Han Dynasty Army. 汉军

Music: Warriors by Tan Dun

The Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) was one of the high water marks of China's history. It existed contemporaneously with the Roman Empire- though it predates the Roman Empire by 200 years and fell 200 years before Western Roman Empire followed suit.

An Eastern-Han golden belt hook, hammered and chiseled with designs of mythical animals and birds

Spanning over four centuries, the Han marked a long period of stability and is considered one of the golden ages in Chinese history. Art, innovation, administrative reforms, standard of living, and military all flourished during the Han. To this day, China's majority ethnic group refers to itself as the "Han people" and the Chinese script (which mostly crystallized in this period) is still referred to as "Han characters" even in the age of the internet.

The Han possessed a centralized court with a robust bureaucracy that amplified its imperial powers, the lands of the empire were divided into areas directly controlled by the central government using an innovation inherited from the Qin known as commanderies, and a number of semi-autonomous kingdoms. Like Imperial Rome, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, the Han army was multi ethnic, and frequently included large swaths of auxiliaries from vassalized frontier kingdoms.

Pottery of Han soldier, swordsmen with bowmen in the front, 
and several rows of cavalry in the back
The Han Army

The early Han army would still be fielded with vast phalanxes armed with the Gi, or Ji dagger- halberds

The vast army of the Han enabled it to fight on many fronts, and often simultaneously. In the east and the south, the Han subjugated Korea and formed it into a series of commanderies, and in the south the Han warred with the Vietnamnese chiefdoms- only to be overthrown by the Trung sisters in 40 AD. Though Eastern Han would return three years later and re-exert Chinese dominion in the region until the Ly dynasty revolted in 544~ long after the Han dynasty was but a distant memory. Overall, the contentions with Korea and Vietnam would be intermittent affairs sharply puncturing between centuries of peace~ something in every 200-400 years.

But the true archenemy and the eternal mortal foe of the Han Empire were the steppe barbarians. For whom the Han fought in an endless war that spanned its entire four centuries of existence. In fact~ one could easily argue that the Han army was designed to pin and repel steppe hordes. To truly understand this~ we should understand its context, its doctrine, then finally its implementation~ and lastly, we will examine its armors, which we will cover in another article.

 Han cavalry with lamellar armor and scaled aventils, bows and crossbows


Terracotta Warriors from the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of China. 

The First Emperor's Foundation

I think many of us are familiar with the grim rows of terracotta warriors from the tomb of China's First Emperor. One should understand that before he became know as~ the First Emperor, a position he crowned himself with after he subdued all of the Chinese kingdoms- for nearly 700 years before him China was divided between many separate kingdoms.

Though they all spoke a single language and came from a single unified past, they were (to any bystander of that time) hopelessly divided. Each kingdom possessed a different set of regional dialect, unit of measurement, not to mention different armies that answered to their own contentious kings (some- like Chu and Qin for 7 centuries.) Often, there were dozens of huge independent city states and frontier kingdoms that nominally paid lip service as "loyal vassals" of the weak Zhou court, but in reality acted as absolute masters in their own domains and warred with each other for supremacy. This "Warring States" period would witness China war with itself~ province against province like feudal Europe in a cyclical manner-

That is- until the First Emperor ended it in a single generation. With utter ruthlessness the King of Qin organized his armies into discipline legions and destroyed the rival kingdoms one by one, first by cutting down the smaller neighbor of Zhao~ which had always humiliated the Qin kings, then the rest of the 6 kingdoms until all 7 kingdoms were united under him.

It was then he made himself the First Emperor of Qin and ordered that all of the various Chinese scripts be unified into one, also the standard of measurements and polities. Any resistance~ whether from the local remnants or critical scholars were crushed mercilessly. He deposed thousands of Confucian scholars and buried them alive, then burned down many of the books that criticized him and contrasted with his severe legalistic leanings.

He was a liberal man in many respects, and sought to transform his new empire with relentless, revolutionary force spear headed by his goading. He aimed to shatter everything that was old and obsolete and replace with something new- Though- in keeping with the topic~ nearly everything that he did that was brutal~ during the Han dynasty would come to fruition and actually bring long term benefits for the Chinese people.

