Li Ling (Chinese: 李陵, died 74 BC), courtesy name Shaoqing (少卿), was a Han Dynasty general, who served under the reign of Emperor Wu (漢武帝) and later defected to the Xiongnu after being defeated in an expedition in 99 BC.
Li Ling was born in Chengji (成紀, in modern-day Tianshui) in the Longxi (隴西) region. He was the grandson of the famous "Flying General" Li Guang. According to the Records of the Grand Historian and the Book of Han, Li Ling was good at mounted archery, liked making friends and enjoyed a good reputation, much like his grandfather. As a result, Emperor Wu thought of him as future military hopeful, and appointed the young Li as a high-profile imperial servant (侍中建章監), a position which Wei Qing and Huo Qubing had previously held.
Li Ling was later assigned a military position to the border front, and once led 800 men over 1,000 miles into Xiongnu territory for a reconnaissance mission. Although he did not encounter any enemy, Emperor Wu soon promoted him to the role of cavalry commander, assigned him to lead 5,000 elite infantry, and placed him in charge of training local reserve forces in Jiuquan (酒泉) and Zhangye (張掖). A few years later, Li Ling started serving regular military roles, but limited to providing escort for higher-level generals such as Li Guangli (李廣利, also Emperor Wu's brother-in-law).
Battle, defeat and defection
In 99 BC, Emperor Wu ordered Li Guangli to lead 30,000 men for an offensive from Jiuquan against the Xiongnu in the Tian Shan region. Li Ling was assigned to provide an escort for Li Guangli's supply line, a role Li Ling vehemently disliked. Li Ling therefore requested Emperor Wu to allow him to lead an individual regiment of his own to the east. Li Ling commented that he led a personal legion of "warriors from Jingchu and extraordinary swordsmen", who were capable of "strangling tigers and sharpshooting". Emperor Wu initially frowned at the idea, and warned Li Ling that there was no additional cavalry available to assign to him. Li Ling then bragged that he would crush the Chanyu's main tribe with nothing more than his 5,000 infantry. Impressed by Li Ling's enthusiasm, Emperor Wu agreed and gave him the go-ahead.
A senior general Lu Bode was assigned to assist Li Ling. However, Lu did not like the idea of supporting Li in such a mission, and suggested Emperor Wu to delay the mission until spring as Xiongnu's fighting strength often peaked in autumn, so then they could attack with 5,000 men each from two columns. Emperor Wu was angry at Lu's request, thinking that Li Ling collaborated with Lu to do this because of fear towards battles. He then ordered Li's troops to mobilize immediately.
Li Ling's army marched north for 30 days, and sketched maps for the journey encountered. A junior officer named Chen Bule (陈步乐) was sent back to report about the progress. Upon seeing Emperor Wu, Chen started boasting with tales of how hard Li Ling and his men had been fighting the enemy (very likely just bluffs, as Li Ling's advance had been unresisted up to this point). Pleased with the good news, Emperor Wu promoted Chen as a reward.
Li Ling's troops encountered the Chanyu's main forces upon arrival at Altay Mountains, and was quickly encircled by 30,000 cavalry between two mountains. With no supply and reinforcement (Li thought there was no need), Li ordered his troops to use the wagons as cover and form up for battle. With a large advantage in numbers, the Xiongnu rashly attacked Li Ling's forces front-on, only to suffer heavy casualties under Han troop's crossbow barrage and the subsequent pursuit. The Chanyu then summoned 80,000 reinforcement troops, forcing Li Ling to battle hard while retreating into a valley, suffering significant casualties. Li Ling then found that his troopers were low in both morale and energy, leading him to search and kill many women secretly hidden in the wagons, who were serving as prostitutes for his soldiers. Li's forces then battled Xiongnu for another day, killing 3,000 enemies. He then retreated southeast for the next 4 to 5 days into a large reed swamp, where they managed to survive a fire attack. The Chanyu then sent his own son to command the pursuit, only to suffer further casualties when Li Ling's forces took refuge in a forest and repelled the attack with their repeating crossbows and melee combat. Up to this point, the Chanyu began to suspect that Li Ling was planning to draw them into an ambush close to the Han border, but decided to intensify the attacks as he considered it would be humiliating to be unable to defeat such a small forces.
