Li Ling and His Five Thousand Warriors

This is a tragic story that five thousand warriors fought on foot against the Huns who had tens of thousands of horsemen. Li Ling, the leader of the troops, has been a controversial character for two thousand years.

As the grandson of a well-known general, Li Ling had been good at mounted archery since he was a teenager. He was a kind and modest man, so people were willing to follow him. He once led eight hundred horsemen to scout more than eight hundred kilometres deep into the Huns. After finishing this task, He was granted a title of leading the royal cavalry. Since then, he got five thousand warriors. They were stationed in the northwestern border area and trained as archers.

In 99 BC, Li Guangli, who became a general because he was the brother of Han Wu-Emperor’s favourite woman, was ordered to lead thirty thousand horsemen to attack the Huns westwards. The emperor wanted Li Ling to be responsible for logistics of the march, but Li Ling had his own idea. He said to the emperor, “My men are all excellent swordsmen. They have the strength to fight a tiger and their shots hit every time. I hope to lead them independently to march northwards for distracting the Huns, so the enemy can’t organize an all-out attack against General Li.” Han Wu-Emperor said, “Do commanders hate being subordinated to each other? I have mobilized a lot of troops, and there is no horseman whom I can give to you.” Li Ling said, “No horseman is needed. I am willing to use the few to fight the many. I will lead five thousand foot soldiers to reach the court of the Huns’ chief.” The emperor appreciated the courage of Li Ling, and agreed Li Ling’s plan. He sent an order to Lu Bode, who was the commander of a fortress on the northern frontier, and told the commander to lead his army to meet Li Ling’s troops.

Lu Bode was an old commander who was demoted from a general. He was ashamed of being behind the army of Li Ling. He wrote to the emperor and said, “Now it is autumn, and the horses of the Huns are plump and sturdy. We can’t fight them at this time. I hope to persuade Li Ling to stay with me until the next spring. Then we may mobilize horsemen from the regions of Jiuquan and Zhangye, and each of us will lead five thousand horsemen. Our troops will attack the Huns in the Junji Mountains from the east and the west. It should be successful.”

After reading the letter, Han Wu-Emperor felt angry, and suspected that Li Ling changed his mind and told Lu Bode to write such a letter. Then the emperor told Lu Bode, “Originally I would like to give horsemen to Li Ling, but he said that he would use the few to fight the many. Now the Huns invade the region of Xihe. You must lead your men to assist Xihe and cut off the way of Gouying.” He also sent an order to Li Ling and said, “Your men must leave in the ninth month. Your march should be from the Fortress of Zhelu to the Longle River where is to the south of the Eastern Junji Mountain. You may scout around there. If you see no enemy, you may pass through the way found by Zhao Ponu whose title is Zhuoye-Hou, and go to the Castle of Accepting the Surrender for a rest. You can send news by a local postrider. What did you say to Lu Bode? You must report it detailedly.”

Li Ling led five thousand foot soldiers left the area of Juyan and marched northwards. After thirty days, they arrived in the Junji Mountains. They made a map for recording the geography of the areas where they passed through. Li Ling sent a horseman named Chen Bule to take the map to the imperial court. Chen Bule told Han Wu-Emperor about the courage of Li Ling and his soldiers. The emperor was very pleased, and promoted Chen Bule.

In the Junji Mountains, the troops of Li Ling were found by the Huns. The chief of the Huns led thirty thousand horsemen to surround them. Li Ling stationed his troops between two mountains, and the camp was walled by big carts. Li Ling deployed soldiers outside the camp. The soldiers in the front rows held halberds and shields, and the soldiers behind them held bows and crossbows. Li Ling said to them, “Attack when hearing the sound of drums, and stop when hearing the sound of bells.”

The Huns saw that the troops of the Han Dynasty were few, so they launched a charge towards the camp of the Han troops. They didn’t expect that their enemy was waiting for them with about a thousand crossbows. Many Hun horsemen got shot and fell down. The rest felt so panicky that they withdrew to a mountain. The Han troops took the advantage and chased the Huns. Thousands of Hun warriors were killed. The chief of the Huns was very surprised, and he mobilized about eighty thousand horsemen from eastern and western tribes for fighting the troops of Li Ling.

