As a network of communication lines encompassing a number of states, the Silk Road used to be closely subject to politics and international relations along the route. Hostility existent between any two neighboring states on the route would result in the disruption of trade and exchanges on the Silk Road. Wars constantly took place, reshaping the political landscape along the Silk Road again and again.

The Chinese empire under various dynasties had tried to maintain the Silk Road by military actions against the hostile states in the north and the west, with both successes and setbacks. A number of generals distinguished themselves with their victories in the campaigns, whose names were gloriously handed down from one generation to another in Chinese history.

Many critical victories took place in the Han & Tang Dynasties, which happened to be the periods when the Oasis Silk Road experienced its development and prosperity. Han Dynasty generals Wei Qing (?~106 BC) and Huo Qubing (140~117BC) were the earliest commanders with strategic victories against the Huns. The two Campaigns of Hexi (121BC) led by Huo Qubing put the Gansu Corridor under the Han Empire’s control. In the Battle of Mobei (119BC), both generals led a major excursion (over 1000 miles) against the Huns’ headquarters in the north of the Gobi Desert. The Huns suffered great casualties, and were dispersed after a fierce fighting, their chief commander Chanyu almost being captured. This narrow, yet critically significant, victory drove the Huns into the barren northern Gobi Desert, where their population declined. The Huns were greatly weakened and unable to raid south for the next few decades.

Following the military success, diplomatic manipulations in the Western Regions became more comfortable for the Han Empire, whose influence now outrivaled the Huns in the region. An official administrative establishment known as the Western Regions Frontier Command Office backed by a military presence was set up six decades later, and Protector Generals (都护 dufu) were appointed by the Han government to maintain order between the states in the region. A series of generals took the post, with successes to various degrees, of whom the Eastern Han Dynasty general Ban Chao (32~102 CE) was the most successful. He employed various diplomatic tactics and managed to vie the states of the region against each other, maintaining a balance of power. Ban Chao’s career bore rich fruits. By his retirement, the fifty-plus states of the region had all submitted to the Han Empire. And thanks to his military & diplomatic successes which isolated the Huns, Dou Xian (?~92 CE), another Han general, accomplished stunning victories in the wars against the Northern Xiongnu Empire which spelled the demise of the latter.

The Tang Dynasty was another period of prosperity for the ancient China, whose territory even exceeded that of the Han Empire. The Western Regions were again brought under Chinese control thanks to the Empire’s successive military efforts. The Campaign against Eastern Tujue (629~630 CE) led by early Tang Dynasty generals Li Jing (571~649 CE) and Li Ji (594~669 CE) crushed the Tujue forces, and diminished its influence in the Western Regions. More victories were achieved by Tang generals like Hou Junji (?~643 CE) and Su Dingfang (592~667 CE), and the Tang Empire developed a more comprehensive system of ruling in the region with the Frontier Command Offices of Anxi and Beiting as its core establishments.

During the 7th and the first half of the 8th centuries, the Tang army kept a generally superior record in the military & strategic competition in the Western Regions. The economic prosperity of the Tang Empire translated into a military strength that successfully outrivaled another two superpowers (sometimes the combination of the two) in the west: the Tubo Kingdom (Tibet) and the Arab Empire, which happened to be on the rise, too. In its heyday, the Tang Empire’s territory reached the Aral Sea in the West and Lake Baikal in the north. Li Bai (701~762 CE), China’s greatest poet in history, was born in today’s Afghanistan, which was then within the Chinese territory.

However, despite numerous previous victories in the western campaigns, the Tang army led by Gao Xianzhi (?~756 CE) lost the decisive Battle of Talas (today Kazakhstan) in 751 against Abbasid Caliphate, marking the decline of Chinese influence in the Western Regions. The Arabs expanded their control in Central Asia, and saw a sharp growth in economic strength. Among the Tang prisoners of war of the battle were paper-making technicians, who are believed to have introduced the Chinese invention of paper production techniques to the Middle East.
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