Conquest of the Western Turks

From Kazakhstan Encyclopedia

Template:Good article Template:Infobox military conflict Template:Campaignbox Campaigns of Emperor Taizong of Tang The conquest of the Western Turks, known as the Western Tujue in Chinese sources, was a military campaign in 657 led by the Tang Dynasty general Su Dingfang against the Western Turkic Khaganate ruled by Ashina Helu. The Chinese war against the Western Turks began in 640 with the annexation of the Tarim Basin oasis state Gaochang, an ally of the Western Turks. Several of the oasis states had once been vassals of the Tang Dynasty, but switched their allegiance to the Western Turks when they grew suspicious of the military ambitions of the Tang. Tang expansion into Central Asia continued with the conquest of Karasahr in 644 and Kucha in 648. Su Dingfang commanded the main army dispatched against the Western Turks, while the Turkic generals Ashina Mishe and Ashina Buzhen led the side divisions. The Tang troops were reinforced by cavalry supplied by the Uyghurs, a tribe that had been allied with the Tang since their support for the Uyghur revolt against the Xueyantuo. Su Dingfang's army defeated Helu at the battle of Irtysh River.

The victory strengthened Tang control of the Western Regions, now modern Xinjiang, and brought the regions formerly ruled by the Khaganate into the Tang empire. Puppet qaghans, the Turkic title for ruler, and military garrisons were installed to administer the newly acquired territories. The Tang Dynasty achieved its maximum extent as China's western borders reached the eastern frontier of the Arabic Umayyad Caliphate. 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. Central Asia absorbed cultural influences from the conflict. Turkic culture and language spread into Central Asia, as did artistic and political influences from the Tang Dynasty. Many of the Tang generals and soldiers stationed in the region were ethnically Turkic, and the prevalence of Indo-European languages in Central Asia declined with acceleration of Turkic migration. The Turks, Tibetans, and the Tang competed for control over Central Asia for the next few centuries.


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Emperor Taizong's campaigns against the oasis states brought the Tarim Basin under Tang control.
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Map of Taizong's campaigns against the Tarim Basin oasis states, allies of the Western Turks.

The empire of the Tang Dynasty (June 18, 618 – June 1, 907), successor of the Sui Dynasty, was a cosmopolitan hegemon that ruled one of China's most expansive empires.Template:Sfn Raids by the nomadic Khitans and Turks challenged Tang rule, and Tang rulers responded by pursuing strategies of divide and conquer, proxy warfare, tributes, and marriages.Template:Sfn

Hostilities between the Tang and the Western Turks had existed since the founding of the dynasty. Emperor Gaozu, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, aided the assassination of a Western Turk qaghan in November 2, 619.Template:Sfn Facing the threat of both the Western and Eastern Turkic Khaganates, Gaozu's successor Emperor Taizong 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."Template:Sfn

The westward expansion of the Tang Dynasty began with their wars against the Eastern Turks, Eastern Tujue in Chinese.Template:Sfn Taking advantage of the political discord in the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, Taizong annexed the territory of the Eastern Turks in 629, beginning a period of rule that would last for the next fifty years.Template:Sfn The nomads were driven out of the Ordos region and southern Mongolia and Taizong was declared a Great Khan by the defeated tribes, who surrendered and submitted to Tang rule.Template:Sfn

Battles in the Tarim Basin

Template:Main Several of the Tarim Basin oasis states switched their allegiance from the Tang Dynasty to the Western Turks. The oasis states Kashgar and Khotan surrendered to the Chinese in 632, as did the kingdom of Yarkand in 635.Template:Sfn Tang military campaigns expanded further west against the remaining kingdoms of the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang beginning in 640.Template:Sfn The king of Gaochang refused to submit to the Tang Dynasty as a suzerain. In 638, Emperor Taizong ordered a campaign led by general Hou Junji to invade Gaochang. Tang troops arrived in 640 and annexed the kingdom. A Western Turk army, sent to support Gaochang, retreated as the Tang forces approached.Template:Sfn

The nearby kingdom of Karasahr grew wary of the Chinese troops stationed at Gaochang, now under Tang domination. It refused to send tribute to the Tang court and formed an alliance with the Western Turks. A Tang campaign led by commander Guoxiao Ke captured the kingdom in 644 and installed a Tang loyalist as ruler. Military assistance by the Western Turks failed to deter the Tang forces.Template:Sfn With the support of the Western Turks, the puppet ruler was later deposed, and another military campaign, led by the Tang general Ashina She'er, a member of the Turkic Ashina royal family, arrived in 648 to re-establish Tang control.Template:Sfn

After conquering Karasahr, She'er led his forces to the kingdom of Kucha. The army of Kucha, comprising 50,000 soldiers, lost to She'er. The king of Kucha fled with his soldiers to the kingdom of Aksu. After a forty-day siege, the king was captured and the Kucha forces surrendered on 19 January 649.Template:Sfn Tang military garrisons were installed in the region to administer the annexed oasis states. These garrisons, known as the Four Garrisons of Anxi, were located in Kucha, Kashgar, Khotan, and Karasahr.Template:Sfn


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A portrait of Emperor Gaozong of Tang. Gaozong sent the campaign led by Su Dingfang against the Western Turk qaghan Ashina Helu.