Li Ling led his troops to fight and withdraw southwards. Several days later they arrived in a valley. After a lot of fights, few people were not wounded. The soldiers who had a wound were still in combat, and the soldiers who had two wounds now drove carts, and took care of the soldiers who were badly wounded.

Li Ling saw that his soldiers seemed a little sluggish and drums could not rouse them. He suspected that there were women hidden in the troops. In fact, a lot of soldiers really hid their wives in carts which carried supplies. These women were the wives and daughters of rebels who lived in eastern regions. They were exiled to the border area and then became the wives of soldiers for survival. Li Ling started a search and all women who were found were killed with a sword. The soldiers had no choice but fought to the death. The next day in a new combat Li Ling’s troops killed about three thousand Hun warriors.

The troops of Li Ling moved southeastwards. After four or five days, they arrived in a field of reeds beside a large lake. The Huns who were behind them burned reeds on the windward side. Li Ling also ordered his men to burn reeds for saving themselves. Li Ling’s troops moved southwards. When they reached the foot of a mountain, the Huns were waiting for them on the mountainside. The chief of the Huns let his son lead horsemen to attack Li Ling’s troops. They fought in the woods. Thousands of Hun warriors were killed. Some soldiers of Li Ling found where the chief of the Huns was standing, and shot at him with repeating crossbows. However, they were not successful. The chief of the Huns got down from his horse and ran away quickly.

On the same day, a Hun man was captured. He told Li Ling, “Our chief said, ‘The men we met are the elite troops of the Han. We are not able to annihilate them, and they are luring us southwards to their border area. Aren’t there any troops in ambush?’ Leaders of tribes all said, ‘You, our chief, lead tens of thousands of horsemen by yourself to fight thousands of men of the Han. If you can’t annihilate them, you would not be able to make remote vassals follow you, and the Han would despise the Huns even more. We should fight hard once again in the valley. There is a flat field ahead where is not far. If we cannot defeat them there, we may withdraw.’”

At this time, the troops of Li Ling were in a more stressful situation, because the Hun horsemen took advantage of their numbers and repeatedly attacked the Han army dozens of times a day. The combats caused about two thousand Hun warriors to be killed or injured. The Huns now became aware of their failure and considered their withdrawal. However, an unexpected thing happened.

In the army of Li Ling, there was an officer named Guan Gan. He was insulted by his superior, and then he angrily went to surrender to the Huns. He told the Huns, “The troops of Li Ling have no reinforcements, and their arrows are about to be used up. Only the commander and Cheng’an-Hou each lead eight hundred men to be the vanguard. They use yellow and white flags. You should send elite horsemen to shoot at them, and they would be smashed.” Cheng’an-Hou was the title of Han Yanyan. He got the title after his father died in a war. He participated in the expedition as the subordinate of Li Ling.

The chief of the Huns was very pleased after hearing the words of Guan Gan. He ordered all horsemen to attack the Han army and cry, “Surrender quickly, Li Ling and Han Yannian!” The Huns cut off roads and made fierce attacks on the troops of Li Ling. The troops of Li Ling were in a valley, and the Huns were on mountainsides along the valley. The Huns shot at the Han army from four sides, and their arrows hit the position of the Han army like rain.

The Han army moved southwards, and they used up all five hundred thousand arrows before they arrived in the Dihan Mountain. They then discarded their carts. At this time the army still had about three thousand men. Their weapons were broken. Soldiers held spokes cut down from carts, while officers held short knives. They reached the Dihan Mountain and entered a narrow valley. The chief of the Huns led his men cut off the escape route of the Han army, and the Huns who held the corners of the mountain threw big stones at the Han army. A large number of Han troops were killed, and the Han army was not able to move ahead.

In the evening, Li Ling wore plain clothes and left the camp of Han troops alone. He said to others, “Don’t follow me. As a man, I want to kill the chief of the Huns by myself.” After a long time Li Ling came back. He sighed and said, “We have failed, and we would die.” An officer said to him, “As a commander, your prestige frightens the Huns. Your failure should be the will of Heaven. You may try to get away from the Huns later. Zhuoye-Hou was once captured by the Huns, and later he went back to the Han. The emperor treats him kindly, not to mention how His Majesty would treat you.” Li Ling said, “Please stop saying so. If I were not ready to die, I would not be a brave man.”

