Few people today have even heard of the Battle of Talas River. Yet this little-known skirmish between the army of Imperial Tang China and the Abbasid Arabs had important consequences, not just for China and Central Asia, but for the entire world.
Eighth century Asia was an ever-shifting mosaic of different tribal and regional powers, fighting for trade rights, political power and/or religious hegemony. The era was characterized by a dizzying array of battles, alliances, double-crosses and betrayals.
At the time, nobody could have known that one particular battle, which took place on the banks of the Talas River in present-day Kyrgyzstan, would halt the Arab and Chinese advances in Central Asia and fix the boundary between Buddhist/Confucianist Asia and Muslim Asia.
None of the combatants could have predicted that this battle would be instrumental in transmitting a key invention from China to the western world: the art of paper-making, a technology that would alter world history forever.
Background to the Battle
For some time, the powerful Tang Empire (618-906) and its predecessors had been expanding Chinese influence in Central Asia.
China used "soft power" for the most part, relying upon a series of trade agreements and nominal protectorates rather than military conquest to control Central Asia. The most troublesome foe faced by the Tang from 640 forward was the powerful Tibetan Empire, established by Songtsan Gampo.
Control of what is now Xinjiang, Western China, and neighboring provinces went back and forth between China and Tibet throughout the seventh and eighth centuries. China also faced challenges from the Turkic Uighurs in the northwest, the Indo-European Turfans, and the Lao/Thai tribes on China's southern borders.
The Rise of the Arabs
While the Tang were occupied with all these adversaries, a new superpower rose in the Middle East.
The Prophet Muhammad died in 632, and the Muslim faithful under the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750) soon brought vast areas under their sway. From Spain and Portugal in the west, across North Africa and the Middle East, and on to the oasis cities of Merv, Tashkent, and Samarkand in the east, the Arab conquest spread with astonishing speed.
China's interests in Central Asia went back at least to 97 B.C., when the Han Dynasty general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 as far as Merv (in what is now Turkmenistan), in pursuit of bandit tribes that preyed on early Silk Road caravans.
China also had long courted trade relations with the Sassanid Empire in Persia, as well as their predecessors the Parthians. The Persians and Chinese had collaborated to quell rising Turkic powers, playing different tribal leaders off of one another.
In addition, the Chinese had a long history of contacts with the Sogdian Empire, centered in modern-day Uzbekistan.
Early Chinese/Arab Conflicts
Inevitably, the lightning-quick expansion by the Arabs would clash with China's established interests in Central Asia.
In 651, the Umayyads captured the Sassanian capital at Merv and executed the king, Yazdegerd III. From this base, they would go on to conquer Bukhara, the Ferghana Valley, and as far east as Kashgar (on the Chinese/Kyrgyz border today).
News of Yazdegard's fate was carried to the Chinese capital of Chang'an (Xian) by his son Firuz, who fled to China after the fall of Merv. Firuz later became a general of one of China's armies, and then governor of a region centered at modern-day Zaranj, Afghanistan.
In 715, the first armed clash between the two powers occurred in the Ferghana Valley of Afghanistan.
The Arabs and Tibetans deposed King Ikhshid and installed a man named Alutar in his place. Ikhshid asked China to intervene on his behalf, and the Tang sent an army of 10,000 to overthrow Alutar and reinstate Ikhshid.
Two years later, an Arab/Tibetan army besieged two cities in the Aksu region of what is now Xinjiang, western China. The Chinese sent an army of Qarluq mercenaries, who defeated the Arabs and Tibetans and lifted the siege.
In 750 the Umayyad Caliphate fell, overthrown by the more aggressive Abbasid Dynasty.
From their first capital at Harran, Turkey, the Abbasid Caliphate set out to consolidate power over the sprawling Arab Empire built by the Umayyads. One area of concern was the eastern borderlands - the Ferghana Valley and beyond.
The Arab forces in eastern Central Asia with their Tibetan and Uighur allies were led by the brilliant tactician, General Ziyad ibn Salih. China's western army was headed by Governor-General Kao Hsien-chih (Go Seong-ji), an ethnic-Korean commander. It was not unusual at that time for foreign or minority officers to command Chinese armies because the military was considered an undesirable career path for ethnic Chinese noblemen.
Appropriately enough, the decisive clash at Talas River was precipitated by another dispute in Ferghana.
In 750, the king of Ferghana had a border dispute with the ruler of neighboring Chach. He appealed to the Chinese, who sent General Kao to assist Ferghana's troops.
Kao besieged Chach, offered the Chachan king safe passage out of his capital, then reneged and beheaded him. In a mirror-image parallel to what had happened during the Arab conquest of Merv in 651, the Chachan king's son escaped and reported the incident to Abbasid Arab governor Abu Muslim at Khorasan.
Abu Muslim rallied his troops at Merv and marched to join Ziyad ibn Salih's army further east. The Arabs were determined to teach General Kao a lesson… and incidentally, to assert Abbasid power in the region.
The Battle of Talas River
In July of 751, the armies of these two great empires met at Talas, near the modern-day Kyrgyz/Kazakh border.
