Zhang Qian — Pioneer of the Silk Road in History of China

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

 

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

 

During his journey, he had 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 the Han Empire to fight against the strong Xiongnu in the end.

 

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

 

However, thanks to his exceptional intelligence and strong will, he arrived 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 on 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, Retrieved from http://bakkeac.weebly.com/ch-24---silk-road.html 

Strong Enemy Xiongnu and A Summoned Hero Zhang Qian 

 

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 in northern borders.

 

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

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

Hence, Emperor Wudi had to keep waiting and researching. 

One day, he heard that the Xiongnu had invaded a country named Ro-Chi (or Rou Zhi or Yue Zhi) and killed their king, and they were searching for vengeance. 

Then, Emperor Wudi wanted to connect and ally with Ro-Chi, 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 Ro-Chi. 

A very handsome young man named Zhang Qian volunteered to search for Ro-Chi in the west. 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 — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

Zhang Qian’s First Failed Fight and Ten Years Captive Life

Soon, Zhang Qian 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 for several times.

Under the strict surveillance of Xiongnu, Zhang Qian got married to 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 out of the Xiongnu. 

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

Walking in 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 had experienced countless challenges and dangers.

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

Arriving of Ro-Chi and Failed Mission

With assistance from Ganfu and some nearby countries, Zhang Qian finally arrived at Ro-Chi.

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

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

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

Seeing that he could not complete his mission anyhow, Zhang Qian left Ro-Chi. This time, he detoured to another country, trying to avoid Xiongnu. 

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

Until one year later, the current king of Xiongnu passed away and many of their lords were competing over the throne, Zhang Qian got escaped during this chaos. 

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

Zhang Qian’s 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, as well as many new species of food and animals such as Ferghana Horse, grape, watermelon, walnut, cucumber, garlic, celery, etc.

Emperor Wudi was very happy with Zhang Qian’s loyalty and achievements. 

Soon, Zhang Qian 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 — Maoling Museum

Zhang Qian’s Second Westward Expedition 

In the year 119 BC, Emperor Wudi commanded Zhang Qian to search another of Xiongnu’s enemy, 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, Wei Qing and Huo Qubing had already defeated Xiongnu for several times, and largely extended Han’s territory. Hence, Zhang Qian and his 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 together with Zhang Qian.  

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

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. 

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

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

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