Tang’s hegemony in Central Asia: Episode 2, The hegemony of the empire

In the first episode I have mainly discussed about how Tang expanded its political influence and stretched its military muscle all the way to the vast Central Asia step by step. This episode I will further explain the secrets behind Tang’s military might and successful administration over steppe riders in Central Asia; and the then Central Asian societies under Tang’s hegemony and its interaction with China.

Secrets behind Tang’s successful central Asian campaign

For a typical counter-strike from advanced agricultural settlers to drifting steppe nomadic riders in the pre-industrial era, it is essential that there is a flourishing and powerful economy that supports consistent powerful military campaigns. Before Taizong’s determination on the North-West campaign against the nomadic riders, China proper had largely undergone a resilient recovery from hundreds of years of war destruction and socio-economic chaos. The brief unification from the short-lived Sui dynasty (581-618AD) reassured the political stability in China proper and granted opportunities for the economic and demographic recovery. This trend was bolstered after the takeover of Li’s family (Tang’s royal family) in 618AD and further intensified by Taizong’s successful domestic governance (he was only 27 when he took the imperial jade seal through a successful coup in 627AD). Tang under Taizong had gradually built a booming economy and significantly revitalized Chinese culture. In fact his rule was so successful that Chinese historians honor his reign as the Zhenguang Prosperity Era (貞觀之治),  an impeccable governance role model for all later Chinese rulers. This had nurtured a robust economy that is capable of supporting constant big-scale military campaigns in the remote region. In addition, one direct benefit from a robust economy home is the significant improvement of military equipment in Tang’s army. Tang army was able to be equipped with excellent weaponry and supported by sound logistic supply. Tang’s major military unit usually kept the infantry-rider ratio to be 2:1. Among the infantrymen, the most basic unit in the army, each solider was given Ming-Guang armor (明光鎧), one Mo sword (陌刀) and one spear (長槍) on the back, one strong bow (弓) or crossbow (弩) with 30 arrows on the waist. Moreover, infantrymen were also given horses for the march and only required to step on the ground to prepare for immediate military contacts. In addition to a strong economy home, early Tang’s military success in the Central Asia also benefited from the the brief civil war that put Tang in the history of China, which also produced a lot of excellent military generals for later central Asian military campaigns. Virtually all of the Chinese generals in early Tang’s campaign against the Turks and western nomads were outstandingly excelled from the early Tang’s civil war. Their excellent military leadership skills created a highly disciplinary army that is capable of all conditions and tactics. Furthermore, Tang’s central Asian troops (安西兵) adopted a much more offensive tactics in maintaining the control over central Asia instead of focusing on mere defense after victory. These in total had greatly bolstered Tang’s army prowess even further aside from the excellent weaponry supplies.

Furthermore, visionary military strategies were another important factor that solidified Tang’s overwhelming advantages in central Asia. This is mainly reflected in two points. First, Tang had enforced successful military rations supply strategy along with their long distance military campaign. As it is extremely costly to supply rations directly from China across the Gobi desert to central Asia, Tang  adopted the Tundian system (屯田) in the west of Gobi desert, a military cultivation system first used in Han China six hundred years ago. Under Tundian system solider were asked to cultivate for the rations themselves, together with civilians and convicts that were sent to assist the army in the military cultivation in remote regions such as the central Asia. Those self-supplying plantations have played a crucial role in maintaining the rations supply for Tang’s big-scale military presence in the central Asia. Soon after the takeover of Gaochang kingdom Tang had started the first Tundian in the west of Gobi desert. Tundian was quickly widespread all over the place along with Tang’s each military victory, serving as the foundations for Tang’s military maintenance in the central Asia. However, though practicing large scale of Tundian, Tang’s army size had never exceeded 30,000 throughout its 150 years of central Asian control. How could Tang fight over those significantly outnumbered nomadic troops all over the place?There lies the second point in Tang’s visionary military strategies – the successful incorporation of submissive nomadic fighters. Though Tang’s veteran troops never exceeded 30,000, large amount of defeated and submitted nomadic riders were encouraged to fight along with Tang in its military campaign. High level nomadic leaders were even entrusted with Tang imperial military titles. Examples could be seen in Tang’s campaign against the south Tianshan region, which Tang heavily recruited Eastern Turkics in nearly all battlefields. The eastern Turkic general Ashinasher (阿史那社爾), the main figure behind the Turkic assistance, was so loyal to Taizhong that he even volunteered to be the human sacrifice for the death of Taizong in 649AD (though ordered to stop by Gaozong). One could easily see the effectiveness and success of Tang’s incorporation policy towards the steppe riders from this case.

