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

"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 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. 


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.


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

The third character of our story, Prince Li Shimin of Tang had already made history. For- three years ago, he directly took part in toppling the Sui dynasty of Emperor Yang and winning the crown for his father. He was only 19 year old then but in the intervening years between the toppling of the Sui and the ramp up of Tang power Li Shimin had proven to be one of the deadliest assets of his clan and one of the most dangerous generals in northern China.


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.


Music: The Last Agni Kai

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. 


If  two words describes Wang Shichong, the undisputed warlord who had taken Henan for his own, was eloquence and ambition. There was a quality of the man that bore a strong similarity with the warlord Cao Cao who had reigned in Henan and northern China centuries before. Having been a cavalry commander who had served Emperor Yang of Sui, in the power vacuum of the post- Sui world, Wang quickly secured his place in the existing power structures. In 618, when informed of Emperor Yang's death, Wang immediately pledged his allegiance to the most prominent remnant of Sui power, Emperor Yang's 15 year old grandson Prince Yang Tong. Yang Tong had been ordered by Emperor Yang to stay and guard the eastern capital of Luoyang. And it was there Yang Tong retained a strong corp of guards and ruled the vicinity of central Henan as a lone Sui rump state surrounded by a realm of rebels. Though Wang arrived at Luoyang in 617 merely as a general to aid the 15 year old prince, Wang quickly began to covet total power for himself.

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 


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 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

The respective territories of Tang of the Li clan (Pink), Wang Shichong's Zheng (Yellow), and Dou Jiande's Xia (Orange) in 620. The Li family of Tang controlled mostly the northwestern sectors of the realm, Wang controlled the resource rich central five point of the empire at Henan, while Dou controlled the equally populous and fiercely turbulent province of Hebei.

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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Der said…
Another great article, thank you.

1. Wang Shichong was half-Sogdian? which half? ancient China sounds a lot more diverse ethnically than I thought. Why would a Sogdian have the Wang surname? and why would a Sogdian have the loyalty of presumably a mostly Han Chinese army?

2. Dou Jiande sounds like a Spartacus figure to me, gathering a group of malcontents fighting off the central gov't again and again.

3. Li Shimin himself sounds like China's own Alexander the Great, leading his troops into battle from the front. Most Chinese rulers leave the soldiering to professionals, but young Li Shimin was a warrior prince.
Dragon's Armory said…
Good questions, and all of them I once found befuddling as well.

1. I think we should not underestimate one of the most vital components in how culture was viewed back then, that is the Silk Road, because both Chang An and Luoyang were both final stops for many caravans that runs through almost the entirety of the Middle East, stopping as far as Constantinople. Throughout the Han to Sui and throughout the Roman to Byzantine periods travel never truly stopped in these regions. As such the sights of strange men and mishmash of foreign traders were never that strange of a sight to the locals. During the Sui the Sui emperor was well aware of the Byzantines, and the Nestorian Christians, who mostly arrived in China through the inland and maritime Silk Road and spread by Indian and Syrian priests. The Syrian influence was such that most Chinese associated Daqin (Great Qin)~ the name Chinese gave to the Romans and Byzantines, to be centered around Damascus.

It should also be pointed out that dealing with Indo- Europeans were not that strange for the ancient Chinese either, the Saka were Indo Europeans and many other Indo Europeans once lived as far in China as modern Gansu right beside the Central Plains before being uprooted by the Xiongnus. The Tarim Basin too were inhabited by Indo Europeans, during the Han- Xiongnu wars, many of these people broke off and served as Han vassals. For the next 300 years there was constant exchange. By the time of the Sui dynasty China already had several missions with the Sassanid Persians. Not only were the Sogdians a common sight in China but they were also a common sight in many steppe Khaganates as well. The Gokturks employed many of them as merchants and administrators, same goes for the Uyghurs as well. In fact Sogdians were some of the people to introduce Manichean and Buddhism in the surrounding areas. Let's not forget that central Afghanistan was once a holy site for Buddhism, with many huge Buddha statues dotting the Bamiyan Valley. There also were many Buddhist temple- caravansaries such as Mes Aynak.
Dragon's Armory said…
2. True, also, Dou was by no means the only one, the situation in late Sui China was so bad that there were several dozens if not hundreds of small group of bandit/ outlaws, a map of the period will show that many pockets of the empire were filled with rebels and all the while the central government only resorted to ruthlessly crushing them all the while the locals still starved and crippled by heavy taxes.

