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

The Goguryeo-Sui Wars

By Joshua Gilbert

On the sea Zhou Luohou fared little better then the ground troops. Heavy storms struck not long after the fleet left Shandong, and most of the fleet sank. Zhou tried to correct the problem to sticking to the shoreline, only to lose many sailors from ambush and night raids. The Sui Navy was defeated not long after during the Battle of the Bohai Sea, where the navy of Goguryeo led by Gang Yi-sik was able to destroy the remnants of Zhou Luohou’s flotilla in open battle. This defeat motivated Gao Jiong to advise the Prince of Han to retreat to Yingzhou. However while the retreat was under way a strange thing happened. Wideok, the King of Baekje, offered to aid the Sui in their war. While the offer was rejected, it was enough to cause alarm in Pyongyang. King Yeongyang knew he could not afford to fight a two front war. Amazingly an embassy was sent from Goguryeo to Daxing, where they apologized for the war. Emperor Wen, confused by this sudden turn of events, accepted and peace was declared. It was a hollow victory for Sui, as they lost nearly 90 % of both their army and navy.


Goguryeo and Sui thereafter experienced peace which lasted for many years. Following the disastrous campaign of 598 Emperor Wen never mentioned Goguryeo again, and he ruled for several more years before dying in 604 at Renshou Palace from illness. He was succeeded to the throne by his second son, Yang Guang the Prince of Jin. Yang Guang took the throne under the name Emperor Yang of Sui.

At first Emperor Yang followed in the footsteps of his father, and he was popular. Before long however his reign took a darker turn as he decreed the beginning of a massive building project. While the Grand Canal system soon proved to be a real boon, the high human cost of the work started murmurings against him. In Goguryeo the new Emperor was greeted with some apprehension, as King Yeongyang was worried how long the peace could last. He began to consider forming new alliances in the face of this. Emperor Yang was highly energetic, and his building projects, reforms (including the restoration of the bureaucratic exams), and political intrigues did not exhaust him at all.

In 607 the Emperor went on a tour of the Sui Empire’s northern provinces. While on this tour he decided to pay a personal visit to the Eastern Tujue capital at Dali, to see the Qiren (or Qimin) Qagan, Ashina Rangan. It was here that Emperor Yang’s long obsession with Goguryeo began. During his visit the Emperor saw an emissary of Goguryeo in the Qagan’s tent. The Tujue and Goguryeo had a long relationship stretching over several years, but this was the first the Chinese had became aware of it. Though the Qiren Qagan was effectively a Sui puppet, who had owed his life and position to Emperor Wen’s continued support, the Tujue had never been trusted. Emperor Yang suspected an alliance in the making between Goguryeo and the Tujue, an alliance the Sui would be unable to withstand. To test his theory the Emperor called for King Yeongyang to report to Luoyang (Emperor Yang had been told early in his reign that Daxing was bad luck, so he rebuilt Luoyang and ruled from there) and appear before the Celestial Court to give an account for his actions. If he refused he would face chastisement through an imperial ‘tour’ of Goguryeo. King Yeongyang outright refused, which validated Emperor Yang’s theory. Later that year he announced to his officials:

 "The authority of the Central Kingdom has been flouted, and sooner or later the response would have to be the application of overwhelming force against the miscreant!"

War was once more on the horizon. Despite his previous statement Emperor Yang did not march to war right there and then. Instead he opted to take the time to properly prepare for war. Emperor Yang was no stranger to conflict on this scale, when the campaign against the Chen Dynasty was launched Emperor Wen had left the running of the campaign to the then Prince of Jin. A campaign he ran brilliantly. In 610 he levied a new tax on the rich families of the north to pay for the massive amount of horses that would be required.

The campaign against Goguryeo was formally declared at Luoyang on April14th, 611. It quickly became clear that Emperor Yang was correct to delay declaring the campaign against Goguryeo. On June 1st he arrived at Zhuo Commandery, near modern Beijing. Zhuo was the perfect staging ground for an invasion into Goguryeo. Not far from the commandery was the northeastern terminal of the Grand Canal system, which had just finished construction. Using the canal system, whatever was required for the grand expedition could be transported quickly and easily via ship. A vast new fleet of 300 ships was also constructed at Donglai in Shandong to support the invasion. Throughout the year men, horses, grain, and equipment all flooded northward to Zhuo Commandery or to military garrisons near there. Not even the Grand Canal system could handle all of this traffic, although it did make the work considerably easier. By early 612 the work was finished and Emperor Yang declared preparations complete. The final ceremonies, rites, and sacrifices could now begin. On February 8th, 612 the Sui Army began its march into Goguryeo.

The military forces that had gathered at Zhuo deserves some special attention, so we will examine it. The heart of the Sui Army was a force named the 24 Armies. Each of these was theoretically identical to the other, making them an uniform force. At the heart of each army was 40 dui (companies) of heavy cavalry, each comprised of a 100 men. Ten dui of cavalry formed a tuan (battalion) of 1,000 men. So there was 4 tuan of heavy cavalry at the heart of each army, comprised of 4,000 men. The infantry was organized into eighty dui, which was also 100 men strong each. Infantry tuan were formed of twenty dui to a tuan of 2,000. So each army had 4 tuan of infantry, comprised of 8,000. An additional 4 tuan of unknown soldiers and unknown numbers guarded the baggage train. Finally there was a special dui of 200 horse archers attached to the Headquarters of each army. Command was shared by the Senior General and Deputy General.

Sui Imperial Guards.jpg
Sui Imperial Guards

In the field each tuan could be recognized by the color of their uniforms, the color of their cords, and their flags. The main force of these armies was the fubing soldiers. The fubing was the system of rotational military organization inherited from previous dynasties (Northern Zhou, Western Wei, and Northern Wei). Under the fubing system the Emperor would have at any one time a large number (about 50,000 in the capital alone) of well trained, semi-professional, troops recruited from the local military houses all over Northern China. Emperor Yang had, previous to declaring the campaign, already prepared by organizing new fubing headquarters in the area of Zhuo Commandery. Besides these core forces were other troops, such as mass peasant conscripts, and even a contingent of Tujue horseman under Chuluo Qagan, who had a strong claim to the leadership of the Western Tujue. Because Emperor Yang was joining the army personally he was accompanied by the ‘Six Armies of the Son of Heaven’, a force of full time professional soldiers. In addition to all of this was the siege train, logistical support, and lastly a miniature government, so the Emperor could continue to rule even in the field. Traditionally the total number of soldiers has been said to have been 1,133,800 in total with the logistical support being at least twice that number. Modern estimates have placed a much lower total, of at least 600,000 effective troops and an unknown number of logistical support.

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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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