In conclusion, Tang’s strong economy made it possible for the emperor to possess an army with the finest equipment of the world; China civil war in late Sui Dynasty had prepared a series of excellent military generals; the successful enforcement of Tundian system and nomads incorporation policy had enabled Tang’s stable military presence in the central Asia. Those were the most significant factors that contributed to Tang’s consecutive victories in central Asia in mid 7th century.

Central Asian societies under Tang’s rule

Tang flying unicorn beast pattern plate

After the initial military victory, Tang further consolidated its control in the region by setting up a semi-military administrative system and stationed its Central Asian troops in a number of garrisons scattering around the whole central Asia, administered by Tang’s Anxi protectorate (安西都護府) and Beiting protectorate (北庭都護府). Tang’s appointed regional governors over central Asia at that time were called Jiedushi (節度使), who hold both political and military control over the designated territory. Under this administrative system Tang managed to project effective control in the Central Asian region, while allowing nomads to govern themselves under the submission of Chinese authority and military supervision. It was clear that Tang’s intention to control central Asia was to 1. eradicate the long-lasting nomadic vandalism threat from the Northern steppe, a big headache for all Chinese rulers since Zhou dynasty (the first major nomadic invasion took place in 771BC when Marquess of Shen (申侯) collaborated with Quanrong (犬戎), a nomadic tribe Northwest of China, to attack and sabotage the then capital Haojing (鎬京 near modern Xi’an) of Zhou, and forced Zhou moved its capital eastward soon after), and 2. put the whole silk road under China’s protection so that the transcontinental trade route could be free from nomadic harassment on the steppe plain. As soon as these two goals are achieved with the establishment of Tang’s hegemony in the central Asia, Tang was fairly content with the tributary and para-military administrative system it fostered in the central Asia. In contrast, there was never a systematic scheme for any deliberate colonization efforts in the central Asia. Likewise, Tang’s did not try to systematically sinicize central Asian population either. The only exception was the annexation of Gaochang Kingdom (高昌國), which Tang wholly incorporated former Gaochang territory into Chinese domestic political system (treated like other provinces in China proper). It was mainly because 1. Gaochang’s lies at the crucial throat position on the silk road which connects China proper and central Asia, and more importantly, Gaochang was made up predominantly of the descendant of Chinese settlers isolated from China proper since the downfall of Han dynasty four hundred years ago. Their cultural and geographical proximity made it much more attractive to be incorporated into China proper than other nomadic groups.

Tang Sancai depicting Sogdian merchant in Chang'an

In general, though Tang established firm political and military control over central Asia, there was relatively little progress in the sinofication process in the area, mainly cultural and social-wise. Oddly, central Asia at the time was one of the few places that had been conquered with force by the Chinese (the others being Korea and Vietnam), but failed to be assimilated into the sinosphere; whereas the rapid enlargement of China proper was facilitated rather by the invasion of northern nomads which prompted their voluntary assimilation and migration of Chinese in Southern China. There was never any large permanent Chinese civilian population presence in the west of Gobi desert during Tang’s rule in the central Asia. At the same time, local population of central Asia, except a few nobles, never really got the chance to learn Chinese or read Confucius or Mencius’ masterpiece. One exception at that time was the reintroduction of Chinese Zen Buddhism into the Central Asia. Central Asian populace appeared to be more attractive to religious doctrine than philosophical ideologies. From Xuanzhang‘s (玄奘 602-664AD) Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記) it was noted that Mahayana, a tradition of Buddhism that was widely practiced in China and periphery sinicized kingdoms, had been significantly strengthened in the central Asia after Tang’s takeover. The reintroduction of Buddhism from China to central Asia was in my opinion the biggest success in terms of exerting any cultural influence from China to the central Asia.

