History of the Silk Road: Envoy Zhang Qian’s Journey to the Central Steppes

Episode 15: The Silk Roads – The Envoy Zhang Xian

Foundations of East Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

Early in the second century BC, the Han emperor Wudi dispatched Zhang Xian as an envoy to the Yeuzhi Federation on the Central Steppes. Wudi’s goal was to seek an alliance with the Yeuzhi against the repeated raids of the Xiongu nomads to China’s north. Long time rivals of the Yeuzhi, the Xiongu had launched a series of brutal attacks that had forced them to migrate thousands of miles and eventually resettle (in 130 BC)in the Oxus River valley (presently northern border of Afghanistan).

Leaving China in 138 BC, it took Zhang Xian ten years to reach the Yuezhi in Bactria with his coterie of 100 men.* The first Chinese in history to cross the Himalayas, he was captured by the Xiongu as he headed through the Gonzu Corridor (controlled by the Xiongu) in the Gobi Desert.

After the Xiongu killed most of his men, Zhang Qian himself was transported to their headquarters on the northern steppes. After ten years of captivity, he  escaped, along with his Xiongu wife and their children. When he finally arrived in Bactria in 120 BC, the Yuezhi refused to ally with the Han Dynasty to confront the Xongnu.

The Xongnu rearrested Zhang Qian on his return trip in 125 BC. After being held for a year, he was released on the death of the Xiongu leader.

The reports he brought back to Wudi gave Chinese the first glimpse of settled regions to the west of China. With a population of a million people, Bactria had a well-developed agricultural economy (based on wheat, rice and grapes) with 100 cities and a well-developed trading economy. A subsequent envoy was very surprised to find goods from southern China (outside of Han control) that had found their way to Bactria via India.

In 124 BC, Zhang Qian set out again to seek a new route to India that didn’t traverse Xiongnu territory. This time Kunming tribes he encountered in the Himalayas murdered most of his men.

Zhang Qian’s initial trip rip to the Central Steppes would lead to hundreds of Chinese expeditions per year to Central Asia.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

 

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5808638

Silk Roads – In the Footsteps of the Nomads

Episode 14: Silk Roads – In the Footsteps of the Nomads

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

Benjamin begins this lecture by outlining the significant “revolutions” (ie leaps) in the progress of human beings towards “modernity”:

  • 50,000 years ago – Upper Paleolithic Revolution produced technologies enabling humans to survive the Ice Age, eg tools and weapons to hunt large mammals, cave art and symbolic language.
  • 11,000 years ago – Agricultural Revolution.
  • 5,000 BC – Urban Revolution (first cities and states

Benjamin views the development of the Silk Road trading network in the 2nd century BC (linking all of Afro-Eurasia with the Roman and Han Empires ) the fourth major human “revolution.”

He believes the first Silk Road paths probably used the same paths early hominids used to migrate from Africa to Asia. He credits their development into a major trading network to two main factors: 1) the presence of four stable empires (Roman, Han, Kushan, Parthian and Roman) across the Middle East and Asia and 2) the Secondary Products Revolution on the Steppes.

The latter he attributes to the discovery by steppes nomads that domesticated animals could provide a number of secondary products (eg milk, fur, transportation and load bearing) that improved human beings’ quality of life. On the steppes, this discovery led to nomadic pastoral herding and the eventual colonization (by nomads) of all the deserts and steppes of Africa and Eurasia.

Benjamin goes on to describe in some detail the “lifeways” of the Xiongnu nomads to the north of China. In addition to pastoral nomadism and booty raids on the Chinese, the Xiongnu also engaged in rug weaving, leather making and the forging of bronze, gold and iron tools and artwork. A small segment of Xiongu also engaged in farming in fortified settlements in Noin-Ula (modern day Mongolia) and Ivolga (on the Russian steppes).

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

 

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5808608

Confucianism in the Early Han Empire

Episode 11: Contact with the West – the Early Han

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The first Han emperor Gaozu moved the capitol to Changon after a popular uprising destroyed the Qin capitol Xianyang. Later Han emperors would move it east to Lyoyang.

