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Pioneer of the Silk Road

A Chinese explorer from more than 2,000 years ago provided the Han empire with a reliable account of the uncharted lands of Central Asia and paved the way for the development of the Silk Road

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Aug.1

Zhang Qian Park, Shule County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, July 15, 2016 (Photo by VCG)

Jiayuguan, a pass in western Gansu Province, is the western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall and was an important hub for traders along the Silk Road (Photo by VCG)

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where he mooted a cooperative plan to build an “economic belt along the Silk Road.”  

The precursor of the Silk Road, China’s first major trade route, was explored by Zhang Qian, head of a Chinese diplomatic mission to today’s Central Asia dating back more than 2,000 years ago, marking an important step in history’s march toward globalization. Since then, camel caravans linked China, Central Asia and Europe for hundreds of years.  

Today, there are more than 80 “iron camels” – the nickname given by Chinese media to long freight trains between China and Europe, with most of them passing through the rail network in Central Asia, making it important in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Tough Trailblazer  
The well-traveled trade route between Europe and China eventually extended approximately 6,440 kilometers, traversing some of the world’s most formidable landscapes. But it was the unique merchandise at the end of the arduous journey that made it worth the effort for traders from China, Central Asia, Middle East and Europe, prompting German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 to coin the term “Silk Road.” The route itself has never been fixed, although at its longest, its land route extended from central China to Italy, through Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, with not only goods, but culture, technologies, crops and ideas spreading along it.  

The establishment of the Silk Road changed not only the way trade was conducted but diplomatic relations as well. While the most famous explorer associated with the Silk Road is perhaps Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant who traveled from Europe to Asia in the 13th century and remained in China for 17 years to serve the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, it was through the efforts of several historical figures that the networks of the Silk Road expanded to incorporate vast areas of land.  

More than 1,300 years before Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road, recounting tales of his adventures to those in Europe, a Chinese envoy and explorer named Zhang Qian conducted two expeditions that are now considered to have lain the foundations of the first trading routes that later became the Silk Road.  

In 202 BCE, after the tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period when Emperor Gaozu, Liu Bang, united disparate states to found the Han Dynasty in what is today’s Central China, territories to the north and west were constantly under threat by the Xiongnu people, the nomadic tribes known in the West as the Huns.  

The early Han emperors had to concentrate on implementing economic and social reforms to recover from the wars and consolidate their power. These endeavors left the Han emperors with no energy or resources to confront the Xiongnu head on. They had to make peace through marriage, gifts and a passive defense policy. In the meantime, the Xiongnu kept expanding their territory to control what are now the Chinese regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, as well as into Central Asia.  

By the time the Han’s seventh ruler, Emperor Wu, ascended the throne in 141 BCE, the empire was becoming prosperous and powerful. Emperor Wu decided to handle the threat from the Xiongnu by forming an alliance with other tribes and kingdoms in areas outside his rule.  

Emperor Wu heard the Xiongnu had invaded the Yuezhi, a tribe that occupied territory in what is now Northwest China’s Gansu Province, killing their king and forcing most of them to move toward the west, and that the Yuezhi were seeking revenge. He dispatched Zhang Qian, a 25-year-old court attendant, to lead an expedition into the unknown region to seek a military alliance with the Yuezhi.  

In 139 BCE, Zhang Qian set off west from the imperial capital of Chang’an, now Xi’an in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. With a company of 100 men, he traveled to the western end of the Great Wall, which at the time extended into the desert, and ventured further toward the notorious Taklamakan Desert, which is thought to mean “place of no return,” though this nomenclature is in dispute.  

As soon as they left Han territory, they were captured by the Xiongnu and held for about 10 years. Zhang Qian and his men managed to escape and continued their westward journey. They found a way to bypass the death trap of the Taklamakan Desert over the Tianshan Mountains, eventually reaching the Yuezhi’s new settlement in what is now Tajikistan in 129 BCE.  

Although the Yuezhi had been humiliated and expelled by the Xiongnu from their former territory, more than a decade had passed and they had settled down and lost their lust for revenge. Zhang Qian tried for a year to persuade the Yuezhi leader to form a military alliance with the Han, but his efforts were in vain.  

