Bayanchur Khan of the Uyghur Khaganate 回鹘♢英武可汗

At once warlord, builder, and undisputed master of the steppes, Bayanchur Khan (reign 747- 759) vigorously expanded the domains of the Uyghur Khaganate. During his reign he erected many cities and monuments that entrenched Uyghur hold over the steppes. He also helped to rescue the Tang dynasty from collapse during the An Lushan Rebellion by sending his cavalry to retake Chang An and Louyang.

The Uyghurs were the ascendant power in the 7th-8th century. Originally a small tribal confederacy hailing from the steppes of modern Mongolia, the Uyghurs cleverly kept an eye out on the most dominant forces in the region and pledged their services to them. Through cunning politicking, the Uyghurs slowly expanded their power by serving the great powers and then serving their rivals until their needs were met.

The earliest Turkic people possessed Asiatic features, including the Uyghurs. As a people they initially favored Buddhism before taking an interest in Manicheanism.

For many years they switched their allegiances between the Göktürk Khaganate, the Tibetan Empire, and the Tang dynasty. Very early on, the Uyghurs cultivated secret alliances with the Tang while they served the Göktürks and intervened actively in Chinese affairs. For their aid (like most steppe cultures) the Uyghurs received substantial payments of silk and other valuables from the Chinese. In 745 the Uyghurs killed the last Khagan of the Göktürks and pledged their alliance to the Tang. The Uyghur Khaganate was proclaimed.


Bayanchur Khan (reign 747- 759) also know as as Khagan El etmish bilge belonged to the ruling Yaghmalar tribe of the north, under his wise leadership, the Khaganate reached a golden age. He helped his father in vanquishing the Gokturk Khaganate and then- after succeeding his father, expanded the power of the Uyghur Khaganate with Tang aid.


Bayanchur's own stele inscriptions- the Tariot inscriptions mentioned that during the interregnum following the death of his father, Bayanchur fought against the tribes supporting his elder brother Tay Bilge Tutuk. After subduing most of them repeatedly, Bayanchur then proceeded to become the undisputed ruler of the steppes by subjugating most of the former vassals of the Göktürks. Many tribes swiftly pledged vassalage to the ascendant Uyghur Khaganate.

In 751, Bayanchur established the new capital called Ordu-Baliq, which was based on the Chinese model of city planning. The Khan would establish many trade posts along the Selenga River to facilitate trade in the region. He also established a series of 14 walled forts in his many campaigns to firmly secure his state. One of those forts which later expanded into a dazzling walled palace in the middle of a lake island was the summer palace of Por-Bazhyn. It too was modeled after a Chinese template of an ideal King's City gridded system.

The walled palace- city of Por-Bazhyn used at various times by Bayanchur Khan 
as his summer palace during his campaigns was constructed on a lake island. 
Like his capital at Ordu-Baliq, it too was modeled after a Chinese 
template of an ideal King's City gridded system.


When the devastating An Lushan Rebellion erupted in Tang China, on October 756 Bayanchur Khan rescued Tang Dynasty from collapse during the An Lushan Rebellion with 4,000 of his selected cavalry.  In 757 the joint Tang- Uyghur forces would liberate the Tang capital of Chang An from rebel control.

The Uyghur assistance came at a critical time but it also came with a heavy cost for the Tang, in 757. After the battle at Luoyang, the second capital of the Tang empire the Uyghurs looted the city for three days and stopped only after large quantities of silk were extracted (see below).

These would be short and immediate ramifications, for the long term effects the Tang would present the Uyghur with large sum of gifts, but in reality- it was more akin to tributes for having saved the dynasty.


For their aid, the Tang sent an exorbitant sum of 20,000 rolls of silk and bestowed the Uyghur princes with honorary titles. It was agreed that the Uyghurs would provide a total of 500 war horses fixed at the price of 40 rolls of the aforementioned tribute of silk for every horse provided to the Tang. A precedence was established that the Uyghurs would provide military aid, but at the cost of enormous amout of silk and gold. Some times, Uyghur allies would show up and not leave until they were stockpiled with such bribes. Foreign Uyghurs subjects were given the honorary "guest" status while they stayed in Tang China. This period coincided with the greatest extent of Uyghur power and Chang An would see thousands of Uyghur ex-patriots within it for many decades after.

