In 104 BCE, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty in China (r. 141-87 BCE) sent Li Guangli west to campaign against a kingdom they called Dayuan (in the Ferghana valley area near Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan). Li Guangli’s appointment as a general for the mission was not due to merit. Instead, he seems to have been given leadership of the campaign merely because he was the brother of one of Emperor Wu’s favorite concubines. As such, the general in charge of the Dayuan campaign was lacking in military and logistical experience. Despite this, Emperor Wu reportedly gave the man an army numbering between 26,000 and 36,000 troops and sent him on his way toward Dayuan.
General Li’s lack of experience or military know-how quickly began to whittle away at the fresh army. No effective supply chain was set up for the marching force, causing the army to suffer from severe hunger and thirst. General Li had to resort to extorting food from neutral or hostile cities that he met on his route—many of these cities could withstand a siege, however, if they merely shut their gate on the starving Chinese army. When General Li reached a city called Yucheng in the eastern borderlands of the Kingdom of Dayuan, only a measly few thousand troops remained of the original 26,000-36,000 men tasked to undertake the expedition. General Li besieged the place, but it soon became apparent that Yucheng, like other cities encountered on the way, would not fall to an assault. With this realization, the general decided to withdraw and return to China. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) described the end to this abysmal campaign, “They therefore decided to lead their troops back to China. The journey to Dayuan and back had taken them two years, and by the time they reached Dunhuang they had no more than one or two tenths of their original force left” (Shi Ji 123).
Emperor Wu, upon learning of the general’s withdrawal, refused to let his favorite concubine’s brother end the military campaign on such an unsuccessful note. The emperor reportedly sent a message that threatened General Li and the army with execution if they continued heading home. Instead, the army was instructed to remain at Dunhuang and await reinforcements and supplies. Unbelievably, the emperor reportedly entrusted tens of thousands of more lives to the lackluster general. The aforementioned Sima Qian described the troops, provisions, and beasts of burden that Emperor Wu sent to General Li for the second phase of the campaign against Dayuan:
“By the end of a year or so he had sent 60,000 new men to Dunhuang to reinforce the army there, not counting porters and personal attendants. The army was provided with 100,000 oxen, over 30,000 horses, and tens of thousands of donkeys, mules, and camels, as well as plentiful provisions and a great number of crossbows and other weapons. The whole empire was thrown into a turmoil, relaying orders and providing men and supplies for the attack on Dayuan. Over fifty subordinate commanders were appointed to direct the army” (Shi Ji 123).
With this new army of 60,000 troops (in addition to whatever remained of his original force), Li Guangli set off once more toward the Dayuan. The emperor tried to personally keep the general supplied, sending water specialists and steady shipments of rice to the marching army. In addition to the wagons of rice, General Li found that cities were more willing to bring him food now that he had 60,000 men at his disposal. Not all cities were compliant—Yucheng was once again a thorn in General Li’s side, as was another city called Luntou. The general let Yucheng be, but took the time to besiege and massacre Luntou. The siege and assault was apparently an incredibly inefficient and costly endeavor, for as Sima Qian reported, “from there on west to Ershi, the capital of Dayuan, his advance was unhindered. He reached Ershi with a force of 30,000 soldiers” (Shi Ji 123). Therefore, on a well-supplied march, during which he attacked only one major city, General Li lost around half of his original force of 60,000 or more men.
Thanks to Emperor Wu, who supplied General Li with engineers who knew how to divert rivers, the siege of Ershi went well. The Chinese army cut off the city’s water supply and began assaulting the walls. They reportedly broke through the outer defenses of Ershi, putting great pressure on the nobles and troops of Dayuan who were manning the existing interior defenses. As the story goes, the defenders made peace with the Chinese by executing their own king and offering General Li access to thousands of horses that Emperor Wu greatly coveted. The general accepted the horses, halted the assault of Ershi’s interior defenses and began his return trip to China.
During the march home, Li Guangli made sure his path brought him back to Yucheng. This time, he succeeded in conquering the city and its king was killed. As happened often in General Li’s campaign, the battle and march was inefficient and wasteful. Sima Qian gave a dismal final report for the Li Guangli’s expedition:
“When the army re-entered the Jade Gate Pass, it numbered something over 10,000 men, with over 1,000 military horses. During General Li’s second expedition the army had not suffered from any lack of provisions, nor had many of the soldiers been killed in battle. The generals and other officers, however, were a greedy lot, most of them taking little care of their men but abusing and preying upon them instead. This was the reason for the large number of lives lost.” (Shi Ji 123).
Despite the general reportedly losing over 70,000 men and countless animals during the course of the various phases of his 4-year expedition against Dayuan, Emperor Wu still rewarded Li Guangli for the costly campaign. After his return to China, General Li was appointed as the marquis of Haixi.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Section of a mural from the Military Museum Ancient Weapons gallery in China, 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.