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: ca. 139 - 115 BC
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The Han Dynasty, ANC
THE MAKING OF THE SILK ROAD
CHINA REACHES WEST Barely a year into his journey to the mysterious western lands, the Chinese explorer and envoy Zhang Qian fell into the hands of warrior Xiongnu. A dominant force in Central Asia and a stubborn foe of China, the Xiongnu Empire was the impetus behind Zhang’s mission to travel far and wide to seek allies against them. Yet, he would discover his destiny lay elsewhere: Zhang would pioneer the Silk Road.
During excavations of a Eastern Han tomb dating to the first or second century AD,
various figurines of Han cavalrymen and chariots were found, including this bronze warrior. © Gary Todd / Flickr
By Scott Forbes Crawford
Aconfederation of tribes formed in the late third century BC, the Xiongnu Empire occupied lands roughly corresponding to modern Mongolia. The
Xiongnu drew from a common pool of nomadic traditions, as did so many peoples of the Eurasian steppes across time: the Scythians, the Huns (to whom the Xiongnu likely gave their name), and the Mongols. As animists (a religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence), they worshiped Tengri, the spirit of the blue sky; Tengri charged Xiongnu kings with the divine energy needed to rule, a sort
Chinese “Mandate of Heaven”, a religious and political doctrine to justify the rule of the king or emperor in China. From the backs of the horses they masterfully rode, the Xiongnu tended their herds and shot their powerful bows. Though they traded with the Chinese – their equine stock in great demand – raiding overshadowed such exchanges. While they lived primarily off their herds, the Xiongnu had to tap settled civilizations to supplement their material needs. Wealthy China beckoned. Among the many goods China possessed, one loomed above all in splendor: silk. Sericulture (silk farming) began thousands of years earlier, and the Chinese jealously guarded its secrets. Silk also supported Chinese statecraft. Through gifts of silk and other luxury goods, as well as strategic marriage alliances and tribute payments, the Chinese sought to pacify their neighbors – in their own terminology to ‘cook’ the ‘raw’ barbarians and thus to soften and influence them by bestowing and withholding largesse. Blunter measures also played a role, such as the great northern wall built by the Qin dynasty to contain the Xiongnu. Yet neither walls nor luxuries could thwart the nomads’ ambitions. In 176 BC, Xiongnu forces thrust into the Hexi Corridor. This land strip in modern Gansu province straddled Central Asia and China, and through its occupation, the Xiongnu blocked the Chinese from western trade and positioned themselves for easy attack. They had thrown down the gauntlet. Upon taking the throne in 141 BC, Emperor Liu Che met their challenge. Ultimately styled Wu Di, ‘the martial emperor,’ he spurned the policy of buying peace with tribute, and planned campaigns against the Xiongnu. Yet the huge expanses of Central Asia made fielding large native military forces impracticable. The highly mobile, battle-hardened Xiongnu – master archers, essentially to a man – also offered a formidable threat on the battlefield; fighting them with soldiers bred in the same merciless landscape, with the same warrior traditions, might tip the scales in Chinese favor. Wu Di needed allies, and he needed a brave and resourceful individual to find and recruit them – if such a man could survive crossing Xiongnu lands.
of mirror image to the
Mission to the Yuezhi Zhang Qian and his journey might have been lost to history if not for an author with boundless commitment to his art. The Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, is a core text on the Han and Qin dynasties and is the primary source on Zhang’s travels. Its author, Sima Qian, an astronomer and historian to the imperial court, began penning his work circa
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