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Zhao Kuo (趙括; died 260 BC) was a general of the States of Zhao in Warring States period, son of the famous general Zhao She, during the epic Battle of Changping between the States of Zhao and Qin in ancient China. ."[1]

Zhao Kuo was sent, on the orders of King Xiaowen of Zhao to the battlefield to replace the previous general, the famous commander Lian Po. The King, under the influence of several of his courtiers (many of whom were believed to be bribed by Qin emissaries), and heedless of the advice given by his most important minister, Lin Xiangru, was dissatisfied by Lian's defensive strategy: while Lian Po was in command, he set up camp, built forts, and stayed in them, not responding to any of the enemy's taunts or lures designed to get his army out onto the field. This dragged on for several years, and the King felt that the time for decisive action had come.

According to Records of the Grand Historian, as soon as Zhao Kuo's mother heard that he was going off to the front, she immediately went to the King and told him this tale: one day, when the late Zhao She and Zhao Kuo were talking military tactics and playing Chinese chess, she was amazed to see the son beating the more experienced father every single time. However, Zhao She was not impressed. When asked why, Zhao She said, "This boy treats a battle like a game of chess; his men like mere pawns that can be sacrificed at will. All his tactics are based on the books he read, so he has no idea what real warfare is like! (This developed into the Chinese idiom 纸上谈兵 or engaging in "paper warfare".) He can never command an army." However, the legend is largely considered as a grain of salt by historians who rebut its logic and creditability. Many scholars considered the source to serve as a purpose of propaganda of State Qin.

Stated by Records of the Grand Historian, her tale was ignored by the King. On the other hand, when Bai Qi, who had rejected to lead Qin Army in Changping to siege the fortified defence line engineered by Lian Po, was aware of the replacement, he laughed and told his men that the battle was won. When the Qin king heard of it, he immediately went to the nearby provinces, bestowed one noble rank on all of the citizenry there, and then ordered every single man over the age of 15 to go and assist the Qin cause and formed an army as strong as 650,000 men.

With Zhao Kuo now in control of the largest force Zhao had ever mustered, numbering at about 450,000 men or most of male population of the state Zhao, he decided to attack the Qin forts, confident of his strength in numbers. The battle of Changping is ranked among most lethal military operations in history and the largest battle in history (combining troops numbered at 1.1 million). The battle has reflect a model of total war between states, in which countries utilize all their human and economic resources into a warfare.

Many scholars believe Zhao Kuo, though inexperience, was a talented general and had potential to become one of the best should he had enough time to develop his practical skills. However, the first battle he encountered was to fight with one of the most talented general in Chinese history, Bai Qi, who was undefeated in the battlefield and renowned for his tactical skills in cavalry and accurate assessment of timing to attack. Under the stress from the King of State Zhao to win the war through a pitch battle, Zhao Kuo has none but only one choice to strike in open ground given the shortage of supplies since most of young male of the state Zhao had been fighting in Changpin for over two years. In addition, many of his elite troops are mounted archers and light cavalry who are inept in defense. Zhao Kuo decided to break the stalmate by attacking first. At first the offensive went well; many Qin forts fell and for a moment it seemed as if the army of state Qin was going to admit defeat. Seeing the retreat of enemy, Zhao Kuo became haughty and complacent without knowing the King of Qin had replaced the former general with Bai Qi.

Unknown to the Zhao troops, Bai Qi had purposely feigned retreat in order to encircle and annihilate the entire Zhao force. Bai Qi had decided that, in order to defeat the large Zhao army, the best method would be to trap them, and slowly starve them to death. With the Zhao army in the command of the over aggressive Zhao Kuo, who had virtually little experience in leading an army as strong as almost half an million, the timing was perfect. Now with the enemy deep inside the trap planned by Bai Qi, Bai Qi sent elite cavalry brigades to attack the rear of Zhao Army and occupied the lightly defended Zhao fortresses back in Changping. Simultaneously, he also sent his troops to attack from both flanks by a way of pincer movement. Further, Bai Qi demanded his cavalry to strike a thrust to the gap between Zhao Kuo's army and cut it into half (it is believed that the gap may caused by incohesiveness between Zhao's aggressive calvalry force and huge infantry legions). Zhao Kuo was trapped, with most of his force, in a tiny pocket and forced to entrench to wait for aid.

With food and water supplies being cut off by the Qin army, Zhao Kuo's force slowly began to thirst and starve. The situation deteriorated when the force was not able to find water even dig in as deep as a few Zhang. Zhao Kuo led numerous counterstrike only be repelled by Qin's army which is famous for its invincible archers and "rain of arrows". Without any reinforcement from the state of Zhao and running out of water and food, after holding out for 40 days, a desperate Zhao Kuo finally ordered a general breakout. Heavily outnumbered and exhausted, the Zhao soldiers were cut down like crops by the fresh Qin troops. Zhao Kuo himself was killed during the breakout by the Qin archers. The rest of Zhao troops surrendered after Zhao Kuo's death and the whole 450,000 army is annihilated.

Based on Records of the Grand Historian, after the defeat of Zhao Kuo's army, Bai Qi ordered the execution of some 400,000 Zhao soldiers, presumably by burying them alive. However, the number is believed by many scholars as inaccurate given the POW accounts for roughtly 89% of the total Zhao Army after heavy skirmishes for more than 40 days.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Records of the Grand Historian, vol. Han Dynasty I, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University, Revised Edition, 1993)

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