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Posted on Nov 4, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

The Goguryeo-Sui Wars

By Joshua Gilbert

The wars between the Chinese Sui Dynasty and the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo were some of the greatest conflicts of their time. Eventually these wars also spelled the end for both the Sui and Goguryeo, as both collapsed from the strain of the continual campaigns.

The Age of Fragmentation was coming to an end. In 589 AD Yang Jian, now known as Emperor Wen of Sui, defeated the decedent Chen Empire in Southern China to finally reunite the empire for the first time since Western Jin fell. The new Sui Empire was quickly proving itself to be a major power, as Sui Wendi had not spent the period between his declaration of a new dynasty and reunification twiddling his thumbs. Emperor Wen had not only focused his efforts on internal reform, but also on external affairs. Through a careful mix of diplomacy and military might the Sui were able to achieve resounding success, even against the Tujue, the greatest steppe empire of the day. It appeared there was no limit to the heights the dynamic new dynasty could ascend. Except on the northeastern frontier.


Emperor Yang.jpg
Emperor Yang

On that front the Sui were opposed by the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo. Goguryeo was one of three kingdoms (the other two being Baekje and Silla) that were warring over the unification of Korea. However Goguryeo had grown to such an extent, and gained so much power, that the lands that they held reached well into modern Manchuria. Wars in the past between Goguryeo and Han, and later with Cao-Wei and then Former Yan meant that it was likely the new Sui dynasty would be treated with suspicion. King Pyeongwon, and after 590 his son Yeongyang, attempted to appease Emperor Wen by pretending to submit to him after a period of defiance. While in reality they oth sought to forge new alliances with the Qidan (who would found the Liao Dynasty centuries later) and Mohe (the ancestors of the Jurchens), two nomadic tribes. The Sui continued to expand and grow, and in Daxing, the new capital constructed near old Chang’An, voices grew louder to reclaim the old Han commanderies, which had been overtaken during the previous age of chaos. Emperor Wen however ignored them, he had no reason to attack Goguryeo, as they had submitted to him. All that changed in 597.

In the Chinese calendar the year was Kaihuang 16. In 597 Yeongyang of Goguryeo ordered a military invasion of Yingzhou, or Ying Province. This invasion was a joint operation by both Goguryeo and its nomad allies, principally the Mohe. Emperor Wen was enraged by this invasion, which he viewed as a betrayal. He immediately prepared for a counter invasion, which was termed as a ‘expedition to chastise the rebels’.

The Emperor placed his youngest son, Yang Liang the Prince of Han, in charge. To assist him the veteran general Wang Shiji was placed in joint command with the Prince. To advise them both was Gao Jiong, Duke of Qi and Co-Prime Minister of Sui (who had in fact opposed the war). To assist the army Emperor Wen constructed a navy, and placed in command of it the former Chen general Zhou Luohou.

The army, which totaled 300,000 men, departed for Goguryeo on August 4th, 598 from Linyu Pass. It soon appeared the Sui had failed to do any reconnaissance of the area which they planned to invade. August fell right into the Manchurian rainy season. This was exactly what Yeongyang had prepared for, the Goguryeo and their allies fell on the Sui Army almost as soon as they crossed the Liao River.

Goguryeo foot soldiers.jpg
Goguryeo foot soldiers

Torrential rainstorms, which had begun far earlier then normal, caused numerous problems for the Sui as they made progress impossible, and prevented the moving of provisions across the Liao. Mired in the mud the Sui were unable to fight effectively and suffered heavy losses in the course of many running battles with Goguryeo. Sickness also took its toll.

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  1. You guys are brilliant!!!! This is exactly the page that I have been looking for. Thank you so much for posting, now I can use this as part of my final presention project.

  2. Also it should be noted that while Chinese fortifications during this era were built from bricks baked out of mud, Goguryeo fortifications made from stones which were denser and harder material. Therefore Chinese siege equipments which were designed to besiege Chinese fortresses were ineffective in sieging Goguryeo.

  3. Also Goguryeo used scorched earth tactics extensively against Sui. During retreat Goguryeo army burned all grains, buried alive all livestocks, and even poisoned the water supplies in order to prevent them being captured by the opponent.

    This was particularly the reason why the 300,000 men Sui strike force was doomed, as they were unable to resupply themselves locally.

    Unlike modern era, ancient warfare consistently faced challenges in supplies in logistics, and often times the armies relied on the supplies captured locally. Even Sun Tzu in his art of war stated that supplies captured from the enemy was worth 20 times that of one’s own supplies. This was a sound assessment, due to the combined factors of gaining the supply + reducing the supply needs required in order to supply one’s army + reducing the supply of the enemy.

    Goguryeo’s scorched earth tactics were particularly effective against large armies such as Sui, as larger armies are often more vulnerable to supply shortages. This is the reason why later Tang Taizong opted to field smaller forces of elite units in frequent raids rather than fielding gigantic armies like Sui had. As effective a tactic scorched earth is, the toll is also significant to the defenders as well. Decades of war against Tang in this scenario eventually ended with succumbing of Goguryeo.


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