Despite that he lived during an age so ancient it paralleled Rome's duel with Carthage, even after 2200 years, most of the Chinese today still revile him for his clear tyranny. Several dozens of major rebellions erupted during his reign and there were at least ten assassination attempts against him as he lived- with one occasion where an assassin cut through his sleeves and nearly cut him down inches away from his person.

Then- Qin died, before he was even 50 while touring his empire, and not even 5 years after his death, huge rebellions erupted across his empire. Millions revolted, leading to the destruction of the Qin court. The Emperor's palace was burned down and the vault of his terracotta army (which ironically preserved it for posterity.) Two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang finished off the crumbling Qin army and then vied for supremacy to become the next leader of all of China- until only Liu Bang's army- and his Han Dynasty remained.


Music: Gone with Leaves

That Different Dynasty

When comparing the Qin and the subsequent Han dynasty, the key word should be "contrast."

Liu Bang, the first emperor of Han China was one of the few dynasty founders in Chinese history originating from the peasant class. During his reign, Liu Bang reduced taxes and corvée, promoted Confucianism, and sought to began his rule~ and by extension the temperament of his new dynasty on restoring what was good that was lost, and reserving what work well that the Qin made.

Where as the Qin government was a tightly controlled, paranoid, legalist machine with draconian laws so nightmarish it conjures up the image of the Galactic Empire where one is assumed guilty until proven of innocence- collectively, where its army was like an inhumane, robotic legion of outrage and atrocity-

The Han rulers restored the deposed Confucian scholars and returned them to esteemed positions as teachers and administrators of the empire, rulership would be governed by law, and laws based on Confucian moralistic principles, rulership would be sober and adhere to tradition rather than based on a personal cult of personalities, arts and literature~ after the hell of Qin rulership~ flourished again in profusion, and personal freedom was restored on a level unknown for a thousand years since the golden age of Western Zhou. Stability, high learning, leisure, and freedom returned in the Han.

The Qin and early Han dynasty, respectively next to each other

Late Western Han dynasty during reign of Han Wu Emperor in red
Eastern Han dynasty in Orange, incorporating the Tarim Basin

Ironically~ what the First Emperor sought to do with such force and savagery in an attempt to create his own dynasty that would last 1000 years~ ended up giving the foundation and buttressing the Han to rule~ for nearly half a millennium.

Because the Qin had crushed all local resistances and weakened the city walls and the ruling dynasties, the remaining weakened polities all conveniently submitted to Han rule without contention, Because the Qin had erected the Great Wall along all of China's northern boarder, the Han conveniently inherited a fortified frontier erected by slavery/ savagery (that they conveniently do not have to do the dirty work) because Qin had unified all of China's measurements, language, and organization) the Han conveniently inherited the blood vessels and tools of an Empire but does not have to be the ones to force people into changing their ways. Because the Qin had pioneered a "nationalized" army with a proven system of hierarchy and approved drafting musters, the Han conveniently only has to call and the right part of the new nation will contribute the necessary quota of soldiers. In short~ if the Qin were not such "bad guys" the Han would never so easily be such "good guys." and ultimately, Qin was quite right in nearly all of his national projects. I think the western scholars are right to acknowledge Qin's achievements despite the Chinese people's reluctance to give him that dignity. The Chinese might call themselves Han folk- but to the Romans the Chinese were always the worthy children of that "Qin-a."

But the most important, and arguably most enduring element the Han inherited from the Qin was the finest- the most dangerous parts of the Qin army.

Early Western Han cavalry figurine
The (Changing) Doctrine

Though the Han had inherited a remarkable army from the Qin system, in time, it has to prove itself in accordance to the changing dynamics it faced. This section will describe what the Han changed that was so singular to them.

The doctrine of the Han army could be described as a transition- from internal division and civil war to internal stability and fully turning its attention against external threats. In the 800 years since the Zhou Kings lost control of the entire realm, it was up to the local strongmen~ the military governors, the frontier march kings to defend the frontiers against steppe invaders while they also warred with each other. Each had erected some sort of wall or series of forts on their north to parry invading hordes, but the gaps (often left by frontier lords designed to channel the foe into his enemy's lands) which the nomads frequently exploited. With the Great Wall completed and the empire consolidated under the Han emperors. The army's role changed as well.

