The Emperor’s Horses

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One of Li Shimin's Famed Steeds


-by Bjorn Vegas


The early Tang rulers inherited a northern Chinese culture that had long been influenced by the cultures of nomadic tribes; the southern Chinese had some trouble accepting them as fully Chinese.

Li Shi Min was Chinese enough to lead the Chinese, yet close enough to the nomads to lead the Turkic tribes who regularly threatened border areas in the northwest. They became his wing army in distant places, expanding Tang control effectively to Lake Balkhash, which is beyond the current border.Within fifty years of his death, the nomads revolted and reverted to raiding Chinese border cities, and China lost control of a huge swath of land through which trading routes passed.

The earliest evidence of their Turkic written language is a stone inscription that, among other things, records their resentment of the changes that had taken place since the days of Li ShiMin. They were now enemies of the Tang emperor. The cost of foreign policy increased for Tang China; they no longer had rulers who understood the mentality of the nomads.

Li had a flair for the well-planned dramatic gesture. Once a group of nomads threatened the capital when it was weakly defended. Li rode out to meet them with only one hundred troops and challenged their leader to one-on-one combat. His adversary declined. Li still had to buy them off to get them to leave, but he had bought time when he needed it. Then he sent a message to another potentially threatening nomadic ruler, challenging him to a duel, and again the nomad declined. Because he understood their psychology, he saved a lot
of bloodshed.

Two year later, just after Li had become emperor, the same Turkic tribe neared the capital, and again Li was outmanned, as Tang forces were widely dispersed. This time he rode out to meet them with only six men. He shouted across the Wei River, rebuking the nomads for breaking the peace treaty. The nomads did not know what to make of this guy. Then Li’s army showed up from behind him. The bluff worked. Li explained his thinking to a subordinate, which is how it entered history. The nomads figured that he would stay inside his fortified castle, leaving them free to loot the surrounding region. Now they had to throw that plan out the window, and Li’s total lack of fear made the nomads wonder if they would have trouble making a retreat. The next day, the Turkic ruler made a peace proposal, and Li arranged a horse sacrifice to seal the deal, which was just the right thing to do when dealing with these particular horsemen. Motley Crue played a stomping set as the nomads danced and swilled fermented mare milk.

Within four years, the Turkic tribes accepted Li as their overlord, so there must be something to these stories. He brought their most talented military leaders into the Tang government, treated the nomads well, resettled the bulk of them in the Ordos (near modern Ningxia) and kept them busy on campaigns. Subsequent Chinese rulers were not so comfortable about having nomads in their government, and through botched communication, they turned a loyal ally into an enemy. The nomads reverted to their old pattern, raiding border cities and demanding subsidies in exchange for peace agreements.

Li Shi Min’s eldest son built a yurt inside the palace compound. He surrounded himself with Turkic retainers until ordered to cease, whereupon he selected a group of Chinese retainers who spoke the Turkic language. He was a fan of Turkic music. He staged a mock funeral and played the corpse himelf, “surrounded by wailing mounted nomads”. Unfortunately, this colorful character never became emperor
because he plotted against his own father.

Before the Tang Dynasty, northern China (or at least its ruling classes) had become a mix of Han Chinese and sinified tribes that had formerly been frontier nomads. After centuries of division, the north and south were united again, and the northerners were surprised and amused that the southerners drank tea instead of yogurt. The southerners granted that the northerners were skilled horsemen, but thought that the northerners were a bit rough and not very talented at literary pursuits (although they did admire Li Shi Min’s calligraphy). The northerners had gone native; women were full social entities in the north, permitted to run businesses and represent themselves at court. The northerners spent far too much time on horseback, hunting and practicing archery when they should have been studying the classics or grinding ink.

The transformation of the north had been a gradual process, Going back to when nomadic Xiongnu moved inside the Great Wall during a period of turmoil and set themselves up as frontier guardians for the Han. After the late Han Dynasty fell into a state of constant civil war, northern warlords needed all the muscle they could get and began incorporating nomads into their armies. Cao Cao defeated an army of nomads and incorporated their remaining force into his army. By the time he had taken control of northern China, he he had large populations of these peoples living within his borders. He demanded that the larger and more dangerous bunch, the Xiongnu, send him a royal hostage, since they were reativley independent and still had contact with Xiongnu outside of China. Northern courts continued this practice. These hostages received Chinese educations and became culturally savvy. Nomads had happily avoided the responsiblities and impossible burdens of taking charge for 500 years, but in the early 4rd Century, one of these Xiongnu hostages established a state in the north during a period of anarchy. His family had led the Xiongnu for five centuries, so he was an acceptable candidate. The Xiongnu obliterated the capital city of Luoyang, killed the emperor, and then did the same to ChangAn (XiAn) when a successor took power there.

The upper classes moved to southern China in droves.

The Xiongnu-led state lacked political and administrative experience and lost the support of their subjects, many of who were Han Chinese, and soon enough, the Xiongnu upstarts were slaughered in their turn.

From here, the plot thickens, with a huge cast of nomadic tribes and Han; the names of nomadic tribes don’t really tell you the ethnicity of the people, only which group was leading at the time. Nomads absorbed each other and formed a blur of federations and alliances. States rose and fell in northern China with depressing regularity, but over time, the northern states developed a system of government that combined nomads and sedentary peoples by granting each group broad autonomy within its own sphere. The most famous of these was the Tuoba Wei, a somewhat Turkic state that started the Longmen grottoes near Luoyang. The north had developed high culture but held onto many nomadic traditions. This was the background for the northern elite during the early Tang, which explains the carvings of Li Shi Min’s horses.

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One Response to The Emperor’s Horses

  1. I didn’t realize the impact nomadic tribes had on China’s history!

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