Zhang Qian


Zhang Qian : biography

195 BC –

A smaller group of Yuezhi, the "Little Yuezhi", were not able to follow the exodus and reportedly found refuge among the "Qiang barbarians".

Daxia (Bactria)

Zhang Qian probably witnessed the last period of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, as it was being subjugated by the nomadic Yuezhi. Only small powerless chiefs remained, who were apparently vassals to the Yuezhi horde. Their civilization was urban, almost identical to the civilizations of Anxi and Dayuan, and the population was numerous.

"Daxia is situated over 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) southwest of Dayuan (Ferghana), south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land, and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Dayuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked and conquered Daxia, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is Lanshi (Bactra) where all sorts of goods are bought and sold." (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, translation Burton Watson).

Shendu (Pakistan)

Zhang Qian also reports about the existence of Pakistan southeast of Bactria. The name Shendu (身毒) comes from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", meaning the Indus river of Pakistan. Sindh was one of the richest regions of India at the time, ruled by Indo-Greek Kingdoms, which explains the reported cultural similarity between Bactria and India:

"Southeast of Daxia is the kingdom of Shendu (Sindh, Pakistan)… Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Daxia (Bactria). The people cultivate the land and live much like the people of Daxia. The region is said to be hot and damp. The inhabitants ride elephants when they go in battle. The kingdom is situated on a great river (Indus)" (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).


Zhang Qian identifies "Anxi" as an advanced urban civilization, like Dayuan (Ferghana) and Daxia (Bactria). The name "Anxi" is a transcription of "Arshak" (Arsaces), the name of the founder of Arsacid Empire that ruled the regions along the silk road between the Tedzhen river in the east and the Tigris in the west, and running through Aria, Parthia proper, and Media proper.

"Anxi is situated several thousand li west of the region of the Great Yuezhi. The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. They have walled cities like the people of Dayuan (Ferghana), the region contains several hundred cities of various sizes. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather. To the west lies Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) and to the north Yancai and Lixuan (Hyrcania)." (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).


Zhang Qian’s reports on Mesopotamia are in tenuous terms. He did not himself visit the region, and was only able to report what others told him.

Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) is situated several thousand li west of Anxi (Arsacid territory) and borders the Western Sea (Persian Gulf/ Mediterranean?). It is hot and damp, and the people live by cultivating the fields and planting rice… The people are very numerous and are ruled by many petty chiefs. The ruler of Anxi (the Arsacids) give orders to these chiefs and regards them as vassals. (adapted from Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Kangju (康居) northwest of Sogdiana (粟特)

Zhang Qian also visited directly the area of Sogdiana (Kangju), home to the Sogdian nomads:

"Kangju is situated some 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) northwest of Dayuan (Bactria). Its people are nomads and resemble the Yuezhi in their customs. They have 80,000 or 90,000 skilled archer fighters. The country is small, and borders Dayuan. It acknowledges sovereignty to the Yuezhi people in the South and the Xiongnu in the East." (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Yancai 奄蔡 (Vast Steppe)

"Yancai lies some 2,000 li (832 km) northwest of Kangju (centered on Turkestan at Beitian). The people are nomads and their customs are generally similar to those of the people of Kangju. The country has over 100,000 archer warriors, and borders a great shoreless lake, perhaps what is now known as the Northern Sea (Aral Sea, distance between Tashkent to Aralsk is about 866 km)" (Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).



The Shiji reports that Zhang Qian returned from his final expedition to the Wusun in 115 BCE. After his return he "was honoured with the post of grand messenger, making him among the nine highest ministers of the government. A year or so later he died."Watson (1993), p. 240. "The indications regarding the year of his death differ, but Shih Chih-mien (1961), p. 268 shows beyond doubt that he died in 113 B.C. His tomb is situated in Chang-chia ts’un 張家村 near Ch’eng-ku . . . ; during repairs carried out in 1945 a clay mold with the inscription 博望家造 [Home of the Bowang (Marquis)] was found, as reported by Ch’en Chih (1959), p. 162." Hulsewé and Loewe (1979), p. 218, note 819.