A baby boy was born in the mansion of Princess Pingyang, the older sister of Emperor Liu Che.
The mother was named Wei Shao’er. She was a maidservant at the mansion.
The father was a low-ranked official at Pingyang County.
The weak baby was given the name—Huo Qubing (Qubing means “free from illness”).
It was the second year under the reign of Emperor Liu Che.
The baby would grow up to shoulder the heavy responsibility of taking control of the Hexi Corridor 16 years later.
Training Ground of the Imperial Guards
Emperor Liu Che inspected the troops accompanied by his general Wei Qing.
Both the Han Empire and Xiongnu armies were focused on preparing for larger-scale warfare.
Well-trained soldiers and military officials would be a key element in winning the war.
Huo Qubing was 16 years old.
The son of a humble maidservant, Huo Qubing seemed destined for an ordinary life.
But he became a member of the royal family when his aunt Wei Zifu, his mother’s younger sister, became the empress of Emperor Liu Che.
Huo Qubing’s uncle was the rising star—general Wei Qing.
Huo Qubing could have led a life of luxury at the imperial palace.
But he preferred the training ground of the imperial guards.
He loved archery, horseback riding, and everything related to the military.
He trained hard under his uncle Wei Qing.
Emperor Liu Che liked Huo Qubing, his nephew by marriage.
After observing Huo Qubing in training, Emperor Liu Che suggested to Huo that he should read more books on military strategies.
But Huo Qubing said it was more important to adapt to circumstances in the battle, than learning from ancient books.
His smart reply impressed Emperor Liu Che.
Meanwhile, Xiongnu armies continued to harass the borders of the Han Empire, killing Han officials and civilians.
Decades after its founding, the Han Empire’s national power had reached a new level.
Emperor Liu Che decided to launch a full-scale counterattack.
From 129 BC onwards, he launched several battles against Xiongnu and diminished the threat of Xiongnu to capital Chang’an.
The intelligence gathered by Zhang Qian about the Hexi Corridor and the Western Regions bolstered the emperor’s confidence to expand his empire westward.
After the Rouzhi people were driven out of the Hexi Corridor by Xiongnu, the leader of Xiongnu gave the east section of the Corridor to Prince Xiutu, and the west section of the Corridor to Prince Hunye.
Via this Corridor, Xiongnu could control the countries in the Western Regions to the west, as well as form an alliance with the Qiang people to the south. The situation posed serious threat to the Han Empire.
If Han could take control of the Hexi Corridor, the threat from Xiongnu would be neutralised, and the alliance between Xiongnu and the Qiang people would be disrupted. It would be like cutting off the right arm of Xiongnu, at the same time allowing Han access to the Western Regions.
Emperor Liu Che knew that the war between the Han Empire and Xiongnu would not be easy. The Hexi Corridor was far away from any major transport routes and populous areas. Sending supplies to the troops at the frontline in time was going to be a challenge.
Another challenge was the strong cavalry of Xiongnu. Their flexible and often unpredictable tactics was not something the Han soldiers were used to.
General-in-chief Wei Qing led 100, 000 troops to fight against Xiongnu.
Huo Qubing, who was 17 years old at the time, joined the battle with the rank of captain.
In one of the battles, troops under Wei Qing’s command suffered heavy casualties.
Huo Qubing led 800 soldiers deep into enemy lines and claimed victory.
Emperor Liu Che commended Huo’s deployment of light cavalry in fast raids, and gave Huo the title of Marquis of Champion. The young and fearless Huo Qubing was not constrained by traditional military tactics.
The Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow was unearthed from a Han tomb in modern-day Gansu in 1969. It became the symbol of China’s tourism in 1983.
The sculpture is made of bronze. Three of its hooves are raised in the air while the fourth rests on a flying sparrow without quashing it.
The horse was modelled after the Fergana horse (“horse that sweats blood”). Fergana horses were brought back to the Han Empire, decades after Zhang Qian first observed their speed and agility during his first expedition to the Western Regions.
However, during Huo Qubing’s first battle against Xiongnu, the Han Empire did not have these amazing warhorses yet.
Xiongnu armies had the advantage of their cavalry, whose source of strength came from their high-quality warhorses—something the Han Empire was sorely lacking in.
Han armies stood at a severe disadvantage.
Emperor Liu Che made the task of breeding quality warhorses a national priority since the day he ascended to the throne.
Han soldiers became more professional and dedicated, moving away from the old model of fighting during wartime and ploughing the fields during peacetime.
Their tactics also improved from continuous fighting against Xiongnu.
The size of Han cavalry swelled, underwritten by budget surplus.
The Han Empire had 450, 000 armoured troops and 600,000 warhorses, equivalent to one fifth of modern-day China’s active forces.
