Gao Xianzhi, or Go Seonji, (died January 24, 756) was a Tang general of Goguryeo descent. He was known as a great commander during his lifetime. He is most well known for taking part in multiple military expeditions to conquer the Xiyu (modern Xinjiang and former Soviet Central Asia) region over the infamous Pamir Mountains, all the way to the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea. In 751, he was the commander of the Tang forces during the Battle of Talas, fighting against forces of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Tang defeat is considered the event that marked both the end of western expansion by Tang and eastern expansion by the Abbasid Caliphate.
Around the new year 756, while Gao and fellow general Feng Changqing were defending Tong Pass against forces of An Lushan, who had rebelled against Tang rule in 755, both Gao and Feng offended the powerful eunuch Bian Lingcheng (邊令誠). Bian then accused Feng of cowardice and Gao of corruption, and both were executed.
Gao Xianzhi was the son of Go Sagye, a general from Goguryeo (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) which was vanquished by a Tang-Silla alliance in 668 AD. Go Sagye was captured by Tang forces and later surrendered, and there, he was given a post in their army. Gao Xianzhi was born during his duty in Tang's western regions. Unlike most soldiers of his day, historical records say Gao Xianzhi was not muscular or extraordinarily strong like other army officers; his father always worried about his son's poor health. However, he demonstrated great courage from an early age; he possessed skills in cavalry and archery.
Gao Xianzhi's loyalty and bravery, allowed him to be promoted to the position of general in the Tang army in his 20s, serving in Central Asia near Kashgar, in the Taklamakan Desert along with his father, under the Tang military command for Anxi Circuit (安西, headquartered in modern Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang). He successively served under the military governors (jiedushi) Tian Renwan (田仁琬) and Gai Jiayun (蓋嘉運), but was not promoted by them. However, Gai's successor Fumeng Lingcha (夫蒙靈詧) was impressed by him, and so repeatedly recommended him for promotions. By the end of Emperor Xuanzong's Kaiyuan era (727-741), he was serving as Fumeng's deputy.
First western campaign
At that time, Lesser Bolü (小勃律, a city state centering modern Gilgit, Pakistan) was allied with Tufan, leading to some 20 city states around it to also become Tufan vassals. A Tufan princess became the wife and queen of Lesser Bolü's king. Tian Renwan, Gai Jiayun, and Fumeng Lingcha all had tried to attack Lesser Bolü before, but was unable to defeat it. In 747, Gao Xianzhi led a three-pronged attack of 10,000 cavalry soldiers, surprising both Lesser Bolü and Tufan forces stationed in Lesser Bolü. He captured Lesser Bolü's king and queen and returned to Tang territory with them.
However, Fumeng was angry that Gao directly reported the news of the victory to Emperor Xuanzong without first reporting to him, cursing him with obscenities and threatening to kill him. The eunuch Bian Lingcheng, whom Emperor Xuanzong had sent to monitor Gao's forces, interceded on Gao's behalf and reported Fumeng's threats to Emperor Xuanzong. Emperor Xuanzong, in response, around the new year 748, summoned Fumeng back to the capital Chang'an and promoted Gao to take over his position. Despite this, Gao never lost his respect for Fumeng, although he arrested several of Fumeng's subordinates who attacked him—fellow deputy military governor Cheng Qianli (程千里), and the army officers Bi Sichen (畢思琛) and Wang Tao (王滔), but then released him, stating that he was venting his anger, and that now that he had, he believed that they could still serve under him. He entrusted Feng Changqing as his assistant, often having Feng lead troops or, when he himself led troops in campaigns, had Feng be in charge of the headquarters. Li Siye also first distinguished himself as an army officer under Gao.
As a result of Gao's first campaign, Tang began to contend for influence with the Abbasid Caliphate and Tufan in the area of modern northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. About 72 local Indian and Sogdian kingdoms became Tang vassals, ending the Tufan dominion of the Pamir Mountains. While he served as the military governor of Anxi, placing such places as Tokmak, Kucha, and Kashmir, under the jurisdiction of his headquarters.
Second campaign and Battle of Talas
In late 749, Shilidaqieluo (失里怛伽羅), a prince of the Tuhuoluo (吐火羅, believed by some to be the Tocharians), reported to Tang that the king of Qieshi (朅師, believed to be in modern northern India), had been aligned with Tufan to pin down Chinese forces stationed at Lesser Bolü, and suggested that Emperor Xuanzong send forces the region. In spring 750, Emperor Xuanzong sent Gao Xianzhi to attack Qieshi, capturing its king Botemo (勃特沒) and making Botemo's son Sujia (素迦) king instead. He then made a peace treaty with Shi (石國, modern Tashkent, Uzbekistan) and then, once Shi stood down its defenses, attacked it without warning. He captured the Shi king Chebishi (車鼻施) and sent Chebishi to Chang'an to be executed, drawing great anger from the nearby states, particularly after Gao slaughtered the old and weak captives. Gao also personally took much treasure in the battle—a large supply of diamonds, several camel-loads of gold, prized horses, and other treasures. In spring 751, Gao personally visited Chang'an, and, for his contributions, Emperor Xuanzong gave him the honorific title Kaifu Yitong Sansi (開府儀同三司) and was poised to move him to Hexi Circuit (河西, headquartered in modern Wuwei, Gansu), when the military governor of that circuit, An Sishun, resisted the move. Emperor Xuanzong allowed An to remain at Hexi and Gao to remain at Anxi.
