Episode 15: The Silk Roads – The Envoy Zhang Xian
Foundations of East Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
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.
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