Chinese Idioms and Their Stories: ‘Battle at the River Front’

Soldiers of the blue banner parading in front of Emperor Qianlong. (Image:  wikimedia  /  CC0 1.0)
Soldiers of the blue banner parading in front of Emperor Qianlong. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

During 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture, the Chinese idiom has been a shining pearl in the treasure of the Chinese language. It is concise, vivid, expressive, and an accumulation of historical facts and rich ethnic culture.

The formation of each phrase reflects historical truths that mirror politics, the military, culture, folk customs, ethics, and ideals. These idioms allow us to better understand the long history of China, its superior wisdom, and timeless language.

背 (bèi) against 水 (shuǐ) water, 一 (yī) one, 戰 (zhàn) battle.

Han Xin was the general and strategist for Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty. Liu Bang wanted to take over the entire central China. Han Xin defeated Liu Bang’s chief rival Xiang Yu and crossed the Yellow River to capture the king of Wei, who was under Xiang Yu. Han Xin then marched east to attack the state of Zhao.

bamboo art of war sun tzu

An ancient bamboo book of ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. (vlasta2/Wikipedia)

Han Xin’s troops needed to pass a very narrow mountain opening called the Jingxing opening. Someone in the enemy’s camp suggested that they send troops to block the Jingxing opening and at the same time cut off the supply line for Han’s troops.

The general of Zhao knew that they had many more soldiers than did Han’s army and insisted that they would fight face-to-face. Han’s troops set up their tents 30 miles from the Jingxing opening. Han Xin arranged for 10,000 soldiers to take up their position in front of the river bank to lure the enemy.

At the same time, 2,000 soldiers, lightly dressed, would sneak into the enemy’s camp when no one was there, and would replace the Zhao flags with Han flags. Fighting in front of the river was a risky strategy, and not one that was recommended in any book on how to win a battle.

The general of Zhao was pleased and thought this was a good opportunity for them to win, since Han’s army would have nowhere to run. The next morning, Han’s soldiers started to attack first and both sides fought vigorously.

A Chinese bamboo book, closed to display the cover. This copy of The Art of War (on the cover, "孫子兵法") by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside. The cover also reads "乾隆御書", meaning it was either commissioned or transcribed by the Qianlong Emperor. (Image: vlasta2 via wikipedia / CC BY 2.0 )

This copy of ‘The Art of War’ (on the cover, ‘孫子兵法’) by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside. (Image: vlasta2 via wikipedia / CC BY 2.0 )


Han’s soldiers pretended to be defeated and ran back to the river bank. Zhao’s soldiers all joined them in the chase, leaving the camp empty. Meanwhile, as Han had sent his best forces to attack the enemy soldiers at the river front, they fought as hard as they could, and as they had no place to run, they had to win the battle or die.

Zhao’s army could not win and so retreated back to their camp. When they reached the camp, they found that all their flags had been replaced by Han flags. They panicked and ran off in all different directions. Han’s soldiers chased them and they won a huge battle.

Sometime later, the little generals asked Han Xin:

Han Xin said laughingly:

“Battle at the river front” means that if you have the determination to fight as if your life depended on it, you will succeed.

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