Tang’s hegemony in Central Asia: Episode 1, The outreach of the empire

Finally I decided to screen out all the buzz that is going on in the everyday news and spend a few days to focus on the good old topic about history. Recalling that a few weeks ago I was able to have a thorough discussion with an intelligent person from Tajikistan, who is very much aware of Persian history and especially pre-Islamic Persian history (which I like very much as well). However, I was shocked how little she knew about the history of Central Asia before large-scale of islamization of the Turkics and Persians in medieval age, especially regarding the role of China in this dynamic region. Therefore I thought it’s better to write an article on the history of China’s role in Central Asia, which is largely omitted not only by the West, Turks and Persians, but majority Chinese as well (barely mentioned in history textbook).

China appeared as a strong political and military power in central Asia first from the expansion of early Han dynasty (around 100BC), when Emperor Wu of Han defeated the Xiongnu nomads (allegedly the origin of Huns in Europe 400 hundred years later), stationed regular army base in Quli (渠犁, around modern Korla, Xinjiang) and opened the silk road. Chinese political hegemony in Central Asia (Western Region 西域 in Chinese)  has thus been established with the projection of Chinese military force in the region. Han’s control over eastern Central Asia marked the beginning of silk road and opening of China-West exchange, but it was during Tang dynasty (618-907AD) that China had affirmed and expanded its firm and effective control over the whole Central Asia region. Tang’s presence in Central Asia (effectively controlled central Asia from 658AD to circa 800AD) is going to be the main issue to be discussed in this article (like it or not, it’s history).

This is going to be a loooong article, I will break the whole article into a tetralogy consisting of four episodes: 1. The outreach of the empire, focusing mainly on the graduation military and territory expansion of Tang in the Central Asia; 2. the hegemony of the empire, focusing mainly on the political, military, cultural and social structures under the Tang’s central Asia; 3. the maneuver of the empire, targeting the interactions between Tang and other major players in the Central Asian region, notably Sassanid Persia and later Abbasid Caliphate Arabs; 4. The demise of the empire, consisting of a thorough explanation of the causes and factors behind the rapid shrink of Tang’s power and control over the Central Asia.

Tang’s campaign to dismantle the immediate North and Western border threat and secure the safety of Hexi Corridor

To speak of Tang’s rise in the Central Asia, it is necessary to mention Emperor Taizong of Tang (Reign 626-649AD), who first helped his father to unify the whole China proper after the short-lived Sui dynasty in 618AD. Prior to Taizong took over the reign in an almost bloodless coup d’état in 626AD, China proper was in very weak in the recovery session from years of internal warfare and natural disasters,  the emerging Turkic tribes (突厥) from the Mongolian steppe were one of the biggest threat for the safety of Chinese Northern and Western borders at the same (Changan, the then-capital was directly exposed and vulnerable to the threat from Northern nomads for enormous times in the history due to its geographical proximity to the Northwestern steppes). After suffering years of the barbaric raiding and looting in its Northern and Western borders from those tribesmen riders, in 629AD Taizong ordered General Li Jing (李靖) to eradicate the Eastern Turkic confederation (split out of Göktürks from Turkic internecine wars in 583AD). After the decisive victory of Yinshan Battle (陰山之戰) in 630AD Tang successfully destroyed the Eastern Turkics and swept them away from modern central Inner Mongolia all the way to the Gobi desert in the west. After defeating the fearful Eastern Turkic steppe riders with sharp military prowess, Tang received vast number of submissions from various nomad groups that were used to be controlled by the Eastern Turkic Khaganate from Yinshan mountains to the Gobi desert. Taizong was the crowned with the title of “Celestial Khagan” (天可汗) from all the Northern steppe nomadic tribes. This title was hereditary and lasted until Emperor Daizong of Tang (Reign 762-779AD), even after the destructive Anshi Rebellion (安史之亂) in 755AD that force Tang to give up the control of Central Asia and initiated the demise of the magnificent Tang Empire (though the final collapse of Tang took place in 907AD).

After initial victory with the Eastern Turkics, Tang gradually took control of the vast land of steppes east of the Gobi desert by crushing each foreign threats one by one:  crushing Tuyuhun (吐谷渾) in modern eastern Qinghai steppe in 634AD under the General Li Jing; annexing Gaochang Kingdom (高昌) in modern eastern Xinjiang Turpan valley in 640AD under the General Hou Junji; defeating Tufan invasion in Songzhou (松州之戰) in modern Northern Sichuan in 638AD by General Niu Jinda (牛進達), which consequently initiated the significant marriage of state between Princess Wencheng and Tibetan king of Songtsän Gampo in 641AD that kept friendly relations with the Tibetan kingdom for nearly 30 years (during which Tufan recognized the superiority of Tang and offered tributes annually).

