Battle of Hulao Pass 虎牢之战 1: A Realm in Flames
3,000 vs 100,000. the Battle of Hulao- or the Battle of the Tiger's Trap Pass on May 28, 621 was one of the most decisive battles in all of Chinese history, the climax of which was decided by a deadly charge with one of the principle commanders- Prince Li Shimin of Tang leading from the front. Hulao made the Tang dynasty the undisputed ruler of China and cemented its rule in as a hegemonic power in Asia for the next 2 and a half centuries.
Music: Aang Faces Ozai
Music: Aang Faces Ozai
"Recently, there has been chaos under heaven. Nowhere in the land is there a lord. The world is falling apart and had abandoned the guiding ways of the Buddha. War-horses sweep through the land, the Middle Kingdom is boiling and the devils are all contending."
These words were uttered on the the 25th of May, 621 by one of the protagonists of our story, the brilliant 23 year old Li Shimin, the Prince of Tang as he described the state of the realm- his realm, in flames. These words were dictated as part of his congratulatory praise for a group of warrior monks of a then little known monastery that had rallied to his cause. 3 days later, Li would fight in one of the most lopsided battles in all of Chinese history (3,000 vs 100,000,) and both he and the monks who had thrown their lot in his cause would be enshrined in the deepest recesses of Chinese memory.
These would be the prelude of a battle in what was known as the battle of the "Tiger's Trap." This was the battle that finally presented a victor to the broken realm and where the Mandate of Heaven, which previously had seemed to elude all, finally placed its yellow mantle on a favored house. It was this battle that made the Tang dynasty the undisputed ruler of China and cemented its rule in as a hegemonic power in Asia for the next 2 and a half centuries. But before we get to its heroic climax, of the fatal, headlong charge with its warrior prince leading from the front- we must examine the deadly steps that all converged toward it: for it could be said, that all the three made men who converged here- an usurper emperor, a rebel king, and a warrior prince were all tigers in their own right.
THE POST SUI ANARCHY
The first two decades of 7th century China began with so much calamity that it was the picture of a Shakespearean tragedy. In 604, the much respected and diligent emperor Wen of Sui suddenly died during a stay at his summer palace. The son who would replace him: the future Yang of Sui was commonly whispered to have murdered the old emperor- since, almost simultaneously synchronizing with emperor Wen's death, the ruthless Yang slew his brother and had many of his potential rivals executed. The reign of emperor Yang of Sui would be one of the worst in Chinese history, for he was both a tyrant who conscripted millions of peasants to build huge projects across the country, including the Grand Canal but also dozens of palaces. He was also known for forcing millions on a series of disastrous invasions against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, from where they were repeatedly defeated. In times, whole regions were devastated with famine and millions and millions still continued to loose their lives while the emperor ignored their plights. Though he crushed dissension violently, by the latter days of his rule there were at least several dozens of rebellions all across the Sui empire.
It was here when one of emperor Yang's best generals- Li Yuan, the military governor of the north rebelled against Yang's rule and resoundingly defeated the Sui imperial army with the help of Li Yuan's brood of capable children. Li Yuan's children had proven to be warriors like their father, and 3 of his young sons were all generals who led many men into battle, most striking was perhaps his young 18 year old daughter: Princess Pinyang, who upon her own initiative went out to the many anti- Sui rebels and rallied some 70,000 rebels from the countryside for her father's rebellion, contributing to 1/3 of Li Yuan's whole army. Together, the house of Li took the Sui capital of Daxing (Chang An)- forcing Emperor Yang to flee south. It was there that Yang was strangled to death by his own mutinous generals. In the anarchy that followed, many powerful figures rose up to carve out their own domains in the power vacuum, it was a realm wide battle for supremacy, and whoever won in the end would have the stake of heaven and earth. The men who would try to carve out their destiny at Hulao were all such men.
THE THREE CONTENDERS
Ambitious Usurper of Henan: the half Sogdian Wang Shichong 王世充 was a Siyu huren
西域胡人, or "Foreigner from the western regions." During his early career he enlisted in one of the elite "Soaring Hawk" units, which were the most prestigious imperial cavalry vanguards of the Sui dynasty. He rose rapidly through the ranks by putting down many rebellions and was greatly favored by the tyrannical Emperor Yang of Sui. He was described as both extremely eloquent as well as extremely superstitious. Not only was he prone to impassioned heroic speeches but also performed many shamanistic sacrifices before battle.