Bayanchur Kagan would also strengthened the already close ties with the Tang through marriage with the ascended Emperor Suzong of Tang, who took a Uyghur princess in marriage while Bayanchur himself was given a Chinese princess, Ninguo, as his bride.

Above: An Uyghur Princess. Left: A mural of an Uyghur Khagan, dated around 8th century, Right: Uyghur Princesses from Bezeklik Caves, with the description written in old Uyghur Script: "The joyful princesses." The Princesses and the Old Uyghur script belonged to the 9th century Uyghurs of Karakhoja (Qocho) 

Bayanchur Khan would spent the rest of his reign consolidating his hegemony over the steppes. He erectect many steles that preserved the history of the Uyghur ancestors and also recorded fragments of Gokturk history. He died soon after ending his successful expedition against hostile tribes in the Sayan Mountains in the summer of 759 CE, during a feast devoted to this victory. His son Tengri Bögü would succeed him and bring in new relations with the Tang.


A Manichean scroll from Central Asia

Tang power was substantially weakened by the massive An Lushan Rebellion, where tens of millions perished. In the aftermath of the cataclysm, the neighboring Tibetan Empire would take advantage of Tang weakness and repeatedly launch multiple invasions in an attempt to bisect the Tang state in half. In 763, a force of 200,000 Tibetans invaded the Tang.

The Tang quickly discovered that various Uyghur princes were as ready to ally with the enemies of the Tang if the mood and opportunities struck them. Many Uyghur princes and chieftains would serve the powerful Tibetan Emperor Trisong Detsen in his invasions into China. In fact, due to in increased Sogdian and their Manichean religious influences (Tengri Bögü had favored Manicheanism and made it the state religion of the Khaganate) Tengri Bögü himself even planned and attempted to invade the Tang to take advantage of Tang weakness. However, Bögü's uncle openly condemned the plan and went as far as killing Bögü and the many Sogdian courtiers to revert the direction that was set.


The resurgent Tibetan Empire would drastically shape the political landscape of late 8th century East Asia. The hostility the Empire showed toward the Uyghurs in repeated wars on its western flank would drive them to a closer relationship with the Tang. The Tang would doggedly fight for its western domains until finally loosing them. Hexi waypoint garrisons such as Liangzhou (764), Ganzhou, Suzhou (766), Guazhou (776), Yizhou (781) and Shazhou (787) would be repeatedly occupied by the Tibetans. The isolated Chinese troops left in the Tarim Basin continued to hold these garrisons until 790 as attested by the pilgrim monk Wukong. In the year 790 the garrisons along with the the whole of the western territories of the Tang fell into Tibetan hands.

Geographical nightmares- The Gansu Corridor and the modern region of Qinghai served as strategic weak points for the Tang dynasty. All the goods and reinforcements needed to pass this thin neck before they were able to be delivered to Tang's western regions. The Tibetans have long realized this and staged many decisive attacks in hopes to overwhelm the Tang and sever the state in half. 

As the Tang finally lost control of its western territories the Uyghurs slowly
expanded westward in their prolonged struggles against the Tibetan
Empire. In due time they would have gained a foothold in the 
Tarim Basin after they expelled the Tibetans

Through it all, the powerful Tibetan Empire prevailed and dominated, defeating both the Tang and the Uyghurs in a numbers of great battles and expanded as far as the Tarim Basin and the areas of modern Manipur and Yunnan Province. It's control of Silk Road access was such that it forced the Abbasid Caliphate at its height under Harun al-Rashid to seek an alliance with China against the Tibetans. 


Interestingly, the weakening of the Tang, the already deeply entangled tripartite wars between the Uyghur Khaganate, Tang, and the Tibetan Empire would also spell out the new destiny for the Uyghur people. As the Tang receded, the Uyghurs looked westward and attempted to wrestle the western regions from Tibetan hold and- with tacit Tang support, claim it as their own. In their long struggle, they would take Karakhoja (Qocho)- which would become their foothold in the Tarim Basin. 

When the Kyrgyz- another Turkic people swiftly destroyed the Uyghur Khaganate in 840, the traumatic defeat and collapse of the Khaganate triggered a massive exodus of Uyghurs from Mongolia into Turfan, Kumul, and Gansu where they founded the Kingdom of Qocho and Gansu Uyghur Kingdom. 


