BBC History Revealed
Did ancient China try to expand west?
SHORT ANSWER Their inventions and influence went further than their armies
Among the myriad legacies of LONG ANSWER
ancient China, we remember the long-standing dynasties, the cultural advances and the many inventions – from gunpowder to papermaking. And while China grew from a few settlements on the Yellow and Yangtze rivers to become the fourth largest country in the world today, the expansion of the civilisation is not spoken about in the same terms as, say, Alexander the Great, the Romans or Mongols. In fact, the latter were the ones who conquered them.
Yet during the golden age of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907 , the Chinese reached beyond the Gobi Desert, taking out the eastern and western
Gokturks. The Tang soldiers got so far marching west that they met, for the first time, Arab armies heading east.
It turned out to be the last time, too. In July AD 751, at the battle of Talas River on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese were routed by the Abbasid Caliphate. Not long afterwards, a rebellion broke out back home so hopes of recovery faded. It was a slam on the brakes of China’s westward expansion. Although, as the story goes, Chinese prisoners of war did teach their Arab victors how to make paper, which meant their influence continued the journey west.