Tang dynasty

Tang’s hegemony in Central Asia: Episode 3, The maneuver of the empire

In the previous two episodes (episode one and episode two) I have mainly covered Tang’s military and political advancement in the central Asia and the consequential Tang’s governance in the region. In this episode I will specifically focus on Tang’s foreign relations with the strong power that Tang had to deal with in Central Asia.

Central Asia was never an easy place to maintain stable power until the Tsar Russia came in kick all the nomadic tribes’ off their horses with rifles. The place is literally accessible from every corner of the old continent (comparably Chinese access to central Asia being the narrowest through only Hexi corridor and Gobi desert). During Tang’s control over central Asia in the 7th and mid-8th century, China had direct access to almost every great civilization in the world. At that time major foreign power that came into direct contact with Tang in the central Asia were Tufan from the Tibetan Plateau southeast of central Asia; Indian kingdoms southeast of central Asia, Sassanid Empire of Persia southwest of central Asia (later the Arab Caliphate), and even Byzantine Empire from the far west of central Asia.

Transoxiana region, Central Asia

In Episode 2, I have already mentioned that Tang adopted a semi-military administrative system in central Asia, while at the same time maintaining a number of tributary nomadic tribes and oasis city states to be in charge of themselves. Tang garrisoned its central Asian troops in only several main cities, and made those cities the administrative locations for solving tribal disputes and taxing merchants on the silk road. Tang’s direct military force was always kept in the Transoxiana region (河中 the fertile valley in between Amu Darya River and Syr Darya River) in central Asia. Most of the Turkic tribes in vast central Asia were under their own autonomy and all submit to Tang as the leader of all tribes. All Turkics in central Asia were fighting under the name of Tang Empire at the time; and Tang’s picked veteran Anxi army always made sure that those who disobey Tang’s order would be ruthless punished and other power influence would not be able to challenge Tang’s hegemony in the region. In this article I will emphasize on Tang’s relations with the two main power during its hegemony period in Central Asia (630AD – 755AD), namely Persians and the Arabs, with a brief scanning on Tibetans.

Sino-Persian alliance (Sassanid Perisa)

Even before Tang got in touch with Sassanid Persia (波斯 in Chinese), the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, the old Zoroastrian empire, has already been on the downhill track out of tiresome wars with the Turks and Byzantine and endless domestic political chaos (they even had a proto-commie named Mazdak trying to start off a revolution within the empire). When Tang first had direct contact with its Persian counterpart, presumably no later than 630AD when Western Gokturks submitted and recognized Tang Emperor Taizong as the Celestial Khagan, both courts were aware of the need for mutual assistance in maintaining the order in Central Asia and formed extensive military alliance against the common foes in the region, the Turkics and possibly the Hephthalites. The tight connection between the two courts were also strengthened by the rapid expansion of economic ties between the two countries along the newly re-opened silk road. Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain were highly valued by the nobles in Ctesiphon and Chang’an started to hold a considerable size of Persian community composed of Persian traders and travelers. Nestorian churches and Zoroastrian temples were allowed to be built in Chang’an. In fact people were so amazed at the exotic travelers at the time that the whole Chang’an started a Persian fashion fad. Women scrambled to dress like Persians and men flocked to brothels for the Persian dancer. Lots of folklore of the Persians at that time even survived up to nowadays in China.

