The story of Gao Xianzhi reads very much like an epic work of fantasy. Yet this man lived and his life is one of the greatest adventure tales in history. A man whose lineage was from the misty hills of Korea led the armies of the Great Tang to the Caspian Sea at the very threshold of Europe. He faced enemies as diverse as the Tibetan Empire, Karluk Turks and Abbasid Caliphate and saw everything from the opulence of the Imperial Court at Chang’an (today known as Xi’an) to the wilds of the Wakhan region in what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan.
His illustrious career finally met a sad end at the hands of an imperial eunuch in the midst of the An Lushan rebellion where he was accused of corruption by the powerful imperial agent and put to death. Before this he had faced a setback at the Battle of Talas, one of history’s greatest turning points, where he had been defeated by the Abbasid General Ziyad Ibn Salih largely due to the treachery of his own Turkic allies.
We, however, will be focusing on a very successful and important part of his story – his subjugation of Gilgit and Chitral.
The older transliteration of his name was Kao Hsien-Chih, but he was born Go-Seonji the son of a Korean general of the Goguryeo Kingdom who had been captured by the armies of the Great Tang when Pyongyang fell before them. This general later joined the imperial service and fought for the Chinese in their Western Regions. His son later followed in his footsteps and became a soldier of the Tang, fighting the Turks and Tibetans at the western extremities of their realm. Gao soon became the military commander of the Western regions.
This was a time of intense competition between Tang China and the Tibetan Empire for influence in the Western Himalayas and Eastern Central Asia. At times the Tang garrisons in the Tarim Basin, present day Xinjiang, would even fall to the Tibetans. The Tibetans were also very active in what is today northernmost Pakistan. The shared Mahayana Buddhist religion of these regions, which was actually just starting to take hold in Tibet but had already been dominant in Chitral-Gilgit-Baltistan for several centuries, formed a basis for cooperation and the Raja of Gilgit even received a Tibetan bride as his queen. Prior to this marital alliance Gilgit had been under Chinese suzerainty but the Tibetan Rani made sure that a Tibetan garrison was established in the kingdom. The Chinese knew Gilgit as “Lesser Polu” whereas neighboring Baltistan was “Greater Polu”.
The Emperor entrusted Gao with expelling the Tibetans from Gilgit. Rather than going directly from Kashgar to Hunza via the Karakorum passes, Gao took a longer route by crossing the Pamirs and entering the Wakhan region before going south through the Ishkoman Valley. He caught the Gilgitis and their Tibetan allies by surprise and razed Gilgit and its Tibetan garrison. The Dardic Raja and his Tibetan Rani were made captives and sent off to the Imperial Court at Chang’an.
A few years later in 749 he returned to the region on another political mission. Chinese sources refer to Chitral as Qieshi, which had a distinct identity from Polu.
In what is probably the earliest mention of Chitral in recorded history, the Tang annals describe Gao’s expedition in great detail. Following Gao’s first expedition all of the rulers of the Western Himalayas, from Kashmir to Wakhan, had distanced themselves from the Tibetans and acknowledged Chinese suzerainty. A people known to the Chinese as the Tuhuluo, based in what is now Northern Afghanistan, had started to get friendly again with the Tibetans. These people were either ethnic Tocharians or remnants of the Kushanshahs – Indic-Irano-Turkic descendants of the mighty Kushans. They were using the king of Chitral and his territory as a means of reestablishing contact with the Tibetans. This time period is the same era in which the large Buddhist stupa carvings were commissioned at various places in Chitral by a ruler who was either named or entitled Jivarman.
According to the Tang annals, Gao reached Chitral once more through the Wakhan and down the Boroghil Pass into the Yarkhun Valley. Oral tradition states that Chitral as a kingdom was then ruled from the Mulkho Valley. Gao reached the then capital of Chitral and overthrew the ruler who the Chinese called Botemo – a name probably derived from Bodh or Buddha – and replaced him with his son Sujia. With Sujia on the throne of Chitral, Gao had accomplished his mission and once more headed to Inner Asia. During the latter part of this expedition he crossed the Pamirs and entered the foothills of the Tian Shan where he became embroiled against a local ruler of a kingdom he refered to as Shi, centered on the current Tashkent Valley of modern day Uzbekistan.
Gao’s campaign in Transoxiana was very unpopular amongst the locals. His defeat of the local Sogdian and other Iranic peoples made them turn to the Abbasids, who had by then established themselves in Samarkand.
What followed was the Battle of Talas where Ziyad ibn Salih was able to lure the Great Tang’s Turkic auxiliary troops into defecting to the Abbasid side and subsequently defeat Gao Xianzhi.
Following Talas, many Chinese inventions such as paper-making were spread to the Islamic world and China would never again control any territory West of the Tian Shan. Gao returned to Kashgar and would remain at the head of the Tang armies in the Tarim Basin.
A few years later, An Lushan, a Sogdian general in the service of the Chinese, rebelled and tried to become Emperor. Gao Xianzhi marched East to help relieve the Great Tang but was instead arrested and executed. The An Lushan rebellion was put down but the Tang Dynasty never really recovered from that chaotic revolt.
What, then, is Gao Xianzhi’s legacy? Historians debate whether his heavy-handed tactics and alleged corruption were merely tales concocted by his enemies – or whether he actually was a violent opportunist.
Whatever the case may be, Gao represented the might of Imperial China. A Korean who flew the banner of the Tang Dynasty across the deserts and mountains of Central Asia to the very doorsteps of India and Iran, a seasoned diplomat who brought the wild mountain tribes within the fold of China and a man who almost single-handedly fought two great empires – the Tibetans and the Abbasids – to a standstill must be remembered and celebrated today!
The author is the writer of ‘Asiatic Angling Adventures’, a travelogue on fishing and adventure travel across Asia, available at Saeed Book Bank, Islamabad and at Amazon.co.uk. Find the author on