Then Again




Sima Qian

The Records of the Grand Historian

The Expedition of Zhang Qian



The diplomatic mission of Zhang Qian to the steppe peoples of Central Asia, during the reign of Emperor Han Wudi [140-87 BC], was important not only for increasing geographic knowledge within China, but also for leading to the opening of the Silk Road.

Zhang Qian was the first person to bring back a clear account of Dayuan.[1] . . . At this time [139 BC] the emperor questioned various Xiongnu [2] who had surrendered to the Han, and they all reported that the Xiongnu had defeated the king of the Yuezhi people [3] and had made his skull into a drinking vessel. As a result the Yuezhi had fled and bore a constant grudge against the Xiongnu, though as yet they had been unable to find any-one to join them in an attack on their enemy.

The Han at this time were engaged in a concerted effort to destroy the Xiongnu, and therefore, when the emperor heard this, he decided to try to send an envoy to establish relations with the Yuezhi. To reach them, however, an envoy would inevitably have to pass through Xiongnu territory. The emperor accordingly sent out a summons for men capable of undertaking such a mission. Zhang Qian, who was a palace atten-dant at the time, answered the summons and was appointed as envoy.

He set out,. . . accompanied by Kanfu, a Xiongnu slave.... They traveled west through the territory of the Xiongnu and were captured by the Xiongnu and taken before the Shanyu. [4] The Shanyu detained them and refused to let them proceed. "The Yuezhi people live north of me," he said. "What does the Han mean by trying to send an envoy to them! Do you suppose . . . the Han would let my men pass though China? "

The Xiongnu detained Zhang Qian for over ten years and gave him a wife from their own people, by whom he had a son. Zhang Qian never once relinquished the imperial credentials that marked him as an envoy of the Han, and after he had lived in Xiongnu territory for some time and was less closely watched than at first, he and his party finally managed to escape and resume their journey toward the Yuezhi.

After hastening west for twenty or thirty days, they reached the kingdom of Dayuan. The king of Dayuan had heard of the wealth of the Han empire and wished to establish communication with it, though as yet he had been unable to do so. When he met Zhang Qian he was overjoyed and asked where Zhang Qian wished to go.

"I was dispatched as envoy of the Han to the Yuezhi, but the Xiongnu blocked my way and I have only just now managed to escape," he re-plied. "I beg Your Highness to give me some guides to show me the way. If I can reach my destination and return to the Han to make my report, the Han will reward you with countless gifts! "

The king of Dayuan trusted his words and sent him on his way, giving him guides and interpreters to take him to the state of Kangju.[5] From there he was able to make his way to the land of the Great Yuezhi.

Since the king of the Great Yuezhi had been killed by the Xiongnu, his son had succeeded him as ruler and had forced the kingdom of Daxia [Bactria] to recognize his sovereignty.[6] The region he ruled was rich and fertile and seldom troubled by invaders, and the king thought only of his own enjoyment. He considered the Han too far away to bother with and had no particular intention of avenging his father's death by attacking the Xiongnu....

After spending a year or so in the area, Zhang Qian began to journey back, . . . but he was once more captured by the Xiongnu and detained over a year. Just at this time the Shanyu died and the . . . King of the Left [7] attacked the Shanyu's heir and set himself up as the new Shanyu [126 BC]. As a result of this the whole Xiongnu nation was in turmoil and Zhang Qian, along with his Xiongnu wife and the former slave Kanfu, was able to escape and return to China.

The emperor honored Zhang Qian with the post of palace counselor and awarded Kanfu the title of "Lord Who Carries Out His Mission." . . . When Zhang Qian first set out on his mission, he was accompanied by over one hundred men, but after thirteen years abroad, only he and Kanfu managed to make their way back to China. Zhang Qian in person visited the lands of Dayuan, the Great Yuezhi, Daxia, and Kangju, and in addition he gathered reports on five or six other large states in the neighborhood. All of this information he related to the emperor on his return.

* * *
Anxi [Parthian Persia] is situated several thousand lis [8] 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, . . . the region containing several hundred cities of various sizes. The kingdom . . . is very large, measuring several thousand square li. Some of the inhabitants are merchants who travel by carts or boats to neighboring countries, some-times journeying several thousand li. 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.... To the west lies Tiaozhi [Mesopotamia]....

Tiaozhi is situated several thousand li west of Anxi and borders the Western Sea [Persian Gulf]. 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 gives orders to these chiefs and regards them as his vassals....

Southeast of Daxia is the kingdom of Shendu [India]. "When I was in Daxia," Zhang Qian reported, "I saw bamboo canes from Qiong and cloth made in the province of Shu. When I asked the people how they had gotten such articles, they replied, 'Our merchants go to buy them in the markets of Shendu.' Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Daxia. 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 into battle. The kingdom is situated on a great river.

"We know that Daxia is located twelve thou-sand li southwest of China. Now if the kingdom of Shendu is situated several thousand li southeast of Daxia and obtains goods that are produced in Shu, it seems to me that it must not be very far from Shu. At present, if we try to send envoys to Daxia by way of the mountain trails that lead through the territory of the Qiang people, they will be molested by the Qiang, while if we send them a little farther north, they will be captured by the Xiongnu. It would seem that the most direct route, as well as the safest, would be that out of Shu." Thus the emperor learned of 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. He also learned that to the north of them live the Yuexi and Kangju people who were strong in arms but who could be persuaded by gifts and the prospect of gain to acknowledge allegiance to the Han court. If it were only possible to win over these states by peaceful means, the emperor thought, he could then extend his domain ten thousand li, attract to his court men of strange customs who would come translating and retranslating their languages, and his might would become known to all the lands within the four seas.

The emperor was therefore delighted, and approved Zhang Qian's suggestion. He ordered Zhang Qian to start out from . . . Shu on a secret mission to search for Daxia. The party broke into four groups. All the groups managed to advance one or two thousand li, but were blocked on the north by the Di and Tso tribes and on the-south by the Sui and Kunming tribes. The IKunming tribes have no rulers but devote themselves to plunder and robbery, and as soon as they seized any of the Han envoys they immediately murdered them. Thus none of the parties was ever able to get through to its destination. They did learn, however, that some one thousand or more li to the west there was a state called Tianyue whose people rode elephants and that the merchants from Shu sometimes went there with their goods on unofficial trading missions.[9] In this way the Han, while searching for a route to Daxia, first came into contact with the kingdom of Tian.

Earlier the Han had tried to establish relations with the barbarians of the southwest, but the expense proved too great and no road could be found through the region and so the project was abandoned. After Zhang Qian reported that it was possible to reach Daxia by traveling through the region of the southwest barbarians, the Han once more began efforts to establish relations with the tribes of the area.

[1] A central Asian steppe kingdom located in what today would be Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan.
[2] A central Asian steppe people. They had attacked the settled people of China for many years. Some scholars believe they are realted to the Huns who invaded the Roman Empire around AD 430.
[3] Another central Asian steppe people.
[4] The king of the Xiongnu.
[5] A steppe kingdom near the Aral Sea in what is today Kazakhstan.
[6] The Yuezhi conquered Daxia in 139 BC. It would later the core of the Kushan Empire.
[7] A subordinate prince.
[8] A li is about a third of a mile.
[9] That is, smuggling.

From the translation by Burton Watson in Records of the Grand Historian of China 2 vols. (Columbia Univ., 19610). Reprinted in Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History, 3rd ed., Col. I: To 1700, (Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1998) pp. 164-167.

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