Ashina Helu, a member of the Ashina royal family, was previously a general under Emperor Taizong commanding Tang forces in Gansu. He led a revolt against the Tang and migrated westward, declaring himself Shabulou Qaghan and ruler of the Western Turkic Khaganate.Template:Sfn Helu's rise to power unified the divided Turkic tribes under a single leader.Template:Sfn

After he established himself as qaghan, Ashina Helu led repeated raids on Tang settlements to the east. He also attacked the Tarim Basin, bringing the territory under Turkic rule for the next six years.Template:Sfn Emperor Gaozong, the successor of Taizong, responded by sending Tang forces consisting of a main division led by Su Dingfang, and another led by Ashina Mishe and Ashina Buzhen, Western Turk rivals of Ashina Helu.Template:Sfn

Su Dingfang was a commander from south-central Hebei who, earlier in his career as an officer, was responsible for leading the attack against the military camp of Illig Qaghan, qaghan of the Eastern Turks.Template:Sfn He also gained military experience as a leader of a regional militia during the civil war fought between the transition from Sui to Tang.Template:Sfn Su was a general with military experience in Central Asia, and was familiar with the culture of the steppes. He had been in contact with military leaders from the region. He was one of nine multi-ethnic commanders invited by Emperor Gaozong to a military event in 655. The Turkic general Ashina Zhong, second cousin of Ashina She'er, was another commander in attendance.Template:Sfn

Su Dingfang's forces comprised Tang soldiers and 10,000 Uyghur horsemen.Template:Sfn The Uyghur troops were provided by Porun, son of the Uyghur leader Tumidu Eltabar and enthroned by Taizong.Template:Sfn The Uyghurs were allied with Tang China, who had supported their revolt against the reign of the Xueyantuo, a tribe of Tiele people.Template:Sfn Porun joined Su Dingfang as a vice commander of the Uyghur cavalry in the military campaign against the Western Turks.Template:Sfn The commanders of the Uyghur cavalry were the Yanran Protector-General and Vice Protector-General, administrators of the Yanran Protectorate near the Tang Xishouxiang military garrison.Template:Sfn

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A mural of a Uyghur king in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang

Su's army marched through the Central Asian steppes from Ordos, Inner Mongolia to the Altai Mountains region.Template:Sfn His troops left Ordos in March and arrived in Kyrgyzstan in November, a journey spanning 3,000 miles across steppes and desert. Su avoided stopping at the resource rich oasis states, and historian Jonathan Karam Skaff speculates that the Chinese troops may have relied on livestock for food instead of a supply train, a tactic used by the steppe nomads.Template:Sfn The campaign continued through the winter, when the steppes were covered in snow.Template:Sfn Describing the journey's ordeal, Su Dingfang is reported to have said: "The fog shed darkness everywhere. The wind is icy. The barbarians do not believe that we can campaign at this season. Let us hasten to surprise them!"Template:Sfn

Commanders in the Tang army were familiar with the political culture of nomadic empires. Nomadic alliances were formed through distributing war plunder and ensuring the security of tribal property, and grew tenuous when rulers failed to deliver their promises. The Chinese understood that disaffected tribes were vulnerable to switching allegiances, and used this to their advantage.Template:Sfn

Su Dingfang recruited tribes to side with Tang, and these former tribal vassals of the Western Turks contributed additional soldiers. The tribe Chumukun offered their support after they were defeated by Su, and the tribe Nishu aided Su after their children and wives, originally captured by Helu, were returned along with gifts offered by the Tang.Template:Sfn

The battle was fought along the Irtysh River near the Altai Mountains. Helu's forces, consisting of 100,000 cavalry, were ambushed by Su as Helu chased decoy Tang troops that Su had deployed. Helu was defeated during Su's surprise attack, and lost most of his soldiers.Template:Sfn Turkic tribes loyal to Helu surrendered, and Helu escaped to Tashkent in modern Uzbekistan. The retreating Helu was captured the next day after residents of Tashkent handed the qaghan over to the Tang.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn On the way back to the Tang capital, Helu is reported to have written:

I am a defeated and ruined war captive, that's it! The former emperor [Taizong] treated me generously, but I betrayed him. In my present defeat, Heaven has vented its fury at me. In the past I have heard that Han law stipulates that executions of men be carried out in the city marketplace. When we arrive in the capital, I request to Zhaling [the tomb of the previous Tang emperor Taizong] to atone for my crimes to the former emperor. This is my sincere desire.Template:Sfn

Gaozong received Helu's plea and agreed to his request,Template:Sfn despite a Tang law ordering the execution of captured rebel generals and kings.Template:Sfn In accordance with Confucian rituals, he was sent to Taizong's tomb where Gaozong spared his life, and then to the capital's Ancestral Temple where the captive was presented again, mirroring ancient rituals celebrating victorious armies.Template:Sfn Helu felt disgraced by Taizong and committed suicide a year later while still in captivity. He was buried in a mound decorated with a stele outside the emperor's park. The tomb served as a military trophy, visible to the emperor's visitors entering the park, symbolizing the loyalty of the qaghan to the emperor and the Tang military victories against the Western Turks.Template:Sfn

Historical significance


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It was through the conquest of the Western Turks that the Tang Dynasty was able to reach its maximum extent.

