Zhang Qian — Pioneer of the Silk Road

Zhang Qian (164 BC — 114 BC) was an extraordinary explorer, a loyal diplomat, and a determined hero of the Han Dynasty

 

To search for an ally to fight against the Xiongnu (or the Huns), under the command of Emperor Han Wudi (156 BC — 87 BC), Zhang Qian started his adventure westward.

 

During his journey, he fought bravely against his enemy but was captured and half-imprisoned for almost a decade. He had visited many regimes but didn’t find anyone that could ally with the Han Empire to fight against the strong Xiongnu in the end.

 

Besides, walking through vast prairie, gobi, desert, mountain, lake, and depopulated zones over 2000 years ago, meanwhile, trying to escape from Xiongnu's chasing troops, his journey was extremely arduous. 

 

However, thanks to his exceptional intelligence and strong will, he arrived in Central Asia and introduced many new species to Han Empire, such as Ferghana Horse, grape, walnut, cucumber, garlic, celery, etc. 

 

Most importantly, he promoted communication between Han Empire and regimes in the west, by introducing cultures and valuable products to each other. 

 

After his pioneering action, a large number of goods have been transported along the path that Zhang Qian opened up, the Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road of the Han Dynasty

Map of the Silk Road of the Han Dynasty, Retrieved from http://bakkeac.weebly.com/ch-24---silk-road.html 

Strong Enemy Xiongnu and A Summoned Hero

 

After Emperor Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Empire, lost a big war against the Xiongnu in the year 200 BC, Han sent large numbers of gifts and some princesses in exchange for peace, though Xiongnu still frequently implemented robbery on northern borders.

 

Meanwhile, Xiongnu also kept expanding through wars during these decades. 

When Emperor Han Wudi ascended to the throne, he started to plan to fight back. However, his grandmother Empress Dowager Dou was in actual charge, and she believed that it was more important to develop the economy and governance in the current realm well. 

Hence, the emperor had to keep waiting and researching. 

One day, he heard that the Xiongnu had invaded a country named Yuezhi and killed their king, and they were searching for vengeance. 

Then, Emperor Han Wudi wanted to seek a military alliance with Yuezhi, to fight against Xiongnu from different directions.  

Hence, he started to recruit someone smart, brave, determined, and courageous, to be his explorer to go and find this country. 

A very handsome young man named Zhang Qian volunteered to search for Yuezhi in the western regions. His early life experiences, as an ordinary official, were unknown in the history of China.

In the year 139 BC, Zhang Qian set off, together with his loyal guide Ganfu, and around 100 followers. They would march toward places that none of their ancestors had been to, and have no idea what they would encounter in the future. 

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 the Middle Kingdom and West Regions — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

First Failed Fight and Ten Years Captive Life

Soon, he and his team encountered a cavalry troop of the Xiongnu; after intense combat, they were captured. 

Zhang Qian then was assigned to a local woman by the King of the Xiongnu, who tried to make him surrender several times.

Under the strict surveillance of Xiongnu, he married this woman, had kids with her, mastered Xiongnu’s language, and got some info about nearby regimes and geography.

But he never forgot about his mission.  

Ten years later, he and his loyal guide Ganfu found an opportunity and got escaped from the territory of the Xiongnu. 

Because that decision was made in a rush, they didn’t take along enough food and water. 

Walking in the grand prairie, gobi, desert, mountain, lake, and depopulated zones of over 2000 years ago, without food and water, while kept dodging from troops of Xiongnu, they experienced countless challenges and dangers.

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

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

Arriving At Yuezhi and Failed Mission

With assistance from Ganfu and some nearby countries, he finally arrived at his original destination, Yuezhi.

However, after Xiongnu had defeated and occupied their old territory, the people of Yuezhi migrated far away, to a new place that was fertile and productive. 

The new king of Yuezhi and their people were quite satisfied with their current life here and didn’t want to seek vengeance anymore. 

Zhang Qian stayed there for over a year, but he still couldn’t persuade any of the Yuezhi people to help Han Empire to fight against Xiongnu. 

Seeing that he could not complete his mission anyhow, he left Yuezhi. This time, he detoured another path along the southern Tarim Basin, trying to avoid Xiongnu. 

However, this country was occupied by Xiongnu too, and Zhang Qian got captured by the Xiongnu again. 

Until one year later, the current king of Xiongnu passed away and many of their lords were competing over the throne, he and his team found an opportunity and successfully escaped.

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)

Heroic Return to the Han Empire 

Zhang Qian finally got back to his country, the Han Empire, after 13 years of difficult adventure.

Departing with a big group of over a hundred people, however, he came back with only his guide Ganfu.

He didn’t find any ally to fight against the Xiongnu together, but he brought back much valuable information about other countries in the west of China, as well as many new species of food and animals such as Ferghana Horse, grape, watermelon, walnut, cucumber, garlic, celery, etc.

The emperor was very happy with his loyalty and achievements. 

Soon, he was assigned many military tasks, to assist marshal Wei Qing and Huo Qubing. Because of his knowledge and contribution to the battlefields, Zhang Qian was awarded a noble title as well.

Gilding Horse Unearthed from Mausoleum of Emperor Wudi, Modeled Using the Ferghana Horse that Introduced by Zhang Qian

Gilding Horse Unearthed from Mausoleum of Emperor Wu of Han, Modeled Using the Ferghana Horse that Introduced by Zhang Qian — Maoling Museum

Second Westward Expedition

In the year 119 BC, Emperor Han Wudi commanded him to search for another enemy of Xiongnu’s, a country named Wusun, and to try to persuade other regimes along the Silk Road to ally with Han Empire, or at least not to support Xiongnu.  

This time, great marshals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing had already defeated Xiongnu several times and largely extended Han’s territory. Hence, his diplomatic group arrived at Wusun safely and successfully. 

However, Wusun was in a civil war and showed no interest to fight against Xiongnu now. So, they only sent some diplomats and merchants came to the Han Empire.  

After having seen the prosperity of the Han Empire, Wusun decided to ally. Hence, Emperor Han Wudi sent Princess Liu Xijun (130 BC — 101 BC) and Princess Liu Jieyou (121 BC — 49 BC) to Wusun to marry their King.

During the second Westward Expedition of Zhang Qian, more countries along the Silk Road decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Han Empire, and more diplomats and merchants were sent to Han, since when the trade between China and western region countries was boosted fastly. 

Sachet of the Han Dynasty, Unearthed from Ruins of Loulan, An Important Kingdom Along the Silk Road

Sachet of the Han Dynasty, Unearthed from Ruins of Loulan, An Important Kingdom Along the Silk Road — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Great Explorer and Diplomat Zhang Qian's Legacy

Zhang Qian passed away peacefully, the next year after he came back from his second expedition. 

He was a brave and determined explorer, an extremely loyal diplomat, and also a heroic warrior.

His achievements influenced not only the history of China but also other countries alongside the Silk Road, and significantly influenced cultural exchanges among these states. 

Descendents of him never got involved with politics; they worked as common peasants and lived in his fief (a town in today’s the Nanyang City of Henan Province) for the next following millenniums.

Mausoleum of Zhang Qian in His Hometown — Hanzhong City, Shaanxi Province

Mausoleum of Zhang Qian in His Hometown — Hanzhong City, Shaanxi Province