Ban Chao — A Pioneer Diplomatist of the Han Dynasty

Ban Chao (32 — 102), courtesy name Zhongsheng, respected as Ban Dingyuan or Marquis of Dingyuan, was one of the greatest diplomatists in the history of China.

He led 36 warriors conquered and pacified over 50 countries in the Western Region of the Han Empire and defeated the powerful Kushan Empire's invasion.

As a diplomat with limited numbers of warriors, his achievements were as extraordinary as an exceptional marshal. 

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty —  Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Growing Up in the Family of Historians

Ban Chao came from a respectable Confucianism family, whose father was a knowledgeable historian of the Han Dynasty

His big brother Ban Gu was an even more talented litterateur and poet that impressed the emperor by his exceptional works and soon was nominated as the most honorable historian, who wrote the Book of Han, one of the most important historical masterpieces in Chinese culture.

However, Ban Gu was implicated in a general's rebellion, been framed up, and passed away in the prison later. 

Ban Chao’s little sister Ban Zhao was an exceptional historian and litterateur as well. She was widely trusted and respected among the nobles, including the emperor, because of her outstanding talent.

After their big brother passed away, left his masterpiece, the Book of Han, unfinished, Ban Zhao took over this job and finished it excellently. Afterward, she participated in politics and was highly trusted by Empress Dowager Deng Sui

Painted Pottery Building of the Eastern Han Dynasty — Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Inspiring from Excellent Generals and Joining of the Army

As for Ban Chao, in his early years, he was taught to be a historian, just like his father and big brother. 

He had served as an officer in the historical documentation department for a long time and then was supposed to assist his big brother to finish that masterpiece, the Book of Han. 

But one day, Ban Chao read about a diplomat named Fu Jiezi, who was supposed to condemn a king who helped the Xiongnu, the long term enemy of the Han Empire, and murdered some merchants of the Han Empire.

Carpet of the Han Dynasty — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Instead, Fu Jiezi assassinated that king and supported their crown prince, an admirer of Han’s culture, to inherit the throne.

This decapitation operation shocked Ban Chao a lot.

 

Afterward, he believed that he should be serving the country in another way, like the hero Fu Jiezi, or great marshals like Wei Qing, Huo Qubing, or a great diplomat like Zhang Qian.

So, Ban Chao put away his books and writing brush, then joined Han's army in his 40s.

 

He got promoted soon because of his braveness and talent, and then was assigned to a diplomatic mission.

Unearthed Clogs of the Han Dynasty — Chengdu Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ban Chao's First Mission as A Diplomat 

During Wang Mang's reign (9 — 23), he demoted most kings in the west of Han, which estranged those regimes. 

At that time, the Xiongnu that was already retreating far away and didn’t dare to fight with Han directly on the battlefield started to gain more power and control over the Western Region.

Therefore, small countries in this area were either complied with the Han Empire, or the Xiongnu or swinging between those two. 

Ban Chao was sent to one of those swing regimes, with a group of 36 people. 

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate of the Han Dynasty, An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected Middle Kingdom and West Regions — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

They sensed that the king was polite but indifferent; soon Ban Chao found out that the Xiongnu also sent a big group with hundreds of warriors and diplomats at the same time, trying to win over this country's compliance.

Then Ban Chao led his 36 soldiers, ambushed and perished the Xiongnu’s big diplomatic group first; afterward, he informed the king that the Xiongnu group was evil and had been wiped out.

Afterward, the king decided to comply. He sent his son to the Han Empire, and his country completely stopped swinging. 

Successful Diplomat Ban Chao and His 36 Warriors 

Ban Chao’s courage and decisiveness impressed his emperor, so he was promoted and given more missions in the West Region.

He refused a big army that the emperor assigned him, and took only his former 36 soldiers started his westward journey.

They came to two other swing countries and made them complied with Han again. Ban Chao killed a regent who was supported by the Xiongnu in one country, and kidnapped and then replaced a king in another. 

After he made three countries complied within two years, the current emperor of Han departed at a young age and the 12 years old crown prince inherited the throne.

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Xiongnu planned to further expand when the Han Empire was during this transition, so the ruling class of the Han decided to drawback in the Western Region for a while and to summon Ban Chao to come back.

However, people from those countries begged him not to leave, one of the prime ministers even killed himself to persuade Ban Chao to stay.

Therefore, he chose to keep fighting in the west of the Han Empire, instead of enjoying an honorable and wealthy life back in his hometown. 

The emperor of Han agreed to Ban Chao's plan and sent him an army to assist him. However, this army only had about a thousand people, most of them were former criminals. 

Within around 30 years, Ban Chao pacified and built diplomatic relations with 55 countries alongside the Silk Road.

Rejecting Political Marriage and Defeating Kushan Empire 

When Ban Chao was 56 years old, a country that was supported by the Xiongnu, betrayed the Han Empire. So, Ban Chao led around 20,000 other complied countries' soldiers successfully defeated the Xiongnu's allied army, which was constituted of over 50,000 warriors and occupied their strongholds.  

In this war, the Kushan Empire also contributed to the Han Empire's success, so their king paid some tributes and requested to marry a princess of Han. But Ban Chao refused this request without asking Han's emperor, for considering Kushan as unqualified.

The king of the Kushan Empire was furious and sent around 70, 000 of his elite soldiers to seek revenge.

Ban Chao had fewer soldiers, but he ambushed and cut off the Kushan army's food supply, and soon defeated their invasion.

Afterward, the King of Kushan surrendered and the border came back to peace again. 

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Nanyang Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Failed Searching for the Roman Empire

 

When he was 66 years old, Ban Chao was excited to hear that there was a powerful Roman Empire in the west.

However, he was too old for another long-distance adventure, so he sent a team searching for Roman Empire and trying to build a diplomatic relationship.

This team reached the Persian Gulf and was told that the Roman Empire was very far away and dangers, and might take them years to reach there; so their leader then decided to go back instead of keeping going.

Han and Roman, the two most powerful empires of that time, lost the chance to directly communicate with each other. 

Lacquer Wooden Spoons of the Han Dynasty, Belonged to Soldiers Quartering in Great Wall along the Silk Road — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Returning of Exceptional Diplomat and General Ban Chao

Three years later, Ban Chao was sick, so he pleaded to come back to his hometown.

His little sister Ban Zhao, now an influential female politician, also wrote to the emperor to summon him back. 

After Ban Chao finally came back to the Han Empire, he was highly respected and achieved countless honors. 

He passed away two years after his returning; his two sons were excellent generals as well, his grandson even married a princess of Han. 

Ban Chao was widely respected and documented as a great diplomat in the history of China, who completely got through the Silk Road, isolated nearby countries from the Xiongnu, protected his country from the attack of the Kushan Empire, and further weakened and expelled Han Empire's enemies.

His experience was an incredible legend that was consisted of braveness, insistent, and glorious victory.

Grand Desert Along the Silk Road (Photo from Documentary "Hexi Corridor")

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