His third quality was his deep abiding ambitions. When the Sui crumbled to anarchy and Emperor Yang was strangled by his own generals. Wang made his bid for power. First he rode with his elite corps to Luoyang at the heart of the empire- where the last heir of the Sui dynasty still struggles to maintain power. There Wang pledged his loyalty to the beleaguered young prince and eternal service as a Regent. However he quickly stole power for himself and had the Emperor assassinated, strangled to death by his own cousins. There- in Luoyang he gathered the imperial regalia and proclaimed himself emperor of a new dynasty called "Zheng." Henan, the breadbasket of the realm and the densely populated heart of imperial China became his domains.
Implacable Insurgent of Hebei: Dou Jiande 窦建德 would have been a Robinhood figure,
and perhaps a figure even worthy of being a heroic protagonist if not for inhabiting the same age as the heroic Li family. He was a just man who lived in a unjust age and had the making of a folk hero. Tall and charismatic, Dou was described as both honorable to his neighbors and his community while being deeply resentful of the corrupt court. Hebei repeatedly suffered from flooding and famine during the latter days of the Sui dynasty, and the local government was both brutal and corrupt. At one time there were no less than 2 dozens of active rebellions going on against the Sui court.
Like a figure from the later "Water Margins" After escaping to the wilderness, Dou befriended many honorable bandits Wuxia 武俠 who were forced into such an existence and swore brotherhood to them. After this Dou became a wrecking ball to the Sui government. He repeatedly destroyed many Sui garrisons and defeated some of the most powerful Sui generals on the field.
After absorbing many local Sui remnants. Dou gathered a massive personal army of outlaws and Sui remnants under his leadership. He would proclaim himself the Prince of Xia and make Hebei his stomping ground. By the time of the Battle of Hulao, Dou and his army would have been veterans of a decade of battles against the best of the Sui military.
THE BLACK ARMORED PRINCE OF FATE
Young general: Having been personally educated by his father Li Yuan in the arts of war and peace Li was exposed since childhood to the mounted warfare that was perennial in the chaotic north. When he was 16, he rode with his father and relieved the besieged Emperor Yang from the Gokturks, and when he was 18 joined his father in rebellion against the Sui and dealt his first defeats to the Sui imperial army in the battle of Houyi. Prince Shimin was known for his abilities to decisively exploit the weaknesses of his enemies and his bravery to always lead from the front.
Music: Way of the Dragon
Simply stated, Li had proven himself to be an extremely efficient destroyer of enemy armies. In 618, only months after his father Li Yuan took the Sui capital and established the new Tang dynasty, Li Shimin was sent westward to destroy the rival warlord Xue Ju in the nearby Gansu region- which Xue had made into his own personal fiefdom of called "Qin."
At the battle of Qianshuiyuan, Li drew out the Qin forces and resoundingly destroyed them in battle. After a relentless pursuit Li promised amnesty for the Qin solders in mass and forced the Qin defenders into turning their king to the Tang. Only a month later, report came in from the old Tang home base in Shanxi and warned that Li Yuan's old headquarters were attacked by his old nemesis, the fierce agrarian rebels Liu Wuzhou and Song Jingang (once rebels against the Sui,) launched a major combined offensive with Gokturk backing against Tang in the Spring of 619.
Liu Wuzhou and Song captured Shanxi's capital of Taiyuan in summer 619, forcing Li Shimin's brother, Li Yuanji, who had been in charge there, to flee, and then continued his offensive south. Li Yuan initially sent a force against the him, but by winter 619, Liu and Song had crushed that army and taken over nearly all of modern Shanxi. Shocked at the development, Li Yuan considered abandoning the region altogether. However Prince Shimin opposed doing so and offered to lead the army against the two rebels.
Li Yuan agreed and commissioned him with an army. Prince Shimin crossed the Yellow River, but Li Shimin refrained from committing to decisive battles, choosing rather to engage in prolonged skirmishes, probing actions, and duels while waiting his foes supplies to run out. And in spring 620, when Liu's army ran out of food supplies, they retreated. Li Shimin gave chase, dealing Liu's ally Song Jingang a major defeat. Liu, hearing of Song's defeat, abandoned Taiyuan in panic and fled northward back to his Gokturk patrons while Song's army crumbled before Li Shimin's onslaught.
Like on the previous occasions, Li Shimin relentlessly pursued them, expelling them first from Shanxi, then chased them further until all of the northern China- the home base of both Liu and Song fell into Tang hands and both rebels generals had to fled under the protection of the Eastern Gokturk Khagan. Liu would serve the Gokturk Khagan for some years before being executed by him.