However, though Tang’s control did not bring substantial societal change in central Asia, the central government did mange to reach the central Asian merchants and aristocrats with its cultural and economic umbrella. Since most of tribal aristocrats were appointed by the imperial court and granted with Tang’s military titles, they were indeed required to receive the Chinese classic education like common Chinese elites. A lot of central Asian nobles were even encouraged to go to Chang’an (長安 around modern Xi’an), Tang’s capital for studying and serving directly in the imperial court. A large number of those nobles stayed and integrated into the Chinese society. The most famous case was the last prince of Sassanid PersiaPeroz III, who fled to China for assistance against Arab invasion in Persia, stayed in Chang’an and his descendants settled down all over China proper.

Nestorian stele (head)

Meanwhile, Tang hegemony brought the long-absent peace along the silk road. Lots of central Asian merchants, mostly iranic Sogdians, flushed into Chang’an, bringing substantial waves of foreign cultural influences from places as far as Byzantine, Arabia, Persia and India. For example, the first record of Christianity in China, the Nestorian Stele (大秦景教流行中國碑), in both Chinese and Syriac, was erected in Taizong’s reign in the early Tang period. Chang’an in Tang dynasty was one of the largest metropolitans in world, along with Constantinople of Byzantine and Baghdad of Umayyad Caliphate. The population was estimated to exceed one million and the city had attracted considerable foreign populations from all over China, Japan, Korea, Java, Vietnam, Tibet, central Asian, Persia, India, Arabia, and even Byzantine. Numerous excavated relics from that era have confirmed with a significant Indo-European and Semitic population presence in Chang’an at the time (with lots of painting depicted Caucasoid figures in Tang Sancai ceramics 唐三彩). Those Sogdians in the central Asia (some are Scythian and Tocharian, classified by Tang as “nine clans from Zhaowu 昭武九姓”, were the most frequent visitors and largest foreign groups in Chang’an at the time. They have largely integrated with the Chinese over years of trading with the Chinese partners; some of them were even granted with titles to serve in the imperial court for Tang’s army in and out of Central Asia. For instance, An Lushan (安祿山) and Shi Siming (史思明), the two major rebel leaders in the infamous Anshi Rebellion, were direct descendants from those Sogdian tribes.

While the massive influx of foreign influence in China proper took place after Tang’s control over central Asia, Chinese nobles were also stepping in to this unknown region along with the Chinese army and the establishment of civilian administrations. Those Chinese nobles had absorbed their extraordinary encounter while living in the central Asia and created a magnificent new school of Tang poetry (唐詩, the legendary style of Chinese poetry that heavily influence later Chinese culture), the Western style (邊塞詩派), which reflects lots of central Asian themes such as the valiant military rhythm, the geographical vastness of the central Asian plain, the local livelihood of the then central Asia etc. One of my favor Tang Poetry of all time is in fact the Western style and I would like to share then with you here:

涼州詞 王瀚  Liangzhou Ci By Wang Han circa 720AD

葡萄美酒月光杯,慾飲琵琶馬上催。 Ah the delicious grape alcohol in the self-illuminating jade cup, I would like to drink it with this gorgeous music but the horse is waiting for me for the battle.

醉臥沙場君莫笑,古來征戰幾人回? I have to go for the fight but please bear me if I get drunk in the battlefield, for I dare to ask how many solider could return alive to enjoy the victory in the history?

By the way, this was the first Chinese documentation of wine in history. Moreover, speaking about Central Asian influence on Tang’s literature it is impossible not to mention here the greatest Chinese poet of all time, Li Bai (李白). He was literally born in Suyab, an ancient Silk Road city located east from modern Bishkek, also a stronghold for Tang’s military and administrative presence in central Asia, in 701AD. His father served as the imperial civilian officer in Suyab at the time when he was born, and moved back to Sichuan when he was 5-year old.

