This belt plaque in the form of a crouching horse dates from between the third and first century BC and was possibly made in the North of China. The plaque has been cast in silver and still shows remnants of gilding on the surface. It may have adorned a horse bridle and possibly belonged to a member of the Yuezhi people or other nomadic tribe living in Central Asia.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art
DID YOU KNOW? For much of its early ancient history, internecine warfare reigned throughout China. Kingdom battled kingdom, until in 221 BC, the Qin dynasty conquered, unifying the vying states through tyrannical rule, only to burn out in 206 BC. Yet, the Qin blazed a path for the Han dynasty (206 BC–8 AD) to follow with greater, lasting success. Under the Han, a golden age flourished; many Chinese institutions solidified, such as the widespread adoption of Confucianism. This hardwon stability, newly shared identity, and a foreign enemy at its frontier enabled – perhaps demanded – Chinese territorial expansion.
105 BC. Around this time, Sima Qian defended a Han general who lost his men in a raid against Xiongnu. Enraged, Emperor Wu ordered the historian’s castration. Dedicated to his work – and rejecting suicide, as perhaps was expected of him – Sima Qian submitted to punishment, recovered, and completed the book, which would become a Chinese classic. Sima Qian’s access to Zhang’s original report grants his narrative great depth and detail, though the Shijioffers scant information about the explorer’s early life. He was born in Cheng Gu, in central China, but his birth year is unknown. A gentleman of the imperial court in Chang’an, possibly a captain of the palace guard, Zhang was, according to Sima Qian, “a man of strong physique, magnanimous and trustful.” At perhaps age twenty or twenty-five, he answered Emperor Wu’s call and volunteered to brave the treacherous trails into the ‘Western Reaches’ in search of the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi were an Indo-European people, Buddhist nomads who guided their herds in search of pasture. “Their customs are the same as those of the Xiongnu,” noted Sima Qian, and they may have been able to field between 100,000 and 200,000 mounted archers. Earlier, they had occupied lands within the Hexi Corridor; while the Xiongnu occupation there unnerved the Chinese, for the Yuezhi, it was something far worse. “The Xiongnu,” wrote Sima Qian, “had overcome the king of the Yuezhi and made a drinkingvessel out of his skull. The Yuezhi had decamped and were hiding somewhere, all the time scheming how to take revenge on the Xiongnu, but had no ally to join them in striking a blow.” Shunted somewhere west, the Yuezhi vanished from Chinese knowledge. Hoping their enmity toward the Xiongnu still burned, Emperor Wu, more aggressive than his predecessors who had denied the wouldbe allies, wished now to find the Yuezhi and land that blow against the Xiongnu together. In 139 or 138 BC, Zhang set out from Gansu. As his was a diplomatic (not military) expedition, he likely carried more goods for gifts and bribes than weaponry, and he commanded a retinue of about one hundred individuals, including a Xiongnu slave, Ganfu. Besides serving as a guide, Ganfu, “being an excellent bowman,” according to Sima Qian, “would, when supplies were exhausted, provide food by shooting game.” They soon entered Xiongnu lands. Presumably Ganfu attempted to evade Xiongnu bands; nonetheless their luck soured and the caravan was captured. While the Xiongnu had a terrifying reputation with the Chinese, Zhang’s experience as their prisoner reflects the peculiar braiding together of danger and connection between these geographically close, culturally distant peoples. Neither slain, tortured, nor ransomed, Zhang settled within a tribe, married a Xiongnu woman, and fathered a son. Zhang’s captivity might hint at a grave weakness weighing against the Xiongnu in their conflict with the Chinese: a small population that did not easily grow in peacetime, or recover from wartime losses.
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