Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

lades, for he died one year later, though his name soon spread far and wide.

merly they were subject to the Xiongnu, but they became so strong that, while maintaining nominal vassalage, they refused to attend the meetings of the court.” The Indo-European Wusun people Sima Qian wrote about offered Zhang his opportunity to win back his reputation. Convinced he could both broker a military alliance with the Wusun and obtain their mighty ‘heavenly horses,’ Zhang put himself forward as ambassador in 117. Denied the strength of the Yuezhi, and locked in a struggle often decided with cavalry, the emperor must have found Zhang’s promises irresistible and named him “leader of an expedition consisting of 300 men, horses, and oxen and sheep in myriads. He also provided him with gifts of gold and silk stuffs worth millions, and with assistant envoys, holding credentials, whom he might send to and leave behind in other nearby countries.” Reaching the Wusun, Zhang negotiated a marriage alliance with a Chinese princess and returned home with horses and the prize he had chased for so many years: a Chinese ally. In 115, Zhang was proclaimed ‘Great Traveler,’ the head of foreign affairs, and he became a state minister – short-lived acco

The laying of the Silk Road In the wake of Zhang’s death, Sima Qian noted that a craze for exploration quickly took hold in the court:

“Since the work of [Zhang Qian] in preparing the way for intercourse with foreign countries had earned for him rank and position, officials and attendants who had accompanied him vied with one another in presenting to the throne memorials [reports] in which they discussed the wonders, advantages, and disadvantages of certain foreign countries.” China dispatched embassies in great numbers and established commercial arteries into the Tarim Basin, through which Chinese silk and other luxuries flowed, alongside goods, peoples, religions, and culture from India, Syria, Parthia, and the eastern edge of Rome and other lands previously unknown and inaccessible to China. Zhang’s contribution was pivotal, and not yet complete. Just as he had doggedly trekked on with his journey despite hardships in life, in death he still helped to build the Silk Road; Sima Qian noted that “envoys proceeding to the West after him always referred to [Zhang Qian] as an introduction in foreign countries, the mention of his name being regarded as a guarantee of good faith.” AH

Scott Forbes Crawford lives in Beijing, China, and recently published a novel. For more, see www.scottforbescrawford.com

FURTHER READING • Baldick, J. Animal and Shaman:

Ancient Religions of Central Asia (New York 2000). • Hirth, F. “The Story of Chang

K'ién, China’s Pioneer in Western Asia: Text and Translation of Chapter 123 of Ssï-Ma Ts'ién’s Shï-Ki” in Journal of the American Oriental Society 37 (1917), 89–152. • Whitfield, S. Life Along the Silk Road

(Berkeley and Los Angeles 1999).

After his death, Zhang Qian's reputation reached mythical proportions. Dating from ca. 1345, this piece of silver shows the famous explorer searching for the source of the Yellow River by raft. He is said to have journeyed on from there into the Milky Way, where he encountered various Chinese deities. © National Palace Museum

In another scene from the 8th century mural in the Mogao caves shown on page 11, the Emperor Wu Di is shown worshipping two statues of the Buddha inside a pavilion. According to an accompanying text, he obtained the golden statues during his wars with the nomadic Xiongnu. © Public domain

Ancient History 22 13

Skip to main content