Most ancient Chinese horse coins display only a horse with no rider.
Horse coins displaying a horse with a rider are much scarcer and those originating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) are particularly rare.
The specimen at the left is a later version of one of these Song Dynasty horse coins with a rider.
Instead of honoring the horse, though, these horse coins commemorate the famous generals and battles of ancient Chinese history.
The inscription on the horse coin at the left is read in a clockwise order, beginning with the character at the top, as yan jiang yue yi (燕將樂毅).
The inscription translates as “General Yue Yi of the State of Yan”. (The name is sometimes translated as “General Le Yi of the State of Yan”.)
As can be seen here, the reverse side of the horse coin shows a man holding a spear-like weapon and riding a horse.
The rider is intended to be General Yue Yi who participated in the battle of Jimo which is one of the most famous battles of ancient China.
Sima Qian (司马迁) (145 BC – 86 BC), the great historian of the Han Dynasty, wrote about the battle of Jimo in his monumental work “Records of the Grand Historian” (史记).
Annotations by Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu (803-852 AD) to the famous Chinese military treatise “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu (Sunzi 孙子), written in the 6th Century BC during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC – 481 BC), included the Battle of Ji Mo to illustrate the successful application of the strategies by Sun Tzu.
A brief narrative of the Battle of Jimo is as follows.
In the year 284 BC, the state of Yan commenced a campaign to conquer the state of Qi. General Yue Yi led the Yan army and within the short span of only six months had conquered seventy of Qi’s cities.
In 283 BC, General Yue Yi attacked the city of Jimo. The commanding officer of Jimo died in the battle and was replaced by General Tian Dan who would become a major figure in the Battle of Jimo.
Having only 7,000 soldiers, General Tian Dan had to rely on superior tactics to inspire both his troops and the citizens to defend the city against the Yan army which was at least ten times as large.
Failing to take the city by force, General Yue Yi soon realized that the only way to victory was to somehow win the hearts of the people of Jimo and convince them that to surrender would be better than to continue to resist.
General Yue Yi therefore began a “benevolent” siege of the city which ended up lasting three years. His army, for example, provided food and water to the residents of the city and even allowed them to till their fields outside the city walls.
During this three year period, the king of Yan died and his son ascended to the throne. The son, unlike his father, was not pleased that General Yue Yi was unable to conquer Jimo.
Also, the new king harbored fears that General Yue Yi was interested in replacing him as king.
General Tian Dan of Jimo was keenly aware of this situation and, to foment discontent, secretly sent spies to the capital of Yan to spread rumors that General Yue Yi did indeed want to be king.
The rumors spread quickly and upon reaching the king’s ears only “confirmed” his suspicions. The king immediately replaced General Yue Yi as head of the army and installed a new general who would prove to be much less competent.
General Yue Yi, having lost his position, felt that the king would now try to eliminate any perceived threat to his power. Fearing the king would try to assassinate him, General Yue Yi sought refuge in the state of Zhao.
The new Yan army general abandoned the long siege and immediately commenced attacking the city. But again, due to the competent leadership of General Tian Di, the troops and citizens defended themselves successfully despite being greatly outnumbered.
To further strengthen his people’s resolve, General Tian Di sent spies into the camp of the Yan army to spread rumors that the people of the city would definitely surrender in fear if only the Yan soldiers were to “cut off the noses” of any captured Qi soldiers and also “dig up the graves of buried Qi ancestors”.
The new Yan army general fell for these lies and ordered his soldiers to do these exact things. As General Tian Di anticipated, these actions of savagery and desecration of the tombs so infuriated his troops and the residents of the city that they resolved to fight on at all costs.
With the unconditional backing of his people, General Tian Di knew that this was the opportune time to take the offensive. Knowing he did not have the number of troops to fight the enemy head on, he devised a very clever plan.
He had his soldiers gather a thousand oxen. He then had his men make the oxen look like “dragons” by tying daggers to their horns and lashing dried wood to their backs.
At midnight, General Tian Di opened the city gates and had his men set fire to the wood on the backs of the oxen which then stampeded directly towards the Yan army camp. In the darkness, the flaming oxen looked just like fiery dragons. The enraged “dragons” killed many of the sleeping enemy troops and simultaneously set fire to the camp. General Tian Di then ordered his five thousand soldiers to attack the much larger Yan army.
His tactics not only succeeded in defeating the Yan army at the city of Jimo, but the tide was now turned, and General Tian Di was eventually able to free from Yan rule all seventy cities.
Both General Tian Di, as well as the former Yan General Yue Yi, knew that the key to victory at Jimo depended on winning the hearts of the people. Whichever side succeeded in this endeavor would win the battle.
General Tian Di cleverly turned the enemy’s king against the competent leader of his own army. And by devising a plan which enticed the Yan army into adopting tactics so despicable that the residents of Jimo vowed to defend the city to the very end, General Tian Di was able to turn an almost certain defeat into one of the great victories in Chinese history.