A recreation of a Tang or a general Tang-type lamellar cuirass. Note the impressive visor.
In 589 AD the Sui Dynasty managed to unite the vast Chinese lands in an empire after four centuries of division, barbaric occupation of northern China and bloody internal wars (189-589 AD). The Sui emperors restored stability and prosperity in the vast country, but the Emperor Yang Ti launched three unsuccessful campaigns against the powerful Korean kingdom Koguryo (612-614). The maintenance for three years, of the numerous Chinese troops (needed for the difficult campaigns against the Koguryan Koreans) exhausted financially the citizens of the empire. The taxation and the recruitment had increased excessively by Yang Ti, in order to maintain his numerous military forces in the Korean border. Finally the Chinese people rebelled, supported by the equally discontented nobles. By 617 the Sui Empire collapsed. Various contenders for imperial power, Chinese and barbarian mercenary warlords, and some people’s revolutionary movements, ravaged the territories of the shattered empire. The power of the Sui was essentially limited to the capital Chang An.
A map of the Tang Empire, after its consolidation . Kogyryo had already been replaced by the Po-Hai kingdom.
One of the independent Chinese warlords was Li Yuan Tang of the Tang family (local dynasty), ruler of the upper valley of the river Wei in northwest China. The valley was a natural fortress, protected by high mountains, and the only “inputs” in it were a few mountainous passes. The Chinese tradition informs us that 20,000 soldiers could defend the upper valley against an army of 1,000,000 enemies. This report probably sounds excessive, but in reality it was not incorrect.
The same strategic valley was the military base of the oldest Dynasties Qin (Chin, 221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) in order to conquer all the Chinese territories. Additionally, the population of the upper valley was dense and significantly militarized, providing a strong army to the Tang. Another factor of Tang power was their alliance with the Tu Que (the Chinese version of the national name “Turks”), who originally lived on the Altai mountains from where they spread on the steppes, founding a vast nomadic empire. The Tu Que (Tu Jue) were the first Turanic people in history who used the name “Turks.” This name most likely means “the helmet manufacturers” or “the helmeted” or according to another theory “the powerful”. The Turkish allied horsemen and cavalrymen gave a valuable advantage to the Tang army. Moreover, the Tang dynasty itself had a major percentage of Turkish blood (origins).
Initially, Li Yuan was reluctant to rebel against the Sui. Finally he was persuaded to do so by his younger son, Li Shi Min, who was destined to become one of the greatest generals and emperors of all the periods of Chinese History.
Scale armor (Probably Cavalry) from Koguryo. Koguryo Kingdom was a hard opponent for the Sui and Tang Chinese armies.
In 617, Li Yuan led 30,000 Tang troops against the imperial capital. His army consisted of Chinese cavalry and some infantry, and 500-1000 Turkish cavalrymen. The Turks were sent to him by the Turkish Khan who had rebelled against the Sui (a former vassal of them). Li Yuan had lined his advancing army, following the traditional Chinese order of battle, dividing it into a central sector and two “horns” (wings). He commanded the center of the army and his two sons commanded the two wings. The Emperor Yang Ti sent an army against the Tang, under the command of one of his trusted generals. The two armies lined up for battle in the location Yin Ma. Li Yuan sent a part of his cavalry against the Sui in order to provoke them to attack, with an ultimate purpose to flank them using maneuvers. The Sui general unleashed a fierce attack against the Tang, which has brought them a great fighting stress. Although the Tang were forced to retreat, significantly disorganized, Li Yuan had achieved his goal. The Sui general committed a fatal strategic error in allowing his army to advance extremely, so it is considered that the alleged ‘decline’ of the Tang army was possibly fake. The Tang ruler had lined up his Turk and Chinese cataphract (heavy armored) cavalrymen led by Li Shi Min, in a site invisible to the enemy. The unsuspecting Sui commander had left the rear of his army exposed to the Tang duke’s lurker cavalrymen. Li Shi’s cavalrymen cantered from their hidden base and attacked fiercely the Sui. At the same time, Li Yuan who had reorganized the rest of his army, ordered a counterattack. The Emperor’s soldiers were squashed by the two-front attack of the Li Yuan’s warriors and Li Shi Min’s cataphracts, and they were annihilated. Many were killed and their general was taken prisoner.
Li Yuan led his army in Chang An, which Yang Ti had abandoned, and conquered the capital. In 618 the Sui Emperor was murdered and Li Yuan dislodged his successor, establishing the new Chinese Dynasty: the Tang Dynasty. However, there were over ten opponent contenders to the throne, established in various provinces. Li Yuan took advantage from the beginning, with his prudent policy of holding in place the Sui officials and thus being friendly to them and to any others that choose to join him. Moreover, he did not punish the captured enemy soldiers, but he incorporated them in his army. Thus his political and military forces had been increasing sharply. Finally, the strategic genius of his son, Li Shi Min, was also a significant (military) advantage for the Tang Emperor who finally prevailed over his adversaries.
(1) CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF CHINA, vol. 3, CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge 1979
(2) Peers, C.J. and Perry, M.: IMPERIAL CHINESE ARMIES (2), London, 1996.
(3) Fitzgerald, C.: HORIZON HISTORY OF CHINA, New York, 1969.