Li Guang(?~ 119 BC), born in Tianshui, Gansu, was a famous general of the Han Dynasty. Nicknamed The Flying General by his Xiongnu enemies (Chinese:Fei-Jiang-Jun-Li-Guang), he fought primarily in the campaigns against the Xiongnu peoples to the north of Han China. He was known to Xiongnu as a tough opponent when it came to fortress defense, and his presence was sometimes discouraging enough for Xiongnu to abort the siege. Li Guang committed suicide shortly after the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC. He was blamed for failure to arrive in the battlefield in time (after getting lost in the desert), creating a gap in the encirclement and allowing Yizhixie Chanyu to escape after a confrontation battle between Wei Qing and the Chanyu’s main force, whom the Han army narrowly managed to defeat. Refusing to accept the humiliation of a court martial, Li Guang took his own life.
According to the Shiji by Sima Qian, Li Guang was a man of great build, with long arms and good archery skills , able to shoot an arrow deeply into a stone (which resembles the shape of a crouching tiger) on one occasion. At the same time, like his contemporaries Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, he was a caring and well-respected general who earned the respect of his soldiers. He also earned the favour of Emperor Wen, who said of him: “If he had been born in the time of Emperor Gaozu, he would have been given a fief of ten thousand households without any difficulty.” (Chinese: Wan-Hu-Hou)
In 166 BC, Li Guang joined the army as a young man to fight back Xiongnu aggression.
Nine years later, he was promoted to General of Cavalry(Chinese: Qi-Lang-Jiang) to protect Emperor Jingdi (Chinese: Han-Jing-Di) for he fought bravely, killing several enemies. In the period of the rebellion by Princes of Wu and Chu(Chinese: Wu-Wang, Chu-Wang), Li Guang followed Commander Zhou Yafu to suppress the rebels, and he captured the enemy’s standard at the battle of of Chang Yi. After the suppression of the rebels, Li Guang was successively sent as a governor to Shanggu, ShangJun, LongXi, YanMen, DaiJun, YunZhong, etc., to defend against the Xiongnu.
Li Guang once with his men chased after three Xiongnu riders after they killed all the guards of an official appointed by the emperor. However, when he killed two and tied the last one to his horse, thousands Xiongnu appeared. The Xiongnu suspected a trap, so they hurried hold themselves on a higher position Li Guang’s 100 soldiers were scared and wanted to get on horses to escape. Li Guang told them:”We will be killed if we flee, because it is too far to get back our main force. If we remain calm, they will believe that we are decoys and they will be scared to attack.” Then he led the soldiers towards the Xiongnu force.
They stopped at where was 2 li from the enemy, and Li asked his soldiers to take off the saddles and pretended to settle down. The Xiongnu were puzzled; they just sent a chieftain to reconnoiter. Suddenly, Li Guang mounted and shot the chieftain dead. Li dismounted again. Through the night, the Xiongnu thought Li Guang was waiting to ambush them in the darkness. They soon withdrew. Li and his men survived.
In 140 BC, Emperor Wudi (Pin yin: Han-Wu-Di) ascended the throne. Four years later, Li Guang led the army to go out of YanMen Pass (Pin yin:Yan-Men-Guan). He was surrounded by twice his number of Xiongnu. The Chanyu ordered his men to capture Li Guang alive, and he was captured during the fierce battle. On the way to Xiongnu’ headquarters, Li Guang stole the horse and bow of one of his captors, and shot down several of his pursuers, escaping back to the Han camp. From then on, Li was respected as “The Flying General of Han“. Li Guang was sentenced to death for his defeat in battle, but ransomed himself and was instead demoted to commoner status.
A few years passing by, general Han Anguo was defeated by the Xiongnu. Emperor Wu had to reinstate Li Guang as the Governor of YouBeiPing (Pin yin: You-Bei-Ping-Tai-Shou). The Xiongnu were frightened of Li Guang, and hence they dared not invade.
One day, Li Guang went out hunting. He saw a rock in grass and mistook it for a tiger. So that Li fired at the rock. Upon a closer look, he found that it was just a tiger shaped rock, and his arrowhead had completely penetrated into it. Li Guang fired several more arrows at it, however, he could not penetrate it with any more of his shots.
In 120 BC, Li Guang led 4000 cavalrymen going out YouBeiPing to cooperate with Zhang Qian for a battle against Huns. His army was suddenly encircled by 40,000 Huns under the command of Wise King of the Left(Pin yin: Zuo-Xian-Wang). Half of Li Guang’s cavalry were killed, and worse, they were running low on arrows. Li Guang asked his soldiers to pull the bows tightly for preparation. Then he shot the enemy’s chieftains to death one by one. The Xiongnu were frightened and amazed by Li’s extraordinary bravery. Till the next morning, Zhang Qian rescued Li Guang with the main force of Han.
In 119 BC, Li Guang took the post as the General of Vanguard (Pin yin: Qian-Jiang-Jun) when he was over 60 years old, following Commander Wei Qing to hunt the Xiongnu. From a captive, Wei Qing learned the whereabouts of the Chanyu’s army. He was secretly given orders not to let Li Guang engage the Chanyu by the Emperor, who feared that Li Guang being old and having bad luck would be lost to the enemy. Therefore Wei Qing ordered Li Guang to follow the army of another general, Zhao Yiji, to search the right-wing direction, in order to ensure to search the left himself. Li had to leave his own direction and go by the eastern path with general Zhao, after his protests came to nothing. They lost their way in the inclement weather and terrain without a guide. At the same time, Wei Qing failed to seize the Chanyu. On the way back he met Li and Zhao. Wei sent his bodyguard to condole with Li Guang and hoped to gang up with Li, in order to shift responsibility to Zhao Yiji. As a honest man, Li refused Wei’s attempt; that made Wei quite angry. He forced Li’s fellows to be interrogated. Li Guang told Wei’s men: “The responsibility lays with me. I’ll go before the tribunal myself.” Seeing the messenger off, Li Guang sadly said to his fellows: “Since I joined army in my youth, I’ve gone through over 70 battles. Unexpectedly today I’m forced by the Commander to suffer this humiliation. I’m over 60 now; I can no longer bear to go before the tribunal.” Then he drew out sword, cutting his throat. A star in his time fell with grievance.
In the poem by Wang Changling in Tang Dynasty, Li Guang was highly honoured.
Outside The Fortress (Poem 1 of 2)
The moon that shone in the Qin still shines, and the mountain passes that were used in the Han still stand. Yet those men who marched out for 10,000 li have not returned.
If only the Flying General of Longcheng were still here as well, the Hu cavalry could never have crossed the Yinshan Range!