Taizong receives tributary envoy

By 641AD, Tang had effectively cleared all potential threats from Northern Mongolian steppe to western Qingzang plateau, securing the firm control of Hexi corridor (modern Gansu), the pivotal path connecting China and the West. The eastern part of the silk road was therefore completely under the protection from any sabotage and harassment (No more attacks from the Eastern Turkics in the north and the east, Tuyuhun and Tufan in the southwest, and Gaochang in the northwest). However, Tang’s appetite was way bigger than holding the vast land east of the Gobi desert. Taizong’s ambition was to re-gain the control of the whole Western Region that Han dynasty once possessed 300 years ago (Han’s on and off control over Western Region lasted from 1st century BC to 4th century AD). In order to start the military campaign further Westward across the Gobi desert, Taizong established the first Chinese outpost in Jiaohe (交河, west of modern Turpan) in the annexed former Gaochang kingdom: Protectorate General to Pacify the West (安西都護府) in 640AD. This marked the first major and systematic military projection across the Gobi desert, stretching westwards all the way to the Central Asia plain.

Tang’s campaign to regain Han’s Western Region

Around that time, the vast land of Certain Asia (磧西 in Tang Chinese) west of Gobi desert consists of various Turkic and Iranic steppe nomadic groups, most of which were subordinating to the Western Turkic Khaganate that and move westwards from the split of Göktürks. Western Turkic Khaganate controlled this vast plain in the middle of the old continent and constantly seeking opportunities to expand their territories. Since they split out of Inner Asia they were gaining stronger by quickly absorbing the power of other central Asian nomadic tribes. Their tudun reached as far as Eastern Slavic tribes and Volga Bulgars in the northwest; their riders crushed Bactria of Sassanid Empire; they had even allied with the Byzantine Empire to invade South Caucasus. Of course it was just a matter of time for the two expanding military power clashed when Chinese riders and infantry crossed over the harsh Gobi Desert. In 642AD, the first direct military between the Turkic and the Chinese broke out in Yizhou (伊州, modern Kumul, Xinjiang), the westernmost territory of Tang after its annexation of former-Gaochang kingdom two years ago. The military conflict was inevitable as both sides were planning to move further at the time (Tang expected to stretch its control further westwards to regain the Han’s Western Region that lays as far as Tianshan mountains, whereas Turkics were focusing on their military campaign on Tochari, modern Tarim Basin, just far from Tang’s westernmost border). The Turkic ambush was however quickly defeated by Tang general Guo Xiaoke (郭孝恪). This soon started Tang’s series of successful military campaign over several oasis states along the silk road south of Tianshan: two years later, 644AD, Karashahr kingdom (焉耆, next to the former Gaochang kingdom in modern central-south Xinjiang) was captured also by general Guo Xiaoke when Karashahr became submissive to Western Turkic Khaganate for protection. However, Karashahr soon after rebelled again against Tang. Finally in 648AD General Guo Xiaoke and Tang’s incorporated Turkic general Ashinasher (阿史那社爾, from submissive Eastern Turkic confederation) defeated again the rebelling Karashahr and its western neighbor Kucha (龜茲, modern Aksu, Xinjiang). The successful campaign over Karashahr and Kucha effectively deterred further western oasis Tocharian states, namely Khotan (于闐), Yarkand (莎車), and Kashgar (疏勒), from defying Tang’s dominion and superiority. Tang subsequently moved its Protectorate General to Pacify the West further to Kucha in 648AD. Western Turkic Khaganate was gradually expelled from Tochari, along with the establishment of Chinese outposts and fortresses  in all controlled oasis states South of Tianshan, with the westernmost outpost in the city of Suyab (碎葉, west of modern Tomok, Kyrgyzstan). Tang’s effective control in the south of Tianshan had therefore largely been solidly created and reinforced in the following 100 years.

While the military campaign in south of Tianshan was largely effective and successful, Tang’s actions in north of Tianshan had also been quite fruitful. While Tang’s army was busy penetrating the Gobi desert in the west, Xueyantuo (薛延陀), a tribal confederation that was rapidly getting stronger after Tang’s crush on Eastern Turkics in Mongolian steppe and Alta mountains north of Gobi desert, started to defy Tang’s authority and harass Tang’s established new Eastern Turkic vassal state frequently. The battle between Tang and Xueyantuo erupted in 641AD with Tang’s decisive victory by General Li Shiji (李世勣) and again in 646AD when Taizhong was shifting the military force nearby for a Korean campaign. But Xueyantuo underestimated Tang’s military power (with the help of Uighur from the north) and got annihilated as a punishment for its betrayal under the command of General Li Daozong (李道宗). The split Uighur tribes (with their bey granted with Chinese military prefect) soon join Tang’s massive tribute system. From then on Tang became the effective suzerain all over the Mongolian steppe and managed to exert its supreme power over the vast area north of Gobi desert. Intimidated by Tang’s invincible military power, the then great General of Western Turkic Khagnate Ishbara Qaghan (阿史那賀魯, he later betrayed Tang after Taizong’s death and re-unified Western Turkic Khaganate as the last Khagan), fled from the internal split and surrendered voluntarily to Tang for protection in 646AD. Taizong gladly accepted his submission and ordered him to assist Tang’s campaign again Kucha at the time. Consequently Tang established Tingzhou (庭州) administration to exert effective control over the large Western Region north of Tainshan mountains, covering most of modern North Xinjiang area (Tianshan in the south, Altai mountain in the north, Xizhou in the east, Zunghar gate in the west).