Also, Chinese currency, paper-making skills were spread to the central Asia from these Chinese elites along with the army force, which was latter spread into Arabia and the Europe after the battle of Talas in 751AD. Tang’s hegemony in central Asia reached peak around 755AD and effectively stopped Arab’s eastward expansion. However, Tang’s success in Central Asia somewhat becomes one of the prominent factors that lead to the demise of Tang itself. Tang had never fully recovered from the deep social disturbance from the Anshi Rebellion in 755AD. The remain of Tang’s military presence in central Asia were isolated and subsequently defeated by waves of Tufan invasion somewhere before 800AD. I will mainly address the reasons behind the rapid downfall of Tang’s influence in central Asia in the last episode: The demise of Tang in central Asia. Next episode will be a special coverage on Tang’s foreign relations in Central Asia with other major global power at that time, mainly Persia, Arabia, and briefly Tibet, as a preliminary attempt to shed light on the inter-civilization relations among the most powerful empires at that time.

Tang in mid 8th century


    1. No Chinese did not forget about it. It all happened after Anshi Rebellion in 755AD. I am going to cover that part in the last episode of my Tang series. Tufan has been the biggest enemy for Tang in central Asia in early 8th century, but that’s another story.

      P.S. It was recorded in Chinese historiography by Chinese historians. You wouldn’t be a smug dabbler here saying “something the Chinese would rather forget” if Chinese wiped that part out in the Book of Tang and New Book of Tang, or even the history of Tufan at all (Tibetans didn’t devise writing until late 7th century).

    2. Okay, here is what happened. In 755AD An Lushan started the rebellion and attacked Chang’an, Xuanzong emperor of Tang had to flee to Sichuan. Tang urgently withdrew the major forces west of Gobi desert back into China proper to repress the rebellion, which left a huge military vacuum for Tufan to ambush the remaining Tang troops in central Asia, Xinjiang, and even Hexi corridor. Though soon the rebellion was repressed but Tang’s military and economic condition were significantly damaged and were never able to get fully recovered ever since. Uighur and Tibet took advantages and nibbled central Asia in the following 50 years. Meanwhile, In 763AD Tibetan army managed to occupy Chang’an when China was busy fighting with all the rebels itself. Emperor Daizong of Tang had to flee eastward to Shanzhou. But Tibetans didn’t significantly damage the city. Instead they only stayed for 15 days and withdrew voluntarily. It was said that the Tibetans were not used to the hot summer in Chang’an and suffered from the diseases in the low altitude land (they were also worried of Chinese retaliation from at the time). That was the only time Tufan took over Chang’an. There’s nothing Chinese would rather forget about. As I mentioned a lot before, China did suffer greatly from the foreign attacks especially from the North since Zhou dynasty. Quanrong took over Haojing, Xiongnu took over Chang’an, Mongols and Manchu even took over the whole China proper. We had way more loss than victory against northern nomads, but in the end of day China proper was able to expand even more rapidly thanks to the foreign invasion.

  1. awesome series! thnx. (but i think i’m gonna have to read them a couple more times to get all that info to sink in!)

    btw — what’s the name of that last painting/print you’ve posted there? the one with the riders beneath the mountains and temple. that is one cool print!

    1. Thanks. About the painting. It’s traditional Chinese painting. Usually those painting was to serve the purpose of describing the poetic scene written in the text (usually provided on the side way). Actually I think the poem on which this painting was based is another Western style poem. I found it in this link: http://www.yiyuanyi.org/plus/view.php?aid=25564

      Here is the poem with this painting:
      Great stuff too, here is my amateur translation:
      On the horse we valiantly crossed the desert and march westward to chase the edge of the sky, we have seen the full moon twice since we parted our lovely home and family.
      Yet tonight I don’t know where I am going to sleep, as the deadly desert looks too vast in vain.

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