Historical Kunming Part 5: Zhang Qian and the Opening of the Silk Road

We left our narrative of the history of Kunming and Yunnan province in 109 BC, when the Dian Kingdom was conquered by the armies of the Han Dynasty, and brought within the fold of Imperial China.  As one of the first orders of business after this conquest, the Han emperor ordered one of his most important generals, Tang Meng, to Yunnan.  His instructions were to extend the “Five Foot Way” – a famous trade road of the time, from Sichuan into Yunnan.

Han Dynasty, just after to the conquest of the Kingdom of Dian

There were many reasons for this instruction. Roads in China were first and foremost a means of efficient troop movement, even the Great Wall was far more useful as a way of transporting troops quickly over very rough terrain than it ever was as an actual physical barrier.  The Kingdom of Dian was newly conquered and could rebel at any time, so the ability to get troops there quickly was of paramount importance.  But another key reason was trade.  Not with the Dian Kingdom itself; the Han people considered the local residents to be crude barbarians. Hang Teng even named the Yunnan extension of the Five Foot Way the “Southwest Barbarian Way”.  The real value of Yunnan to the Han empire lay in its location; it was seen as a potential gateway to what was called at the time the “Sendhuk” valley.  Now it is called the Indus valley; the Han dynasty wanted to open a trade route with India.  But how did the Han rulers know about India, and why did they think it was important to establish trade routes there?

The answer lies not in the south of China but in the north.  The Han dynasty was plagued by a loose confederation of nomadic tribesmen whom they knew as the Xiongnu; several centuries later, Europe would encounter them and call them the Huns.  About 20 years earlier than the conquest of the Dian Kingdom, spies of the Han emperor Wudi (the same emperor whose death precipitated the Discourses on Salt and Iron referred to in history post 2) reported to Emperor Wu that King Chanyu of the Huns had recently killed the king of a tribe known as the Da Yuezhi, and had his skull made into a drinking goblet.  The Da Yuezhi tribe was previously unknown to the Han dynasty, but sensing an opportunity, the sent a detachment of about 100 troops to find this tribe and seek an alliance with them.  The officer appointed to lead this detachment was a mid-level noble named Zhang Qian.

Zhang Qian sets out on his embassy

The expedition did not meet with great success.  Zhang, his guide Ganfu (a captured Xiongnu prisoner of war), and their detachment of troops were captured by the Xiongnu and held as hostages against further Han incursions.  Zhang and his guide were held captive by the Zhiongnu for almost over ten years, during which he took a Xiongnu wife, who in turn bore him a son. But eventually, having gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader, Zhang was able to escape, and fled west across the Gobi desert with his guide wife, and son.  And ten years after his departure from China, he finally managed to make contact with the Da Yuezhi.  But though the Yuezhi welcomed Zhang and treated him with honor, they had no desire to enter into an alliance against the Xiongnu.  The Yuezhi felt that the distance between their home (which lies in what is now Tajikistan) and the Chinese Empire (whose military might was centered in their capital of Chang’an, which is now modern-day Xi’an) was too great for an alliance to be effective.  And the murder of their king notwithstanding, the Yuezhi were content to raise their flocks and make due against the occasional Xiongnu raid.

His mission unsuccessful, Zhang spent a further year in central Asia, documenting and establishing relations with different tribes and kingdoms in the area, and then set off for the return journey to China.  Anxious to avoid recapture, Zhang  and his party took a different route on their return, skirting the southern edge of the Tarim basin, where they had gone around the northern edge on their way out.  But this caution was to no avail, for Zhang and his party were once again captured by the Xiongnu.  This time however, Zhang was lucky in that he became a pawn in a civil war within the Xiongnu tribe, and was able to secure his freedom in less than a year, in exchange for bearing messages from one of the rival factions to the Han emperor.

Zhian Qian

Despite having failed to secure an alliance, Zhang was wildly popular in court upon his return, and prepared detailed reports on over 36 different tribes and nations he had intercourse with over the years of his journey.  And through all the places he had traveled there was a common thread: rich and exotic goods from a great civilization rumored to lie to the southeast, a kingdom known as the Sendhuk.  And having proven his capability, Zhang was sent out two more times to try and find this fabled kingdom, and the first of these original journeys went through Sichuan and the Dian Kingdom that is now Yunnan Province.

Zhang never did find India, but he studiously wrote about every place he did make it to, and though not all of the political alliances he was dispatched to establish came to fruition, he is regarded in China in much the same light we in the west regard Marco Polo, as one of the first great travelers and travel writers.  And over the century following his death, China did succeed in establishing relations with these tribes and kingdoms of central Asia.  These trade agreements started the caravans flowing, and the routes they established formed the very Silk Road that Marco Polo would follow, all the way to Kunming, some 1300 years later.

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