Historical notes: Horses and princesses the price for peace

IN 751 the Chinese and Arab armies met at Talas River in present- day Kazakstan. The hard-fought battle resulted in no territorial gain for the Arab victors, but marked the logistical limits for each empire. Their capitals were thousands of miles away across desert expanses, and with over-stretched supply lines both armies relied on local forces. Indeed, it was the change in allegiance of one such force that historians credit for the Arab victory.

The two empires were part of an international trade network that extended from the eastern Mediterranean to the western Pacific. Trade between the great Asian empires and the ensuing movement of peoples resulted in artistic, literary, medical and technological exchanges, along with the diffusion of religious and philosophical ideas.

Chinese prisoners from the Talas river battle, for example, were to have a profound effect on core Arab industries. Chinese paper-makers were settled in Samarkand. In the 13th century Arabs were teaching the art to Spanish and Italians and, until 1911, European historians asserted that paper- making was an eighth-century Arab invention.

This Asian world order was not dominated by any one power. By the eighth century China was only first among equals, and not even this militarily. Her uneasy relationship with powerful neighbours was revealed only four years after the Talas river battle when China was plunged into civil war by General Rokhshan's rebellion.

Rokhshan was of Turkic and Sogdian parentage, appointed in a deliberate Chinese policy. "If we use foreign generals," advised a Chief Minister, "then their ambitions will only be military and not political." Rokhshan showed the weakness of this argument. He won the affections of both the emperor and, most importantly, the emperor's favourite - and young - concubine, Lady Yang. (One of Rokhshan's first gifts to the emperor had been a supply of aphrodisiac pills.)

Assigned to the border hundreds of miles from the capital, he was supplied with luxuries by Lady Yang who appropriated the services of the fast white camels reserved for military crises. But the Chief Minister was not so enamoured of the general's charms and, realising his vulnerability, Rokhshan rebelled in 755.

The rebellion took 11 dreadful and bloody years to quell and victory was only effected with the help of foreign forces, most notably the Turkic Uighurs whose newly acquired empire covered present-day Mongolia. For compensation, they demanded the establishment of horse markets along the Chinese-Uighur border. Over the next century the Chinese empire was obliged to purchase tens of thousands of Uighur horses at an exorbitant rate as the price for peace - in one year, the cost exceeded the annual income of China. Even this was not enough: the Chinese defaulted on payment but could not refuse to send five imperial princesses as brides for successive Uighur kaghans.

The Tibetans, the fourth powerful empire in the region, received only imperial cousins masquerading as princesses, but they also proved fierce opponents and regularly defeated the Chinese forces. One region, nominally under Chinese control, was nicknamed "the Tibetan grain fields" because of the frequency and success of Tibetan raids. Ironically, it was two of the foreign generals appointed by China - a Korean and another Sogdian - who started to turn the tide of military success in China's favour in the 750s, but with Rokhshan's rebellion China withdraw her forces and Tibet took control.

A century later the Tibetan and Uighur empires had both collapsed. The Uighurs moved south to the Silk Road and the area was only re-colonised by China late in the imperial age and thus is still known as "the new territories" - Xinjiang. Central authority in Tibet was re-established after several centuries and it remained a powerful regional force.

Today it is easy to forget that these peoples' current struggle with China for autonomy and territory has a long history and that China was not always so dominant.

Susan Whitfield is the author of `Life Along the Silk Road' (John Murray, pounds 19.99)

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game