When China first met Central Asia

Table of Contents

The journey to the East

The uncomfortable neighbours to the North

This blog is not intended to comment on current political realities, but rather to analyse history and see what we can learn to move towards a more tolerant and respectful world. In any case, with the exit of the US from Afghanistan and the probable «arrival» of China, history has something to tell us. Let’s look at something that happened over 21 centuries ago (around 1900 years before the US foundation), when China first encountered Central Asia and Afghanistan. The first time China realised that there were other Zhongguo, 中国,(other centres of the world).

A nomadic herding people, the Xiongnu were a large tribal alliance that was eventually able to hold power over much of Central Asia for more than 500 years by the end of the 3rd century BC.

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The Xiongnu were the first nomadic empire and the greatest threat China had faced.

Chinese wars against the Xiongnu, a constant menace to China’s northern frontier during this entire period, resulted in Chinese exploration and domination of much of Central Asia. The Xiongnu experience changed the Chinese way of perceiving themselves and their world, even more than their earlier contacts with any foreigners. Compared to the Xiongnu, Chinese people became more Chinese.

Under the Han dynasty, the struggle with the Xiongnu didn’t so much alter as impede Chinese resolve to expand to new horizons. The war with its northern neighbours made China to look further ahead than ever before and to set up the Middle Kingdom with new people, states and cultures. No longer would China be isolated by other civilisations; China was aware of a wider world beyond its own. And it had to work out what its place in it should be. The insights formed from the Han dynasty would lead them to the development into a system of foreign relations that would last two thousand years ahead.

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The two gilded silver dragons unearthed from the tombs of Xiongnu aristocrats in north-central Mongolia [Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology]

Trying to find allies against Xiongnu´s continuos nightmare

By the mid 2nd century BC. (more than 1,900 years before US foundation), the Han emperor Wu resolved to track down a tribe known as the Yuezhi and to forge an alliance against the Xiongnu. Since the Yuezhi had fled deep into the unknown lands of the West, Zhang Qian, a palace court man, offered himself for the mission. He eventually located them in today’s Afghanistan. However, the Yuezhi had no appetite to have another encounter with the Xiongnu and refused Zhang’s suggested alliance. Though he failed in his main goal, Zhang’s expedition proved to be one of the most remarkable feats of exploration of the ancient world. Information he gathered about a whole new and advanced society in Central Asia profoundly influenced China.

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Zhang Qian (Died 114 bce), Chinese explorer, the first man to bring back a reliable account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of China.

Before he returned home, the Chinese had been comfortable perceiving themselves as a superior civilisation, encircled by barbarians who if did not adopt more cultural Chinese ways would remain simply savages , like the Xiongnu. Yet Zhang Qian soon realised that the Chinese were actually not the only existing civilisation. He discovered other cultures and other peoples who lived in cities, cultivated crops and had their own cultures. He saw India, where its inhabitants rode elephants into battle, and Mesopotamia; and most strikingly, the Parthian empire in Iran, where people keep records by handwriting horizontally on strips of leather, and not in Chinese characters either. In Afghanistan’s vibrant markets, local people bought traded goods across the region. From the perspective of these Central Asian societies, the Chinese were not the centre of anything.

Emperor WU takes an interest in conquering the New World.

The Emperor Wu took a great interest in this new world. In the words of Sima Qian («China’s Herodotus») «If it were only possible to win these states by peaceful means, he would extend his domain and be able to attract to his court men of strange customs who would come to translate and retranslate their languages, the power of Han would become known to all the lands between the four seas”.

Zhang convinced Emperor Wu to try to lure the Wusun (residing in present-day northwest China) into an alliance against the Xiongnu.

