Tang Dynasty Cavalry Overview 大唐骑兵

The 7th and first half of the 8th century are generally considered to be the era in which the Tang reached the zenith of its power. In this period, Tang control extended further west than any previous dynasty, stretching from Vietnam in the south, to northern Korea in the north-east, but most significantly to Kashmir in modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan bordering Persia in the west.

The Tang empire in 669 AD after the vassalization of the Eastern Gokurks and the complete defeat of the Western Gokturks. The Tang would incorporate the various vassals of the Western Turks, accepting tributes from the polities all along the coast of the Aral Sea. 

The Tang cavalry were instrumental in establishing the empire's dominance in the western regions and in re-establishing a strong Chinese presence along the Silk Road, such that the victories of the Tang in the western regions and Central Asia have been offered as explanations as to why western peoples beyond the realm referred to China by the name 唐家 "House of Tang" (Tangjia.)

Closeup of of a military parade from the Dunhuang Grottoes which displayed the Tang heavy cavalry in full combat gear, supplanted by heralds and ensigns (probably Central Asian auxiliaries) in silk uniforms. The heaviest elements of the cavalry are encased in lamellar armors. These represents the medium elements of Tang cavalry~ the heaviest elements, i.e. the ones used by the generals and the imperial guards would not only have a rider in full lamellar armor but would also ride on horses completely covered in lamellar or scale armor as well. 

A Tang dynasty heavy cavalryman. The soldier is almost entirely encased in heavy lamellar armor, and carries a distinctive painted lacquer shield with kite- like 4 color motif. In his right hand he carries a battle axe and a composite bow is slung by his side.


A Tang generalissimo in heavy Mingguang armor. Tang armies were initially led by a military aristocracy, but by the end of the dynasty most of the Tang generals were appointed military governors (Jiedushi) that virtually governed their frontiers like their own private kingdoms.

The elite cavalry the Tang Dynasty was staffed with a rather disproportionately large population of Turkic soldiers, referred to as Tujue in Chinese sources. Tang elites in northern China were familiar with Turkic culture, a factor that contributed to the Tang acceptance of Turkic recruits. They would participate in all of the Tang dynasty's expeditions, including against Goguryeo.

The ever- liberal Tang emperor Taizong adopted the simultaneous title of "Heavenly Kaghan" and promoted a cosmopolitan empire. Taizong's adoption of the Heavenly Kaghan title was used to legitimize his role as a steppe khan not solely as a Chinese emperor with the title of Son of Heaven. ~In fact, Taizong himself tended to the injuries of the Turkic Generals Qibi Heli and Ashina Simo, who were both wounded during the campaign against Goguryeo.

As such, Taizong regularly recruited and promoted military officers of Turkic ancestry, whose steppe experience contributed to the western and northern expansion of the Tang empire. The Turkic generals Ashina She'er, Ashina Simo, Ashina Helu (all of the royal Ashina clan of the Gokturks) participated in the Tang capture of the Karakhoja, Karasahr, and Kucha kingdoms in Xinjiang for the dynasty.

However the half-Turkic general An Lushan did started a revolt that led to the decline of Tang Dynasty.

The Orkhon inscriptions by the Gokturks were critical of the Turks that had served the Tang Dynasty, and condemned them for helping the Chinese emperor expand his burgeoning empire. The Turkic soldiers stationed by the Chinese in the Tang garrisons of Central Asia settled in the region, spreading Turkic languages in an area that had been predominantly Indo-European. After the collapse of the Tang, a Turkic clan would go on to rule 3 of the many dozen kingdoms that succeeded the Tang Dynasty following its disentegration.


Most of the Tang cavalry wore very heavy lamellar armor that covered their bodies, consisted of small platelets known as "lamellae", which are punched and laced together, typically in horizontal rows.

Lamellae can be made of metal, leather, horn, stone, bone or more exotic substances. Metal lamellae may be lacquered to resist corrosion or for decoration. Unlike scale armour, which it resembles, lamellar armour is not attached to a cloth or leather backing (although it is typically worn over a padded undergarment.)


Chanfron and barding (horse armor) of a 4th-7th century Chinese cataphract, 
note the ostentatious plume Jisheng 寄生, lit. "parasite" on the horse's hip. 

With the invention of the  of the solid saddle allowed development of the true stirrup as it is known today. The higher stability provided to the rider augmented the already powerful armored horsemen into true (one could almost say) medieval cavalry.

By the Tang Dynasty, the empire fielded a massive core of heavy cavalry that fought with great contingents of steppe auxiliary from client protectorates. The endless wars with the various Turkic polities would see them extensively deployed against China's foes on its northern and western fringes.