The fact that families will be forced to keep sending sons and fathers for backbreaking corvees and fruitless foreign invasions also paints a black picture for their future. Thing is, before and after Emperor Yang, there were competent Chinese rulers who could do all of what Yang failed and do it well. Both Emperor Wen of Sui and Taizong were able to attack Goguryeo with better results, Wen even defeated them. Emperor Wen was also quite concerned with the lives of the commoners, he was one of the first to institute a popular progressive tax system and never worked his subjects to ridiculous degrees, I mean he planned for the Grand Canal and it was never remotely as bad as when his son took power.

Dou was quite something though, in the sense that before he became the most powerful ruler of Hebei the Province literally have over 10 simultaneous anti- government rebellions all headed by warlord rebels. Dou succeeded in uniting many of the rebels but also not being a harsh figure who killed any Sui official he got his hands on. The more I read of Dou the more I think he would be a great protagonist if not for the Li family. Such a shame too.
Dragon's Armory said…
3. Li was quite one of a kind, and the fact that there was not a stray arrow or crossbow bolt to cut his life short basically meant that it goes to interesting places.

I will freely say that because he writes a lot of his own publications he could make himself look very good for future readers. I'd say that Li Shimin's autobiography is above Churchil's in making himself look like a Mary Sue adventurer. In fact he is known to insert himself in the history of his father's life in order to make his father look indecisive and his brother look like antagonists. Especially against his younger brother Li Yuanji to make him look like a servant beating brat who's out of control. (But then again I'll forgive Shimin for this because Li Yuanji- more than anyone, more than Li' elder brother Li Jiancheng was openly and consistently gunning for Li Shimin throughout the years, including advocating to kill him.)

However even despite his *cough *cough, self aggrandizing twattery, the odds of what he faced was still stacked very much against him. When he rode out to meet Dou Jiande's massive army, contemporary sources agreed that Dou possessed an army that was at least 100,000 with supply wagons and supply boats. Li Shimin only had no more than 3000 when he faced this army. The fact that Taizong was able to hammer down each of the Tarim city-states who resisted him and make himself the Heavenly Khagan- ordained by other Gokturk princes was something that he does not need to exaggerate to be astonishing.
Der said…
Thank you for the in depth responses. A few things:

1. The Silk Road indeed brought many foreign peoples and 'weird' religions into China. I've always wondered what our Han Chinese ancestors thought about these strange people from the West, was there what we call 'racism' back then? Not just regular xenophobia, but modern style racist feeling similar to what we are seeing in Europe today with the migrant crisis where millions of Middle Easterners are flooding into Europe. The career of the latter Tang bandit warlord Huang Chao and his massacre of foreigners in Canton reminds me of the Boxer Rebellion, a giant blood letting of Barbarian foreigners. The fact that Wang Shichong adopted a Han Chinese surname is interesting, perhaps it indicated these Sogdian migrants wanted to assimilate into China? Or else China back then was more diverse than we can imagine, I've read somewhere that the Li imperial family spoke Xianbei amongst their kinsman despite having a Han Chinese surname? I've read an academic paper many years ago that basically compared the Li Tang Dynasty to the Manchu Qing dynasty ... that the Li royal family (along with the Yuwen, Zhangsun, surnames etc) were aware of their Xianbei ancestry (and were proud of it) just like the Manchu Aisin Gioro lineage of the Qing. Any thoughts about this??

2. I take it back, Dou was not like Robin Hood or Spartacus, but rather an aborted Zhu Yuanchang of the Ming Dynasty? If not for the Li royal family, he would be Emperor like that future peasant turned warlord turned emperor.

3. Li Shimin and the infighting of the Li Clan reminds me of the infighting when Ottoman Sultans died and their sons started jockeying for the throne, with the strongest, or first to Constantinople, winning. Which is apt because do the Li royal family not have Turkic blood? and more importantly Turkic heritage? In this instance they were more Turk than Han. The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing had an interesting commentary on Li Shimin and his usurpation of the throne and the killing of his brothers.
Dmitry said…
Very good beginning of a very interesting story!

