General Geng Gong of Han Dynasty — A Legendary Hero and His Epic Returning

Geng Gong was a heroic general of the Han Dynasty, who led a few hundreds of soldiers to fight in severe conditions, defended their country, crossed precipitous snow mountains, and finally marched back to his hometown.  

They had been attacked, tempted, enclosed, and isolated in a remote city for over a year, by largely outnumbered and aggressive enemies, but they achieved the final success.

Their legendary story was a glorious chapter in official historical documents of the Han Dynasty, about remarkable braveness and sincere loyalty.

Soldiers of the Han Dynasty Painted By Hou Zhen

Brave General Geng Gong and His Mission

Geng Gong, courtesy name Bozong, was born into a military family, whose uncle was an important and contributive marshal that assisted Liu Xiu (5 BC — 57 AD), the Emperor Guangwu of Han, reestablished the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Geng Gong lost his father when he was a kid and was raised by his mother. After he grew up, he joined the army of the Han Empire, just like his uncle and father.

At that time, Liu Xiu’s son Liu Zhuang (28 — 75), another good monarch, had already ascended to the throne as Emperor Ming of Han.

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

A few decades ago, when Wang Mang, Liu Xiu, and other uprising armies were fighting against each other, Xiongnu and other nomadic regimes took over some places in the west part of China.

After Emperor Liu Xiu reestablished the Eastern Han Dynasty, he didn’t try to take back those lost land through wars, since he felt his priority was to recover the economy.

After his son, Liu Zhuang inherited the throne, an extraordinary diplomatic named Ban Chao, and a great general, together, persuaded or defeated most of those nomadic regimes and made them comply with the Han Empire again.

But the remaining force of Xiongnu refused to surrender, and escaped far away.

Gradually, Han recovered reign to those lost lands, and reset government agency there. 

Geng Gong was a general, together with hundreds of soldiers, garrisoning a military site of this region, which was also a very important strategic passage.

Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, Post Station and State Guesthouse in the Western Regions Along with the Silk Road — Dunhuang, Gansu Province

Attack and Enclose of Xiongnu

In the year 75, when Xiongnu was attacking a kingdom named Jushi that had already complied with Han, Geng Gong sent an army consisted of three-hundred soldiers to assist them. 

However, this time, Xiongnu organized over 200,00 cavalrymen to Jushi, and easily defeated their army and killed Jushi’s king. 

After having ambushed and perished the troop that was sent by Geng Gong, Xiongnu enclosed the site that Geng Gong was garrisoned. 

Geng Gong applied poison on arrows, but he told the Xiongnu soldiers that Han’s arrows had magic, and whoever got shot by these magical arrows would be suffered severe pain that was worse than death.

Inlaying Gold and Silver Bronze Crossbow (Nu Ji) of the Han Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Soon, when Xiongnu soldiers were shot, their skin started to fester quickly and the wound kept expanding. These unusual injuries scared them, so they retreated.

That night, Geng Gong led all of his hundreds of soldiers raided the Xiongnu’s base and achieved big success. The commander of the Xiongnu then led his army left in a hurry. 

But Geng Gong knew that they would come back soon.

So he moved to a bigger and stronger city named Shule nearby, which was easier to defend; he then further strengthened the defensive mechanism there and recruited more warriors.

Relic Site of Shihezi in Xinjiang Province, Believed as the Shule City that Geng Gong had been Garrisoning, Photo Provided by Xinjiang Antique Archaeology Institute.

Intense Defense War in the Shule City

About four months later, the King of Xiongnu led more soldiers to come back and attacked Geng Gong more intensely. 

However, General Geng Gong’s excellent commands and his warriors’ braveness and strong will, with the help of advanced weapon, they protected the city very well. 

Then, Xiongnu enclosed this site and cut off upstream of the only river there. 

Afterward, Geng Gong and his army had no water supply; later they even had to squeeze horse dung to quench their thirst.

But some time later, luckily, Geng Gong found a rich spring inside their city, after he had sincerely prayed to heaven.

When Geng Gong led his people standing on their city wall and spraying water to heaven, Xiongnu again felt that the Han army was protected by immortals, so they retreated. 

Largely Increased Enemies and Losing of Resources

In the next month, Han’s current emperor Liu Zhang departed. 

Hence, some complied regimes rebelled.

The Kingdom Jushi too. Its new king allied with Xiongnu and started to fight against Geng Gong. 

With Han’s government busy dealing with the old emperor’s departure and the new emperor’s enthronement, they didn’t send any armies to help Geng Gong and other generals that were being attacked by those rebelled regimes.

Hence, Geng Gong and his soldiers were all on their own.

After months of intense fights, they kept losing warriors and resources; they even boiled their armors that were made of animals’ leather to eat.

Scourer of Soldiers Quartering in Great Wall in the Western Regions of the Han Dynasty — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fortunately, the queen of Jushi was from the Han Empire, and she secretly provided Geng  Gong with some useful military information and some resources. 