Meanwhile, though, a Shi prince had fled, and he reported to the various states around the region how Gao had turned on Shi and destroyed it. The states, in anger, aligned with the Abbasid Caliphate. When Gao heard this, he made a preemptory attack with 30,000 soldiers against Abbasid Caliphate, reaching Talas (in modern Khazakhstan) and meeting Abbasid forces there. The armies fought bitterly for five days, before Qarluq forces turned against Gao. Tang forces were crushed, with only several thousand surviving out of the 30,000, and that remnant was only saved due to the valiant efforts of Li Siye. Another subordinate of Gao who distinguished himself at the battle was Duan Xiushi, whom Gao recommended for promotion after the battle. The battle marked the end of Chinese advances to the west, and the heavy losses by Abbasid forces despite the victory appeared to end Abbasid designs in the east as well. Gao was then made a commanding general of the imperial guards. In 755, Gao was created the Duke of Miyun.
Also in 755, An Lushan, the military governor of Fanyang Circuit (范陽, headquartered in modern Beijing), rebelled against Emperor Xuanzong's rule. Emperor Xuanzong nominally commissioned his son Li Wan (李琬) the Prince of Rong the commander of the forces defending against An's attack, and put Gao Xianzhi in charge as Li Wan's deputy. Gao gathered 50,000 soldiers from the Chang'an region and took up position at Shang Commandery (陝郡, roughly modern Sanmenxia, Henan). Bian Lingcheng was made Gao's monitor.
Meanwhile, Feng Changqing was sent to the eastern capital Luoyang to defend against An's attack on Luoyang, but once Feng got to Luoyang, he was given inadequate weapon supplies, and An's forces defeated his. Feng retreated to Shan, and suggested to Gao that Shan was not easily defendable and that they should retreat to Tong Pass, which was a much better defensive position. Gao agreed, and the two of them took up position at Tong Pass. When An's forces subsequently attacked Tong Pass, they could not capture it, and historians credited Gao with the improved defenses.
However, during the campaign, Gao had caused much offence against Bian, as Bian was making demands of him that he was not meeting. When Bian returned to Chang'an, he accused Feng of exaggerating An's strength, and accused Gao of improperly abandoning Shan as well as corruptly withholding food supplies and imperial rewards to soldiers for personal benefit. Emperor Xuanzong, believing Bian, issued edicts for Feng's and Gao's executions. After Bian returned to Tong Pass, he first read the edict for Feng's execution. Feng was beheaded, and upon the completion of that execution, Bian then read the second edict ordering Gao's execution. Gao cried out:
I retreated when I encountered the bandits [(i.e., An's army)], and I should die for this. But I swear to the heaven above and the earth below -- the accusations that I stole the food supplies and the imperial rewards are false!
Feng Er [(i.e., the second son from the Feng household, thus implying that Feng was the second son)], you became prominent from your low station. I promoted you to be my assistant, and you later succeeded me as jiedushi. It is fate that we die together here today.
His tactics helped him to win many battles against overwhelming odds.
Gao is also considered historically important by many Chinese since he led the Tang army in the Battle of Talas even though his Tang army was outnumbered. Despite being the commander of the losing side, the battle helped spread Chinese technology to Europe. With the help of paper, which was introduced to Europe around the 14th century, much foreign knowledge was made available to Europeans, ultimately bringing the Renaissance in Europe. The compass, which spread to Europe through the Muslim World, became an important tool in navigation and led the way to the Age of Exploration.
Gao's defeat, which marked the end of Tang's expansion to the west, was partially fictionalized by the modern Chinese historian Bo Yang in the short story The Tashkent Massacre—the Chinese Were Cursed Here! (塔什干屠城—就在這裡, 中國人受到詛咒!), in which he gave a fictional curse by the queen of Shi, cursing Tang and the Chinese for eternity for Gao's treachery.
- Bo Yang, Outlines of the History of the Chinese (中國人史綱), vol. 2, p. 547.
- Old Book of Tang, vol. 104.
- New Book of Tang, vol. 135.
- Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 215.
- Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 216.
- That Gao left his post at Anxi and became a general of the imperial guards was not explicitly stated in his biographies in the Old Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang, but Feng Changqing's biographies, contained in the same volumes, indicated that Wang Zhengjian (王正見) became the commander at Anxi, thus implying Gao was no longer at Anxi.
- Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 217.