The Sudden Strike of Five Thousand Infantrymen

Li Ling (李陵) was a tragic character. He was the grandson of Li Guang (李广). Li Guang was a famous and respected general, but he met too many frustrations, and the emperor actually thought he was an inauspicious person. At last, after a failed military operation, Li Guang had to kill himself because he didn’t want to be humiliated. Li Ling was good at riding and shooting, and was kind to his followers, so he had good fame. Han Wu-Emperor (汉武帝), the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty, thought he was valiant as his grandfather, and let him be a military officer. The emperor ordered Li Ling to lead eight hundred cavalrymen to reconnoiter the status of the Hun (匈奴) nation. Li Ling and his cavalrymen tracked more than eight hundred kilometers, and didn’t see a Hun. Han Wu-Emperor was glad, and promoted him.

In 99 B.C., Li Guangli (李广利) led thirty thousand cavalrymen to leave Jiuquan(酒泉, in modern-days Gansu[甘肃] Province) and attack the Hun tribes of the Tian Mounation(天山, in modern-days Xinjiang[新疆] Region). The emperor wanted Li Ling to manage rear services. But Li Ling said his warriors were all brave and combative men and they wanted to fight independently against the Huns. The emperor told Li Ling that he wouldn’t give cavalry to Li Ling. Li Ling confidently said, “I don’t want cavalry. I am willing to lead a small number of armymen to fight against the large number of Huns, and I will lead five thousand infantrymen to tread the capital of the Huns.” Han Wu-Emperor agreed with him and ordered another military officer Lu Bode (路博德) to stand ready for assisting the army of Li Ling. Lu Bode was once a famous general who defeated the Yue (越) nation of the south and had illustrious achievements, and the territory of China spread to the north of modern-days Vietnam at that time. Later this general was degraded because of his disappointing son, and then he was ashamed to become the backup force. Lu Bode wrote to the emperor that he thought now there wasn’t the opportunity for combat and the army of Li Ling had better rest and consolidate until the next spring. Han Wu-Emperor was an oversensitive man, and he thought the letter was written with the instigation of Li Ling. Then he pushed Li Ling to attack the Hun's tribes of the Junji Mountain (浚稽山, in the south of modern-days Outer Mongolia).

Li Ling led his five thousand infantrymen left Juyan (居延, on the border between modern-days Gansu Province and Inner Mongolia) and arrived at the Junji Mountain after thirty days. On the way, Li Ling and his armymen recorded the geographical details of all areas where they passed through and made many maps, and then they sent these military maps to the imperial government. Li Ling and his army met the cavalry of the Chanyu (单于, the title of the supreme chief of the Hun nation) in the Junji Mountain. The Chanyu led thirty thousand cavalrymen to besiege the infantrymen of Li Ling. Li Ling stationed his infantry between two mountains and set large carts to surround the encampment.

Li Ling embattled his armymen as two alignments out the encampment. The armymen of the front alignment held halberds and shields, and the armymen of the back alignment held bows and crossbows. The warriors of Hun saw the armymen of Han were not many, so they rushed up to the encampment of Han’s army. More than one thousand crossbows of Han’s army shot at the Huns at the same time, and a large number of Huns were shot and died. The rest of Huns ran away to a mountain. Li Ling led his armymen to pursue the Huns, and killed thousands of Huns. The Chanyu was very frightened, and ordered eighty thousand cavalrymen of other tribes to attack the Han’s army. Li Ling and his armymen fought fiercely against the Huns. But the warriors of Hun were too many, and Li Ling had to withdraw his army southwards. Because of fierce fighting in these days, many armymen of Han were wounded. Li Ling ordered the armymen whose wounds were not very serious to drive carts and carry seriously wounded armymen, and the armymen whose wounds were slight still fought as the rest.

Li Ling found the morale of his armymen was sinking lower. He said to the armymen, “Why do you lack your morale? Are there some women in our army?” Li Ling led some armymen to search, and found women. Why did these women follow the army? These women had once been the wives and daughters of brigands. They were exiled to the border cities, and the armymen of Li Ling married them. The armymen let these women follow them to the expedition. They concealed their women in carts which carried supplies and weapons, but now Li Ling discovered the secret. Li Ling was very annoyed, and then he ordered his followers to kill all of the women by their swords. Armymen felt very sad, but they had no alternative. They loved their wives, and they also admired their general all along. In their mind, there was deep sadness, but no hatred. They had only one way---fighting against the Huns. The next day, Li Ling and his armymen counterattacked the Huns, and killed three thousand enemies.