Yazdherd III, last king of Sassanid Persia

There was not even a single military conflicts recorded between the two empires in Central Asia. Both courts had always considered each other dependable military ally and close economic partner. Of course this alliance was not simply because of the economic trade and the friendliness of both courts. At that time, Persia was swamped withstanding the ferocious Arab invasion from the West and hoped to secure its eastern borders, which was often harassed by the Turkics from the Northeast. The alliance with Tang, an emerging power which could have the potential to tame the Turkics in its eastern border, was deemed important for the Persians. The Chinese, on the other side of the silk road, was also not quite relaxed in maintaining its dominion in the central Asia due to frequent Turkic rebellions. Realizing the long geographical distance between Persia and China, Tang court would also be in favor of an alliance with the remote occidental empire so that the Anxi troops could concentrate on crushing Turkic rebels only. Coincidentally, when the cruel Arab horsemen galloped across the whole Iranian lowland and highland in 651AD, the Chinese managed to smash the last resisting force of the Western Turkic Khanate only 8 years later (see episode 1). Would there be an outbreak of the Sino-Persian conflict after Tang’s hegemony being established, if Persia had also manged to deter the Arab nomads like the Byzantine or the Carolingian Francia? Probably, but we would never know anyway. Nobody expected that the Arabs would sweep off the Persians in a blizzard manner. The Sassanid court must be extremely frightened at the time. The last emperor, Yazdgerd III, sent his son, Peroz III to the Tang-controlled Central Asia (possibly arrived in Suyab), in the hope of getting military assistance from the Chinese against Arab invasion at the last moment (He arrived in Chang’an in 661AD). Tang court deemed the call for assistance as a perfect chance to expand its Anxi Protectorate to the land of Persia, therefore gladly accepted the request and sent a general to escort the last Persian prince to restore the Sassinid order. For some unknown reasons the troops didn’t advance further westward from Suyab and the Persian prince stayed there for over 20 years. I reckon the Chinese generals in Suyab must hesitate with direct large scale confrontation with the Arabs at the time and be busy with the increasing Tibetan harassment from the Southeast. Either way, Tang army never escorted Persian prince to Persia and Arabs did not continue their further expansion eastward either. The Persian royal blood from Peroz III survived in Tang China and was granted as nobility in southern city Guangzhou and gradually assimilated into the local population.

Sino-Arab conflict

When Persians surrendered to the Arabs (大食 in Classic Chinese) in 651AD, they also told them about the legends of another group of fierce horse fighters (the Turkics) from the northeast. Al-Ahnaf Ibn Qays, the conqueror of Persia for the Umayyad Caliphate, decided to cease the campaign further eastward and maintained a status-quo with the Turkic nomads in Central Asia (their attempt to expand eastwards was met with fierce resistance of the Turgesh tribes 突厥施). Likewise, the head of all Turkic nomads at the time, the Tang emperor did not plan to expand further westward either, probably shocked by the speedy conquest of Persia at the time.

Interestingly, way before Arab horsemen knocked at the doorsteps of Tang’s Central Asian protectorate, we are talking about the time when Mohammed started to preach Islam in late 6th century AD, the Islamic prophet sent various envoys to different leaders in the world in the hope of converting them to Islam. China was one of those destinations. The envoy of Mohammed, Saad ibn Abī Waqqās, arrived in China twice in 616AD and 651AD. Of course Tang royal family did not convert to Islam in the end, nor did the Chinese. But the practice of Islam among Arab merchants in southern seaport like Guangzhou was largely tolerant by the imperial court. The Arabs were at that time at the dawn of a massive wave of expansion in all dimensions. It didn’t take long for the them to finally meet the Chinese in Central Asia. Simultaneously, by the time Arabs engulfed Persia, Tang was also on the rise of military supremacy in the adjacent region. With the subordination of local fierce Turkic fighters and the presence of powerful Anxi troops, Arabs chose not to advance eastwards immediately after taking over Persia. Instead, Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, sent an embassy to Chang’an right after the capture of Persia around 650sAD. The friendly gesture of the new Arab lords in Persia probably was another reason why the imperial court in Chang’an did not really enforce the restoration of the Persian court at the same time. This de facto peace between the two emerging power in the mid 7th century in Central Asia enabled both parties to have enough energy to deal with other hassles (Arabs were stuck in Anatolia and later started internal political conflicts; Chinese were busy with the Tibetans after 670AD and stabilized the dominion in Central Asia by 692AD).

