Zhang Qian : biography
Zhang Qian (Chang Chien; ) was an imperial envoy to the world outside of China in the 2nd century BCE, during the time of the Han Dynasty. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information about Central Asia to the Chinese imperial court, then under Emperor Wu of Han, and played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang.
Today Zhang Qian’s travels are associated with the major route of transcontinental trade, the Silk Road. In essence, his missions opened up to China the many kingdoms and products of a part of the world then unknown to the Chinese. Zhang Qian’s accounts of his explorations of Central Asia are detailed in the Early Han historical chronicles, Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji, compiled by Sima Qian in the 1st century BCE . Today Zhang Qian is considered a national hero and revered for the key role he played in opening China to the world of commercial trade.
Development of East-West contacts
Following Zhang Qian’s embassy and report, commercial relations between China and Central as well as Western Asia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the end of the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century BCE, initiating the development of the Silk Road:
- "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members… In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).
Many objects were soon exchanged, and travelled as far as Guangzhou in the East, as suggested by the discovery of a Persian box and various artifacts from Central Asia in the 122 BCE tomb of King Zhao Mo of Nanyue.
[[Mogao Caves 8th-century mural depicting the pseudohistorical legend of Emperor Wu of Han worshipping "golden man" Buddha statues captured in 121 BCE.]] Murals in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang describe the Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping Buddhist statues, explaining them as "golden men brought in 120 BCE by a great Han general in his campaigns against the nomads", although there is no other mention of Han Wudi worshipping the Buddha in Chinese historical literature.
China also sent a mission to Anxi, which were followed up by reciprocal missions from Parthian envoys around 100 BCE:
- "When the Han envoy first visited the kingdom of Anxi, the king of Anxi (the Arsacid ruler) dispatched a party of 20,000 horsemen to meet them on the eastern border of the kingdom… When the Han envoys set out again to return to China, the king of Anxi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them… The emperor was delighted at this." (adapted from Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).
The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, including Seres (Chinese or central Asians), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BCE and 14:
- "Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours." ("Cathay and the way thither", Henry Yule).
In 97 the Chinese general Ban Chao dispatched an envoy to Rome in the person of Gan Ying.
Several Roman embassies to China followed from 166, and are officially recorded in Chinese historical chronicles.