In a previous article, we looked at the modest but noteworthy relationship between Ancient Rome and Han China and, naturally, asked the question that everyone was wondering: who would win in a fight?
The site of the battle, the Talas River, as it appears today
But it was a question that could never truly be answered because, for better or worse, these two great empires never met on the field of battle.
However, if you’re still itching for another ‘what if?’, then perhaps the events that unfolded in Central Asia in 751CE will satiate your curiosity.
What happened in 751? It saw the Battle of Talas – the first and only time in recorded history that the forces of China would clash against the might of medieval Islam.
In 751 Islam was still relatively young, yet scarcely two decades after the death of Muhammad in 632CE, the Arab peoples had already swept across the Middle East, completely replacing the 400-year old Sassanid Dynasty – the last non-Muslim Persian Empire. It was an astonishing conquest, resulting in the military and cultural superiority of Islam.
Meanwhile, in the Far East, China was under the rule of the Tang Dynasty. Considered by historians as a “golden age”, Tang China rivaled even the Han Dynasty in terms of territory. So massive was its population (50 million, by the 8th Century) that it was able to muster a professional and conscripted army numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Long before the battle even began, both peoples had been making gains in Central Asia. As early as 654, Abbasid Arab forces had been pressing into the region, subjugating the various mercantile cities they encountered. By 750, they had successfully fought as far as Transoxania (modern-day Uzbekistan).
Tang China (circa 700) in green
Meanwhile, Tang forces had been using “soft power” to make their presence felt. Unwilling to commit militarily to full scale conquest, China established control over the peoples of Central Asia through trade agreements and nominal protectorates. Soon enough, similar connections were made with Transoxania, and a collision course with Islam became increasingly likely.
The Arabs and Chinese were not totally unfamiliar with each other, however. Chinese records from 713 mention the arrival of a Dashi (the Chinese term for Arabs) ambassador, and in 742 “The Great Mosque in Xian” was built.
Still, the Battle of Talas was the first time they had come together in battle. Despite their conflicting interests in Central Asia, the eventual conflict was less the result of growing tensions and more to do with opportunism.
In 750, a quarrel arose between two minor kingdoms in the area: Ferghana and Chech. Ferghana sent to China for military assistance and received it in the form of a Tang General, who killed the king of Chech. The dead king’s son then fled to the Arabs for help and, sensing an opportunity to stem Chinese power, the Abbasid governor Abu Muslim mustered his forces, joined up with the army at Transoxania under Ziyad ibn Salih, and full-scale battle was declared.
From this point on – as is often the case with military history – the accounts of the battle become contradictory. Chinese records put their forces at around 30,000 (20,000 of which were Karluk mercenaries) while Arab accounts make that number 100,000. Likewise, the Chinese estimated the Muslims to have had 200,000 troops, but this is likely a gross exaggeration. It can be said with some certainty, however, that the Arab forces were the greater in number.
The battle was an overwhelming victory for the Arabs. Muslim sources state they won due to the superior tactics of Ziyad (though I suspect having more men probably helped). Naturally, the Chinese sources contest that conclusion, laying the blame at the feet of their Karluk mercenaries, who they claim betrayed them mid-battle. In actuality, historical opinion is that the Karluks were probably allied with the Arabs from the very beginning and never pretended to side with the Chinese. The betrayal story was merely a way for the defeated to cover their shame.
The Abbasid Empire, in red (click to enlarge)
There’s no such thing as a gracious loser in history.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Battle of Talas did not mark the beginning of extended hostilities between the Chinese and Arabian worlds. This is largely because neither side actually wanted a war with the other. Both were too unfamiliar with the landscape of Central Asia to be comfortable fighting on it for long, and though their interests conflicted, a long-term struggle would have done more harm than good. The silk trade was phenomenally profitable for both parties, and war (already a monumentally expensive undertaking) would have done nothing but hinder it.
There does not even seem to have been any bad blood between the two peoples following the battle. When the An Lushan Rebellion broke out in 755, the Abbasid Caliph sent 4000 troops to assist the emperor. Even the (supposedly) treacherous Karluks did not suffer under Chinese hostility.
Nor does this clash of titans seem to have had any immediate effect on Central Asia. While the area did become Islamized, the process was slow, occurring over centuries. In the interim, Tang power in the region actually increased and vassal states under Muslim control continued to send embassies to the Chinese emperor, requesting military support against the Abbasids.
Overall, the contemporary significance of the conflict appears to have been negligible at best. That the Chinese might try to forget the whole ordeal is understandable, but even the victorious Arabs seemed to care little for their success. It was not until half a century later that any Muslim chroniclers paid attention to the events at Talas.
The Abbasid Flag
And yet the Battle of Talas had a truly historic impact on the world. Though militarily and politically unimportant, were it not for the battle, the Middle East, and the West too, might have developed along very different lines. Victory at the Battle of Talas won the Arab world knowledge of paper.
The legend goes that a number of skilled Chinese artisans were taken as prisoners of war, and through these individuals the knowledge of paper production (hitherto a closely guarded secret) became widespread. Whatever the truth of the matter, dedicated paper factories soon sprung up in the Middle East, and amongst the texts translated into Arabic were the teachings of ancient Greece and Rome.
Were it not for this preservation of classical knowledge, the defining epoch of European history – the Renaissance – might not have been the defining cultural movement that it was. But, with so many Arabic versions available, translations back into Latin soon reached Europe. Their dissemination was further spurred by the latest technological advancement: the printing press – an evolution of the Chinese paper making method.
Considering how vastly the Renaissance moved European Culture forward – leading to the equally important Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century – it’s fair to say that the Battle of Talas was a fairly significant event. Its repercussions have been felt throughout history, and its effect on the creation of the modern world has been profound.
And its importance certainly goes beyond proving that Abbasid Islam could beat Tang China in a fight.
Not that it was a fair fight, though.
Want more war? Find out what happened when a Vietnamese woman led an army against Han China.