No longer were wars about contention of provinces and walled cities with similarly armed (and armored) Chinese infantry blocks, no longer were battles with set piece, ritualized formations and elaborately gilded chariots designed more like a pageant than total war. No longer were wars a constant thing between themselves. Thus~ wars were turned against the frontier invaders and a new doctrine emerged~ which displayed itself in armament and deployment.

Steppe Terrors

The Xiongnu, a nomadic steppe confederation (some credited them as the ancestors of the Huns, though there are sources from China that marked them as having red hair and blonde hair, as well as "prismatic" eyes- most likely they were both, either a caucasian Indo European central tribe overlording a mongoloid sets of vassals, or more likely an mongoloid host ruling many native Indo- European city states in the Tarim Basin called the Tocharians.)

The Xiongnu frequently led incursions to the Han frontier and had considerable political influence over the border regions. In response, The first Han Emperor- Liu Bang led a Han army against the Xiongnu in 200 BC, pursuing them as far as present-day Datong, Shanxi before being ambushed by the Xiongnu chief Modu Chanyu's cavalry. His encampment was encircled by the Xiongnu, but Liu Bang escaped- though only barely. After realizing that a military solution was not feasible for the time being, Liu Bang negotiated a peace with Modu Chanyu. In 198 BC, a marriage alliance was concluded between the Han and the Xiongnu, and forced the Han to submit as a de facto inferior partner, despite this humiliation, the Xiongnu violated the terms and continued their raids on the Han borders.

The policy of "Heqin"~ or peace through marriage, where the Emperor would send the nomads one of the imperial households's cadet family's princesses to placate these barbarians proved to be extremely unpopular with the Han nobles, who regarded it not only as a feckless disgrace combining the worst elements or kidnapping and rape but also inovked the implication that such marriages effectively made the Xiongnu Chief the Emperor's equal through such relation.

Though Liu Bang had united all of China and wrangled the various Qin successors into his lenient fold, his defeat at the hands of the Xiongnu would forever haunt the conscious of his successors so that seven of the emperors after him were forced to engage in a ceaseless mortal struggle with hordes from the steppes.

Music: Swift Sword
The New Paradigm

To counter such monstrous and ceaseless threats, mobility and deployment became paramount. In 169 BC, the Han general-minister Chao Cuo (pronounced "Tsao Tsor") was one of the first known ministers to suggest to Emperor Wen that Han armies should have a cavalry-centric army to counter the nomadic Xiongnu to the north, since Han armies were still primarily infantry with cavalries and chariots playing a supporting role.

He advocated the policy of "using barbarians to attack barbarians," that is, incorporating surrendered Xiongnu and other nomadic tribes into the Han military, a suggestion that was eventually adopted, especially with the establishment of dependent states of different nomads living on the Han empire's frontiers.

Chao also advocated a permanent system of frontier defense and the importance of agriculture. Chao characterized the Xiongnu as people whose livelihood did not depend on permanent settlement and were always migrating. As such, he wrote, the Xiongnu could observe the Han frontier and attack when there were too few troops stationed in a certain region. He noted that if troops are mobilized in support, then few troops will be insufficient to defeat the Xiongnu, while many troops will arrive too late as the Xiongnu will have retreated by then. He noted that keeping the Xiongnu mobilized will be at a great expense, while they will just raid another time after dispersing them. To negate these difficulties, Chao Cuo elaborated a proposal, which in essence suggested that military-agricultural settlements with permanent residents should be established to secure the frontier and that surrendered tribes should serve along the frontier against the Xiongnu.

Light Han cavalry, these troops would mostly be equipped with crossbows

Cavalry~ which before had mostly been relegated to the role of skirmishers, almost analogous to the role of carbineers armed with crossbows~ are now tasked with directly engaging the steppe cavalry on head on melee assaults. As a result, the Han cavalry became more heavily armored and drilled to attack in deep formations. 

The new combined arms doctrine of the Han army, which utilized massive columns of native
and auxiliary cavalries peppered in conjunction with disciplined infantry blocks. Both infantry
and cavalry would be equipped with swords, spears, halberds, as well as bows and crossbows.

In a memorandum entitled Guard the Frontiers and Protect the Borders that he presented to the throne in 169 BC, Chao compared the relative strengths of Xiongnu and Han battle tactics. In regards to the Han armies, Chao deemed the Xiongnu horsemen better prepared for rough terrain due to their better horses, better with horseback archery, and better able to withstand the elements and harsh climates. To counter such slippery foes~ it was during the Han that the Chinese war chariots faded away in obsolescence~ replaced by true fighting cavalry.