Rashidun Caliphate 654AD

After decades of peace, the friction between the two mighty power finally broke out in 715AD. In that year, Arabs collaborated with the Tibetans to support a Sogdian named Aliaoda (阿了達) as the new king of Ferghana (拔汗那, around nowadays Fergana, Uzbekistan) to revolt against Tang’s suzerainty. The old king rushed to Anxi garrisons for Tang’s help. Immediately Tang mobilized a rapid campaign with various Turkic tributaries and defeated the Arab-Tibetan alliance and restored the old king in Ferghana. This was the first attempt for the Arabs to challenge Tang’s hegemony in Central Asia. The Arabs would now seek any opportunities to advance to China, a fertile rich land that has been longed by Arab generals for decades. Soon after the defeat, in 717AD Arabs organized another wave of attack. This time they even lured the Turgesh tribes, who once fiercely resisted Arab influence and allied with Tang, to fight against the Tang army together with Arabs and Tibetans. Their aim was to take over the four important Tang’s Anixi garrisons in Central Asia and eliminate Tang’s military projection in the region. However, they underestimated the prowess of Tang’s fearsome Anxi troops and were once again defeated very quickly. Turgesh tribes after the war immediately submitted with Tang and besieged the Arabs in Northern Transoxiana region in 718AD, who already cleared Tang’s army there and prepared for a long match directly into China proper (Tang rewarded Turgesh with the city of Suyab in 719AD for their loyalty). Tang soon recovered the Northern Transoxiana and Arabs had to pay a large amount of gold as ransom for the return of their defeating army. Arabs were clearly frustrated with the warfare with Tang in Central Asia after series of defeat. By the time of 723AD, they changed the general for the Chinese campaign and started another wave of aggression against Ferghana (this time alone). Tang court did not use a single rider in the Anxi garrisons to counterattack Arab’s invasion. Instead, the Emperor Xuanzong issued an imperial edict to order the Turgesh riders, who were once again subordinated to Tang, to smash Arab’s attack in Ferghana. Being the nemesis of the Arabs, Turgesh easily crush Arab troops and freed Ferghana once again from Arab invasion. One year later, Arabs reorganized another large scale campaign on Ferghana, with the help of their new tributary Turkic and Sogdian tribes. They managed to besieged the Capitol city of Ferghana for days. In the end, Turgesh fighters, delegated by their Tang lord, arrived in time and nearly wiped out the whole Arab army. After this battle, those Turkic and Sogdian tribes, including the Sogdian tribes Shiguo (石國) and Kangguo (康國) who played important roles in the demise of Tang’s glory decades later, immediately back-stabbed the Arabs and re-embraced Tang’s suzerainty. By 724AD, Arabs suffered severe casualty and lost the control over the few remaining central Asian tribes in a series of defeat. On the other side, Turgesh were dispatched as Tang’s proxy in the defense of areas west of Pamirs against possible Arab aggression in the future (Anxi army withdrew back to the Pamirs). This status-quo maintained for nearly 20 years, until the famous Battle of Talas broke out in 751AD.

