In the spring of 119 BCE, Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of Han Dynasty China sent his greatest duo of military generals—the uncle and nephew pair of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing—to attack the Xiongnu Confederation, a group of nomadic tribes then reportedly led by Shanyu Yizhixie (r. approximately 127/126-114 BCE). At the time, the Xiongnu bases of operation were set up at the north end of the Gobi desert, with a vast arid region acting as a buffer between the persistent nomads and the Han armies. Emperor Wu and the Xiongnu had been hostile since 134 BCE, and were frequently raiding and invading each other over the years. Yet, the Chinese campaign of 119 BCE was meant to be more of a knock-out punch than a mere punitive raid. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, the emperor raised an enormous “force of 100,000 cavalry, along with 140,000 horses to carry baggage and other equipment (this in addition to the horses provided for transporting provisions)” (Shi Ji 110). This was a huge portion of the Han Empire’s horse population that was being gambled on the mission of 119 BCE. In addition to the horde of horsemen and horses, Emperor Wu also reportedly mustered several hundred thousand infantrymen to accompany the cavalry into battle.
Before the troops left Han territory, the huge Chinese army was split between the personal commands of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing. According to Sima Qian, the cavalry force was equally divided, with each of the two generals receiving 50,000 horsemen. As to the division of the even greater number of infantrymen, Sima Qian was less specific, yet this body of troops was also divided between the two main Chinese leaders in some way. When the forces had been adequately arranged, Wei Qing, the more experienced of the Han military leaders, and general-in-chief of Emperor Wu’s armed forces, set from the vicinity of Dingxiang. Huo Qubing, too, began his march, but he took a different path than his colleague, and started instead from Dai Provence. Both forces entered the Gobi Desert and braced for the grueling challenge of marching huge forces through an inhospitable environment.
The Xiongnu, according to the Chinese sources, often had an effective system of spies and informants. In 119 BCE, as in other times, the Xiongnu quickly learned of the Han invasion. The information put Shanyu Yizhixie in a dilemma—should he flee or fight. After deliberating with his friends and advisors, the shanyu ultimately chose to enact both choices at the same time. He sent his camp supplies, valuables and civilians further north, but personally remained at the edge of the Gobi Desert with an army of experienced Xiongnu warriors. His decision to engage the huge Chinese force was reasonable, as when the Han armies appeared at the north end of the desert, they would be fatigued and weakened from their trek through the Gobi. Furthermore, due to the competence of the Xiongnu spies and scouts, the shanyu was able to accurately predict where the two Han armies would appear on the north end of the desert.
After a rough journey, in which a great many horses likely died, the Han forces finally reached the opposite end of the Gobi, only to find another challenge awaiting them. Shanyu Yizhixie had deployed his troops to intercept both of the Han armies. Yizhixie personally led a force to challenge Wei Qing, while several minor Xiongnu kings led a force against Huo Qubing. The Xiongnu had a great many advantages for the battle—they chose the location of the fight, were familiar with the surroundings, and were well rested in contrast to the exhausted Han armies that were dragging themselves out of the desert. Yet, if there were Han generals who could even the odds back into their own favor by sheer strategy and instinct, it was Wei Qing and Huo Qubing.
Wei Qing met Shanyu Yizhixie’s forces at the edge of the desert sometime during the day, and when they made first contact, neither side was eager to start a full-scale battle at that time. Instead, the shanyu and Wei Qing engaged in small skirmishes with fractions of their cavalry forces, while the rest of the Xiongnu and Han troops remained in their respective camps. This status quo of contained small-scale prodding and testing continued until late in the day, and neither side had achieved much progress as sunset began to splash color on the sky. As the sun started to disappear below the horizon, the environment soon provided an opportunity that could be utilized by an attentive general.
As the story goes, a huge sandstorm swept over the battlefield. Although there was still some light, the sand storm was thick enough to make the opposing forces blind to the actions of the other. Wei Qing recognized the chance immediately and masterfully set about maneuvering his forces with great speed. Under the cover of the swirling sands, Wei Qing rushed his forces out of camp and, remembering the position of the enemy, sent his troops to quickly encircle the shanyu’s troops. When the sands finally died down and the battlefield became visible once again, Yizhixie and the Xiongnu were shocked to find themselves completely surrounded by Wei Qing’s huge force. The shanyu, finding himself so outmaneuvered, reportedly lost the will to continue the fight, and instead focused all his efforts on escape.
According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, Shanyu Yizhixie ultimately decided to ram his way through the Han encirclement and flee north. To do this, the shanyu gathered together several hundred of his most trusted, toughest, horsemen, and with these men he charged at a weak point in Wei Qing’s lines. Yizhixie did indeed escape, but in doing so he left behind thousands of his warriors. Either these abandoned troops were given the command to scatter in all directions, or they began to flee when they saw their leader gallop off into the night. Whatever the case, the Han forces had a wild night, with Xiongnu forces pressing out against the encirclement in all directions. Many of the nomads, like their shanyu, were able to escape, but their casualties were great—by dawn Wei Qing had reportedly killed or captured around 10,000 Xiongnu. Yizhixie ultimately escaped his Chinese pursuers, but by the time Wei Qing returned to Han territory, he had killed or captured an additional 9,000 Xiongnu.
Although Wei Qing had performed an impressive maneuver against Yizhixie and had dealt some major blows to the Xiongnu, he faced an underwhelming reception back in the court of Emperor Wu. This happened because Huo Qubing totally outshined his uncle during the 119 BCE campaign. Huo Qubing, in his battle against the shanyu’s subordinate kings, had obliterated the opposing forces on the battlefield. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian, Huo Qubing killed or captured a total of 70,443 Xiongnu before the end of his campaign. Yet, the Han successes had come at an incredible cost. Of the giant horde of horses that the Chinese dispatched into the desert, only around 30,000 were said to have survived the campaign. Similarly, although the Han had inflicted between 80,000 and 90,000 casualties on the Xiongnu, the Chinese also lost tens of thousands of their own troops.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Ancient Han Dynasty figurines from the National Museum/ China through the Ages, Exhibit 4, photographed by Gary Todd, [Public Domain] via worldhistorypics.com and Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.