One of the Heroes of World History
British archeologist and explorer, Aurel Stein, who excavated the Dunhuang Cave documents in the early 20th century, valued a Goguryeo general named Go Seon-ji more highly than Carthaginian commander Hannibal, who conquered Rome, or Napoleon, one of the greatest heroes of all time. General Go successfully led the massive military expeditions over the Pamir Mountains (at 4,600 meters above sea level,) which are far rougher than the Alps (at 2,500 meters above sea level) that Hannibal and Napoleon crossed.
Go, who conquered Central Asia in the Silk Road area in the 8th century, is described as the ‘patron saint of the western regions or Xiyu’ in China and the ‘king of the Chinese mountains’ in Arab historical materials. How did the general of Goguryeo descent become a hero who ruled over the Silk Road?
Five Rounds of Expeditions to Xiyu as a Tang general
Judging from his surname, it is assumed that Go Seon-ji was the descendant of the royal family of Goguryeo, which was overtaken by the Tang Dynasty of China in 668. But the exact year of Go’s birth and his family history are unknown.
In an old Chinese book entitled [History of the Early Tang Dynasty], it is written that Go’s father, Go Sagye(고사계), moved to midland China and served as the general of the Tang army in Xiyu. The record indicates that Go Seon-ji was the descendant of Goguryeo migrants who were forcibly relocated to Tang after the fall of Goguryeo, and that his family had great martial arts skills.
It was the Anxi Protectorate where Go first appeared in history. Go’s father was assigned to this region as a general. Anxi, which is present-day Kuche in Xinjiang Province, was the westernmost part of the Silk Road. As a gateway to the West, the Anxi Protectorate was in charge of managing and protecting merchants using the Silk Road to travel to Xiyu, and preventing countries in Xiyu from intruding.
Growing up in a fierce battlefield, Go practiced martial arts from an early age and became a military officer in his teens. He joined an operation to subdue a band of thieves, and in recognition of his contribution, he was appointed as a guerilla general at the age of 20.
Demonstrates Bravery in the Silk Road
In 741, Go led 2,000 cavalry soldiers and repressed the revolt of a Turk state located west of the Tianshan Mountain. Recognized for his excellent service, he was promoted to the commander to control army forces in strategic points in Xiyu.
In the 8th century, the Muslim world and the Tang Dynasty China were in intense confrontation, with the former attempting to spread its civilization to the east after dominating West Asia, while the latter was expanding its presence to the west after conquering East Asia.
In 747, Go led 10-thousand infantry and cavalry soldiers to defeat the Tibetans who were affiliated with Muslims to extend their power.
It seemed like an impossible expedition, as the Go forces had to pass through a vast 370-thousand-square-kilometer desert called Taklamakan, which means ‘never to return,’ and go over the Pamirs, the roof of the world crisscrossed by huge mountain ranges over 5,000 meters above sea level. But with his great leadership, General Go urged his men to advance to the eastern part of Hindu Kush Mountains in just four months to defeat the Tibetans. They eventually occupied Lesser Bolü, which was a city state located in present-day northern Pakistan. In addition, Go forced 72 states in Xiyu into submission, contributing to expanding Tang’s influence into West Asia.
Afterwards, General Go led three more successful military expeditions to Xiyu. His achievements earned him great fame, and even renowned Chinese poet Tu Fu praised the general in his poem.
Goguryeo Descendant Unlatches Gate for Medieval East and West
As Tang extended its power to western Turkestan, the Abbās Dynasty dispatched Islamic troops to confront Tang in 751. During the so-called Battle of Talas, which is the first and last Sino-Arab war in history, General Go suffered defeat as he fought 300-thousand allied forces with his 30-thousand soldiers.
When An Lushan rebelled against Tang in 755, Go, as the deputy commander of the Tang forces, drove the rebels back and defended the capital of Chang’an. Unfortunately, he was ensnared in a conspiracy by Tang people who had begrudged the general of a different ethnic origin by being so successful. Go was executed in the military.
Go couldn’t overcome the limitations as a Goguryeo migrant and met a tragic death. After the Battle of Talas, however, Tang and the Islamic world started cultural exchanges in earnest, with China’s paper and compass technology spreading to the West to influence European civilization. Go inherited Goguryeo’s adventurous spirit and expanded his reign to the Asian continent. Although his life was full of ups and downs, the great military figure left a significant mark in the history of exchanges between the East and the West.