Battle of Talas River Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Arab forces defeated the Chinese troops in the Battle of Talas River, resulting in the closing of the Silk Road for about five hundred years and a substantial weakening of the central power of the Tang Dynasty.

Summary of Event

The Battle of Talas River was the only major military battle between Chinese and Arab forces. During the Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), the Chinese succeeded in regaining and stabilizing control in regions near the Talas River, particularly the trade routes. The Chinese had taken back the Tarim Basim region from the Tibetans in 738, and these outermost provinces agreed to become vassals of the Chinese empire with the promise of protection against enemy invasion. However, a disagreement arose between the rulers in the states of Tashkent and Ferghana, both Chinese vassals. [kw]Battle of Talas River (751) [kw]Talas River, Battle of (751) Talas River, Battle of (751) Central Asia;751: Battle of Talas River[0660] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;751: Battle of Talas River[0660] Gao Xianzhi Xuanzong An Lushan

The heir of the Tashkent Tashkent province wanted to seek revenge against his family’s honor after his father was slated for execution by a leading Chinese general. He asked for support of the Arabs at Bukhara and Samarqand. The Muslim Arabs, a group that had rapidly spread from the Iberian Peninsula into Central Asia during the seventh century, intervened on behalf of Tashkent. To stop an Arab invasion in this region, 30,000 Chinese forces, under General Gao Xianzhi Gao Xianzhi , engaged the Arabs near Atlakh on the banks of the Talas River. The Chinese army suffered a devastating military defeat when their western Turkish (Qarluq) allies deserted them on the battlefield, resulting in their ground support being spread too thin. Arab rule, Islamic civilization, and power would dominate the area during the next 150 years; however, this conflict ended Arabic expansion eastward. The battle also signified the beginnings of military, political, and economic turmoil that would plague the Chinese government throughout the next two centuries.


The ramifications of the Battle of Talas were enormous for China. The Arabs captured many Chinese papermakers who worked in factories near the river. The Arabs proceeded to learn the art, keeping the papermaking Papermaking process a secret, and began to export paper from distribution points outside Baghdad at inflated prices to European markets. Chinese silk workers, who were also taken as prisoners after the Battle of Talas, passed on their craft to the Arab world as well, but the quality of silk Silk;Byzantine Empire and produced in the Near East never equaled that of China.

Moreover, the loss of these provinces marked the decline in power of the Tang Dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong Xuanzong (Tang emperor) . China lost control of its main trade route, the Silk Road Silk Road , for the next half century. Due to the turmoil in the area, trade routes to the south began to suffer. Tibetans also reestablished control of the Tarim Basin and Kansu Corridor, and they took the city of Dunhuang in 766, continuing to spread a Lamaist version of Buddhism in Central Asia. The Chinese army in the north was not able to divert repeated attacks from a Mongol tribe known as the Khitan. The Khitan Khitans were able to settle in the northeast near Beijing (Peking) and sacked the city of Kaifeng.

Because of these disturbing developments, civil unrest ensued in China, and the outcome was a rebellion that broke out four years after the Battle of Talas. An Lushan An Lushan , a general of Sogdian-Turkish origins, rose quickly through the ranks of the army to become a favored member of the Tang court. Emperor Xuanzong gave him a military governor post in the 740’. In 755, An Lushan used his powerful position in the border areas to amass a large army and led a rebellion against the empire. An Lushan Rebellion The general attacked the capital city of Luoyang, forcing the royal family to flee southwest of the mountain region of Sichuan (Szechuan). An Lushan then proclaimed himself emperor, and six months later, he captured the city of Ch’angan (modern Xi’an). An Lushan was killed in 757, and the rebellion was quelled in 763 with the help of a hired Uighur army. However, the rebellion weakened the central Tang government, resulting in the collapse of the dynasty.

The state of political division continued in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China) (907-960) because of the rise of powerful warlords and several independent states. The emphasis on militarism contributed to the decline of the Tang, a lesson not lost on the founder of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), who was a former general. He based the government on civil ideals rather than military virtues. The Song Dynasty absorbed these autonomous states over time, unifying the empire and shifting the geographical base of the government near the Wei and Huang Rivers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowley, Robert, and Geoffrey Parker, eds. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. General reference work that lists important battles, leaders, and military terminology in alphabetical order. The work also features forty battle maps and an extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franck, Irene M., and David M. Brownstone. The Silk Road: A History. New York: Facts On File, 1986. Comprehensive study of the history of the Silk Road as a crucial communication, trade, and travel route from the Mediterranean to Central China. Extensive research that uses primary and secondary source materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Hugh. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. New York: Routledge, 2001. Kennedy looks at the early Islamic conquests from 600 to 945. The ՙAbbāsid caliphs fought for dominance in an empire that went from Spain to the borders of India. He explains how the army influenced the political system through recruitment, payment, weaponry, and fortifications. The author focuses heavily on the relationship between the army, society, and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. New York: Longman, 1986. An introduction to the Near East from the end of the sixth century, with the birth of Islam with Muḥammad, until the rise of Islamic society in 1050. The author also discusses Arab conquests during the seventh century and the age of Umayyad and ՙAbbāsid caliphates. Includes list of genealogical tables and four maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muqi, Che. The Silk Road, Past and Present. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989. The author recounts his journey along the oldest section of the Silk Road in this memoir. The account also explains the historical importance of the ancient road from a political and economic perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture. New York: Facts On File, 1999. Entries in this one-volume reference work are presented in alphabetical order. Categories include cities/provinces, government and politics, important leaders, traditions, literature, language, family structure, religion, and traditional events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shouyi, Bai, ed. An Outline History of China. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1982. Shouyi is a professor of Chinese history. The work focuses on the history of Chinese dynasties; chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to the Tang and Sung. Includes a foldout map of China and an extensive index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Bernard G., and Arnold H. Green. A Survey of Arab History. Rev. ed. Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 1987. Work is a comprehensive overview of Arab history from 600 to 1916. Authors address trade routes, caliphates, Arab expansion, the rise of Islam, European imperialism, nationalism, and the emergence of independent Arab nations in the early 1900’. Includes twenty illustrations but lacks an index.

Categories: History