However, on level plains, he regarded Xiongnu cavalry inferior especially when faced with Han shock cavalry and chariots as the Xiongnu are easily dispersed. He emphasized that the Xiongnu were incapable of countering the superior equipment and weaponry and thus if they were forced to fight in a pinned battle, the Han would prevail. He also noted that in contrast the Han armies were better capable to fight in disciplined formations. According to Chao, the Xiongnu were also defenseless against coordinated onslaughts of crossbow bolts—especially long-ranged and in unison—due to their inferior leather armor and wooden shields. When dismounted in close combat, he believed that the Xiongnu, lacking the ability as infantry, would be decimated by Han soldiers.

Thus, to succeed against such a mortal foe, it would be imperative to shore up the defensive forts along the Great Wall then project out, march deep with abundant supplies to seek a decisive battle far away from any rough terrain conducive to an enemy ambush. And when the foe is pinned, the Han should trap it with everything it possesses until the enemy is bloodied beyond recovery.


A various assortment of Han armor displayed. The levies on the left are wearing simple lamellar plaits while the officers donned heavy overlapping scale and lamellar armor. They also wears scale helmets
Chinese armors from Shang to the Sui dynasties (2600BC-550AD) 4-7 represents Zhou and Warring State Armor, including Qin Armor 5-7. Most of the Armor of 400 years of the Han would range from 5- 10. Note that there was an attempt to both make the armor more flexible while covering more of the body~ note also that 8, 10 offered good protection as cavalry armor. 11-12 represents Jin- early Tang armor

Earlier Han armor: the first swords man wears an almost identical armor to Qin terracotta 
soldiers. It would be constructed of rigid bronze plates connected by cords sewn over the leather underneath. 
The second infantry man displays a rigid lamellar armor of simple construction.

Lamellar plaits are worn by the lighter components of the cavalry, while officers wears very heavy "fish scale" armor and scale helmets.

New Han armor: a scale corselet and a scale armor of an officer. These not only provided more flexibility
but also covered over more of the exposed body like the spleen. They were also excellent cavalry armor

During the Han dynasty, new style of armour such as scale corselet made of leather and/or iron were adopted. During this time period, the primary metal used in armour was iron, and occasionally steel. Early Han soldiers would have used armour and weapons produced during the Qin era. The Han army had armour standardized to meet the need. Armour used by the Han included coats of plates; 两当铠 (liang-tang, or "double-faced" armour); and lamellar cuirases made of metal or leather that was suspended over the shoulders by cords. This armour was used by both the infantry and the cavalry. A much heavier and more expensive version, consisting of metal plates laced together, was worn by officers.

Various armors from the early Han to the Three Kingdom era. Levy armor, cavalry armor, and officer's armor. 

During much of the Warring States period, most light cavalry units served as skirmishers - thus armour for cavalry was rare, as it was not seen as necessary. Armour for heavier cavalry tended to be lighter than that of the infantry. Cavalry armour was usually constructed entirely of leather, and lacked shoulder protection. However, during the late Warring States era and the dynasties succeeding it, cavalry armour gradually become heavier and more elaborate. By the time of Eastern Han, there appeared heavy cavalry with full body protection for both rider and horse, ranging from coat of plates to lamellar. Melee fighting and deep charges were not only expected, but thoroughly planned.

Shields were used by both infantry and cavalry. These shields were usually made of wood and often reinforced by a metal centre and rim.

It should be point out that compared to the armor of the Mediterranean world, even the heaviest elements of the Han army appears to be much lighter armored, however its also important to point out that while the Mediterranean world along the olive line contended each other with mostly infantry battles~ where the Roman style of heavy infantry warfare reigned supreme (with the exceptions of the Celto-Iberians and the Numidians.) When we apply that comparison to the Han army it was akin to Han's wars with the Vietnamnese and Korean kingdoms, which early on mostly utilized infantry with limited cavalry support.