Li Ling and his army entered a reed marsh. The Huns set fire to the reeds before the wind for burning the army of Han. Li Ling and his armymen set fire to the reeds, too. Because the reeds were burnt quickly inside and outside, so the army of Han survived. When Li Ling’s army arrived at the foot of a mountain, the Chanyu had led his cavalry to wait for them in the mountain. The Chanyu ordered his son to attack the Han’s army. The infantry of Han and the cavalry of the Huns fought fiercely in woods, and thousands of Huns were killed. Some soldiers of Han watched the Chanyu, and shot at him by their improved crossbows which could shoot several arrows synchronously. The horse of the Chanyu was shot, and the Chanyu fell. The Chanyu was horror-struck, and ran away rapidly.

The Chanyu wanted to withdraw his army, but the chiefs of many tribes of the Huns said, “You are the great Chanyu of our Hun, and lead several ten thousand of brave cavalrymen. But you actually can’t defeat thousands of infantrymen of Han. Other tribes won’t obey you, and the Han Empire will despise you more.” The Chanyu had to continue fighting.

The army of Li Ling was besieged by the Huns. The valiant warriors of Han fought fiercely, and more than two thousand Huns were killed or wounded. The Chanyu thought he wasn’t able to defeat the Han’s army, so he decided to withdraw anyway. However, at this time, in the army of Han, an officer Guan Gan (管敢) was insulted by his senior, and then he wanted to retaliate. He actually surrendered himself to the Huns and told the Chanyu, “The army of Li Ling doesn’t have reinforcements, and their arrows will be depleted soon. The general and Cheng’an Hou (成安侯) respectively lead each eight hundred armymen to be the vanguard. They use yellow flags and white flags as signals. If you order picked cavalrymen to shoot them, the army of Han will be defeated.”

Cheng’an Hou was the title of Han Yannian (韩延年). Han Yannian was the son of Han Qianqiu (韩千秋), who had once been the prime minster of the Jinan (济南) State which was a feudal state of the Han Empire. In the war of attacking the south Yue nation, Han Qianqiu died in battle. In order to honor Han Qianqiu, Han Wu-Emperor conferred the title “Cheng’an Hou” on his son Han Yannian. In this battle, Han Yannian followed Li Ling as a Xiaowei (校尉). Xiaowei was a military appointment, and the rank was only second to a general.

The Chanyu adopted the suggestion of Guan Gan. He ordered his cavalrymen to violently attack the army of Han. These cavalrymen shouted, “Surrender soon, Li Ling and Han Yannian!” Li Ling and his army were in the valley, and the Huns were in the mountain. The Huns shot from four sides at the army of Han. The army of Han tried to break out of the encirclement of the Huns. They had exhausted all of five hundred thousand of arrows, and their conditions were very dangerous because they hadn’t had powerful weapons against the Huns any longer. At this time, the army of Han still had about three thousand armymen. The weapons of many soldiers were damaged, and they had to cut the spokes of their carts as weapons. All officers held their swords. While they moved into the canyon of the Dihan Mountain (鞮汗山), the Chanyu ordered a part of warriors to pursue and attack the back of the army of Han, and other warriors to throw heavy stones from the mountain at the Han’s armymen. A large number of armymen of Han were hit by stones and died. The rest of the Han’s army was not able to force a way.

In the night, Li Ling wore plain clothes and walked out the camp. Some soldiers followed him and safeguarded him. But Li Ling told them, “Don’t follow me. I want to kill the Chanyu by myself.” After a long time, Li Ling returned, and sighed. He said, “We are defeated, and we will die.” An officer told him, “General, you have overawed the Huns. Though the Heaven doesn’t realize your hope, you can take the chance and return our country in the future. Do you remember Zhuoye-Hou (浞野侯)? He was once captured by the Huns, and later he escaped and returned home. The Heaven-Son treated him well as the past. So, General, don’t worry!”

Zhuoye-Hou was the title of Zhao Ponu (赵破奴). In 103 B.C., Zhao Ponu led two ten thousand of cavalrymen and arrived at the Junji Mountain. They killed and captured thousands of Huns. The Chanyu led eight ten thousand cavalrymen to besiege the army of Zhao Ponu. At a night, Zhao Ponu himself went out and looked for a wate source. He was unfortunately captured by the Huns. The Huns then fiercely attacked the army of Han. The officers of the Han’s army felt frightened, because according to the severe laws they lost their general and maybe they would be punished to death. So they surrendered themselves to the Huns, and the rest of armymen surrendered, too. In 100 B.C., Zhao Ponu escaped and returned to the Han Empire. Han Wu-Emperor restored the title of Zhao Ponu.

