Zhang Qian


Zhang Qian : biography

195 BC –

Hanzi for Zhang Qian.]] Zhang Qian was born in Chenggu district just east of Hanzhong in the north central province of Shaanxi, China.Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants on the Silk Road, p. 61. (2004) Luce Boulnois. Translated by Helen Loveday. Odyssey Books & Guides. ISBN 962-217-720-4 (Hardback); ISBN 962-217-721-2 (Paperback). He entered the capital, Chang’an, today’s Xi’an, between 140 BCE and 134 BCE as a Gentleman (郎), serving Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. At the time the nomadic Xiongnu tribes controlled what is now Inner Mongolia and dominated the Western Regions, Xiyu (西域 ), the areas neighbouring the territory of the Han Dynasty. The Han emperor was interested in establishing commercial ties with distant lands but outside contact was prevented by the hostile Xiongnu.

The Han court dispatched Zhang Qian, a military officer who was familiar with the Xiongnu, to the Western Regions in 138 BCE with a group of ninety-nine members to make contact and build an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. He was accompanied by a guide named Ganfu (甘父), a Xiongnu who had been captured in war.Watson (1993), p. 231. The objective of Zhang Qian’s first mission was to seek a military alliance with the Yuezhi, in modern Tajikistan. However to get to the territory of the Yuezhi he was forced to pass through land controlled by the Xiongnu who captured him (as well as Ganfu) and enslaved him for ten years.Frances Wood, "The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia", 2002, University of California Press, 270 pages ISBN 052023786 During this time he married a Xiongnu wife, who bore him a son, and gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader.

Zhang and Ganfu (as well as Zhang’s Xiongnu wife and son) were eventually able to escape and, passing Lop Nor and following the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, around the Kunlun Mountains and through small fortified areas in the middle of oases in what is now Xinjiang until they made their way to Dayuan and eventually to the land of the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi were agricultural people who produced strong horses and many unknown crops including alfalfa for animal fodder. However, the Yuezhi were too settled to desire war against the Xiongnu. Zhang spent a year in Yuezhi and the adjacent Bactrian territory, documenting their cultures, lifestyles and economy, before beginning his return trip to China, this time following the southern edge of the Tarim Basin.Watson (1993), p. 232. On his return trip he was again captured by the Xiongnu who again spared his life because they valued his sense of duty and composure in the face of death. Two years later the Xiongnu leader died and in the midst of chaos and infighting Zhang Qian escaped. Of the original mission of just over a hundred men, only Zhang Qian and Ganfu managed to return to China.

Zhang Qian returned in 125 BCE with detailed news for the Emperor, showing that sophisticated civilizations existed to the West, with which China could advantageously develop relations. The Shiji relates that "the Emperor learned of the Dayuan, Daxia, Anxi, and the others, all great states rich in unusual products whose people cultivated the land and made their living in much the same way as the Chinese. All these states, he was told, were militarily weak and prized Han goods and wealth".Watson (1993), chap. 123. Upon Zhang Qian’s return to China he was honoured with a position of palace counselor.Andrew Dalby, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, 2000, University of California Press, 184 pages ISBN 0-520-23674-2 Although he was unable to develop commercial ties between China and these far-off lands, his efforts did eventually result in trade mission to the Wu-sun people in 119 BCE which led to trade between China and Persia.

On his mission Zhang Qian had noticed products from an area now known as northern India. However, the task remained to find a trade route not obstructed by the Xiongnu to India. Zhang Qian set out on a second mission to forge a route from China to India via Sichuan, but after many attempts this effort proved unsuccessful. In 119-115 BCE Zhang Qian was sent on a third mission by the emperor, to develop ties with the Wusun people.Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture, p. 615. Dorothy Perkins. (2000). Roundtable Press Book. ISBN 0-8160-2693-9 (hc); ISBN 0-8160-4374-4 (pbk).