For Li Ling, the situation went from bad to worse. The Xiongnu charged over 20 times a day, and were only repelled after suffering another 2,000 casualties. A low-level officer from Li's army, Guan Gan (管敢), defected in retaliation to an insult from his superiors, bringing to the Xiongnu news that Li's forces were cut off from supplies and running out of arrows. Chanyu then pressed on his attacks from small mountain trails, trapping Li Ling into a valley, then proceeding to shoot the Han forces from above the cliffs. Li Ling's men returned fire from the bottom, depleting 500,000 arrows in one day, and was forced to abandon their wagon transports. The 3,000 remaining soldiers were in such a dire state that axles were chopped for use as weapons, and many officers resorted to daggers for combat. The Xiongnu forces then bombarded the Han troops with boulders, killing many.
One night, Li Ling left the camp refusing any followers, claiming that he was seeking to assassinate the Chanyu on his own. He returned in vain, crying pessimistically that they were solidly defeated and all going to die. His subordinates suggested the idea of a false surrender, as another Han general Zhao Ponu (趙破奴) previously had done, but Li Ling refused flatly, "Shut up! If I don't die in battle, I'm not a man!" He ordered his troops to destroy the flags and bury the jewels. Every soldier was given some food and supplies, and told to wait and escape at the same time, then scatter. In midnight the breakout began, but no one was there to even beat the battle drum. Li Ling and his second-in-command Han Yannian (韓延年), each with only a small escort, rode and fought under the pursuit of several thousand Xiongnu cavalry. After Han was killed in combat, Li Ling cried "I have no face to return and meet the Emperor!", and voluntarily surrendered himself to the Xiongnu. Out of his 5,000 men, only 400 made it out of the encirclement back to the border.
Aftermath of defection
Emperor Wu initially thought Li Ling was killed in action, and summoned his family to pay tribute. However, he observed no signs of sorrow from Li's family and thus grew suspicious. As the battlefield was not too far from the border, it was not long before news of Li's surrender arrived. The Emperor became furious and ordered the court martial of Chen Bule, who committed suicide upon the message. The public opinion condemned Li as a traitor, and imperial officials began purposing punishing Li's family for his crime of treason. Sima Qian (司馬遷), a senior imperial historian and a friend of Li, was the only person defending him in the Han court. Emperor Wu was offended by Sima’s words of defence, taking them as an attack on his brother-in-law Li Guangli, who had also fought against the Xiongnu without much success. Sima was arrested for the crime of grand insult, and was tried and sentenced to death. Although his criminal charges were allowed to be paroled to lesser punishments, Sima Qian was not rich enough to pay it, so he was forced to accept the commutation to castration and jailed for three years.
"The 'disaster of Li Ling' induced China to give up for a time this system of counterraids", but "did not imperil the boundaries of Kansu."
Despite his majestic rage, Emperor Wu soon regretted his decision to allow Li Ling mobilize so hastily, and also realized what a mistake it was not listening to Lu Bode's suggestion. As a gesture, he rewarded the survivors from Li Ling's regiment.
One year later, Emperor Wu sent Gongsun Ao (公孫敖) in a rescue mission to retrieve Li Ling. Gongsun failed to achieve anything, but captured a Xiongnu soldier, who revealed that "Li Shaoqing" was training Xiongnu troops for the Chanyu. Concluding that Li Ling's treachery was evident, Emperor Wu had Li Ling's family executed. Since then, everyone from Longxi perceived the Li family as disgrace. However, it was later revealed that the one who trained Xiongnu forces was another high-profile Han defector called Li Xu (李緒), who happened to share the same courtesy name. Li Ling hence bore a deep hatred towards Li Xu, and arranged his assassination.