The analogy of the condition the Han faced with the Xiongnu would be comparable to Rome's entanglements with the Parthians and the Scythians, both foes which Rome never decisively crushed. Thus it should be noted the Han army primary, secondary, and existential purpose was to counter the horse archer armies from the steppe~ blending versatility with with mobility. Despite this point, the Han armor, and Chinese armor in general would continue to become heavier and more elaborate until culminating in the heaviest forms of Tang cataphracts and the cataphracts of the Jin dynasty~ where both men and horse are fully armored behind steel lamellar plates. For its time being- when compared to the rest of Asia~ the Han army was the most heavily armored army in the region until the advent of the extremely heavy clibanarii fielded by the Koreans Kingdom of Goguryeo in the 600s

For nearly four centuries, the Han possessed one of the most heavily armored armies in Asia, until 
the degree of armor and armament was surpassed by the Clibanarii of the Koreans. 

To War

Campaigns conducted by Emperor Wu, and two of his generals Wei Qing and Hou Qubing, involving projecting beyond the Great Wall through the narrow Gansu Corridor (on the east) and into the dry and barren Taklamakan Desert, where at its center was an arrid wasteland, the various confederations of the Xiongu would have settled in a ring around the desert, called the Ordos Loop, each a small nomadic chiefdom of its own

During Emperor Jing's reign, the frontiers were further fortified, the Han court initiated breeding programs for military horses and established 36 large government pastures in the border regions, extending from Liaodong to Beidi. In preparation for the military use of the horses, the best breeds were selected to partake military training. The Xiongnu frequently raided the Han government pastures, because the military horses were of great strategic importance for the Han military against them. By the time of Emperor Wu's reign, the horses amounted to well over 450,000.

By the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC), the Han empire was prospering and the national treasury had accumulated large surpluses. However, burdened by the frequent Xiongnu raids at the frontier of the Han empire, the emperor abandoned the placating policies of his predecessors to maintain peace with the Xiongnu early in his reign~ and resorted for a knock out confrontation with the hordes.

In 136 BC, after continued Xiongnu incursions near the northern frontier, Emperor Wu had a court conference assembled. The faction supporting war against the Xiongnu was able to sway the majority opinion by making a compromise for those worried about stretching financial resources on an indefinite campaign: in an engagement along the border near Mayi, Han forces would lure the Xiongnu Chieftan over with wealth and promises of defections in order to eliminate him and cause political chaos for the Xiongnu- as the Xiongnu has an extremely unstable system of succession.

Music: At the Emperor's Palace

In 133 BC, the conflict escalated to a full-scale war when the Xiongnu realized that the Han was about to ambush them at Mayi. The Han court decided to deploy several military expeditions towards the regions situated in the Ordos Loop, Hexi Corridor, and Gobi Desert in an attempt to conquer it and expel the Xiongnu from using the local city states as staging points.

At the start of Emperor Wu's reign, the Han empire had a standing army comprising 400,000 troops, which included 80,000 to 100,000 cavalrymen, essential to the future campaigns against the Xiongnu. However, by 124 BC, that number had grown to a total of 600,000 to 700,000 troops, including 200,000 to 250,000 cavalrymen. In order to sustain the military expeditions against the Xiongnu and its resulting conquests, Emperor Wu and his economic advisors undertook many economic and financial reforms, which proved to be highly successful. For both his acumen and martial prowess, his successors would name him "the martial emperor" ("Wu" or "Wudi"~ meaning "martial emperor" is not his name but a qualifier given by his successors- like Augustus)

The bloody Battle of Mobei (119 BC) saw Han forces invade the northern regions of the Gobi Desert. In 119 BC, two separate expeditionary forces led by two veteran Han generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing mobilized towards the Xiongnu. The two generals led the campaign to the Khangai Mountains where they forced the Xiongnu chief Chanyu to flee north of the Gobi Desert. The two forces together comprised 100,000 cavalrymen, 140,000 horses, and few hundred thousand infantry. They advanced into the desert in pursuit of the main force of the Xiongnu.

Despite the bloody cost, the military campaign was a major Han military victory against Xiongnu, where the Xiongnu were driven from the Gobi Desert. The Xiongnu casualties ranged from 80 to 90 thousand troops, while the Han casualties ranged from 20 to 30 thousand troops. In the aftermath, the Han forces had lost around 100,000 horses during the campaign.