Ruling a vast empire stretching from Vietnam in the north to Korea in the south and west into Central Asia, Gaozu employed a bureaucracy of highly educated Confucian and Daoist scholars. In the year 2 AD census, the Han empire registered 80 commanderies,* 10 kingdoms and 1,587 prefectures (which were further subdivided into wards).

Immensely popular for reducing taxes on the peasants, the first Han emperor adopted Confucianism as official government policy in 140 BC. The last Han emperor Wudi would found a Confucian academy to educate government officials and initiate the world’s first civil service exam.

The Han Dynasty continued the harsh criminal penalties enacted under the Qin Dynasty and forced all subjects to register locally for conscription for military service and imperial construction crews. To finance his numerous military campaigns, Wudi began minting coins, confiscating lands he had gifted to his nobles and increasing taxes on business activity. This income supplemented growing revenues from the government monopoly on the highly lucrative salt and iron industries.

Wudi is also remembered for dispatching the famous Han envoy Zhang Qian to Central Asia to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi nomads against the aggressive Xiongu nomads to the north of China. The international contacts Zhang Qian initiated would lead to the development of the first Silk Road.

Eventually the fiscal stress caused by Wudi’s military expansionism led to marked peasant unrest and the downfall of the East Han Dynasty in 9 AD. Daoist scholars particularly expressed harsh criticism of corrupt government policies (eg government monopolies in critical industries, incessant wars of conquest and the growing power of palace eunuchs).

One of Wudi’s court officials Wang Mang seized power in 9 AD, declaring the short-lived Xin Dynasty. Wang was immensely popular with Chinese peasants for apportioning land to them under the communal “well field system”** and for establishing grain reserves to stabilize widely fluctuating grain prices.

Wang was overthrown in 23 AD by a group of nobles who resented his favoritism towards the peasants.

The Xin Dynasty was replaced by the East Han Dynasty, which ruled for nearly two centuries. Eunuchs were incredibly powerful under the East Han Dynasty and frequently arrested Confucian scholars for protesting government corruption.

Meanwhile Daoist principles of equal rights and land distribution spread throughout the peasantry, leading to the Yellow Turban Rebellion (184 – 204 AD). As the Han Dynasty collapsed, power eventually fell into the hands of local governments and warlords.


*Provincial regions with decentralized administrative structures

**In the wellfield system, one unit of land was divided among eight peasant families. A shared field was surrounded by eight fields, each worked by an individual family. The field in the center was worked jointly by the families for their noble lord.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5808608/5808632

The Importance of the Early Silk Road(s)

Silk Road Maps 2018 - Useful map of the ancient Silk Road ...

Episode 23: New Ideas Along the Silk Road

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin traces the shifting pattern of routes that comprised the “Silk Roads” that linked five empires between 100 BC and 400 AD: Roman, Parthian (modern day Iran), Kushan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal), Han (northern China) and Xiongnu (southern China). The robust trade this produced led to increased political stability in Rome (after 100 years of civil war) as agriculture flourished and coins were issued for the first time. Crossing enormous spans of desert, these trade routes arose following the domestication of the bactrian camel, with its two humps (consisting of stored fat) and tolerance for cold, drought and high altitude made the  possible.

The Romans imported silk, iron, cloves, nutmeg and cardamon from Asia, while the Han and Xiongnu empires imported grapes and glassware from Rome, art objects from India and Egypt and horses from the Central Asian steppes.

According to Benjamin, the collective learning spread by the Silk Roads was just as important as economic trade. Images the sculpted Roman deities would lead to the first sculpted rendition of Buddha in the Xiongnu and Han empires and the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. The Silk Roads also facilitated the spread of Christianity by Paul of Tarsas between 35-55 AD.

Unfortunately they also facilitated the spread of epidemics of smallpox, bubonic plague and measles. The Roman population dropped from 60 to 40 million between 150-400 AD. This drastic decrease in population contributed to the eventual collapse of both the Roman and the Han (which experienced comparable losses) empires.

Sea trade also flourished during this period between Africa and East Asia, using the summer monsoon trade winds to travel east and the winter trade winds to return.

Vanishing after the collapse of the Roman and Han empires the Silk Roads were revived around 600 AD.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/new-ideas-along-silk-road