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 who could ally with the Han Empire to fight against the strong Xiongnu.
Besides, walking through vast prairie, gobi, desert, mountain, lake, and depopulated zones over 2000 years ago while 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. He 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, many goods were transported along the path that Zhang Qian opened up, the Silk Road.
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 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 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 it was more important to develop the economy and governance in the current realm well.
Hence, the emperor had to keep waiting and researching.
Dragon Shaped Jade Decoration of the Han Dynasty — Xuzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
One day, he heard that the Xiongnu had invaded a country named Yuezhi and killed their king, and they were searching for vengeance.
Then, Han Wudi wanted to seek a military alliance with Yuezhi to fight against Xiongnu from different directions.
Hence, he started to recruit someone intelligent, 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 139 BC, Zhang Qian set off with his loyal guide Ganfu, with around 100 followers.
They marched toward places that none of their ancestors had been to and had no idea what they would encounter in the future.
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 was then assigned to a local woman by the King of the Xiongnu, who tried to make him surrender several times.
Under the strict surveillance of the Xiongnu, he married this woman, had kids with her, mastered the Xiongnu language, and got some information about nearby regimes and geography.
Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
But he never forgot about his mission.
Ten years later, he and his loyal guide Ganfu found an opportunity and escaped from the Xiongnu territory.
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 troops of the Xiongnu, they experienced countless challenges and dangers.
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, Zhang Qian 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 couldn’t persuade any Yuezhi people to help Han Empire fight against Xiongnu.
Seeing that he could not complete his mission anyhow, he left Yuezhi.
This time, Zhang Qian detoured another path along the southern Tarim Basin, trying to avoid Xiongnu.
However, this country was also occupied by Xiongnu, and Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu again.
One year later, the current king of the Xiongnu passed away, and many of their lords were competing over the throne; he and his team found an opportunity and successfully escaped.
Endless Desert Along Silk Road, Photo by Meng Kaikuo.
Heroic Return to the Han Empire
Zhang Qian finally returned to his country, the Han Empire, after 13 years of challenging adventure.
Departing with a big group of over a hundred people, however, he returned with only his guide Ganfu.
He didn’t find any ally to fight against the Xiongnu together. Still, 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 also awarded a noble title.
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 the Xiongnu, a country named Wusun, and try to persuade other regimes along the Silk Road to ally with Han Empire, or at least not to support Xiongnu.
At that time, great marshals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing had defeated Xiongnu several times and vastly extended Han's territory.
Hence, Zhang Qian's diplomatic group arrived at Wusun safely and successfully.
However, Wusun was in a civil war and showed no interest in fighting against Xiongnu now.
So, they only sent some diplomats and merchants to the Han Empire.
Sachet of the Han Dynasty, Unearthed from Ruins of Loulan, An Important Kingdom Along the Silk Road — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After seeing the Han Empire's prosperity, 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.
Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis of Haihun (Haihunhou) of Han Dynasty — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Great Explorer and Diplomat Zhang Qian's Legacy
Zhang Qian passed away peacefully the following year after returning from his second expedition.
He was a brave and determined explorer, extremely loyal diplomat, and heroic warrior.
His achievements influenced the history of China and 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 ordinary 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
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