I do understand the importance and fame of the three kingdoms period for China and the Sinosphere in general, but in my opinion the story of the early Tang is more interesting.

Not only did they reunify the empire, they also extended it further then it ever was before or since, making it into the worlds greatest power of its time. And its not like they had weak enemies to overcome. Goguryeo was a fascinating military state in its own right and the Gogturks were the strongest steppe empires till the rise of the Mongols. Tibet was also a massive power back then.

This is why I would have preferred a Tang era Total war game, instead of a three kingdoms one. Basically starting at the point of this article. You can play as either one of the Chinese warlords, or as one of the many interesting neighbor states, namly as the two Gogturk Khagans, Goguryeo, Silla, Yamato, the Chenla empire (with the posibility to build Angakor), the Sassanid Persians, Tibet or Nanchao. The early Muslims would then sweep in later in the game. I find the Tang era army more interesting, then the army of the Han period and the neighbors are also more interesting. Sadly I know that this will not happen.

Thanks again and looking forward to more articles.
Unknown said…
Hi there, these are great articles, and I enjoying reading them ever since I came on here which was recently. However, I would recommend putting sources along with these articles. Also, I have an suggestion for an article that could be worth your time; that is the Han Chinese soldiers serving under the Mongolian army which kind of aided the Mongols or just Mongols vs the Song dynasty. Keep up the great work.
Dragon's Armory said…
@Der, what we call racism today was always there, but like all societies it has different levels at different times. Usually if you can keep the law fair and there is a mostly healthy relationship between the vassal and the overlord things could run despite the racial or ethnic differences. Kind of keep in mind that this was also Tang's way of legitimizing their expansion as they expanded into foreign lands. The late Tang- especially by 880 was quite xenophobic and reactionary, and many Tang subjects resented tax exemptions for certain foreigners and the foreign religions. These were symptoms of a weakening society, but even as the Tang slowly disintegrated internally, it should be pointed out that in the outlying regions, a lot of foriegn people came to the Tang's aid and were in turn appointed as Jiedushi of the frontiers.

Remember the Tanguts who helped the Tang and was give the Li last name, same goes for the Guiyi Circuit, of the Tang loyalist and Tang Sogdians who recovered a lost province and placed it back to the throne in Chang An, also the Shatuo Turks, who guarded the north and became lords there. It should be pointed out that 2 of these groups actually put down the Huang Chao rebellion for the Tang at its hour of weakness. They pretty much held those areas until internal intrigue killed the last Tang Emperor.

2. Zhu Yuanzhang is an apt comparison, or Li Zicheng. During times of chaos the world needs a hero right? And in this case Dou was definitely a contender.

3. I'm not sure if its a cultural thing for the Li, though they were less Confucian about their way of operating. During the Tang, and the pre Tang era there isn't that much of an instilled sense of totally obedience to the personhood of the Emperor. I will say that the Gokturks exploited Li Shimin's power grab by immediately racing to Chang An to prove their point. What is both sad and ironic is that by the morality of the steppes, brothers killing rival brothers is not abnormal at all, it was the way of the things to determine leadership. But because Li will always be judged by the Chinese standard he will always look lacking by the standard of his people. I think he was keenly aware of this, so he just let people say whatever they want about him during his lifetime...provided he makes his own overhyped autobiography too.
Dragon's Armory said…
@Dmitry Absolutely, you read my mind. Thing is, so few people outside of Asia are aware of this period and its really kind of a shame, the seed of a great story's there.

When I was reading this period one of the first thing that I noticed is that almost all of the Tang's enemies are not in a position of weakness, none of them are at a terminal level but rather able to mount a respectable defense. The 2 Gokturk Khaganates, although divided, are still able to mount large expeditions, they have many tribes of people following them, the Khitans, the Tiele, the Xi, and the Xi (spelled differently.) Same goes for Tibet, which is united and rising under the leadership of Songtsen Gampo. Goguryeo too was able to rally enough defense to keep punch above its weight. But due to modern political climates everyone and everyone with money to produce this will be treading on eggshells for fear of offending somebody. Such a shame too, such a colorful period with some of the most epic battles from all sides.