The military of the empire was based on the Fubing system, a draft system where quotas of local militias could be mobilized quickly in times of war. By the year 737, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang discarded the policy of conscripting soldiers that were replaced every three years, replacing them with long-service soldiers who were more battle-hardened and efficient.

The composition of the armies were uncertain, but according to works of Li Jing, the Duke of Wei and a Tang general who helped to destroy the Gokturk Empire- a typical campaign army would be made up of a force of around 10% crossbowmen, 10% archers, 20% cavalry and the remainder as foot soldiers. Each infantry soldier was expected to carry a saber, lance, a bow and armor. 

Top: Tang cataphracts, with soldiers in mingguang armor and horses encased in barding.

7th-8th century 突厥汗国 Gokturk champions in lamellar armor- intersected by a kneeling horse archer. The main fighting strength of the Gokturks lies within their extremely mobile cavalry archers
回鶻 Uighurs allies of the Tang~ originally from Mongolia who were positioned to be in charge of much of the Tarm Basin in the 8th-9th century~ during which they served as Tang military vassals in the region.

The nature of the army was heavily influenced by the sort of fighting that it engaged in. For most of the Tang dynasty the wars were fought against the mobile, nomadic tribes of Inner Asia. As a result the Tang largely abandoned heavy cavalry in favor of the more nimble and versatile light cavalry (qingji) and battles frequently relied on feints by small forces to lure the enemy into traps (eg. Irtysh in 657). Though heavy cavalry~those with lamellar barding and other heavy horse armor were still provided for the generals and the guard troops. 

Indeed the use of cavalry is one of the most notable aspects of the Tang Dynasty and considerable effort was invested in breeding and training horses, the result of this was that the Tang Dynasty was able to field a larger cavalry element than ever before. ~It should be also noted that at a large portion of many of such distinguished "Tang" cavalry divisions are themselves composed of Turks auxiliary and led by Turkic commanders.


The massive Gokturk Empire (552-659). a virtual "super power" of the region. A multi ethnic empire that predated the Mongol Empire by over 600 years. During the nearly three century of
political fragmentation in China known as the Era of Disunity~ or the Northern and Southern
Period. The Gokturks took advantage of the chaos in China and played off the various Chinese polities against each other. 

However, when a unified China was reformed under the Sui dynasty, Emperor Wen of Sui reverted this by playing off the various brothers and uncles of the Gokturk Khagan (Khan,) who ruled as lords and frontier generals- against him by exorbitant bribes. The short-lived Sui would collapse 30 years later, displaced by the new Tang dynasty~ By the beginning of the Tang dynasty, the mighty Gokturk empire has already shown disturbing signs of fragmentation- and had split into two empires~ the Eastern and the Western Gokturk Empire following a Civil War.

The Northern and Southern Dynasties of a divided China: The north was simultaneously divided between the mighty Northern Zhou in the NW (from where the Sui would one day rise up) and the Northern Qi- in the NE. During the 50 years since the Gokturk Empire's founding, they would have at times married with the Princesses of one of the northern Chinese polities while simultaneously raided the other. For those who lived in northern China, Gokturk raids were a constant affair, if not in the east then in the west. 


The Eastern Gokturk Khaganate, which had been a vassal to Tang Dynasty's predecessor Sui Dynasty, had turned against Sui during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui (r. 604-618) and subsequently, during Sui's breakup late in Emperor Yang's reign, had intervened in the process by supporting various claimants to the imperial title—including Tang's founder Emperor Gaozu, after the establishment of the Tang, the empire then had two powerful Gokturk polities~ the Eastern and the Western Gokturk empires on the north and the western fringes of the empire.


Facing the threat of both the Western and Eastern Turkic Khaganates, (two branches of the same Turkic Khanate split off after a civil war)~ which at whim could rejoin and pose two simultaneous threats to the empire's fronts, the ever-calculating Emperor Taizong, second Emperor of Tang formed an alliance with the Western Turks against the Eastern Turks, adopting a policy of allying "with those who are far away to fight those who are close," an extension of the classic Han dynasty tactic of "using barbarians to control barbarians."

Early military conflicts were a result of the Tang interventions in the rivalry between the Western and Eastern Turks in order to weaken both. Under Emperor Taizong, campaigns were dispatched against the Turkic affiliated cities of the Tarim Basin, against Karakhoja in 640, Karasahr in 644 and 648, and Kucha in 648. A campaign that nearly mirrored those conducted by Emperor Wu of the Han against the Xiongnu 600 years ago.

Elite Tang dynasty cavalryman wearing the distinctive 虎冠 "tiger crown" that marked them as some of the most elite warriors on the battlefield, sometimes the item would be sewn out of colorful fabrics with gilded rims and lacquered features that imitated a grimacing tiger while other times real tiger skin (claws and head) would be used to give the wearer a ferocious aspect. These wings usually gathered the bravest and the highest quality of fighting troops 

Emperor Taizong died in 649. Subsequent to his death, a Western Turkic prince that he had supported, Shabolüe Khan Ashina Helu (阿史那賀魯), took over Western Turkic, but subsequently broke away from Tang and attacked Tang territory.

