The Silk Road was born over two millennia ago, a network of commercial and cultural routes interconnecting much of continental Asia and branching out to the islands of Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Road emerged around the 1st century BC, not for economic reasons but strategic ones, initiated by China, which sent embassies to neighboring territories with the aim of establishing military alliances against their Xiongnu enemies. The man tasked with these missions was a diplomat and explorer named Zhang Qian.

Qian didn’t accomplish this overnight, obviously. In fact, it took decades, in times when any moderately long journey was counted in years; in fact, the first one lasted well over thirteen because he was captured and enslaved by the Xiongnu. These were a confederation of nomadic peoples from the Mongolian steppes who, in their expansion, posed a threat to the northern part of Chinese territory.

China at the time was ruled by the Han dynasty, the second of the imperial era, which had come to power in 206 BC. The Hans made agreements with the Xiongnu whereby both sides agreed to consider the Great Wall as a border. They also contributed sections to the wall, but seeing the difficulty of defending them effectively, they chose to negotiate with the intruders.

Thus, attempts were made to strengthen diplomatic relations with an annual exchange based on heqin (marriage alliance): the Chinese sent princesses and the Xiongnu sent gifts, both committing not to cross the wall. The problem was the nomadic lifestyle of the Xiongnu, which naturally opposed the sedentary lifestyle of others and prompted them to make periodic incursions against their populations, thus violating the agreement. That was the pattern for seven decades until Emperor Wudi decided to change strategy and forge a coalition with other enemies of the Xiongnu.

Wudi or Wu of Han, was the sixth ruler of his dynasty. He ascended to the throne in 141 BC, at the age of only fifteen, and his era was characterized primarily by three things: the centralization of the state under Confucian principles, cultural policies (the prestigious Yuefu or Imperial Music Office was established under his reign, as discussed in another article), and territorial expansion (which would allow cultural contact with Western Eurasia). The Xiongnu were an obstacle to the latter, as they controlled Xiyu, i.e., the western regions, as Central Asia was called.

The emperor chose the Yuezhi or Kushans as his first allies, an ancient northeastern Iranian people with nomadic customs who lived in the semi-arid grasslands of western Gansu and had been displaced by the Xiongnu in 176 BC, splitting into two groups: one merged and merged with neighboring populations of Gansu and the other migrated to the Ili River Valley, where they displaced the natives, the Sakas (Scythians). Later came others, the Wusun, and the Yuezhi had to restart their exodus, settling in Sogdiana and Bactria (today Tajikistan).

To contact them, he appointed an officer of the imperial guard, a thirty-something-year-old born in Hanzhong around 150 BC who had gained a reputation for integrity and efficiency. Zhang Qian, as he was known, settled in the capital at the time, Chang’an (modern Xi’an), about a decade and a half later, entering the service of Emperor Wudi as a rider. Apparently, due to his work, Qian was familiar with the border world, hence he was considered the ideal candidate for the planned mission.

Consequently, he was placed in charge of a hundred-strong entourage, from which he chose an archer named Ganfu as a guide and interpreter, who had the peculiarity of being Xiongnu. He had been a prisoner of war many years before and had since served a wealthy family in Shandong. Renouncing his origin – due to having his property looted in his homeland – as soon as he obtained his freedom, Ganfu enlisted in the Chinese army. The expedition set off in 138 BC.

The first of three trips got off to a bad start. The plan was to cross the Yellow River and enter the Gansu region, but a navigation error led them directly to the Xiongnu, one of whose patrols captured them. It was the beginning of a very long period of captivity in which Qian was enslaved and had to work as a shepherd for a noble Xiongnu family. He endured that situation for eleven years, although over time the treatment became more relaxed, and he not only gained the trust of his masters but also married a slave of that ethnicity; they had a son.

The new situation was more comfortable and facilitated an escape. The circumstances and how many of his men he could take with him are unknown, but Qian managed to escape accompanied by his family and Ganfu. Instead of returning, they chose to continue with the originally planned route, orienting themselves only by the sun and stars. Exhausted by fatigue, deprivation, and fear of their pursuers, they walked endless days westward, crossed several oases, and finally reached the Fergana Valley (between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan), where the kingdom of Dayuan was located.

It was a sedentary, agricultural people (The people are settled on the land, plowing fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine with grapes, wrote Qian), with customs similar to the Greeks because they descended from the Hellenes settled there by force by the Persians and later Macedonian contributions.

The Dayuans enjoyed some prosperity and were very welcoming to the newcomers, allowing them to recover from their misfortunes and providing them with a group of guides and translators to continue to the territory of the Yuezhi. They achieved that goal shortly after, leaving behind the neighboring kingdom of Kangju, inhabited by semi-nomadic Indo-Europeans, and entering the region of Daxia (Bactria).

Ironically, the Yuezhi had a lifestyle similar to the Xiongnu’s, and perhaps that is why they were reluctant to join the Chinese against them, although Qian remained there for a whole year trying to convince them. But that strategic failure was compensated by an unexpected success: having discovered that Chinese products had indirectly reached there, he thought that the reverse could also be true if a trade route were opened. Among other things, the Yuezhi cultivated alfalfa, fodder for horse livestock that was unknown in China.