Li Ling understood that this official advised him to surrender himself to the Huns. He was angry and said, “Sir, don’t say so! If I don’t dare to die, I would not be a warrior.” Then Li Ling and other armymen cut down all of army flags. They buried the flags and their treasures. Li Ling sighed and said to all of armymen, “If we can get dozens of arrows, we are able to escape. Now we have no weapons which can be against the Huns, and tomorrow morning perhaps we will be captured! My brothers, you can flee by yourself. If anyone can return our motherland, please report our stories to our Heaven-Son.” Then he distributed food and ice to all of armymen. At the midnight, Li Ling himself beat the only drum for wakening armymen, but the drum had been broken, and had no sound. He had to come to every camp and waken the armymen. They decided to brave death and severally break the siege. Li Ling and Han Yannian rode two horses, and more than ten armymen followed them. They lured thousands of cavalrymen of the Huns. The Huns chased and besieged them. Han Yannian died in battle. Li Ling lost his faithful and sincere friend, and felt extremely sad. He cried, “I have no face to see His Majesty!” Then he surrendered himself to the Huns. Other armymen, who didn’t follow Li Ling, severally tried to cross the siege. At last, about four hundred armymen escaped and arrived at the frontier fortress of the Han Empire.

Han Wu-Emperor sent envoys to express regards and grant rewards to the four hundred surviving armymen. The emperor originally hoped Li Ling to fight to the death, but he heard that Li Ling surrendered himself to the Huns. He felt very angry, and asked all ministers what they thought of Li Ling. Though many ministers sympathized with Li Ling, they didn’t want to offend the wayward emperor. They said that Li Ling was culpable. But Sima Qian (司马迁), a great historian, pleaded for Li Ling in public. Han Wu-Emperor vented his anger on Sima Qian, and punished Sima Qian to castration (腐刑). In prison, Sima Qian wrote a great historical work “Historical Records” (史记) which records the history from the far remote ancient times to the then times.

The next year, Han Wu-Emperor sent the general Gongsun Ao (公孙敖) to lead an army to enter the central areas of the Huns for seeking Li Ling. They didn’t meet Li Ling, but got a bad news “Li Ling is teaching the Huns to make weapons against the Han’s army”. Han Wu-Emperor was extremely angry, and punished the family of Li Ling to death. Li Ling’s mother, wife, son and younger brother all were killed. The people of Li Ling’s hometown regarded Li Ling as their disgrace. Later, an envoy of Han was sent to the Hun. Li Ling asked the envoy, “I was the general of Han, and led five thousand infantrymen to overawe the Huns. We had no reinforcements so that we were defeated. I don’t betray our Han, why did the imperial government punish my family to death?” The envoy said, “The government heard that you taught the Huns to make weapons.” Li Ling sighed and said, “No, it isn’t me, and it is Li Xu (李绪).” Li Xu was an officer of a border army of Han, and surrendered himself to the Huns. This man taught the Huns to make the advanced weapons of Han. Perhaps Gongsun Ao and his armymen heard that a Han’s officer whose surname was Li (李) was teaching the Huns, and they wrongly supposed this man was Li Ling. Li Ling thought the actions of Li Xu caused his family to be killed, and hated Li Xu deeply. He sent a follower to assassinate Li Xu.

The Chanyu of the Huns admired Li Ling very much, and let his daughter be the wife of Li Ling. He gave a title “Youxiao-King” (右校王) to Li Ling. After the family of Li Ling were killed, Li Ling despaired of the Han Empire. He even led the army of the Hun fight against the Han’s army. However, his friends had never forgotten him. After the death of Han Wu-Emperor, Huo Guang (霍光) and Shangguan Jie (上官桀), who were the friends of Li Ling in the past, were in power. They let three friends of Li Ling to go to the Hun and try to persuade Li Ling to return his motherland. However, Li Ling refused, because he had no hopes for his motherland.

In 74 B.C., the past friends and subordinates of Li Ling heard a sorrowful message was from the Hun, “Li Ling died”. The old demobilized armymen who once had joined the expeditionary army of Li Ling still remembered the handsome, valiant and heroic images of their young commanders Li Ling and Han Yannian, and they also didn’t forget, the most of their fighting brothers eternally slept in the remote cold foreign land. They even remembered those sincere women who once helped them to mend and wash their clothes and dress their wounds. Many years had passed, those smiling faces were still in their mind. They often told their stories to their offspring, and said, don’t forget the people who died for their motherland and who died for their love.


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