On his return trip, Zhang Qian was again captured by the Xiongnu, escaping after a year when the Xiongnu were preoccupied with internal power struggles after the death of their king. He finally arrived in Chang’an after 13 years in 126 BCE, with only one man left from the 100 who started out with him, although their fates are not known.  

Emperor Wu had long given up hope for Zhang and his expedition, believing they had perished. The emperor was amazed at Zhang Qian’s detailed reports of the people and landscapes of the lands he had seen in the west, rewarding Zhang for his endeavors with a promotion.  

This expedition marked the start of what can be described as the precursor to the Silk Road. Although the route had almost certainly been used by occasional traders before Zhang Qian’s trip, it was through Zhang that the Han Dynasty discovered the potential for trade with lands to the west, thus laying the foundation for what was eventually to be known as the Silk Road.  

Zhang Qian was later assigned many military tasks against the Xiongnu because of his knowledge of western regions. For his contributions in assisting generals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing in the battlefield, he was awarded a noble title. 

A statue of Zhang Qian stands in front of Chenggubei Railway Station, Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province, August 14, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Travels In Step
In 119 BCE, Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian on a second expedition to forge a military alliance against the Xiongnu with Wusun, a state that was located in present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. By this time, Xiongnu territory had largely been taken over by the Han empire, so the delegation of 300 men and a rich stock of presents arrived in Wusun safe and sound.  

But Wusun was engaged in a civil war and showed no interest in fighting against the Xiongnu. However, they agreed to send a delegation of diplomats, merchants and translators and escorted Zhang Qian on his return trip to Han territory. Despite the frustration with Wusun, Zhang sent his assistants to visit other states and kingdoms in territories in present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and India.  

In 115 BCE, Zhang Qian returned to Chang’an. During the second expedition, more tribes and states along the Silk Road decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Han, and more diplomats and merchants arrived in the empire. After the Wusun delegation reported back what they had seen, their ruler formally concluded a marriage alliance with the Han. In the end, the plan to forge an alliance against the Xiongnu worked out. The Xiongnu were finally driven from Northwest China and the power of the Han empire spread across the entire Tarim Basin.  

Zhang Qian’s mission helped bring China into contact with the Western world and established the networks needed for the Silk Road to become a major link for transportation and trade over the centuries to come.  

Caravans could safely journey through the western regions, while western-bound traders exported silk and other wares, returning with all kinds of new wonders and tales about the empires of the West.  

Silk was exchanged for luxuries such as furs, precious stones and ivory. New varieties of food, which later became central to China’s agricultural production, were also introduced, such as grapes, watermelons, cucumbers, garlic and celery.  

Chinese technologies and tools also spread to the West: a few significant examples include agricultural tools and irrigation techniques, as well as pottery and metallurgy techniques.  

Perhaps some of the most long-standing and ongoing legacies of this remarkable trade network are reflected in the many distinct cultures, languages, customs and religions that were exchanged along these routes. The passages of merchants and travelers of many different nationalities brought about not only commerce but also a continuous process of cultural interaction.  

On his second expedition, Zhang Qian took with him a group of acrobats and magicians. The familiar four-stringed Chinese lute, or pipa, and the reed flute called the hujia were then introduced to the Central Plains, the area around the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the base of the Han empire, via the nascent trading route.  

Zhang Qian died a year after returning from the second expedition in 114 BCE. He was buried in his hometown in Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province. His tomb was listed in 2014 as an important world heritage site as part of UNESCO’s “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor.” The tomb was excavated in 1939, although there is debate in academia as to whether it is really the ancient envoy’s tomb.  

While leaders of China and Central Asian countries released the Xi’an Declaration of the China-Central Asia Summit with a list of outcomes, it is thanks to Zhang Qian, an explorer and diplomat in every sense of the word, that the six countries are able to develop the determination and connectivity to work together to foster a closer China-Central Asia community with a shared future along an open, inclusive, and mutually beneficial modern Silk Road.

Zhang Qian Memorial Hall, Chenggu County, Shaanxi Province, September 28, 2003 (Photo by IC)