top of page

Ban Chao — Pioneer Diplomat of the Han Dynasty

Ban Chao (32 — 102), known by the courtesy name Zhongsheng and respected as Ban Dingyuan or Marquis of Dingyuan, was one of the greatest diplomats in Chinese history.

Leading just 36 warriors, he conquered and pacified over 50 countries in the Western Regions of the Han Empire, successfully repelling the powerful Kushan Empire's invasion.


Despite his small force, his achievements rivaled those of exceptional military leaders.

Unearthed Brocade Barcer of the Han Dynasty

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

Growing Up in a 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 who impressed the emperor with his exceptional works and soon was nominated as the most honorable historian; he 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, framed, and later passed away in prison. 

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

After their big brother passed away and 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

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

Inspired by Excellent Generals: Ban Chao's Journey into 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 in finishing 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

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 culture, to inherit the throne.

This decapitation operation shocked Ban Chao a lot.


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

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


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

Unearthed Clogs of the Han Dynasty

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, 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 Regions.

Therefore, small countries in this area either complied with the Han Empire or the Xiongnu or had been 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

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 discovered that the Xiongnu sent a big group with hundreds of warriors and diplomats simultaneously, 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.

Then, the king decided to comply.


He sent his son to the Han Empire, and his country 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 the big army the emperor assigned him, took only his former 36 soldiers, and started his westward journey.

They came to two other swing countries and made them comply with Han again.


Ban Chao killed a regent the Xiongnu supported in one country and kidnapped and replaced a king in another. 

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

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems

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

The Xiongnu planned to expand further 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, and 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 an army to assist him.


However, this army only had about a thousand people, most of whom were former criminals. 

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

Ruins of Han Great Wall

Ruins of Han Dynasty Great Wall in Gansu, Photo by Gucheng.

Rejecting Political Marriage and Defeating the Kushan Empire

When Ban Chao was 56 years old, a country that the Xiongnu supported betrayed the Han Empire.


So, Ban Chao led around 20,000 other complied countries' soldiers and successfully defeated the Xiongnu's allied army, consisting of over 50,000 warriors who 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 to consider Kushan 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 smartly ambushed, cut off the Kushan army's food supply, and defeated their invasion.

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

Bronze Sword and Its Sword Decoration of the Han Dynasty

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

Failed Search for the Roman Empire: Ban Chao's Diplomatic Endeavors Beyond the Known World


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 to search for the Roman Empire and try to build a diplomatic relationship.

This team reached the Persian Gulf and was told that the Roman Empire was very far away and dangerous and might take them years to get 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 communicate with each other directly. 

Lacquer Wooden Spoons of the Han Dynasty, Belonged to Soldiers Quartering in Great Wall along the Silk Road

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

The Return of the Exceptional Diplomat and General

Three years later, Ban Chao was sick, so he pleaded to return 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 returned to the Han Empire, he was highly respected and received countless honors. 

He passed away two years after his return.


His two sons were excellent generals, and 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 the Han Empire's enemies.

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

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

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

bottom of page