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Zhang Qian: The Pioneer of Silk Road

Zhang Qian: The Pioneer of Silk Road
The Return of Zhang Qian by HongNian Zhang

Zhang was also a diplomat, creating an honest and friendly dialogue with other empires, which facilitated trade relations. He along with other generals, travelers and explorers paved the way for the development of the Silk Road well before Europeans reached these trade networks.

By Mahnoor Fatima

It is difficult to think of a time before the Silk Road, for the establishment of this superhighway changed the way humankind conducted trade and diplomatic relations. But it is through the efforts of several historical figures that the networks of the Silk Road grew and expanded to incorporate vast areas of land. Particularly, the efforts of Zhang Qian significantly aided the Silk Road’s development, more than 1300 years before Marco Polo traveled on the Silk Road and brought back its accounts to Europe.

Emperor Wu
Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty

Zhang Qian was born in Chenggu (presently, Chenggu County of the Shaanxi Province) during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24CE). He entered the court of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty at Chang’an (now Xi’an) between 140 BC and 143 BC as a court gentleman. At that time, nomadic Huns (Xiongnu) controlled what is now Inner Mongolia and the Western regions of China. The Emperor was not only interested in creating commercial ties with the outside world, but also wanted to make allies to combat the Xiongnu.

With a party of about 100 people, Zhang Qian left for Longxi (now in the Gansu Province). However, just as he left Han territory, he was captured by the Xiongnu, and held captive for about ten to twelve years. When restrictions on them were slightly eased, Zhang and his army escaped, continuing to head west as opposed to returning home. Eventually, he reached Dayuan in the Ferghana Valley (now modern-day Uzbekistan). Historical accounts believe that the people of Dayuan were descendants of Greeks, who settled in the area around the 4th to 2nd Century BC. They were sophisticated urban dwellers, who were known for their strong Ferghana horses. These horses had bodies that emit a reddish liquid, which seemed like they “sweat blood” during battle.

A horse

A Ferghana Horse in the Gansu Provincial Museum

While the people of Dayuan could not be of any help, Zhang traveled south to the territory of Yuezhi, which is in modern-day Tajikistan. He was the first person to record their existence, and descriptions have led some to believe that these were the people to which the famous Caucasian Tarim mummies belonged. However, their small, powerless chieftains and urban-dwelling population, did not want to participate in a military battle, and therefore declined Zhang’s offer.

Though he did not succeed in creating new military alliances, Zhang spent a year with the Yuezhi, to document their culture, lifestyles and networks with other empires. He returned to China 12 years after his mission started, with only one of the hundred people who had gone with him. What he did bring back were written accounts of the travels and people that detailed the extensive landscape of Central Asia.

Reports of his travels were quoted extensively in the 1st Century BC, which highlighted areas such as Ferghana, Bactria and Sogdiana. Other places which he only mentioned but did not visit include Shendu (India), Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) and Anxi (Parthia). Among the things he saw and brought back to China were grapes, alfalfa, pomegranate and flax seeds, which became central to China’s agricultural production after his death.


A Painting of Zhang Qian on a Raft, from the mid 16th Century

n 119 BC, Zhang Qian was sent to the West once more for establishing an alliance with an Indo-European group named Wusun, and this time he had more than 300 people with him. By this time, the Xiongnu territory was largely taken over by the Han Empire, so the troupe could travel safely without fear of capture. While the Wusun were already engaged in a civil war and could not help the Han Empire, more people wanted to establish connections with the Chinese, sending diplomatic delegations to Zhang.

A map of Zhang Journey
A Map of Zhang Qian’s Journey

Zhang’s reports and embassies in other kingdoms helped open China to the Western world, and established the networks needed for the Silk Road to become a major hub of trade and transportation for centuries to come. He died a year after he returned from his second expedition. Although he believed that he failed his mission, the throngs of people who have visited his mausoleum centuries after his passing, indicate his great importance to the development of China’s diplomatic relations.

A Statue of Zhang

The Statue of Zhang Qian at his Mausoleum

The tomb of Zhang Qian is now considered an important international heritage site, as part of UNESCO’s “Silk Roads: The Routes Network of the Chang’an-Tian Corridor”. It is a brick structure of three stone slabs facing the east, located at the end of a sloping path, and is close to the Memorial Hall of Zhang Qian, which celebrates his life and travels. The walls of the hall depict paintings of his sojourns and the objects he brought back, which were buried with him. Although the tomb was raided once, it has largely remained well-preserved, and tourists from all over China come to pay respect to the man they regard as a national hero.

Zhang was an explorer, in every sense of the word, bringing back information on previously unknown lands like India and Greece, and helping establish routes between empires. Alongside this, he was also a diplomat, creating an honest and friendly dialogue with other empires, which facilitated trade relations. He along with other generals, travelers and explorers who paved the way for the development of the Silk Road well before Europeans reached these trade networks.


Courtesy: Youlin Magazine (Posted on January 06, 2021)


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