However, her supply was far from enough.

The situation in Shule City went worse and worse, but Geng Gong and his soldiers still well defended.

Soon, the King of Xiongnu sent a messenger to persuade Geng Gong to surrender and promised him the most honorable title, countless money, and beautiful women.

Geng Gong dragged the messenger into their city wall, killed, and grilled him in front of the Xiongnu, showing that he and his warriors only loyal to the Han Empire, and were willing to sacrifice for their country. 

Lacquer Wooden Spoon of Soldiers Quartering in Great Wall in the Western Regions of the Han Dynasty — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Impressed Emperor and The Overdue Rescue

Months later, the new emperor Liu Da (56 — 88), Emperor Zhang of Han, ascended to the throne and had everything settled to dust in his central government. 

He was quite touching after hearing what happened in this remote Shule city, so he sent 7000 soldiers to the Western Regions (Xi Yu).

This army of Han kept winning. 

After a series of military successes, those rebelled regimes, include Kingdom Juchi, complied again; the Xiongnu escaped far away.

It was already in the year 76. 

Some people in this rescue army doubted if Geng Gong and his soldiers were still alive.

The Shule city that they had been protecting was located in the north of the Tianshan Mountains, a series of magnificent and gigantic mountains that were covered by snow, with an average altitude of 4000 meters. 

Besides, Geng Gong only had a few hundreds of soldiers in the beginning; after over a year of intensive fightings against such outnumbered cavalry troop of the Xiongnu in extremely severe conditions, they were quite unlikely to stay alive. 

But a general named Fan Qiang that had worked with Geng Gong before strongly believed that Geng Gong would hold onto his mission. 

He believed in Geng Gong’s exceptional military skills, strong will, and loyalty.

Hence, Fan Qiang led 2000 soldiers marched toward the Tianshan Mountains to rescue General Geng Gong.

Part of Magnificent Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang Province, Photo by Mange.

Crossing of Magnificent Snow Mountain to Save Geng Gong

Fan Qiang and these 2000 soldiers, tramped over the tremendous snow mountain in the winter (January to March), and finally arrived at the Shule City, the important military site that Geng Gong and his warriors had been defending independently for more than a year. 

No one recorded what they had suffered crossing such a gigantic mountain under harsh weather in about 2000 years ago.  

When they finally arrived and met with Geng Gong, all of those brave soldiers burst into tears.

There were only 26 people left in this city, including General Geng Gong.

They finally could go home, summoned by their emperor, after having completed their mission.

Geng Gong and His Soldiers Returning to Yumen Pass, Painted by Zuo Guoshun.

Together with the rescue army, they again crossed the Tianshan Mountains. The horrible weather and many dangerous encounters, as well as some attacks from Xiongnu, many people died on their way home. 

In the end, only Geng Gong and his other 12 soldiers arrived in a big city, the Yumen Pass  (or Jade Gate Pass) that connected Han’s central and northwest areas. 

The commander, also the most honorable governor of the Yumen Passy, was extremely touched and served those 13 heroes to change and bath.

They were then welcomed home and rewarded by their emperor. 

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate of the Han Dynasty, An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected Middle Kingdom and West Regions — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

Final Wars Against the Xiongnu

A decade later, great commander Dou Xian (? — 92), the brother of Emperor Liu Zhao’s queen, led Han’s troops to defeat the rest of the Xiongnu several times.  

Within this honorable troop, the most contributing marshals were from Geng Gong’s family.

In the year 91, Dou Xian’s army achieved a big and final success defeating Xiongnu on the Altai Mountains. The remaining people of Xiongnu refused to surrender and fled westward and never showed up in historical documents of the history of China again. 

Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The former powerful, huge Xiongnu Empire that had large-scale first-class cavalry troops disappeared forever. They were defeated by the Han Empire’s brilliant marshals like Wei Qing, brave generals like Geng Gong, as well as courageous common warriors like Geng Gong’s soldiers. 

The warriors of Han not only could they defend their country and defeat powerful enemies, but also had the capability of holding fast to their faith in extremely harsh circumstances.

Brocade Barcer Unearthed In the Western Regions of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ending of the House of Geng

The House of Geng had several accomplished and remarkable marshals, they pledged their loyalty to the Han Empire for the next two hundred years.

At the end of the Han dynasty, Geng’s clan tried their best to fight against a powerful warlord who abducted Liu Xie, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty. 

But they failed; most of their members were either sacrificed on the battlefield or sentenced to death.

The loyal and contributive Geng Clan perished together with the dynasty that they pledged to protect, after giving up all of those honorable titles and countless money that the warlord provided them.

Just like their ancestors, they always chose loyalty before wealth, no matter what it would cost them. 

Statue of General Geng Gong under the Foot of Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang Province

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