Taizong's campaign in the south Western Region

By 648AD, Taizong was not only proclaimed but literally the heaven Khagan for all the Göktürks and other steppe riders in the Western Region. All steppe riders in the region started to be absorbed into Tang’s army for its frequent military campaigns all over the place. Overall, Tang’s power has overwhelmed the whole Han’s Western Region and even reached further to Pamir Mountains (葱嶺).

Tang’s power trajectory over Central Asia

Unfortunately, Taizong’s sudden death at the ago of 50 in 649AD has created a massive turbulence all over China and Chinese tributary states. However, it was only Western Turkic Khagnate who publicly rebelled against Tang’s rule and attacked Tingzhou in 651AD (Ishbara Qaghan had defied Tang’s rule and managed to reunify Western Turkic Khagnate). Emperor Gaozong of Tang, didn’t hesitate to wage a further westward military campaign against the Western Turkic rebels in 651AD, 655AD, and 657AD, and finally in 658AD, Tang army was able completely smashed the whote Turkic Khagnate and captured the last Khagan Ishbara Qaghan near modern Tashkent,  Uzbekistan and sent back to Chang’an (長安, the then-capital of Tang) as a captive under the command of General Su Dingfang (蘇定方). By 658AD, Tang has completely overrun the whole territory of former-Western Turkic Khagnate in the whole central Asia. Sporadic rebellion from Tiele tribes and Kashgar were soon repressed by General Su Dingfang again in 659AD.

By 659AD Tang replaced the Göktürks and started to rule over the whole central Asia and Inner Asia, making the latter steppe riders to carry Chinese titles to fight along with the Tang army in the whole central Asian plain. Turkics had completely under the submission of Tang’s emperor.In 659 the Gaozong claimed to rule the entire Silk Road as far as Persia in the west. Tang soon upgraded the Protectorate General to Pacify the West to the Grand Protectorate General to Pacify the West and reinforced military presence and administrative control over all the oasis cities in Xinjiang and military outposts in central Asia, setting up the a well-established military system that is based on the Four Garrisons of Anxi (安西四鎮) in Kucha, Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar, and Suyab (in the early stage up to 719AD when Suyab was handled over to Turgesh for their loyalty to Tang and later retaken back in Chinese in 738AD along with the famous Talas). In 660AD, all Turkic tribes west of Pamir Mountains and east of Persia submitted to Tang, who further established the direct 16 minor military outpost and administrative systems in central Asia for the first time. The Grand Protectorate General to Pacify the West at that time started to gain control of the present day Xinjiang, five central Asian states, and part of Afghanistan (Tang Imperial Court established the Protectorate General to Pacify Persia in 661AD in order to help the last king of Sassanid Persia Peroz III  to expel Arab invasion at the time, though not practically enforced due to the absence of military project in Persia; Tang created a new major outpost system in Tingzhou to highlight the administration north of Tianshan mountains in 702AD). Overall, Tang’s hegemony in central Asia was created based on a series of successful military campaign. The ongoing one and half century’s management in Central Asia had been gradually reinforced over the time with enormous minor military campaigns, notably constant military conflicts with the Tufan from Tibet from 670AD to 693AD.

Tang power presence in 669AD

Since then, Tang’s hegemony gradually reached its peak in 755AD (4 years even after the Battle of Talas with the Arabs) and rapidly contracted and diminished after Anshi Rebellion in 755AD that stirred a huge internal chaos in China. Next episode I would be focusing on the analysis of why Tang could establish the hegemony among all central Asian nomadic riders as well as the cultural, administrative, and economic structure of the then-Central Asia under Tang’s hegemony.


    1. Thanks, the 2nd episode is on the way, though probably a bit later than expected. I will be on a business trip the following week. So probably less time to spare on the blog. But I will try my best.

  1. I am curious now. Where exactly did you read about this topic? In what languages, and can you cite your sources?

    I say this because I am highly interested in ancient Chinese history.

    1. I read most of it through the Old and New Book of Tang in Chinese, Chinese chronicle about the history of Tang dynasty, written by the scholars in the following Later Jin and Song dynasty, respectively.

      The exact dates of those events described are widely recognized facts shared by the academics and the public, of which I gather from various internet sources, including the one you are famous with – wikipedia.

      If you don’t have any prior knowledge in Classic Chinese language, I would advise you to get into this topic by reading Adshead’s “China in World History”, it might not cover everything of Chinese history, but definitely would interest you.http://www.amazon.com/China-history-Samuel-Adrian-Adshead/dp/0312005067

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