The wars against the Western Turks continued under Emperor Gaozong- the third emperor of the dynasty, and the khaganate was annexed after Gen. Su Dingfang's defeat of the Gokturk Kaghan, Ashina Helu in 657. The Western Turks attempted to capture the Tarim Basin in 670 and 677, but were repelled by the Tang. The Tibetans invaded the Tarim Basin in the 660s and drove Tang forces out in 670. A Tang counter-attack regained the Tarim Basin in 692.

The Tang empire in 669 AD after the vassalization of the Eastern Gokurks and the complete defeat of the Western Gokturks. The Tang would incorporate the various vassals of the Western Turks, accepting tributes from the polities all along the coast of the Aral Sea. 

It should be noted that the enmity between the Tang and the Gokturks was not a total war of the modern sense and should not be examined through our Post-Westphilian outlook as if it was a total struggle of two different, distinct nations with immutable boundaries- for both the Tang Dynasty and the Ashina Clan of the Gokturk empire were for the most part religiously tolerant, multi-ethnic and had hundreds of ethnic groups working for them~ including Han Chinese exclaves communities who have turned into nomads and worked for the Gokturks and many Turks (for there are more than 30 large warrior clans and hundreds of powerful clans between the two realms) who fought for the Tang.

Throughout Tang history, the multi-ethnic Empire would have had 10 Turkic Generalissimos. For both the Turkic Khan and the Chinese Emperor, war is part of life and a constant nature of the dynasty, territories are taken, but the entire people are never displaced, but rather simply expected to pay taxes and worship as they have done before~ though in long terms this did contribute to the gradual erosion of Indo-European language and culture as the Turks Migrated westward.

With the great sand sea of the Taklamakan desert at its center, and the ring of shield- like mountains surrounding it on four sides, human settlements could only emerge from the sparse oases dotting the region. With time, each of these oasis erected its own walled city-state headed by a local king. 

With the defeat of both the Eastern Gokturks and the Western Gokturks, The Tang Dynasty achieved its maximum extent as China's western borders reached the eastern frontier of the Arabic Umayyad Caliphate. For the administration of the region, the Tang ruled with a series of Turkic governor generals loyal to the Tang called the 安西四鎮 Four Garrisons of Anxi.


Mural painting of a smiling Uyghur prince. Another relief depits a camel trader

The Uighurs, a Turkic ally of the Tang dynasty that aided the destruction of the Gokturks-  
during the 8th-10th century still preserved their Buddhist- Manichaean beliefs, were rotated 
into a position of power as a result of these wars. ^ The above painting depicts high Uighur princes in elaborate colorful garbs. The Migration of the Turkic people would bring Islamic
Jihad ricochet back into the Tarim Basin and instill Islam as the dominate religion
in the region with the utter displacement of Buddhism. 

Later on, Turkic revolts ended Chinese hegemony beyond the Pamir Mountains in modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan, but a Tang military presence remained in Dzungaria and the Tarim Basin. The Turks, Tibetans, and the Tang competed for control over Central Asia for the next few centuries.

Central Asian mural depicting Buddhist monks, during this era, the Buddhist and Manichean religions factions held great sway over the Uyghur people.

As many of the Tang generals and soldiers stationed in the region were ethnically Turkic, the prevalence of Indo-European languages in Central Asia declined with acceleration of Turkic migration.

A scroll written with the ancient Khotanese, a Saka (Indo- European)  language 

The Tang then maintained control over the Western Regions for another century, but the loss of the Hexi Corridor to the Tibetans after the An Lushan rebellion caused the Four Garrisons to be cut off from the Tang empire and finally lost to the Tibetans for the second and last time in the 790s. The Uighurs would benefit the most from this struggle.

Central Asia absorbed much cultural influences from the conflict. Ironically, because the Turk's ancestors have actually originated from Modern Mongolia and had mostly operated there in the centuries before the conflict~ with the deployment of such vast Turkic communities as military garrisons and colonizers, this conflict actually began a billiard- ball effect of sending out Turkic Migrations that ultimately spilled the Turks into the Middle East.

Through the breach of this natural membrane, which had formerly contained the Turks within the northern steppes, Turkic culture and language spread further into the deserts of Central Asia and would one day be exposed to the influence of Islam that would cause a genocidal civil war between rival Turkic princes that would fatally end Buddhism for all the Turkic powers in the region to be replaced by Islam. By which time the Tang had long disintegrated into a patchwork of warlord-governors.

For more about the Tang military, please check out my
other Tang dynasty pieces.

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