The 20 year old general Huo Qubing's army encircled and overran their enemy, killing around 70,000 Xiongnu, including a chieftain commander deigned Tuqi- King of the Left. They also captured three Xiongnu lords and 83 Xiongnu nobles. Though an exhaustive affair, after Mobei, the initiative and momentum fell to the Han, from then on, the Xiongnu were put on the defensive as the Han army tried to detach the various Xiongnu vassals in the Tarim Basin one by one to cajole them into the Han fold. It would be a war of diplomacy and bribery, both the Han and the Xiongnu would each offer various terms and privileges to the local city states and the kings.

Hereafter, the war progressed further towards the many smaller states of the Western Regions. The nature of the battles varied through time with many casualties during the changes of possession or loss of actual control over the western states near the frontier regions. Regional alliances also tended to shift or get broken forcibly depending on the situation as one party gained the upper hand in a certain territory over the other. Due to the many losses inflicted to the Xiongnu, native rebellion soon broke out and former enslaved people rose up to arms against their steppe overlords. Around 80 BC, the Xiongnu attacked the Wusun (an Indo- European state in the region) in a punitive campaign and soon the Wusun monarch requested military support from the Han empire.

The Wusun (grand children of the crows) tribe became one of Han's main auxillaries, 
they were an Indo-European people characterized by this golden brooch 
found in the burial mound of one of its nobles. 

In 72 BC, the joint forces of the Wusun and Han invaded the territory of the Xiongnu Chief- King of the Right. Around 40,000 Xiongnu people and many of their lifestock were captured before their city was sacked after the battle. The very next year, various native tribes invaded and raided the Xiongnu territory from all fronts; Wusun from the west, Dingling from the north, and Wuhuan from the east. The Han forces had set out in five columns and invaded from the south. According to Hanshu, this event marks the beginning of Xiongnu decline and the dismantlement of the confederation.

The Eastern Han (25-220 AD.) also known as the Later Han, was formed on 5 August 25, 25 AD. after 14 years of chaos where the Han minister Wang Mang usurped his Emperor and proclaimed his own short- lived and disastrous "Xin" (meaning "new") dynasty.

At once, many rebellions erupted across the Han Empire. During the widespread rebellion against Wang Mang, the state of Goguryeo was free to raid Han's Korean commanderies; Han did not reaffirm its control over the region until AD 30. The Trưng Sisters of Vietnam rebelled against Han in AD 40. Their rebellion was crushed by Han general Ma Yuan (d. AD 49) in a campaign from AD 42–43. Wang Mang renewed hostilities against the Xiongnu, who were estranged from Han until their leader Bi (比), a rival claimant to the throne against his cousin Punu (蒲奴), submitted to Han as a tributary vassal in AD 50. This created two rival Xiongnu states: the Southern Xiongnu led by Bi, an ally of Han, and the Northern Xiongnu led by Punu, an enemy of Han.

During the turbulent reign of Wang Mang, Han lost control over the Tarim Basin, which was conquered by the Northern Xiongnu in AD 63 and used as a base to invade Han's Hexi Corridor in Gansu. But the Han under general Dou Gu was able to swiftly reconquer the area and evict the invaders from the frontier region.

Between 73 to 102 AD, General Ban Chao led several military campaigns in the Tarim Basin, Ban Chao enlisted the aid of the Kushan Empire, occupying the area of modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, to subdue Xiongnu Kashgar and its ally Sogdiana from the west, while he would attack the basin from the east. In his series of successes. He re-establishing Han control over the region and drove his foe as far as the Caspian Sea in the west. The war resulted in the total victory of the Han empire over the Xiongnu state in 89 AD.

The warpath of Ban Chao, general, explorer and diplomat of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Breached through the Xiongnu states until he drove them as far as the Capsian Sea in the west. There are some historians who claimed that he stumbled upon western mercenaries that fought in the Roman manner.

The ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Southern Xiongnu to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han sovereignty into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia, tore the Xiongnu into two separate confederations, and helped establish the vast trade network known as the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean world. There, In addition to tributary relations with the Kushans, the Han Empire received gifts from the Parthian Empire, and initiated an unsuccessful mission to Daqin (Rome) in AD 97 with Gan Ying as emissary. A Roman embassy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180 AD) is recorded in the Hou Hanshu to have reached the court of Emperor Huan of Han (r. AD 146–168) in AD 166, though some asserts that this was most likely a group of Roman merchants.

