The Invasion of the Tartar Steppes
Many as have been the wars of China, the Chinese are not a warlike people. Their wars have mostly been fought at home to repress rebellion or overcome feudal lords, and during the long history of the nation its armies have rarely crossed the borders of the empire to invade foreign states. In fact, the chief aggressive movements of the Chinese have been rather wars of defence than of offence, wars forced upon them by the incessant sting of invasions from the desert tribes.
For ages the Tartars made China their plunder-ground, crossing the borders in rapid raids against which the Great Wall and the frontier forces proved useless for defence, and carrying off vast spoil from the industrious Chinese. They were driven from the soil scores of times, only to return as virulently as before. Their warlike energy so far surpassed that of their victims that one emperor did not hesitate to admit that three Tartars were the equal of five Chinese. They were bought off at times with tribute of rich goods and beautiful maidens, and their chief was even given the sister of an emperor for wife. And still they came, again and again, swarms of fierce wasps which stung the country more deeply with each return.
This in time became intolerable, and a new policy was adopted, that of turning the tables on the Tartars and invading their country in turn. In the reign of Vouti, an emperor of the Han dynasty (135 b.c. ), the Tartar king sent to demand the hand of a Chinese princess in marriage, offering to continue the existing truce. Bitter experience had taught the Chinese how little such an offer was to be trusted. Wang Kue, an able general, suggested the policy "of destroying them rather than to remain constantly exposed to their insults," and in the end war was declared.
The hesitation of the emperor had not been without abundant reason. To carry their arms into the wilds of Central Asia seemed a desperate enterprise to the peaceful Chinese, and their first effort in this direction proved a serious failure. Wang Kue, at the head of an army of three hundred thousand men, marched into the desert, adopting a stratagem to bring the Tartars within his reach. His plan failed, the Tartars avoided an attack, and Wang Kue closed the campaign without a shred of the glory he had promised to gain. The emperor ordered his arrest, which he escaped in the effective Eastern fashion of himself putting an end to his life.
But, though the general was dead, his policy survived, his idea of aggression taking deep root in the Chinese official mind. Many centuries were to elapse, however, before it bore fruit in the final subjection of the desert tribes, and China was to become their prey as a whole before they became the subjects of its throne.
The failure of Wang Kue gave boldness to the Tartars, who carried on in their old way the war the Chinese had begun, making such bold and destructive raids that the emperor sent out a general with orders to fight the enemy wherever he could find them. This warrior, Wei Tsing by name, succeeded in catching the raiders in a trap. The Tartar chief, armed with the courage of despair, finally cut his way through the circle of his foes and brought off the most of his men, but his camp, baggage, wives, children, and more than fifteen thousand soldiers were left behind, and the victorious general became the hero of his age, the emperor travelling a day's journey from the capital to welcome him on his return.
This, and a later success by the same general, gave the Chinese the courage they so sadly needed, teaching them that the Tartars were not quite beyond the power of the sword. A council was called, a proposal to carry the war into the enemy's country approved, and an army, composed mostly of cavalry, sent out under an experienced officer named Hokiuping. The ill fortune of the former invasion was now replaced by good. The Tartars, completely taken by surprise, were everywhere driven back, and Hokiuping returned to China rich in booty, among it the golden images used as religious emblems by one of the Tartar princes. Returning with a larger force, he swept far through their country, boasting on his return that he had put thirty thousand Tartars to the sword. As a result, two of the princes and a large number of their followers surrendered to Vouti, and were disarmed and dispersed through the frontier settlements of the realm.
These expeditions were followed by an invasion of the Heung-nou country by a large army, commanded by the two successful generals Wei Tsing and Hokiuping. This movement was attended with signal success, and the Tartars for the time were thoroughly cowed, while the Chinese lost much of their old dread of their desert foe. Years afterwards (110 b.c. ) a new Tartar war began, Vouti himself taking command of an army of two hundred thousand men, and sending an envoy to the Tartar king, commanding him to surrender all prisoners and plunder and to acknowledge China as sovereign lord of himself and his people. All that the proud chief surrendered was the head of the ambassador, which he sent back with a bold defiance.
For some reason, which history does not give, Vouti failed to lead his all-conquering army against the desert foe, and when, in a later year, the steppes were invaded, the imperial army found the warlike tribes ready for the onset. The war continued for twenty years more, with varied fortune, and when, after fifty years of almost incessant warfare with the nomad warriors, Vouti laid down his sword with his life, the Tartars were still free and defiant. Yet China had learned a new way of dealing with the warlike tribes, and won a wide reputation in Asia, while her frontiers were much more firmly held.
The long reign of the great emperor had not been confined to wars with the Tartars. In his hands the empire of China was greatly widened by extensions in the west. The large provinces of Yunnan, Szehuen, and Fuhkien were conquered and added to the Chinese state, while other independent kingdoms were made vassal states. And "thereby hangs a tale" which we have next to tell.
Far west in Northern China dwelt a barbarian people named the Yuchi, numerous and prosperous, yet no match in war for their persistent enemies the Tartars of the steppes. In the year 165 b.c. they were so utterly beaten in an invasion of the Heung-nou that they were forced to quit their homes and seek safety and freedom at a distance. Far to the west they went, where they coalesced with those warlike tribes of Central Asia who afterwards became the bane of the empire of Rome.
The fate of this people seemed a bitter one to Vouti, when it was told to his sympathetic ear, and, in the spirit in which King Arthur sent out his Round Table Knights on romantic quests, he turned to his council and asked if any among them was daring enough to follow the track of these wanderers and bring them back to the land they had lost. One of them, Chang Keen, volunteered to take up the difficult quest and to traverse Asia from end to end in search of the fugitive tribes.
This knight of romance was to experience many adventures before he should return to his native land. Attended by a hundred devoted companions, he set out, but in endeavoring to cross the country of the Heung-nou the whole party were made prisoners and held in captivity for ten long years. Finally, after a bitter experience of desert life, the survivors made their escape, and, with a courage that had outlived their years of thraldom, resumed their search for the vanished tribes. Many western countries were visited in the search, and much strange knowledge was gained. In the end the Yuchi were found in their new home. With them Chang Keen dwelt for a year, but all his efforts to induce them to return were in vain. They were safe in their new land, and did not care to risk encounter with their old foes, even with the Emperor of China for their friend.
Finally the adventurous envoy returned to China with two of his companions, the only survivors of the hundred with whom he had set out years before. He had an interesting story to tell of lands and peoples unknown to the Chinese, and wrote an account of his travels and of the geography of the countries be had seen. Chang Keen was subsequently sent on a mission to the western kingdom of Ousun, where he was received with much honor, though the king declined to acknowledge himself a vassal of the ruler of China. From here he sent explorers far to the south and north, bringing back with him fresh information concerning the Asiatic nations.
Of the Yuchi later stories are told. They are said to have come into collision with the Parthians, whom they vanquished after a long-continued struggle. They are also credited with having destroyed the kingdom of Bactria, a far-eastern relic of the empire of Alexander the Great. Several centuries later they may have combined with their old foes to form the Huns, who flung themselves in a devastating torrent upon Europe, and eventually became the founders of the modern kingdom of Hungary.