Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

The Battle of Xiangyang (Xiāngyáng zhī zhàn 襄陽之戰) in 191 A.D. was a battle fought between Yuan Shu's forces, led by Sun Jian, and Liu Biao's forces. The battle began shortly after their coalition had flushed Dong Zhuo from Luoyang, Yuan Shu and Yuan Shao, two lords greedy for power, had formed alliances against one another, with Sun Jian and Gongsun Zan supporting Yuan Shu while Cao Cao and Liu Biao supported Yuan Shao. Sun Jian was ordered by Yuan Shu to attack Liu Biao in order to destroy Yuan Shao's southern influences.

The Battle[]

Liu Biao's Rise[]

Because Sun Jian killed Zhang Zi 張咨 and Wang Rui 王睿, he left vacancies for the positions of Inspector of Jing province and Grand Administrator of Nanyang commandery. Sun Jian also relinquished his own post of Grand Administrator in Changsha commandery. He accepted the authority of Yuan Shu, and Yuan Shu was able to take over Nanyang commandery.

When the death of Wang Rui reached the capital, a new inspector was appointed to replace him. This man was Liu Biao, Captain of the Centre of the Northern Army[1]. Liu Biao was a member of the imperial clan, and had at one time been involved in the factions of the early years of the reign of Emperor Ling 靈. He had lived in exile from the capital for some twenty years, but had been recalled to Luoyang during the He family's short hegemony. Now, he was appointed by Dong Zhuo to restore order in Jing province.

When Liu Biao was on his way to Jing province, Yuan Shu attempted to stop him by blocking the main road. Moreover, bandits had risen after the passage of Sun Jian, but Liu Biao nonetheless managed to make his way to Jing province, unaccompanied. He established his headquarters at Yicheng county in Nan commandery, south of Xiangyang.

In the meantime, and after, Sun Jian advanced to Luoyang and already fought several times for Yuan Shu; losing the battle against Xu Rong 徐榮 and Li Meng 李蒙 at Liang, but was victorious in his following encounters against Hu Zhen 胡軫, Dong Zhuo, Lü Bu 呂布 and Zhou Renming 周仁明.

Ongoing Tension Between the Yuans[]

Following Sun Jian's successes, particularly his latest success against Zhou Renming, Yuan Shu now had engaged Yuan Shao's forces on two fronts, having also defeated Zhou Ang 周昂 at Jiujiang commandery. In the north, Gongsun Zan, ally of Yuan Shu, desired to avenge Gongsun Yue's 公孫越 unlucky death. Faced with this combination of enemies, Yuan Shao made an alliance with Liu Biao, the new Inspector of Jing province.[2]

Huang Zu versus Sun Jian[]

Liu Biao had eliminated the bandits which he found when he arrived in Jing province and he had stationed troops near Xiangyang on the Han River, at the border between his own territory and that of Yuan Shu. This force was commanded by Huang Zu 黃祖. Yuan Shu felt confident after having enjoyed some recent successes, and he sent Sun Jian to lead his army south.

Huang Zu was ordered by Liu Biao to take up a position north of Xiangyang. Precisely, between the county city of Deng and the town of Fan. Both located in Nanyang commandery and on the north bank of the Han River. Huang Zu came forward from his headquarters at Yicheng to hold Xiangyang in support. Sun Jian arrived, attacked Huang Zu, and completely defeated Huang Zu's formations and flung them back across the Han River.

Sun Jian went on to besiege Xiangyang. Liu Biao ordered Huang Zu to gather reinforcements secretly and by night. When Huang Zu was on his way back, Sun Jian faced him once again. Huang Zu was defeated and fled into the Xian hills[3].

But then, Sun Jian made a foolish mistake. Sun Jian had always claimed to be a descendant of the legendary Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War, and while the Art of War clearly says never to pursue a retreating enemy, Sun Jian, however, did choose to pursue the fleeing Huang Zu. It was night, dark, in the hills, some of Huang Zu's men hid themselves in a bamboo grove, awaiting Sun Jian. Sun Jian led a force of light-armed horsemen into the hills to search them out, but when he arrived at the bamboo grove, the soldiers suddenly came out of hiding and shot Sun Jian to death.

Alternative accounts[]

Historians gain no clear account about what happened on this fateful night. A different theory is that, after Sun Jian's first victory over Huang Zu, he surrounded Xiangyang in order to prevent Huang Zu from taking his troops into the city. Some of Huang Zu's remnant forces took flight into Xian hills and Sun Jian took chase.

Theories on Sun Jian's death also differ from source to source. One source says that he was hit on the head and killed by a rock thrown down from a height above while others say Sun Jian was shot by one, or multiple archers. Professor Rafe de Crespigny says a fight ensued between Sun Jian's forces and Huang Zu's remnant forces, with Huang Zu's remnants coming out as the victor, having killed Sun Jian.

Some sources also doubt whether the battle at Fan and the chasing afterwards happened at night, in complete darkness.

Whatever happened, Sun Jian lost a battle he should've won. Had he not took chase himself, but instead sent some of his troops, he would've been the victor of the battle. Whether his troops would kill or be killed by Huang Zu's men would not even matter, since Xiangyang was already surrounded. Now, with Sun Jian dead, Liu Biao was the, arguably lucky victor, of the Battle of Xiangyang.

After Sun Jian's Death[]

It appears Sun Jian's body had fallen into the hands of his enemies. Huan Jie 桓階, a man from Changsha commandery, had been nominated as a Filial and Incorrupt (xiàolián 孝廉) candidate by Sun Jian at the time he was Grand Administrator of the commandery about 189 AD. He went to Liu Biao to ask for the body. Liu Biao probably admired his honour and granted his request[4]. It was then returned to the family, and Sun Jian was buried at Qu'a in Danyang commandery. His tomb was named Gaoling, "The High Mound".[5]

Sun Ben 孫賁 led the army back to Yuan Shu, and Yuan Shu again recommended that Sun Ben become Inspector of Yu province.

Because of Sun Jian's death, Yuan Shu was unable to conquer Jing province.

See Also[]


  • The date of Sun Jian's death is mentioned in various sources as being in either 191, 192 or 193 AD. Gongjin's Campaign Memorials goes with 191 AD as the year of Sun Jian's death, because his son Sun Ce mentions this as his fathers death in a letter he wrote in 196 AD.
  • It's hard to determine whether Cheng Pu, Huang Gai and Han Dang participated in this battle (and Yangcheng) or not. Rafe de Crespigny, in A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms, says they all joined Sun Jian in the 180's and "followed Sun Jian through his campaigns" since then. It is likely they participated in this battle, but if they did, either their role or actions were minor.

Fact vs. Fiction[]


  • …Sun Jian didn't kill the fictional characters Chen Sheng and Zhang Hu.
  • …Sun Ce did not participate in this battle.
  • Kuai Liang did not participate in this battle, thus did not set a trap for Sun Jian.
  • …Sun Jian wasn't lured into this trap by Lü Gong.
  • …Liu Biao did not attack first. Sun Jian, following orders from Yuan Shu, took initiative.
  • …Sun Jian was a subordinate of Yuan Shu.


  1. Hou Han shu 74/64B, 2419-20 (8a-b), the Biography of Liu Biao.
  2. Generals of the South, by Rafe de Crespigny, chapters on Sun Jian, page 123-124.
  3. SGZ 46 (Wu 1), 1100 (15a), the Biography of Sun Jian.
  4. The biography of Huan Jie in SGZ 22, 631-33.
  5. SGZ 46/Wu 1, 1101.