Northern China and western China now securely belonged to the Tang, and hundreds of thousands of Liu and Song's men were enrolled into Prince Shimin's army. One of Song's top former warriors; the Xianbei general Yuchi Gong would become one of Li Shimin's most trusted champions in the days to come. Fresh from his crushing victory over Liu Wuzhou, in August 620 Li Shimin, with an army of 50,000 men, began his advance from Shanxi towards Luoyang. Here, the Tang made its bid for the most prosperous and most densely defended province of China: Henan. Henan was not only the heartland of China but whoever possessed in a victory could also expect to receive fealty from most of the surrounding regions.
HENAN AND HEBEI
Despite the rapid success of the Tang, at this point they had been but one of many powerful warlords within China. And in aftermath of the Sui dynasty's collapse into anarchy, there still existed many powerful warlords who took the initiative and made themselves the indesputed masters of their respective domains. Some were Sui governor- generals who simply retained control of their official provinces, while others had to resort to their abilities to take control of these strategic provinces, be it by cunning or by brute force.
Thus it could be said, despite the progress the Li family made, at this point the realm was still swarming with sharks, and the future was still direly in flux. And it was here, when the Tang turned its attention eastward toward the vital province of Henan that they ran into some of the most experienced opposition they would face. For at the great metropolis of Luoyang, one of the most experienced Sui generals ruled Henan as his domains.
CLASH OF THE MADE MEN
Because of his great eloquence, Wang was able to prove his worth to the young prince and convince the young ruler to bestow Wang and his military clansmen to key positions of military power in the Luoyang regime. However Wang's power was not as secure as he would like- for another unlikely obstacle crept up in the path of his ascension in this sector of the broken ream. Another character had emerged that quickly drew the favor of the young Sui prince (and eclipsed that of Wang's own.)
Like many of the agrarian rebels of this chaotic times, Li Mi was one of the
hundreds of thousands of commoners who had suffered deep injustices under
the corrupt Sui regime and turned to outlawdry to resist the government.
Men like Li Mi, and Dou Jiande were folk heroes in the eyes of their followers.
In the east, Li Mi- a charismatic outlaw who had previously rebelled against the unjust rule of Emperor Yang and had carved out his own domains in the east now had proven himself to be an ally to the Luoyang regime. Leading hundred thousands of men, they defeated many of the generals that had killed Emperor Yang in a series of resounding victories. Simultaneously, Li Mi wrote to prince Yang Tong, and pledged his fealty to the Luoyang government. These gestures greatly pleased the young prince and the the officials at Luoyang. Many of the top ministers advocated for bestowing titles and gifts for their savior Li Mi, except for Wang, who remarked that they were awarding honors on a bandit. Thereafter, Wang planned for the purge of all the powerful ministers in his way.
In a coup, Wang quickly ambushed and captured many of the ministers who had suggest to reward Li Mi and had them executed. When the last minister took flight inside Prince Yang Tong's palace, Wang had the entire royal palace surrounded with his soldiers. In the end, the young Prince was not able to protect the minister and had to tearfully give him up for execution. After this bloody purge, Wang was effectively the supreme ruler within Luoyang, and the young prince Yang Tong was placed under strict watch. Wang continuously insisted that he was only defending himself but already, Wang was forcing the young prince to delegate much of the imperial powers (both ceremonial and political) to him and his kinsmen, then, having secured his powers in Luoyang, Wang turned the full might of his army against Li Mi.
Music: The Black Desert of Kara Korum
BATTLE OF YANSHI
It was recorded that right before the battle, the superstitious Wang Shichong ordered shamans to cast spells and summon the spirit of the semi-mythical founder of Luoyang, the Duke of Zhou: Wang had a shrine erected in the Duke of Zhou's honour
The shamans declared that the Duke promised that if they marched to confront Li Mi, they would win, whereas if they remained in Luoyang, they were doomed to die of pestilence.
What followed would prove Wang's as a dangerous and unpredictable commander. Li Mi- a veteran commander by this point with at least twice the number of Wang was overconfident when he heard of Wang's desperate sally action, and deployed his great army of some 40,000 strong soldiers for miles in the shame of a ℸ or an inverted L, near the small town of Yanshi some 20 miles to Luoyang's east. At the right angle of the said ℸ was a high hilltop where Li Mi sited his camp, behind him was mostly a long stretch of mountains that prevented a flanking attack. Li Mi's position was exquisitely well chosen, for in the north, Li Mi's northern flank was securely protected by a wide impassable irrigation ditch, and in the southern tip of the ℸ was the walled town of Yanshi which served as a fort for his southern flank.
The 3 points, Yanshi in the south, the long canal to the north, the mountains to the east and a camp directly in the right angle of the formation allowed Li Mi to easily reinforce the triangular killzone, and should Wang attempt to cross the difficult canal or besiege Yanshi in the south Li Mi would have ample time to respond in full force from the center. Though Li Mi wanted to reinforce the camps, his generals arrogantly advised against it and relaxed their guard. After all, they twice outnumber Wang's army and already had near impregnable terrain to protect them. Thus the camps of Li Mi's center were completely unguarded: a fatal mistake against the likes of Wang.
