The “Tian Dan’s Swinging Fire Ox Formation-田单摆火牛阵


King Min of Qi was extremely incompetent, fond of flattery and sycophancy. While he oppressed and enslaved the people, he also significantly expanded the military and unjustly invaded neighboring countries. Consequently, this aroused resentment among the people and hatred from the various vassal states. In that year, the State of Yan dispatched General Yue Yi to attack Qi, capturing over 70 cities. Eventually, only the cities of Ju and Jimo remained. At this time, a distant relative of the Tian clan named Tian Dan, who was a lowly market official, fled with his family to Jimo due to the turmoil. Soon after, the State of Yan attacked the city of Jimo. The lord of Jimo intended to march out and confront the enemy, but Tian Dan advised against it, knowing that Qi’s military strength was weak and it was unwise to engage the enemy in battle. Despite Tian Dan’s counsel, the lord of Jimo disregarded his advice and was subsequently defeated and killed. Subsequently, the people elected Tian Dan as their general to defend the city of Jimo.

Upon assuming office, Tian Dan expanded the army by enlisting his own family members. Many people in the city admired him for his honesty and noble character. Moreover, Tian Dan’s reputation attracted numerous volunteers to join the army. Consequently, the morale of Jimo’s defenders soared. General Yue Yi of Yan besieged the cities of Ju and Jimo, laying siege for three years without success. Jimo was a difficult city to attack and easy to defend, with an ample supply of provisions, leading Yue Yi to prepare for a protracted battle. Tian Dan anticipated Yue Yi’s strategy and understood his prowess as a commander, foreseeing that the city would eventually fall as long as Yue Yi was leading the Yan forces. Tian Dan’s immediate concern was to neutralize Yue Yi. Thus, he sent messengers to Yan to sow discord among officials who were close to Yue Yi, spreading rumors about his ambitions to usurp the throne of Qi. Indeed, some officials reported to King Hui of Yan, saying, “Within half a year, General Yue has captured over seventy cities. Now, after three years, he has failed to take even two cities. He is probably plotting to proclaim himself as the king of Qi.” Upon hearing this, King Hui removed Yue Yi from his position as general and appointed Qi Jie as the new commander. Seeing that King Hui had indeed fallen into his trap, Tian Dan breathed a sigh of relief.

Yue Yi, who had enjoyed great respect among the Yan forces, was suddenly replaced, causing discontent among many soldiers. Upon Qi Jie’s assumption of command, he immediately ordered the Yan army to reinforce the siege of Jimo with multiple layers of defense. A few days later, some locals were overheard saying, “General Yue used to be so good to us. Even when he captured prisoners, he treated them well. That’s why people from Qi dared to fight.” Another person remarked, “My ancestors’ graves are outside the city. If the Yan army digs them up, what should we do?” Upon hearing these conversations, Qi Jie ordered the noses of the nearby locals to be cut off and their ancestors’ graves to be dug up. This enraged the people of Jimo, who demanded that Tian Dan lead them in a battle against Qi Jie. Seizing the opportunity, Tian Dan sent a few men disguised as wealthy residents of Jimo to secretly deliver gold and silver treasures to Qi Jie at night, promising to surrender the city once their provisions were exhausted. Delighted, Qi Jie accepted the treasures, thinking to himself: “If Jimo has run out of provisions, they will surrender in a few days without me having to send troops. Tian Dan then relaxed his guard and slept soundly that night.

A few days later, Tian Dan selected over a thousand sturdy oxen and painted strange patterns on their bodies. Each ox had two knives tied to its horns and a bundle of oil-soaked reeds tied to its tail. At night, Tian Dan ordered his men to swiftly breach a dozen or so sections of the city walls and drive the herd of oxen outside, setting fire to their tails. As the oxen charged forward in a frenzy, the Yan army camps ahead were startled by the sight of the blazing tails and the bizarre-looking creatures, causing panic among the soldiers. Many Yan soldiers were killed by the knives on the oxen’s horns, and many more were trampled to death in the chaos. Seizing the opportunity, the Qi army launched a fierce counterattack, and those Yan soldiers who survived and attempted to flee by chariot were surrounded and killed by the Qi forces. Due to Tian Dan’s ingenious scheme with the fire oxen, Qi avoided a disaster of being conquered.

In 279 BC, Tian Dan defeated the armies of Yan and other states, reclaiming over seventy cities that had been lost to Qi. At that time, King Min of Qi had been killed by enemy forces, and Tian Dan found the son of King Min, Tian Fazhang, who was taking refuge among the common people. Tian Dan supported Tian Fazhang to ascend to the throne, thus establishing the historical figure of King Xiang of Qi. After King Xiang ascended the throne, Tian Dan was appointed as the Prime Minister. Later, King Xiang entrusted all military authority to Tian Dan, who intensified the training of the army, leading to the gradual strengthening of the Qi state.