Days ago, in the article dedicated to Zhang Qian’s travels, we referred to a conflict that pitted China during the Han Dynasty against the Kingdom of Dayuan in Central Asia. Its inhabitants possessed a high-quality horse breed, the so-called Fergana horses, which became the object of Chinese ambition to enhance their cavalry strength and thereby confront their great enemy of the time, the Xiongnu. When Dayuan refused to sell them horses, the Han launched two military expeditions against them, which have gone down in history as the War of the Heavenly Horses.

In reality, Dayuan was the successor to the ancient Greco-Bactrian kingdom, the Hellenistic state founded in the Bactria region in 250 BC by its governor, Diodotus I, after separating from the Seleucid Empire. Approximately a century later, the nomadic Yuezhi tribes (also called Kushans, northeastern Iranians) began migrating westward from the Tarim Basin, settling in the northern regions of the Greco-Bactrian domains, which are now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, taking advantage of King Eucratides I’s preoccupation with fighting in India.

This wave of Yuezhi pushed the Sakas, Eastern Scythians descending from the Indo-European Andronovo culture, towards Parthia and Bactria, which they defeated, extending their influence to present-day Afghanistan and northern India. Some settled in the Fergana Valley, an intermontane depression located between the Tien Shan mountains to the north and the Alai mountains to the south (now shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan), which, being watered by the Naryn and Kara Darya rivers, merging in Namangan to form the Syr Darya, constituted the most fertile and populous region of Central Asia.

Extension of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
Extension of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Credit: Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

That group of Sakas from Fergana, known to the Chinese as Sai-wang, replaced the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, previously controlled by the Hellenic polis of Alexandria Eschate, to establish what China referred to as the Dayuan Kingdom (or Tayuan) around 160 BC. As we mentioned, King Eucratides could not prevent it because he was immersed in a war against the Indo-Greek Euthydemid dynasty that cost him his life, and his successor, Heliocles I, did not consider the loss of that peripheral province particularly important.

Approximately three decades later, in 128 BC, Zhang Qian arrived there. He was a Chinese envoy sent by the young Emperor Wu-di with the mission of forging an alliance with the Yuezhi to confront the long-standing threat to northern China: the incursions of the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic peoples originating from the Mongolian steppes, who centuries later would give rise to the Huns. Neither the construction of the Great Wall nor the heqin (a marital alliance) had been sufficient to stop them, and the emperor decided to seek allies for war.

Zhang Qian embarked on his journey in 138 BC but fell prisoner to the Xiongnu, who enslaved him for a decade until he managed to escape and reach Dayuan. There he found what he described as a flourishing civilization that had subjected the Greco-Bactrian population as tribute – from whom they adopted customs – and maintained alliances with neighboring peoples such as the Sogdians of Kangju. They were about sixty thousand families (around three hundred thousand inhabitants) living in around seventy cities with their capital in Guishan (now Juyand), engaged in the cultivation of rice, wheat, and grapes.

Bronze Heavenly Horse made by the Saka people
Bronze Heavenly Horse made by the Saka people. Credit: Miroslav Kutsev / Wikimedia Commons

They had become sedentary and urban, but without forgetting their nomadic past, which remained present thanks to the breeding of splendid, strong, and fast horses, upon which the Saka warriors were capable of shooting arrows while galloping. These were the so-called Fergana horses, which the Chinese dubbed “celestial horses” because they would greatly help them to confront the Xiongnu’s superiority in equestrian warfare. Therefore, Zhang Qian acquired a number of specimens to take to the emperor along with other novel products such as alfalfa and grape seeds.

In exchange, it seems that the Chinese introduced smelting metallurgy to Dayuan, as until then the Sakas were unfamiliar with the use of coins and metal tools. However, the Han’s desire to establish a larger-scale commercial relationship was unsuccessful; the Sakas had welcomed Qian kindly but refused to form an alliance against the Xiongnu, considering them far enough away not to pose a threat to them. The problem didn’t concern them, and the persistent Chinese embassies ended up annoying them.

Diplomacy between the two kingdoms deteriorated, and with some arrogance, the Sakas refused to sell more horses to the Chinese. The situation continued to degrade when they honored a Xiongnu ambassador, contrasting with the cold treatment they gave to the Chinese, whom they did not provide with food or lodging unless paid for. Additionally, Chinese merchants had to pay increasingly higher tolls to cross the territory. When a Han ambassador arrived with a thousand pieces of gold and a statue made of the same precious metal to purchase horses and was denied entry into the country, he smashed the figure, which was considered an insult and brought serious consequences.