Li Ling told his men to cut down all flags and hide all treasures underground. He sighed and said, “If we could get dozens of arrows, it would be enough for us to escape. Now we have no weapons. If we fight again, we would be captured tomorrow morning. Every person may try any way to escape from here. There should be someone who can survive and report our experience to the emperor.”

Everyone got some food and ice. They were told to meet in the Fortress of Zhelu. In the midnight, a drum was beaten for making all people wake up, but it had no sound.

Li Ling and Han Yannian each rode a horse, and a dozen of men followed them. They were chased by thousands of Hun horsemen. Han Yannian died in battle. Li Ling said, “I can’t face His Majesty!” He then surrendered to the Huns. Han troops fought separately. Eventually over four hundred men escaped and reached the fortress.

The site where the troops of Li Ling were completely defeated was not more than fifty kilometres away from the fortress. So the news spread quickly over the border area.

Han Wu-Emperor hoped Li Ling to fight to the death. But his physiognomist told him that Li Ling’s mother and wife did not look like losing a family member. Later, the emperor heard that Li Ling surrendered to the Huns. He felt very angry, and called Chen Bule to account. Chen Bule killed himself.

In the imperial court, in order to satisfy the emperor, all ministers blamed Li Ling, except Sima Qian. Sima Qian was a well-known historian. He tried to defend Li Ling, but he was not aware that the emperor tried to defend Li Guangli who led a large number of horsemen but didn’t meet the main forces of the Huns. The words of Sima Qian enraged the self-willed emperor. Sima Qian was punished by castration. A few years later, in a letter to a friend named Ren An who was sentenced to death, Sima Qian said that the punishment he received dishonoured him but he did his best to live tenaciously for finishing his historical work.

The emperor had some regret for his scanty consideration about the dispatching of Lu Bode’s troops. He sent an emissary to reward Li Ling’s men who survived.

One year later, Han Wu-Emperor let a general named Gongsun Ao lead an army to search Li Ling deep in the land of the Huns. The army didn’t find Li Ling, but the general told the emperor, “We caught a Hun man. He said that Li Ling was teaching the chief of the Huns how to fight against the Han. So we could not find him.” The emperor then ordered to kill all relatives of Li Ling. Li Ling’s mother, brothers, wife and children all died. The elite of Li Ling’s hometown was ashamed of him.

Li Ling was shocked by the news. When a Han envoy visited the Huns, Li Ling said to him, “For the Han I led five thousand foot soldiers to pass through the Huns. We were defeated because there were no reinforcements. Was there anything that betrayed the Han? Why did the Han kill my family?” The envoy said, “The Han heard that you taught the Huns how to fight.” Li Ling said, “It was Li Xu, not me.” Li Xu, who was once a Han commander and surrendered in a battle, was treated as an important guest by the chief of the Huns. Li Ling hated Li Xu for the death of his family. He sent an assassin to kill Li Xu. The wife of the chief therefore wanted to kill Li Ling, so the chief had to hide Li Ling in a northern area. Li Ling kept living in seclusion until the woman died.

The chief of the Huns admired Li Ling. He let his daughter be the wife of Li Ling, and gave a king’s title to Li Ling. In the court of the Huns’ chief, Li Ling played an important role.

In 87 BC, Han Wu-Emperor died. Huo Guang and Shangguan Jie, who were Li Ling’s friends in their youth, now became the most powerful ministers who assisted the new emperor. They sent three other friends of Li Ling to visit the land of the Huns in order to persuade Li Ling to return to the Han. Li Ling dressed in the clothes of the Huns, and said to his past friends, “It is easy to go back, but I am afraid that I would be humiliated again.”

Li Ling was right. In 80 BC, Shangguan Jie and his family were killed because he failed to kill Huo Guang. In the land of the Huns, Li Ling didn’t have to be involved into cruel politics of the Han. Li Ling never returned to the Han. In 74 BC, he died of illness.

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