I will say this, if I ever become a rich man, I will make a dignified portrayal of all of these figures, be it in a spiritual spinoff of a Total War game or a TV series that dramatizes the rise of the Tang from being provoked into rebellion against Emperor Yang to the end of the Eastern Gokturk wars.
Dmitry said…
Il certainly play this game, once it’s out! Sad that CA no longer allows in depth modding, otherwise the 3 Kingdoms game could be remodded to a later era. I do remember there being a promising Medieval 2 mod about the Song Dynasty, bas sadly it was abandoned years ago. If CA would have allowed in depth modding of its more modern games, like it did with Medieval 2, some truly beautiful works could be produced.

Another advantage of a Tang themed game, is that there is a historical reason to put gunpowder in. It might have been invented in the late Tang after all and it can be argued that if you develop your empire to a very advanced stage, you can recruit some early gunpowder troops, with things like firelances or handgranades. The ability to be able to play around with various exotic gunpowder weapons is a huge part of the charm of a China themed wargame.

Also, I do have the feeling, that CA is purposefully avoiding early Islam and its expansion. I mean Atilla had first a DLC about Justinian’s reqonquest and suddenly jumped to Charlemagne? Wouldn’t it have made much more sense to the character of the game (end of antiquity), to make a game about herakleios Persian war and the emergence of Islam? It was after all one of the greatest conquests of history. Id say that the Khalifate was the second greatest nomad created Empire, after the Mongols (in power, since it beats the mongols in long term impact). In a Tang themed game, I would like the Muslims to arrive like the Mongols did in Medieval 2, as an endgame boss, a massive and powerful army, conquering all it encounters.
Der said…

The Islamic Caliphate at the time of their expansion in the 7th century was definitely not a nomadic empire like the Mongols, Turks, etc. In fact, more than any religion, Islam promotes urbanization and denigrates the non-urban more than any religion I can think of. The bush, wastelands, rural areas and nomadism are the source of paganism (original meaning of rural) and devil worship. Whilst city living and urbanization represents civilization (similar to the Greeks) and orthodoxy and the place of learning, very un-Genghis Khan like indeed lol!
Dmitry said…
Well While Muhammad did indeed come from an Urban tribe, it was the nomadic Bedouin, that made up the bulk of the early islamic armies. Also Islam seems to have historically praised the warrior and merchant, while denigrating the farmer. While this is indeed more pro urban, it also fits the nomads, who live a predatory existence and engage in raiding wars and trade. Vikings and Hunns did live from booth as well and often the settlements, that you trade one day, you will raid on the next.

Over history, the Muslim world was dominated by Nomads, who formed the "men of the sword" elite, while dominating over the settled Persians, Mesopotamians, Copts ect, who formed the inferior "men of the pen" administrative elite. These people were first the Bedouin Arabs and later the Turks, Mongols, Caucasian Cherkess or Afghan Pushtun. Ibn Khaldun described Islam's history as a history of nomad conquerors, pure in Islam, who take over cities and get corrupted by them, forcing new nomads to take over. For him pure Islam was nomad Islam.

But I agree, that the early Islamic empire was far more humane in its treatment of the conquered, then the Mongols were.
Dragon's Armory said…

I will say that I too am kind of dissapointed about the early Islamic conquests. I fully understand their reasoning, if they want to avoid association with Isi5 and Islamic militarism more power to them. Definitely do not want a media circus over the minefield of that mess. But it's also such a shame though. We almost never had a religious themed Total War game where the overarching themes are devoted to rapid expansion and conversion all over the civilized world.

The fact that the Caliphate armies were able to utterly destroy both the Byzantines and the Sassanids on the field was really remarkable. Again, I understand why they are avoiding it- no one wants to be mistaken for making a game that could be considered propaganda or religious chauvinist, same with outright imperialism. Crusader Kings was called that but it was more about the whole picture, the whole world rather than devoted on one closeup narrative. Though...some time I don't mind a tightly knit narrative from one side. I think rise and fall of the samurai were all such, and it's not unfair either because it lends the perspective of all major powers.