Qian and Gafu began the return journey, this time by a different route to avoid the Xiongnu. They were not lucky and were captured again, resuming their condition as slaves for a year; apparently, they escaped death thanks to the bravery they showed when threatened. At the end of that time, the chaos of a civil war, caused by a succession crisis in 126 BC, allowed them to escape again, and they entered the Chinese capital the following year, thirteen years after their departure, surrounded by anticipation for the new foods they brought: grapes, watermelons, cucumbers, garlic, celery, and nuts; also the Ferghana horse (a small but tough and resilient breed) and the aforementioned alfalfa seeds.

Emperor Wudi was fascinated by the tale of that odyssey and the information that there were other great distant states that cultivated the land, lived in cities, and could be allies. That’s why he granted Qian great honors, including the position of palace advisor. And that’s why a second diplomatic mission began to be planned, for which Qian was designated once again as its leader; after all, no one could claim such long and intense experience.

To avoid falling into the same mistake, Qian undertook his new journey along a different route: instead of the northern route, where the Xiongnu remained a threat, he preferred one to the south, reaching what is now northern India and Afghanistan, which could also establish commercial relations to exchange Chinese products such as bamboo or silk for other new and unknown ones. This potential was known thanks to a string of trading posts established in the area in 135 BC by a predecessor, Tang Meng, although activity there was suspended due to local problems.

However, Qian’s attempt to reopen that southern route did not succeed because he could not go beyond Yibin (modern Yunnan, in Sichuan province), as he could not find a path and ran out of funds to pay guides and porters. However, the Hans maintained their interest in the area and would insist later. In the meantime, Qian returned to the palace, and to compensate for that failure, he proposed a third journey with the aim of signing another diplomatic agreement with the Wusun. The idea was approved, and it set off in 115 BC.

This time, Qian brought with him three hundred men escorting a valuable cargo of gold, silk, and other riches intended as gifts for the Wusun. These were the ones who had arrived in the Ili River Valley and driven the Yuezhi branch previously pushed out by the Xiongnu, as the Wusun had become vassals of the latter. It is believed they were the ones Herodotus referred to as Issedones, along with Massagetae and Sakas. According to Chinese chronicles, they had a Caucasian appearance, with light eyes and reddish hair, although they shared cultural traits with the Yuezhi.

The main characteristic of the Wusun people was the quantity and quality of horses they possessed, which they used both for transportation and for hunting and warfare (mounted archers). This particularly interested the Chinese, who through Qian reached a commercial agreement. Obtaining good horses was a strategic necessity for the Hans, which is why they also tried to buy them from the Dayuan (the Scythian Saka people) and, when they refused, launched two campaigns against them to take them by force; subsequently, between 104 and 102 BC, they conquered their territory in the so-called Heavenly Horse War.

Economic harmony did not extend to the military sphere, as like the Yuezhi, the Wusun refused to fight against the Xiongnu despite having a considerably large population – estimated by Qian at around six hundred and thirty thousand people – because they were embroiled in a civil war.

It should be noted that they would eventually accept that alliance; it was in 106 BC when the Hans managed to defeat their enemy. In fact, China had already defeated the Xiongnu in 121 BC, which cleared the way westward and partly fueled that third expedition of Qian.

He returned to Chang’an in 115 BC, bringing with him horses and Wusun ambassadors, and having sent several of his men to other Eurasian kingdoms to establish diplomatic relations with them: Daxia (Bactria), Shendu (India), Anxi (the Parthian Arsacid Empire), Tiaozhi (the Seleucid Mesopotamia), Kangju (northwest Sogdiana), and Yancai (the steppe); there were even envoys sent to Augustus’s Rome, as recounted by Lucius Annaeus Florus when talking about people coming from Serica (the way the Romans referred to the Far East).

And what happened to Zhang Qian? The Shiji tells us, the masterpiece of Sima Qian (the founder of Chinese historiography), usually published with titles like “Historical Records” or “Memoirs of the Grand Historian”. Written between 109 and 91 BC, it consists of one hundred and thirty chapters that are almost entirely preserved and reproduce much of the reports made by Zhang Qian. Of him, it says: He was honored with the position of Great Messenger, making him one of the nine highest ministers of the government. Approximately a year later, he died.

The date, 113 BC, may not be exact, of course. In any case, his tomb is located in Chang-chia ts’un, near Chenggu. In 1945, some work was carried out due to damage caused during World War II, and a clay mold was found with the inscription “Bowang’s house” (Marquis), indicative of the status the character had attained. After all, he deserved it: he had a significant role in the opening of the Silk Road.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 19, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los viajes de Zhang Qian, el embajador chino que abrió la Ruta de la Seda cuando buscaba una alianza militar


Sima Qian, Mémoires historiques | Floro, Epítome de la historia romana de Tito Livio | Franco Cardini & Alessandro Vanoli, La Ruta de la Seda. Una historia milenaria entre Oriente y Occidente | Gregorio Doval Huecas, Breve historia de la China milenaria | Scott Crawford, The Han-Xiongnu War, 133 BC–89 AD. The Struggle of China and a Steppe Empire Told Through Its Key Figures | Anthony François y Paulus Hulsewe, China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty |Wikipedia

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