In 129 BCE, Emperor Wu of China sent four generals on a surprise invasion into Xiongnu territory. Each general had a separate force and launched their incursion into enemy territory from different cities. Wei Qing, one of the emperor’s most talented generals, marched into Xiongnu land from Shanggu. Gongsun He and Gongsun Ao also lead invasion forces, the first from Yunzhong, and the latter from Dai Province. Finally, Li Guang—an unorthodox but fearsome general—led his forces out from Yanmen.
We Qing was the only one of the four generals to have a truly successful campaign (as he often did) and was said to have captured several hundred Xiongnu. Gongsun He, for his part, had an uneventful trip through enemy land, making virtually no contact with any foes. The campaigns of Gongsun Ao and Li Guang were also unimpressive, but their reputations were besmirched by worse than lack of contact with the Xiongnu; instead of not finding their foes, the latter two generals were intercepted by Xiongnu armies and were defeated. Gongsun Ao lost thousands of troops in Xiongnu territory and returned home in disgrace. Li Guang, unfortunately, fared even worse—he was not only defeated by the Xiongnu, but also captured alive.
According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), who claimed to have personally seen Li Guang, the Xiongnu had a deep respect and fear of the general. By this point, Li Guang (who had joined the army in 166 BCE) had been a thorn in the side of the Xiongnu for around three decades. His name was reportedly known by the Shanyu, the leader of the Xiongnu, and an order was disseminated among the Xiongnu to capture Li Guang alive. On the battlefield, the Xiongnu were able to identify Li Guang, and, realizing he was injured, they mended his wounds and carefully placed him on a litter suspended between two horses, intending to bring him back to their leader. Unfortunately for the Xiongnu, their captive’s wounds would soon prove to not be as debilitating as they thought.
Li Guang, when he was injured on the battlefield, reportedly attempted to play dead. The Xiongnu, however, found him and recognized that he was alive, forcing Li Guang to downgrade his plan to acting unconscious. Although the Xiongnu saw through his ploy to play dead, his impersonation of unconsciousness was more convincing. Apparently, only minimal guards were placed near the litter carrying Li Guang, and the nearest warrior keeping an eye on the general was virtually a child. Sensing an opportunity to escape, Li Guang suddenly sprung up from the litter and jumped onto the youth’s horse. He also commandeered the boy’s bow before knocking the young Xiongnu warrior to the ground. Now equipped with a steed and a weapon, Li Guang began his great escape.
Although the general’s tactics in the previous battle were lackluster, Li Guang’s personal fighting prowess was famous, especially with the weapon he had just picked up—the bow. Capable of consistent near-miraculous shots, he was an ancient sniper. In addition, he was a cavalry officer, and was very familiar with horses. Therefore, with his bow and his horse, Li Guang had everything he needed to survive.
As soon as Li Guang made his move and began galloping frantically for Han territory, hundreds of Xiongnu charged after him in pursuit. The fleeing general, however, knew how to shoot from horseback and was able to take down anyone who rode too close. Through this combination of fleeing and shooting, Li Guang was able to successfully weave his way back toward friendly territory. The Xiongnu eventually gave up the chase, either because of Li Guang’s accuracy or the nearing Han border. Whatever the case, Li Guang eventually shed his pursuers, and was even able to herd together some survivors from his broken army before crossing back into Han lands. Yet, although he had survived this trial, another lay in the immediate future. Once he returned to the capital, the general would have to answer to the unforgiving Emperor Wu for his defeat and capture in battle.
When Li Guang reached the capital, he was quickly arrested by Han officials, as was Gongsun Ao, who similarly was defeated by the Xiongnu. The two were told that their conduct could merit execution, yet they were thankfully given the option to buy their freedom. Although they escaped the death penalty, they lost their military commands and government titles. After paying his own ransom in 129 BCE, Li Guang would continue to live as a commoner until around 127 BCE, when he was called back to duty by the emperor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Drawing of man on horseback shooting an arrow from the New York Public Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.