Golden horse of the Maoling Museum
Golden horse of the Maoling Museum. Credit: Bearas / Wikimedia Commons

The Sakas killed all members of the Chinese delegation and kept the treasure. That was a perfect excuse for the emperor to declare war on Dayuan and thus achieve what he truly coveted, the celestial horses. An army of twenty thousand men and six thousand riders under the command of General Li Guangli, brother of the emperor’s favorite concubine, marched against the enemy with the conviction that it would be an easy contest. The reality turned out somewhat different because, first of all, that troop, although numerous, had been recruited from border delinquents whose military value was low.

Furthermore, to reach Dayuan, they had to cross deserts, and the oases, where populations concentrated, refused to supply them, so they had to force them by force. Since people often barricaded themselves in their cities and the Chinese were not prepared to siege, if they could not take the place in a few days, they had no choice but to continue the march. In this way, the Chinese arrived in Dayuan exhausted, hungry, and with low morale for combat, in addition to being greatly reduced numerically due to weakness and diseases. They lost the only battle they fought, and Li Guangli decided that he was not in a position to attempt to assault the capital, so he withdrew to Dunhuang.

The news fell like a bucket of cold water in the Han court, where some advisers advocated giving up the campaign and focusing efforts against the Xiongnu. But the emperor feared losing prestige and sent his general significant reinforcements, which, although recruited from convicts and mercenaries (the “bad boys”, they were called), increased the troops to sixty thousand. Additionally, they were accompanied by a vast supply train that included a hundred thousand oxen and tens of thousands more of pack animals, including donkeys and camels. This allowed them to avoid on-site provisioning.

Statuettes of Han-era Chinese soldiers found in a tomb with their shields stacked in front of them
Statuettes of Han-era Chinese soldiers found in a tomb with their shields stacked in front of them. Credit: Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. / Wikimedia Commons

In any case, the expedition was so impressive that this time most of the territories and oases did not resist, with the only exception of Luntai, which was therefore razed. Nevertheless, Li Guangli lost half of his men to diseases and desertions, which did not prevent him from besieging Alexandria Eschate when they finally reached Dayuan. However, he also could not count on the two thousand riders from the allied kingdom of Wusun for this task; although they participated in the mission, they refused to take part in the siege.

The Sakas attempted to force a pitched battle to exploit their magnificent cavalry; however, the Chinese anticipated this and their archers repelled the charges. They then diverted the course of the nearby river to besiege the city by thirst, as there were no wells there. Forty days later, they breached the walls and entered.

Then the population killed their king, Wugua, sent his head to Li Guangli, and offered a surrender that included handing over all the horses he wanted; if he did not accept, they would kill them, rendering the campaign useless. The Chinese general accepted and, after gathering three thousand horses and placing a nobleman favorable to them at the head of Dayuan, he set out on the return journey.

Bronze statuette of a Han cavalry rider
Bronze statuette of a Han cavalry rider. Credit: Gary Todd / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

During the journey, he divided his forces to subdue the various Tokharian enclaves they had to pass through, which refused to submit to Han sovereignty and had disrupted caravan traffic. One of them, Yucheng, defeated the contingent sent, although later he had to flee upon the arrival of the rest of the army. He was finally caught and executed, which served as a warning to the others, and there were no more problems for the rest of the journey, with all accepting China’s dominion in the area that it dubbed as the Western Regions. Also, Dayuan, a year later, would establish diplomatic relations.

However, the success of the mission was relative. They obtained the coveted horses, but the mistreatment that the officers dispensed to the troops due to their low status had caused thousands of desertions, so only ten thousand soldiers and a thousand horses returned.

Something that did not matter much to Emperor Wu-di, who, satisfied, generously rewarded everyone because, in addition to laying the groundwork for his future horse farm (which would reach almost half a million specimens), the trade routes to the West were once again open, consolidating what would be known as the Silk Road.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 4, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo la dinastía Han de China consiguió los Caballos Celestiales para crear su poderosa caballería


Sima Qian, Mémoires historiques | Gregorio Doval Huecas, Breve historia de la China milenaria | 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 | Franco Cardini & Alessandro Vanoli, La Ruta de la Seda. Una historia milenaria entre Oriente y Occidente | Zhao Xu, Heavenly horses, the four-footed legends of the Silk Road | Wikipedia

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