Though the Southern Xiongnu tribes remained as allies of the Han, the Northern Xiongnu Confederations persisted in raiding the frontiers along the entire northern western frontier.

The Final Blow Beneath the Altai Mountains

In 89 AD, General Dou Xian led a Han expedition against the Northern Xiongnu.

His 78,000 (46.000 Han troops with 30,000 Southern Xingnu, and 8000 auxillieries) army would tackle the Northern Xiongnu army numberin 216,000, at the foot of the Altai Mountains

The army advanced from Jilu, Manyi, and Guyang in three great columns. In the summer of 89, the forces—comprising a total of 40,000 troops—assembled at Zhuoye Mountain. Near the end of the campaign, Dou's forces chased the Northern Chanyu (Xiongnu) into the Altai Mountains, killing 13,000 Xiongnu and accepting the surrender of 200,000 Xiongnu from 81 tribes.

A light cavalry of 2000 was sent towards the Xiongnu at Hami, capturing the region from them. General Dou Xian marched with his troops in a triumphal progress to the heartland of the Northern Xiongnu's territory (near present-day Ulaan Baatar) and erected a stele at Mount Yanran, before returning to Han. The Han victory in the campaign of 89 AD resulted in the destruction of the (Northern) Xiongnu state.

The significance of this occasion was something beyond the mortal duel between Rome and Carthage, but more akin to Rome itself not only breached through the many Germanic tribes on its northern frontiers, but also drove it to the "Spawning" place of the German people~ at the heart of the "Womb of Nations" in Scandza~ the mortal threat was gone. The Western region would remain a relatively stable front for centuries to come.

Ban Chao, general, explorer, governor, and diplomat of the Western Regions.
His name literally means, "surpass excellence."

A New Chapter

With the destruction of the Xiongnu threat, the Han reached a new era in its military. Though there were still many neighboring major steppe confederations such as the Xianbei, the Rouran Confederation (who would establish their own Chinese dynasty called "Northern Wei") the Yuezhi, and the White Huns, for the time being, the Han maintained a cordial, if stable relation with them all.

Following the military successes against the Xiongnu, General Ban Chao was promoted to the position of Protector General and stationed in Kucha in 91 AD. At the remote frontier, Ban Chao reaffirmed the Han court's over-lordship over the Western Regions from 91 AD onwards. By the conclusion of the so called Han- Xiongnu War, the western front would be left in peace~ until the coming of another series of relentless hordes, the Huns and the Kushans.

The Southern Xiongnu—who had been situated in the Ordos region since about 50 AD—remained within the territory of the Han empire as semi-independent tributaries. They were dependent to the Han empire for their livelihood as indicated by a memorial from the Southern Chanyu (Xiongnu) to the Han court in 88 AD.

During the reign of Emperor Wu, he sent out Zhang Qian as his envoy to distant lands in the west, he brought back important information in regards to the Kushans, the Sogdians, and the Bactrians, as well as Parthia. Though the Xiongnu still operated fiercely in the area during his travels (100BC- contemporaneous to the Civil Wars of the Roman Republic,) his journey would pave the ways for formal relations to be established between China and the various polities along the vast trade network, eventually leading to the creation of the Silk Road.

The stabilization of the frontier established the first nodes of the Silk Road, which paved the way for a direct access from Han China, and chinese goods to reach distant kingdoms like Bactria, the Kushan Empire, Sogdiana, and the Parthian Empire, and finally, Rome- which the Han called "Daqin" Empire. Buddhism, trade, and new ideas would all flow into the Empire until Buddhism became the new religion of the masses for the next five centuries to come.

For the time being, the Western Regions would flourish as a quiet outskirt of on the empire's fringes, forgotten in solitude, it would became a buddhist sanctuary, a multi cultural, multi lingual society, and the entrance of the Silk Road.

Though externally the Han accomplished its mission over its mortal foes, and also able to reaffirm its hold during the chaos of the crisis that separated the Han dynasty in two. The destruction of the Han Empire would actually come from within. Court intrigues and eunuchs would eventually destroy the Empire and plunge it into an era of high warlordom know as the Three Kingdoms. But that topic would be examined in another post entirely.

Music: Overture by Tan Dun


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