Zhang Qian


Zhang Qian : biography

195 BC –

Other achievements

From his missions he brought back many important products, the most important being alfalfa seeds (for growing horse fodder), strong horses with hard hooves, and knowledge of the extensive existence of new products, peoples, and technologies of the outside world. He died c. 114 BCE after spending some twenty-five years traveling on these dangerous and strategic missions. Although at a time in his life he was regarded with disgrace for being defeated by the Xiongnu, by the time of his death he had been bestowed with great honours by the emperor and has been held in esteem by posterity.Watson (1993), pp. 231-239, 181, 231-241.Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture, pp. 614-615. Dorothy Perkins. (2000). Roundtable Press Book. ISBN 0-8160-2693-9 (hc); ISBN 0-8160-4374-4 (pbk).

Zhang Qian’s journeys had promoted a great variety of economic and cultural exchanges between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions. Because silk became the dominant product traded from China, this great trade route later became known as the Silk Road or Silk Route.

Zhang Qian’s reports

The reports of Zhang Qian’s travels are quoted extensively in the 1st century BCE Chinese historic chronicles "Records of the Great Historian" (Shiji) by Sima Qian. Zhang Qian visited directly the kingdom of Dayuan in Ferghana, the territories of the Yuezhi in Transoxiana, the Bactrian country of Daxia with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule, and Kangju (康居). He also made reports on neighbouring countries that he did not visit, such as Anxi (Arsacid territories), Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia?), Shendu (Pakistan) and the Wusun.

Dayuan (Ferghana)

Countries described in Zhang Qian’s report. Visited countries are highlighted in [[blue.]] Zhang Qian starts with a report on the first country he visited (after his captivity among the Xiongnu), Dayuan, in Ferghana, west of the Tarim Basin. They are considered by him as sophisticated urban dwellers, on the same footing as the Parthian and the Bactrians. The name Dayuan (meaning Great Yuan), may be a transliteration of the word Yona used to designate Greeks, who occupied the region from the 4th to the 2nd century BCE.

"Dayuan lies southwest of the territory of the Xiongnu, some 10,000 li (5,000 kilometers) directly west of China. The people are settled on the land, plowing the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. The people live in houses in fortified cities, there being some seventy or more cities of various sizes in the region. The population numbers several hundred thousand" (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Yuezhi (Tocharians?)

After obtaining the help of the king of Dayuan, Zhang Qian went southwest to the territory of the Yuezhi, with whom he was supposed to obtain a military alliance against the Xiongnu.

"The Great Yuezhi live some 2,000 or 3,000 li (1,000 or 1,500 kilometers) west of Dayuan, north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered to the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi, and on the north by Kangju (康居). They are a nation of nomads, moving place to place with their herds and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." (adapted from Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Zhang Qian also describes the origins of the Yuezhi, explaining they came from the eastern part of the Tarim Basin, a momentous explanation which has encouraged historians to connect them to the Caucasoid mummies, as well as to the Indo-European-speaking Tocharians that have been identified from precisely the same area:

"The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan (Ferghana), where they attacked the people of Daxia (Bactria) and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui (Oxus) river." (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).