With everything ready, Emperor Liu Che launched the first Battle of Hexi.
Huo Qubing was his general of choice.
The First Battle of Hexi
Wushaoling Mountain marks the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor.
It has an average elevation of 3,000 metres.
With mountains narrowing in on both sides, Wushaoling formed the “throat” of the Hexi Corridor.
It was also the main route through which Chang’an connected with the Corridor.
In the spring that year, Huo Qubing stood on top of the Wushaoling Mountain, consulting the map drawn by Zhang Qian.
Behind him were 10, 000 cavalry troops.
With Huo Qubing leading the charge, the Han cavalry raided 5 Xiongnu tribes in 6 days.
The ones who resisted were conquered by force. The ones who surrendered were assured of their safety.
Huo Qubing then led the troops, crossed Yanzhi Mountain—the grazing ground of Xiongnu horses, covered 500 km of distance, and killed Prince Zhelan and Prince Hulu of Xiongnu. Close to 10,000 Xiongnu soldiers were killed.
Prince Xiutu and Prince Hunye retreated in panic.
Huo Qubing chased them all the way to Dunhuang, the western end of the Hexi Corridor, before turning back.
The victorious Huo Qubing returned.
Emperor Liu Che received him in the palace, and had a long talk with him.
The first Battle of Hexi allowed them to reach nearly 1,000 km into Xiongnu territory, but Prince Xiutu and Price Hunye still managed to escape.
Emperor Liu Che and the young military officer formulated a new strategy.
The Second Battle of Hexi
To confuse the enemy, Emperor Liu Che ordered an experienced general Gongsun Ao to attack from the east, attracting Xiongnu army’s attention.
Meanwhile, Huo Qubing would circle round to the back of Xiongnu for a surprise attack.
Zhang Qian and Li Guang each would lead an army to cut off the path of Xiongnu reinforcements.
Huo Qubing’s army and Gongsun Ao’s army would surround and close in on Xiongnu troops from both the east and the west, finally wiping out Prince Xiutu and Prince Hunye.
In the summer of 121 BC, the second Battle of Hexi began.
Han armies marched towards Xiongnu, while Xiongnu sent tens of thousands of troops to reduce the threat against the Hexi Corridor.
The battle line stretched for a few thousand km.
As planned, Huo Qubing led his cavalry in the northwest direction. They crossed the Yellow River, climbed over Helan Mountain, trekked through the desert, then they turned southwest, and successfully reached the rear of Xiongnu troops after travelling for 1,000 km.
But they hit a snag.
The army led by Gongsun Ao had gotten lost. They wouldn’t be able to join forces with Huo Qubing in time.
Huo Qubing faced a difficult choice: return to Chang’an, or defeat the enemy on his own.
He chose the latter.
Xiongnu didn’t expect an attack in their rear line.
The unprepared Xiongnu troops were annihilated.
Yanzhi Mountain, located in the middle of the Hexi Corridor, was the grazing ground for Xiongnu warhorses 2,000 years ago.
Even today, it remains the second largest horse farm in the world, and the largest in Asia.
Huo Qubing took over control of Yanzhi Mountain in the second Battle of Hexi, ensuring that the Han Empire would now have a steady supply of high-quality warhorses.
Emperor Liu Che was pleased with the news. He ordered a huge mansion to be built for Huo Qubing, and commended his achievements.
Huo Qubing replied that as long as Xiongnu still existed, the mansion would not be his home.
Huo Qubing’s achievements outshone those of other officials, including Zhang Qian.
The armies led by Zhang Qian and Li Guang suffered heavy losses.
For his failure, Zhang Qian was stripped of his title of Marquis, and became a commoner.
The leader of Xiongnu was infuriated by the failure of Prince Xiutu and Prince Hunye.
He wanted to recall them to the palace and then kill them.
After learning about the leader’s plan, the two princes had no other choice but to surrender to the Han Empire.
Emperor Liu Che was worried that it might be a trap.
He sent Huo Qubing with an army to accept the surrender.
This was the third time Huo Qubing had been sent on a military campaign to the Corridor.
Prince Xiutu and Prince Hunye still had tens of thousands of troops under their command. The location chosen for the surrender was deep inside the territory of Xiongnu. All kinds of things could go wrong.
Before Huo Qubing arrived, Prince Xiutu changed his mind and refused to surrender.
Prince Hunye killed Prince Xiutu and took control of his troops, but Hunye himself was still dithering.
Huo Qubing calmly rode into the camps of Xiongnu soldiers.
He ordered his troops to execute any Xiongnu soldier who tried to escape.
Prince Hunye surrendered, and was escorted to Chang’an.