Tang Anxi Army

In 751AD, According to Chinese record, Sogdian tribe Shiguo failed to pay tribute to the Tang court in proper etiquette (Sogdians probably were plotting another revolt against Tang at the time). The court ordered the then Anxi Protectorate General, Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝), to match towards Shiguo (around today’s Tashkent, Uzbekistan) with Anxi troops to “exert” the imperial might to the ill-mannered barbarians. This was when the drama started. The king of Shiguo immediately pleaded to surrender when Gao Xianzhi showed up in front of the capital with numerous iron riders. Gao Xianzhi first appeared to accept the surrender. But as soon as Sogdians dropped the weapons he immediately ordered the riders to start a horrible pillage and massacre in the capital. Somehow the prince of Shiguo was lucky enough to escape the town just in time and rushed to the Arabs for assistance. When Tang heard the news that Shiguo is going to get Arabs on the back again soon, Gao Xianzhi decided to lead his 10,000 Tang’s Anxi army, along with 20,000 Karluk (葛邏祿, a Turkic tribe around Ferghana) mercenaries to go deep into Arab’s dominion and attack the Arabs by surprise. It was indeed a big surprise, but to the surprise of Gao Xianzhi, the Karluk had already made a deal with the Arabs to back-stab Tang right on the battlefield. It was a set-up all along. Karluk wanted to use the Arabs to get rid of the Chinese, and the Arabs would love to ally with anyone who would go against Tang at the time in order to fully conquer central Asia. The Anxi army was all of sudden under tremendous pressure from both the outnumbering Arab troops in the front (aprox 200,000) and the back-stabbing Turkics in the back (20,000). However, Anxi army still managed to magically retreat with a small remaining troop back to garrisons, and Arabs still suffered a heavy loss despite a decisive victory. This battle was very significant in history. The Arabs gave up their Chinese campaign as they realized Anxi troops were too tough to swallow despite their victory. Some of Chinese solider were captured and helped the Arabs set up the first paper mill in Samarkand right after this battle. Papermaking was then gradually spread all over the Arab world and finally to Europe. The Chinese, despite the defeat, didn’t lose their military supremacy in Central Asia after this battle. Anxi army still managed to repress the rebellions from various tributaries west of Pamirs right after the battle. Tang’s hegemony continued until 755AD when the rebellion took place within the China proper (Anxi army were order to return to China proper to repress the rebellion). Karluk was the ultimate winner. They gained independence from Tang, and gained permission from the Arabs to establish their polity in the region. As an exchange, the Turkics agreed to convert to Islam. For the first time Islam infiltrated among the Turkics in the Central Asia, once a land of Buddhism, with the help of this Arab-Turkic alliance.

Papermaking process

Even though Tang experienced a drastic downfall after 755AD’s internal rebellion, the Arabs had never advanced further to Tang’s central Asian garrisons. The Chinese fortifications withstood numerous waves of aggression from the Tibetans and the New Turkic power, the Uighur, even 50 years later after the withdrawal of major force back into China proper. Tibetans and Uighur became the new lords of central Asians instead of the Arabs. Meanwhile, Islam was gradually spreading with the resurgence of the Turkic nomads in the region.

Tufan (Tibet)

Tibetans in the first era of Tang’s hegemony (up to 670AD) did not cause a single problem to the Chinese because of the successful political marriage arranged by Taizong in 641AD. However, the friendly attitude changed completely after the death of Songtsän Gampo. The new Tufan king had longed for the rich trade route of the silk road and started the first attack in 670AD. They had made some temporary progress in capturing some of the Chinese garrisons in the region, but were soon expelled away. The Anxi troops finally thwarted Tufan’s Central Asian campaign in 692AD when General Wang Xiaojie (王孝傑) fatally crushed Tibetan troops around the four Anxi Garrisons. Since then Tibetans were no longer able to pose any significant threat against Tang’s reign over central Asia, even if they allied with the Arabs. The opportunity for Tufan came finally when the main Anxi army returned to China to clear the An Lushan Rebellion in 755AD. Tibetans from the south along with the emerging Uighur from the north gradually nibbled Tang’s western protectorate in the following 50 years.

History is a stage full of drama. After Tang’s iron Anxi army was sweeping across the steppe and deterring the Arabs for decades, a domestic revolt led by a Sogdian general drastically dragged Tang down from the top of power in central Asia to completely being defenseless in only 50 years. Ironically, Tibetans soon followed Tang’s path and never recovered even since its internal conflict in the 800s AD. The land of steppe once again fell into the hands of Turkic nomads. The downfall of the once-invincible Tang Empire in the central Asia will be further discussed in the next episode (also the last one): The Demise of the Empire.


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

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.