The first clash between the two armies occurred on the same evening of 5 October, when Wang sent several hundred of his cavalry to attack Li Mi's southern positions on the plain. Li sent forces from the hills to his general's aid, but the battle ended quickly with the arrival of night. This attack was nothing more than a diversion to draw Li's attention to the east. In truth, Wang's master plan unveiled that very night. Under the dim light of the moon with only millions of disturbed darting grasshoppers as witnesses to his movements Wang sent 200 of his most trusted cavalry around and hid behind Li's forces. Concealing themselves in a ravine behind Li's camp, they waited. Then, Wang laid dozens of ladders and bridges across the canal. Before the first light of dawn his entire army of 20,000 had crossed over and silently deployed in battle formation right outside Li Mi's camps. The rest came like a nightmare.
Music: Fury, Hammer, and Tongs
At daybreak, Wang launched his multiple attacks simultaneously against Li Mi's undefended center. Li Mi's sleeping troops were caught entirely by surprise at the sight of the battle-ready enemy charging into them. As the camps were unfortified, the rebel troops tried to hastily form a battle line, but they were unable to prevent Wang's forces from entering their encampments. At the same time, Wang Shichong signaled his hidden cavalry to attack the camp from the rear. The 200 raced down from the north into Li Mi's camp, upon entering into the tents they immediately began setting fire to it. Soon it was chaos all around as wedges of invaders poured in from many directions at once.
Here, one of the most revealing details about Wang's cunning showed when- prior to this battle he noticed that one of his own soldiers bore an uncanny nearly identical appearance to Li Mi. Thus before the battle Wang dressed the soldier in an identical manner as Li Mi. Right when Li Mi's soldier's morale began to falter, Wang paraded this soldier in ropes and chains before all of the stunned soldiers of Li Mi's army. Li Mi's men, which had mostly consisted of rebel outlaws and Sui defectors, soon began to route in mass. Some of the important commanders fled, while others quickly surrendered to the Wang troops- men followed their commanders, and swiftly whole pockets of Li Mi's troops laid down their arms. Li Mi's entire army was annihilated and he barely escaped with his life from the battlefield with only 10,000 of his followers, leaving all of his rich baggage and supplies behind, including almost all of his family members to Wang Shichong.
THE OVERLORD OF HENAN
The Battle of Yanshi was one of the first and most decisive battles between the major warlords of the post Sui anarchy. In one night Li Mi's 40,000 army was utterly destroyed by a foe only half his size and from which Li Mi would never recover. Almost all of Li Mi's survivors would pledge fealty to Wang- who soon became the ruler of all of Henan, declaring his dominion from the Eastern Seas to the Yangtze River. In desperation and destitute, Li Mi raced westward and fled to the Tang territory in Chang An and sought protection under Li Yuan. This battle showed how capricious and catastrophic a single defeat represented in this age, where one mistake would easily cost all you had. It was winner take all.
Flushed with this victory, Wang returned to Luoyang as a victor and quickly sped up the process of absorbing the last vestiges of powers from the already powerless Prince Yang Tong. Originally Wang branded himself as a reformer who loved the commoners and sought their opinions through polls. However, most of these suggestions were not implemented and Wang soon dealt out harsh punishments. When he discovered another conspiracy against him he not only killed the conspirators but also slaughtered their entire families as well.
In 619, after forcing the teenager to bestow him key imperial titles and ceremonial honors, Wang forced the young prince to commit suicide by drinking poison. When the poison did not work, Wang's cousin ordered that Prince Yang Tong be strangled to death. Immediately after, Wang declared himself Emperor of a new dynasty called Zheng- based on the name of his dukedom. Unfortunately, this would also be the apogee of Wang's power. The two years of Wang's reign was without much accomplishments and full of diplomatic blunders and internal problems. Because of his territorial nature, Wang actively warred against many of his neighbors, in the east against the warlord Dou Jiande, who by now had made himself the master of Hebei, and in the west, Wang actively skirmished against the forces of Tang.
Music: Prince of Qing Breaking the Enemy Arrays
It was these repeated clashes that ultimately forced the champion of Tang and recent victor of 2 major campaigns: Prince Li Shimin to invade Henan with 50,000 soldiers and directly challenge the usurper "Emperor of Zheng." Here, the Tang made its bid for the most prosperous and most densely defended province of China: Henan. Here is where the fragments of our story, and all of the established characters converge, the stage was set for one of the greatest battles of the orient.
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