As a deeply curious person I find the notion of tribesmen on the utter frontiers of civilization- barely escaping with their lives and have to run and defend themselves as pariah, then quickly able to overwhelm the most powerful empires and take ancient cities like Damascus and Alexandria (Lighthouse included) to be extremely fascinating.
Dragon's Armory said…
In regard to your last point~ of Islam and the Tang dynasty, it should be pointed out that for the most part they kind of left each other alone. The Umayyads never faired much against the Tang and the Abassids- despite contending with the Tang at Talas, was never interested in say~ taking Tang's frontier over or anything like that. In fact when the An lushan Rebellion happened they sent 3000 cavalry to relieve the Tang. A generation later Harun Al Rashid would sign an alliance with the Tang against the Tibetan Empire. I will say, the Islamic Central Asian tribesmen...oh that's an entire different matter. A lot of them did spread Islam through devastating wars and forcefully converted the region by rooting out Buddhism and Manicheanism.
Dmitry said…
Didnt the Khalifate and the Tang not wage war by proxy a lot though?

With some cities and tribes submitting to the Tang and the Muslims attacking them and vis versa?
Der said…

Despite the Battle of Talas, there simply was not a constant state of war between Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate. How could they? the little contact they did have was at the very limits of both empires, .. the far east for Baghdad and the far west for Chang'an. I don't even think Han Chinese and Arabs even came into direct contact, being that what armies did clash were local levies and auxillaries.

I think what you're referring to is the constant war between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Christian Roman Empire, namely the Byzantine Empire .. truly a clash of religions and ideologies with the Muslim world annually sending armies on Jihad against the Christian infidels, with Constantinople itself besieged by Arab Ummayyad armies, the failure of which destroyed that first Islamic dynasty and led to the rise of the House of Abbas their followers who flew Black Flags.
Dragon's Armory said…
Not a proxy war as we'd see it today. At least not with established powers.

Abassids only emerged for about a year by the time of the Battle of Talas River. So they weren't really seeking a battle at that point with the established Tang- which at this point has been in power for over a century. It was more of an entanglement that have the princes of the Ferghana Valley seek protectors.

The ramp up to this has more similarities with the beginning of the Punic War, where the mess in Sicily forced both Rome and Carthage to intervene and became entangled with each other. But unlike the Punic War it didn't become important to both participants. Abassids were glad to have stopped a powerful regional power in he east and return to consolidate their power while the Tang was more concerned with crushing states like Nanzhao. Talas was a probing "contact battle"
Dmitry said…
Lets see: First the Tang did support the last Sassanid prince against the Muslims.
Secondly: 715AD, 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.
Thirdly: "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."
Forthly: "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."
Then fifthly there was the battle of Talas.

This is what I meant by "proxy war", Muslim and Tang troops rarely clashed, but their vassals did quiet often and Turks did fight the Arabs and Tang on orders of the two empires.

Qutayba ibn Muslim did dream about the conquest of China, as did Muslim Emirs in Transoxiana after him. Ofcourse they had no chance to pull it off, but they were so drunk on victories and full of faith in their religion, that one cant blame them for thinking that nothing was impossible.
Der said…
Excellent summaries here, thanks.

"Qutayba ibn Muslim did dream about the conquest of China" ... really? I've never heard of this before. Delusions of grandeur indeed, but the Muslims did conquer half of the Roman Empire all the way to Spain, so I guess I can't blame their meglomania LOL.
Dragon's Armory said…
I guess you are right that because they both are committed to wage a cold war, that it could be categorized as a proxy war.

From the Chinese perspective I guess they never elevated it to such an outlook because the early Tang kept prevailing. Gaozong suffered some defeats but under the later monarchs the Tang was rather secure in playing the kingmaker in the region and got their way many times- even Gao Xianzhi's campaign largely swung toward his favor until the battle of Talas. I guess because the Chinese were not often placed in a position of fear for the "other" and as such they never regarded it as a mutual dance. ...Just continued politicking with vassals (then again, I guess so is modern geopolitics)
Dragon's Armory said…
Aliaoda (阿了達) is also referred to as Alutar and the old King of Ferghana was Ikhshid

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