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Astronomer, calendar expert, and the first great Chinese historian. Most noted for his authorship of the Shiji (“Historical Records”), most important history of China down to the end of the 2nd century

By 115 BC, Zhang was back in the West, this time armed with a bigger escort, and loads of gold and silk to present as gifts from the Han emperor to Central Asian rulers. He discovered the Wusun in what is now the northern part of Xinjiang province. After a fruitless attempt, he finally manage to dispatch emissaries throughout Inner Asia. They returned to Chang’an, the capital of China at the time, along with delegations from several Central Asian kingdoms, to the great satisfaction of Emperor Wu.

However, the Chinese were not satisfied with their newfound friends. The Inner Asian rulers were not deferential enough to the great Son of Heaven. In fact, they had no respect for Han’s authority. While the western peoples were happy to deal in silk and other Chinese luxuries, this was a land under the rule of the Xiongnu. They feared the Xiongnu more than the Han envoys. The Emperor Wu determined that more decisive and offensive actions were required and dispatched an army to take over the states of what is now the northern province of Xinjiang. Those tribes were independent but controlled by the Xiongnu.

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Men in Iranian dress depicted on an embroidered rug from the Xiongnu Noin-Ula burial site. The celebrants of the rite also proposed to be Yuezhi. 1st century BC - 1st century AD

Xiongnu would not accept that, Central Asia states either

The Xiongnu, aware of the danger of being cut off from the rich urban centres of the region, fought back and the region would become the -Chinese battleground for several decades. Nonetheless, the Han campaigns extended the Chinese empire further west than ever before. The Han victories provided a broader and more secure route to Central Asia.

Emperor Wu was enamoured of the excellent horses of Central Asia and, learning from his envoys in the region that Ferghana (in present-day Uzbekistan) possessed some particularly fine specimens, he dispatched emissaries and gold to the main state of the region, called Dayuan in Chinese records. However, the Dayuan ruler weren’t particularly interested in this deal and refused the Chinese. In the middle of the dispute, the Dayuan killed the Han emissaries. Emperor Wu retaliated by issuing the most bold of his military raids, which, after several attempts, defeated the Dayuan. After that, Emperor Wu ensured a steady source of ‘heavenly horses’.

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Ferghana horses: Native to Aganistan and Turkmenistan (Ferghana Valley) and during Han Dynasty (25AD-220AD), it was brought back to China by Zhang Qian's diplomatic mission

Controlling Central Asia is not that easy, better to negotiate.

The victory over Ferghana turned China into a leading force in the inner regions of Asia. In 60 BC, the Han set up a position called «Protector General of the Western Regions», the holder of which was to oversee the various states in Central Asia. To strengthen its position, the Han government formed colonies of about five hundred soldier-farmers each, scattered throughout what is now the far west of China. The Han believed that the Son of Heaven was a universal monarch; they tried to make ideology fit reality.

When Emperor Wu died in 87, the Han had built a vast empire. From the peninsula of East Korea to the oasis of the western Xinjiang desert and the south of North Vietnam, the territory created by Emperor Wu was much larger than that ever controlled by the Chinese. But the mighty Chinese Empire could not digest everything, and Emperor Wu’s interests overwhelmed the government. The court found it as difficult to maintain all the conquests as it was to conquer them first. Adding to the problems provoked by the Koguryo dynasty (present-day Korea), in the Western Regions, the government approach changed with the emperor’s appetites for foreign developments and their available budgets. Maintaining such a vast empire was too expensive.

Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (漢朝) (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), also known as Han Wudi, (漢武帝), ruled from 141–87 B.C. as a brave and energetic campaigner.

Chinese Empire learned that it would better  protect their territory, achieved internal unity, and trade with the rest of empires or states.

Clearly, there was only so much of “all under Heaven” the emperor could swallow… Some lessons could be learned next time any empire tries to control Central Asia, and, very especially, Afghanistan.

And here we come to the end of another travel note from our Journey to the East. But the Journey to the East continues so… … If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully, and for any clarifications, comments, suggestions, or inputs, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

2 comentarios

  1. Thank you for your interesting article on Central Asia. It helps me to see this vast territory under another perspective, more eastern than western.

    Anxious for new readings!

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