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Muramasa S said…
Great post my friend was always intrigued by that Uyghur Khan portrait and their societies relations with Tang China.
What films are some of the pictures from?
Dragon's Armory said…
Thank you kindly for the comment, I try my best to not only do China but the various people on China's peripheries as well. In this case Bayanchur Khan and the golden age of the Uyghur Khaganate was very much in sync with the Tang dynasty and was deeply involved.

As for the movies: there's several, but mostly from Marco Polo series from Netflix and a Chinese fantasy series called "Tribes and Empires Storm of Prophecy", which is aesthetically based on Tang China, the steppe cultures featured in that show has a Turkic look to them.
Dragon's Armory said…
On a personal note: same man, I have always loved that portrait, the man is just...regal and very graceful and well learned, I felt honored to bring him more to life in my art
Der said…
You say in your article that the ancient Uyghurs had a more Asiatic appearance, that they were of Turkic stock which means genetically they were, and are, North East Asians, sharing the same genetic origins as Han Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Manchus, Mongols, etc, etc. If one goes to Xinjiang today you'll see today's Muslim Uyghurs have a lot of foreign blood, thinning their East Asiatic genetic makeup, i.e. they are not 'true' Uyghurs, since they have a large admixture of foreign blood, to say nothing about their conversion to a Middle Eastern Semitic religion.

Do you think this fact makes the current conflict in Xinjiang in a new light? That the claims of these Muslims is baseless since they have no claim to Xinjiang, since they no longer look like the ancestral Uyghur population, and are in fact a foreign Muslim mixed blooded population, having a tenuous link with the ancient and glorious Khanate of the past??
Dragon's Armory said…
Well the Turkic people are quite diverse, and I feel I am getting quite uncomfortable trying to quantify a nomadic people who roamed the vast Eurasian steppes from my very sedentary post-Westphalian perspective- there's so much blindspot that I don't even consider that I only feel comfortable focusing on the objective consensus.

The Steppes have always been a genetic estuary so to say "true" Uyghur is something that I really don't ugh- know. I think the Altai people should figure it out first. And it's not like they don't know this, the Turkic people are well known of the fact that the Oghuz Turks went westward and took on a more Middle Eastern Appearance while the Kipchak Turks stayed mostly in the east and retained their eastern appearances. However most of them could recognize the old Turkic tongue or spot words that they still recognize. This also extends to their names.

As for "True" anything in the steppes is kind of a strange qualifier. Steppe inhabitants are roamers, they make alliances, exchanges, and raids in very fluid manners, and because of such marriages and exchanges a lot could happen, and centuries of it will have exponential consequences in terms of identity and genetics. The steppes were always dominated by Caucasoid people and Mongoloid people in a seesaw back and forth for countless eons in a giant Eurasian "exchange" so to say they thinned out their genetic make up is again ^ one of those biases that ignored their world view, of how they defined their ingroup and outgroup- or what their governing philosophies are. Plus, change is the constant with the Turkic peoples. If they have a different criteria for a state then it's their way.

I am not remotely going to get into the politics of modern Xinjiang, it's one of the reasons I don't tread beyond 1912.
henrique said…
@Dragon's Armory

I believe that the dominant populations in inner Asia going as east as the slab grave culture in the gobi desert and bordering siberia starting at the bronze age, they were red-headed and blond Caucasians, according to the most recent archeology and ancient historiography of the Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese, you probably have heard of the ordos culture, tarim mummies, Afanasievo and others, if it were for me to stipulate what took place over millennia was the diffusion of animals and technology that allowed the demographic advance of peoples of prehistoric siberia toward the south, where there are sterile deserts and plains between northern asia and eastern asia
then eclipsing earlier migrations which had relatively to do with the andronovo culture and related ones, it is important to note that wheat , rye, barley, wheel, chariot, ferrous metallurgy, goats, sheep, domesticated horses, bactrian camel made their way from the rest of eurasia passing through the taklamakan desert and reaching the future sinosphere, xiongnu was the definitive end after a long time of miscegenation and conflicts to those descendants of Indo-European origin pushing the Yuezhi to Central Asia and further afield