Chinese records state that the Tang army was 30,000 strong, while Arab accounts put the number of Chinese at 100,000. The total number of Arab, Tibetan and Uighur warriors is not recorded, but theirs was the larger of the two forces.
For five days, the mighty armies clashed.
When the Qarluq Turks came in on the Arab side several days into the fighting, the Tang army's doom was sealed. Chinese sources imply that the Qarluqs had been fighting for them, but treacherously switched sides midway through the battle.
Arab records, on the other hand, indicate that the Qarluqs were already allied with the Abbasids prior to the conflict. The Arab account seems more likely since the Qarluqs suddenly mounted a surprise attack on the Tang formation from the rear.
Some modern Chinese writings about the battle still exhibit a sense of outrage at this perceived betrayal by one of the Tang Empire's minority peoples. Whatever the case, the Qarluq attack signaled the beginning of the end for Kao Hsien-chih's army.
Of the tens of thousands the Tang sent into battle, only a small percentage survived. Kao Hsien-chih himself was one of the few who escaped the slaughter; he would live just five years more, before being put on trial and executed for corruption. In addition to the tens of thousands of Chinese killed, a number were captured and taken back to Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan) as prisoners of war.
The Abbassids could have pressed their advantage, marching into China proper. However, their supply lines were already stretched to the breaking point, and sending such a huge force over the eastern Hindu Kush mountains and into the deserts of western China was beyond their capacity.
Despite the crushing defeat of Kao's Tang forces, the Battle of Talas was a tactical draw. The Arabs' eastward advance was halted, and the troubled Tang Empire turned its attention from Central Asia to rebellions on its northern and southern borders.
Consequences of the Battle of Talas
At the time of the Battle of Talas, its significance was not clear. Chinese accounts mention the battle as part of the beginning of the end of the Tang Dynasty.
That same year, the Khitan tribe in Manchuria (northern China) defeated the imperial forces in that region, and Thai/Lao peoples in what is now Yunnan province in the south revolted as well. The An Shi Revolt of 755-763, which was more of a civil war than a simple revolt, further weakened the empire.
By 763, the Tibetans were able to seize the Chinese capital at Chang'an (now Xian).
With so much turmoil at home, the Chinese had neither the will nor the power to exert much influence past the Tarim Basin after 751.
For the Arabs, too, this battle marked an unnoticed turning point. The victors are supposed to write history, but in this case, (despite the totality of their victory), they did not have much to say for some time after the event.
Barry Hoberman points out that the ninth-century Muslim historian al-Tabari (839 to 923) never even mentions the Battle of Talas River.
It's not until half a millennium after the skirmish that Arab historians take note of Talas, in the writings of Ibn al-Athir (1160 to 1233) and al-Dhahabi (1274 to 1348).
Nevertheless, the Battle of Talas had important consequences. The weakened Chinese Empire was no longer in any position to interfere in Central Asia, so the influence of the Abbassid Arabs grew.
Some scholars quibble that too much emphasis is placed on the role of Talas in the "Islamification" of Central Asia.
It is certainly true that the Turkic and Persian tribes of Central Asia did not all immediately convert to Islam in August of 751. Such a feat of mass communication across the deserts, mountains, and steppes would have been utterly impossible before modern mass communications, even if the Central Asian peoples were uniformly receptive to Islam.
Nonetheless, the absence of any counterweight to the Arab presence allowed Abbassid influence to spread gradually throughout the region.
Within the next 250 years, most of the formerly Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Nestorian Christian tribes of Central Asia had become Muslim.
Most significant of all, among the prisoners of war captured by the Abbassids after the Battle of Talas River, were a number of skilled Chinese artisans, including Tou Houan. Through them, first the Arab world and then the rest of Europe learned the art of paper-making. (At that time, the Arabs controlled Spain and Portugal, as well as North Africa, the Middle East, and large swaths of Central Asia.)
Soon, paper-making factories sprang up in Samarkand, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Delhi… and in 1120 the first European paper mill was established in Xativa, Spain (now called Valencia). From these Arab-dominated cities, the technology spread to Italy, Germany, and across Europe.
The advent of paper technology, along with woodcut printing and later movable-type printing, fueled the advances in science, theology, and history of Europe's High Middle Ages, which ended only with the coming of the Black Death in the 1340s.
- "The Battle of Talas," Barry Hoberman. Saudi Aramco World, pp. 26-31 (Sept/Oct 1982).
- "A Chinese Expedition across the Pamirs and Hindukush, A.D. 747," Aurel Stein. The Geographic Journal, 59:2, pp. 112-131 (Feb. 1922).
- Gernet, Jacque, J. R. Foster (trans.), Charles Hartman (trans.). "A History of Chinese Civilization," (1996).
- Oresman, Matthew. "Beyond the Battle of Talas: China's Re-emergence in Central Asia." Ch. 19 of "In the tracks of Tamerlane: Central Asia's path to the 21st Century," Daniel L. Burghart and Theresa Sabonis-Helf, eds. (2004).
- Titchett, Dennis C. (ed.). "The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T'ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One," (1979).