The conquest strengthened Tang rule over modern Xinjiang, administered by the Anxi Protectorate, and led to Tang suzerainty over the regions previously under the control of the Western Turks.Template:Sfn The fall of the Khaganate brought the Altai Mountain region under Tang control and the residing Three Qarluq tribes were governed in newly established prefectures led by tribal chiefs, now commander-in-chiefs under the Tang.Template:Sfn Another prefecture, the Jinman Bridle Prefecture, was created for the Chuyue tribes living in the southern Dzungar basin.Template:Sfn The Amu Darya valley, the Tarim Basin, and the area beyond the Pamir Mountains, all former suzerains of the Western Turks, were placed under Tang control.Template:Sfn

Su continued his career as military general, and later commanded Tang forces in a war against Baekje in 660.Template:Sfn The Tang Dynasty achieved its maximum extent following its conquest of the Khaganate.Template:Sfn The inhabitants of the new territory did not become sinicized like many of the other kingdoms and tribes conquered by the Tang.Template:Sfn Tang military activity in Central Asia brought in a wave of Turkic migrants serving in the Tang military as soldiers and generals, leading to the spread of Turkic language and culture.Template:Sfn At the same time, the prevalence of Indo-European languages in the Western Regions was on the decline.Template:Sfn Central Asia also absorbed cultural influences from Tang China. Central Asian art incorporated Tang stylistic features, like the sancai three color glaze used in pottery.Template:Sfn Chinese coins remained in circulation in Xinjiang after the decline of the Tang.Template:Sfn Cultural remnants of Tang architectural influence are still visible in the Buddhist architecture of Dunhuang, on the border between the Western Regions and the Hexi Corridor.Template:Sfn

The sheer size of the newly conquered lands made it difficult to govern through the Tang military garrisons.Template:Sfn The Tang emperor Gaozong appointed two puppet qaghans to rule over the Western Turks, who were later overthrown in a rebellion that began in 662. The revolt reduced Tang's western extent to Beshbalik, Dzungaria in northern Xinjiang and ended direct Tang control of Central Asia beyond the Pamir Mountains in modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The expansion of the Tibetan Empire from the south threatened China's hold on southern Xinjiang.Template:Sfn Tibet invaded the Tarim Basin in 670, but Tang forces regained the area in 693 and Kashgar in 728, restoring the Anxi Protectorate and Four Garrisons. The conflict between Tibet and the Tang continued for the remainder of the Tang Dynasty.Template:Sfn

At its maximum extent, Tang expansion brought China into direct contact with the rising Umayyad Caliphate. China's western borders reached the eastern frontier of the Caliphate.Template:Sfn Following the Arab defeat of Sassanid Persia in 651, the Caliphate began its expansion into Central Asia, competing with the Tang's sphere of influence in the region. Chinese and Islamic troops finally clashed at the Battle of Talas in 751.Template:Sfn The Chinese lost against the Arabs, now under Abbasid rule, and the Arab army captured Chinese papermaking craftsmen. An Arabic record of the conflict claims that the battle led to the introduction of papermaking to the Islamic world.Template:Sfn

Puppet qaghans


File:A Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian.JPG
Empress Wu Zetian sent Yuanqing and Kusrau to succeed their fathers as proxy rulers of the Western Turks

The Tang emperor Gaozong installed two puppet qaghans, the cousins Ashina Buzhen and Ashina Mishe, and controlled the region by proxy.Template:Sfn Buzhen and Mishe were enemies of Helu who had aided Su Dingfang during his campaign against Helu and the Western Turkic Khaganate.Template:Sfn Gaozong divided the ten tribes of the area among the two cousins. Buzhen governed half of the tribes located in the west, while Mishe governed the other half located in the east.Template:Sfn

The son of Buzhen, Khusrau, and the son of Mishe, Yuanqing, resided in Chang'an, the capital of Tang, while their fathers administered the former khaganate as qaghans. Empress Wu Zetian sent Yuanqing and Kusrau westward in 685 to succeed their fathers as proxy rulers.Template:Sfn

Neither of the qaghans were able to successfully exert control. Turkic tribes resisted Yuanqing's rule, defeating the qaghan and forcing Yuanqing to return to Chang'an. Kusrau was able to bring the western tribes temporarily under his rule, but was defeated in 690 during an invasion by the Second Turkic Khaganate, and he too was forced to escape the region with his loyalists. Later attempts to install puppet qaghans failed, and the title was reduced to a symbolic position in the Tang court.Template:Sfn






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