Zhang Qian

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history; Historical figures

This is a Chinese name; the family name is Zhang
Zhang Qian taking leave from emperor Han Wudi, for his expedition to Central Asia from 138 to 126 BCE, Mogao Caves mural, 618-712 CE.
Zhang Qian taking leave from emperor Han Wudi, for his expedition to Central Asia from 138 to 126 BCE, Mogao Caves mural, 618-712 CE.

Zhang Qian ( Traditional Chinese: 張騫; Simplified Chinese: 张骞; Hanyu Pinyin: Zhāng Qiān; Wade-Giles: Chang Ch'ien; d. 113 BCE), was a Chinese explorer and imperial envoy in the 2nd century BCE, during the time of the Han Dynasty. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information about Central Asia to the Chinese imperial court, then under Emperor Wu of Han, and played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonisation and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. Zhang Qian's accounts of his explorations of Central Asia are detailed in the Early Han historical chronicles (" Shiji", or "Records of the Great Historian"), compiled by Sima Qian in the 1st century BCE .

First embassy to the West

Ideograms for Zhang Qian.
Ideograms for Zhang Qian.

Zhang Qian was born in present day Hanzhong, Shaanxi, at the border of northeastern Sichuan. He entered the capital, Chang'an, today's Xi'an, between 140 BCE and 134 BCE as a Gentleman (郎), serving Emperor Wu. At the time the Xiongnu tribes controlled modern Inner Mongolia and dominated much of modern Xiyu (西域 " Western Regions").

The Han court despatched Zhang Qian to the Western Regions in 138 BCE with a delegation of over one hundred members, including a surrendered Xiongnu guide. The objective of Zhang Qian's first mission was to seek a military alliance with the Greater Yuezhi (月氏), in modern Tajikistan. On route he was captured by the Xiongnu and detained for ten years. There he married a Xiongnu wife and gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader.

When Zhang finally made it to Yuezhi lands, he found that they were too settled to want war against the Xiongnu. He spent about one year in Yuezhi and Bactrian territory, documenting their cultures, lifestyles and economy, before returning to China.

Zhang Qian's report

The report of Zhang Qian's travels is 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 Yuezhi in Transoxonia, the Bactrian country of Daxia with it remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule, and Kangju (康居). He also made reports on neighbouring countries that he did not visit, such as Anxi ( Parthia), Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia), Shendu (India) and the Wusun.

Dayuan (Ferghana)

Countries described in Zhang Qian's report. Visited countries are highlighted in blue.
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 (Parthia), 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." ( 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).

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

Daxia (Bactria)

Zhang Qian probably witnessed the last period of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, as it was being subjugated by the nomad Yuezhi. Only small powerless chiefs remained, who were apparently vassals to the Yuezhi horde. Their civilization was urban, almost identical to the civilizations of Parthia 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 (India)

Zhang Qian also reports about the existence of India southeast of Bactria. The name Shendu comes from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", used for the province of Sindh (now a province of Pakistan) by its local people. Sindh was one of the most advanced regions of India at the time. Although it was part of India, it practiced separate authority over itself. Because of its coastal borders with Persia and the Arabian Sea, it invited great wealth from these regions. Parts of Northwestern India (modern Pakistan) was ruled by the Indo-Greek Kingdom at the time, which explains the reported cultural similarity between Bactria and India.

"Southeast of Daxia is the kingdom of Shendu (India)... 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).

Anxi (Parthia)

Zhang Qian clearly identifies Parthia as an advanced urban civilization, like Dayuan (Ferghana) and Daxia (Bactria). The name "Anxi" is a transliterations of " Arsacid", name of the Parthian dynasty.

"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 reports about Mesopotamia, beyond Parthia, although in rather tenuous terms, because he didn't go there, and was only able to reports other's accounts.

"Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) is situated several thousand li west of Anxi (Parthia) 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 (Parthia) give orders to these chiefs and regards them as vassals." ( 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, 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 Bei'tian). 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 known as the Northern Sea (Aral Sea, distance between Tashkent to Aralsk is about 866 km)" ( Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson).

Return to China

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.

Zhang Qian returned in 125 BCE with detailed news for the Emperor, which showed 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". ( Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).

His second expedition was more organised, a trade mission to the Wu-sun people in 119 BCE. This was a success and led to trade between China and Persia.

Development of East-West contacts

Following Zhang Qian' embassy and report, commercial relations between China and Central as well as Western Asia flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the end of the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century BCE, initiating the development of the Silk Road:

"The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).

Many objects were soon exchanged, and travelled as far as Guangzhou in the East, as suggested by the discovery of a Persian box and various artifacts from Central Asia in the 122 BCE tomb of the Chinese King Wen of Nanyue.

Fresco describing Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping two statues of the Buddha, Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, c.8th century CE.
Fresco describing Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping two statues of the Buddha, Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, c.8th century CE.

Around 120 BCE, one of these missions may have brought the first Buddhist statues to China. Murals in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang describe the Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE) worshipping Buddhist statues, explaining them as "golden men brought in 120 BCE by a great Han general in his campaigns against the nomads", although there is no other mention of Han Wudi worshipping the Buddha in Chinese historical literature.

China also sent a mission to Parthia, which were followed up by reciprocal missions from Parthian envoys around 100 BCE:

"When the Han envoy first visited the kingdom of Anxi (Parthia), the king of Anxi dispatched a party of 20,000 horsemen to meet them on the eastern border of the kingdom... When the Han envoys set out again to return to China, the king of Anxi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them... The emperor was delighted at this." (Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson).

The Roman historian Florus describes the visit of numerous envoys, included Seres (Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BCE and 14 CE:

"Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours." ("Cathey and the way thither", Henry Yule).

In 97 CE the Chinese general Ban Chao went as far west as the Caspian Sea with 70,000 men and established direct military contacts with the Parthian Empire, also dispatching an envoy to Rome in the person of Gan Ying.

Several Roman embassies to China soon followed from 166 CE, and are officially recorded in Chinese historical chronicles.

Zhang Qian of today

Zhang Qian (Chang Chien) is a frigate built in Taiwan based on the Oliver Hazard Perry class-design. It is currently in service for the Republic of China Navy.

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