Life after defection
As a young and high-profile defector, the Chanyu held generous regard of Li Ling, giving Li his daughter's hand in marriage and making Li Lord Youxiao (右校王), which was at the same level as Chanyu's chief adviser (and a notorious Han traitor), Wei Lü (衛律). However, the Xiongnu Queen Dowager (大閼氏) disliked Li Ling and wanted to have him killed. The Chanyu therefore sent Li Ling to a far northern region, and did not call him back until after the Queen Dowager died.
In 90 BC, Xiongnu invaded Wuyuan (五原) and Shangu (上谷), and Wuyuan again and Jiuquan later that year. Emperor Wu ordered a major counteroffensive in three columns against Xiongnu, with Li Guangli leading 70,000 men, Shang Qiucheng (商丘成) leading 30,000 and Mang Tong (莽通) leading 40,000. The Xiongnu responded by having the entire tribes retreating further north, with a scorched earth strategy to challenge the Han army's operational limit. When the forces led by Shang Qiucheng withdrew after meeting no adversary, Xiongnu sent in Li Ling to pursue the Han forces with 30,000 cavalry. The two sides battled for nine days, ironically, at Altay Mountains. Li Ling was defeated badly by the Han forces, and retreated after suffering heavy casualties.
Li Ling was dispatched twice by the Chanyu to persuade the detained Han ambassador Su Wu to surrender, as Li and Su used to be co-workers and good friends. Initially Li Ling was too ashamed to visit Su Wu, as he defected merely the year after Su's exile to Lake Baikal. On his first visit, Li Ling mentioned how everyone in Su Wu's family back in China had either died or remarried, hoping to sever Su's patriotic bond. Li then said that Emperor Wu had grown old and emotionally labile, and how he himself used to suffer over the guilt of treason but had overcome that eventually. However, Su Wu emphasized how much he valued the honor and responsibility the motherland had given him, and told Li Ling that it's either honor or death. Moved by Su Wu's unshakable valor, Li Ling tearfully exclaimed, "Aye! Such an honorable man! I and Wei Lü have sins that dwarf the sky!" The second time Li Ling visited Su Wu, he brought the news that Emperor Wu had died, which caused Su to mourn so hard that he vomited blood and almost died.
When Emperor Zhao (漢昭帝) took the throne, the coregents Huo Guang (霍光) and Shangguan Jie (上官桀), who were both old friends of Li Ling, sent the ambassador Ren Lizheng (任立政, a fellow townsman from Longxi like Li) to persuade Li to return home. Ren took an opportunity to talk to Li privately, telling him that all his sins could be whitewashed, that he needed not worry about wealth after returning and his old friends missed him. However, Li Ling refused, claiming that he had already become a "foreigner" and he couldn't stand to be ashamed a second time.
Li Ling died of diseases in 74 BC, after more than 20 years among the Xiongnu as a defector.
Supposed Li Ling's palace in Khakassia
Some archaeologists have tentatively identified a unique Han-Dynasty architecture palace discovered in Russia's Khakassia (southern Siberia) as the residence of Li Ling in the land of the Xiongnu.
In 1940, Russian construction workers found ancient ruins during the construction of a highway between Abakan and the village of Askyz (Аскыз), in Khakassia. When the site was excavated by Soviet archaeologists during 1941-45, they realized that they had discovered a building absolutely unique for the area: a large (1500 square meters) Chinese-style, likely Han Dynasty era palace. While the name of the high-ranking personage who lived there is not known, Russian archaeologist L.A. Evtyukhova surmised, based on circumstancial evidence, that the palace may have been the residence of Li Ling (see ru:Ташебинский дворец).
One should note, however, that the "ownership" of the palace continues to be discussed. More recently, for example, it was claimed by A.A. Kovalyov as the residence of Lu Fang (盧芳), a Han throne pretender from the Guangwu era.
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