Huo Qubing finally conquered the Hexi Corridor. He was 19 years old.
Xiongnu lost the advantages they once had, and could no long launch attacks on the Han Empire from the west.
The Battles of Hexi extended the Han Empire’s territory, and cut off the connection between Xiongnu and the Qiang people.
Emperor Liu Che established Wuwei County and Jiuquan County in the Hexi Corridor.
The Battle of Mobei
Emperor Liu Che launched the Battle of Mobei, aiming for the headquarters of Xiongnu.
22-year-old Huo Qubing and his men annihilated the main troops of Xiongnu, pushed all the way to Khentii Mountains, a holy place for the Xiongnu people, and conducted Sacrifice to Heaven ceremony there.
Xiongnu lost the ability to launch any meaningful counterattack.
Zhang Qian’s Second Expedition
Emperor Liu Che was ambitious. With the passage to the west now open, Zhang Qian was recalled and given his second expedition to the Western Regions.
Zhang Qian led a 300-strong diplomatic delegation, carrying silk, china, tea and other items.
This time, he didn’t have to fear capture by Xiongnu soldiers.
He reached the country of Wusun without trouble and expressed the desire of forming an alliance.
Zhang Qian also dispatched members of his group to visit Dayuan (in modern-day Ferghana valley), Greater Rouzhi (south of the Amu River), Daxia (in modern-day northern Afghanistan), the Parthian Empire (ancient Iran), Yuandu (ancient India), and various other countries in the Western Regions.
In exchange for gifts and agricultural production methods from the Han delegation, countries in the Western Regions gave horses, silverware and wool to the Han Empire.
They also sent their own envoys to the Han Empire, ushering in a new age of political and commercial exchanges.
Their music, dance, paintings, sculptures, and acrobatics entered the Han Empire.
Residents of the Han Empire were introduced to grapes, carrots, pomegranates, camels, lions, ostriches, and other exotic species.
Sadly, Huo Qubing didn’t live to see the lively exchanges made possible by him and his troops.
In September of 117 BC, Huo Qubing passed away suddenly. He was only 23 years old.
In modern-day Lanzhou City, a statue of him still stands.
In 114 BC, Zhang Qian also passed away.
The 45-year-old Emperor Liu Che led 10, 000 troops to inspect Yongzhou.
They reached the bank of the Yellow River in Jingyuan, Gansu Province.
Years of battle and thousands of lives later, the Hexi Corridor was finally incorporated into the Han Empire.
The Han Empire established four administrative regions in the Hexi Corridor.
The name means “military power”.
The name means “extending the territory of the Han Empire, breaking the arm of Xiongnu”.
The name means “the wine-like spring water”.
The name means “grand and glorious”.
Emperor Liu Che also set up two military outposts: Yumen Pass and Yang Pass.
Envoys from the Han Empire visited the king of the Parthian Empire (modern-day Iran), bearing the gift of smooth silk.
The king returned the favour by sending ostrich eggs and magicians to the Han Empire.
The Protectorate of the Western Regions was established.
The areas of modern-day Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia were incorporated into the territory of China.
None of this would have been possible without first gaining control of the Hexi Corridor.
The Great Wall of Han
The earliest Great Wall appeared in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (770 BC to 221 BC).
In 214 BC, Qinshihuang, the founding emperor of the Qin Dynasty, sent general Meng Tian to attack Xiongnu.
After occupying Hetao, Qin armies started to connect old defensive city walls built by previous countries. The Great Wall stretched for tens of thousands of miles from Gansu to Liaoning.
In 111 BC, Emperor Liu Che ordered a wall to be built that started from Yongdeng in the east and reached Jiuquan in the west.
Years later, the wall was extended to Yumen Pass. Beacon towers, defensive walls, and courtyards for residence and official business, as well as entry and exit checkpoints were built.
In 102 BC, construction of the wall was extended to modern-day Ejin Banner in Inner Mongolia, reaching Juyan Lake Basin in the north and the He River in the south, linking up with Zhangye and Jiuquan. A massive defence structure was completed.
Subsequently, the fortification was extended along the Shule River, to the modern-day Lop Nur area. It also became a major transport route.
The barren environment and lack of local resources in parts of the Hexi Corridor posed significant challenges to the construction of the Wall.
So the workers adapted, and made use of the stems of salt cedar, common reeds, and a type of needlegrass in the building of the Wall.
The Wall has existed for over two thousand years.
Chinese silk travelled to the rest of the world via the Hexi Corridor, while exotic species and jewels from the West entered China.
The Hexi Corridor was the most important route from China to the rest of the world before the rise of maritime shipping.
Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer, coined the term “Silk Road” in 1877.