng central army remain steady initially, refraining from attacking. Instead, they should strike the Zhou left army, expecting the rapid collapse of the Chen army. Subsequently, they could attack the right army of Cai and Wei, which lacked combat power, combined with the impact of the collapsing left army, making them unable to resist and leading to their defeat. If the left and right armies were to collapse, it would undoubtedly affect the morale of the central army, allowing Zheng to concentrate its forces to jointly attack the Zhou central army, resulting in a decisive defeat.

In preparation for the battle, Duke Zhuang of Zheng made significant contributions to tactical innovation. Recognizing the importance of coordination between chariots and infantry, he proposed changing the traditional clumsy combat formation of chariot warfare. He suggested placing chariots at the forefront, with infantry arranged in units of five on both sides and the rear of the chariots, filling the gaps between chariots. This new formation allowed coordinated cooperation between chariots and infantry, forming a flexible and versatile whole. Due to its fish-shaped formation, it became known as the “Fish Scale Formation.”

As the battle began, King Huan of Zhou, leading the central army, beat the drums to challenge the central army of Zheng. However, the Zheng central army did not respond. Confused by this, the Zhou army witnessed the left and right armies of Zheng advancing in the Fish Scale Formation. During the battle, the commanders used flags and drums as signals, directing the formation. Man Bo led the right division of Zheng to initiate an attack on the left wing of the Zhou allied army, where the Chen army was positioned. The Chen army proved unable to withstand the assault and immediately scattered, fleeing the battlefield. With the Zhou left army collapsing, Ji Zu commanded Zheng’s left division to attack the right wing of the Zhou allied army, where the forces of Cai and Wei were located. Similar to the Chen army, the armies of Cai and Wei retreated in disarray.

King Huan of Zhou, leading the central army, found himself isolated, affected by the defeats on both the left and right wings. Seeing the crisis, Duke Zhuang of Zheng promptly signaled with flags, committing the Zheng central army to the battle. Coordinated with Ji Zu and Man Bo, who commanded the left and right divisions, respectively, they implemented a pincer attack against the wavering Zhou central army. The Zhou central army, already in disarray and demoralized by the combined assault of the Zheng three armies, ultimately suffered a significant defeat.

Upon the retreat of King Huan, Duke Zhuang of Zheng, seizing the opportunity, received suggestions from generals like Zhu Dan to pursue and capture King Huan, expanding the victory. However, Duke Zhuang, considering that pushing King Huan too hard might trigger dissatisfaction from other vassals, putting Zheng State in a politically and morally disadvantageous position, restrained Zhu Dan, saying, “In terms of morality, we are acting in self-defense. As long as we avoid the loss of our state, it is sufficient. Pushing someone to a desperate situation is not the conduct of a virtuous person, especially when the person we push is still the Son of Heaven.”

After the war, to demonstrate respect for the king, Duke Zhuang of Zheng specially sent Grand Officer Ji Zu to console the wounded King Huan of Zhou and his generals, expressing a willingness to reconcile and ease the sharp contradictions between the two states. King Huan’s dreams of reviving the Zhou royal family were shattered, and seeing that Zheng State provided an avenue for reconciliation, he accepted the defeat at the Battle of Ge, leading to a reconciliation between Zheng and Zhou.

The Battle of Ge elevated the prestige of Duke Zhuang of Zheng, establishing Zheng State as the preeminent power in the region. The traditional enemies of Zheng, such as Song, Wei, Chen, and others, sought peace, forming an alliance with Zheng State. Zheng became the dominant force among the vassal states, emerging as the hegemon of the time. Although Zheng State was founded relatively late and faced unfavorable conditions, after nearly a century of development under three generations of rulers, it evolved into the leading state in the early Spring and Autumn period. Duke Zhuang of Zheng pioneered the “Fish Scale Formation,” a tight and flexible military formation, and introduced the strategy of attacking the weak first and then the strong, marking significant innovation and evolution in ancient warfare tactics. However, as Duke Zhuang was the first to challenge royal authority, historians in later generations did not give him high praise for his hegemonic achievements, often referring to him as a “small hegemon.”

The Battle of Ge resulted in a major defeat for the royal army, completely erasing the little remaining prestige of the Zhou Son of Heaven. The traditional notion of “using rituals and music to conduct campaigns from the Son of Heaven” disappeared, and the Zhou royal family became incapable of “assisting the four directions.” Although the Zhou Son of Heaven retained the title, they were unable to launch military campaigns or command vassal states. The position of the Son of Heaven became symbolic, and vassal states, relying on their strength, began annexing smaller states and bullying weaker ones. This marked a significant shift in the military arena during this period, with powerful states like Qi, Jin, Chu, and Qin rising one after another, setting the stage for the era of contention among the states in the Spring and Autumn period.