The seventh emperor of the Han dynasty was just a teenager when he came to the throne, and he would reign for over half a decade – from 141 BC to his death in 87 BC. Born Liu Che in 157 BC, he became known as Emperor Wu-ti of Han. Due to his many military exploits, he earned the nickname The Martial Emperor.
During the reign of Emperor Wu-ti, his territory expanded in size, as he gradually built an empire stretching from North Korea in the east and deep into Central Asia in the west. He also introduced many domestic reforms that would have a major impact on Chinese life.
One of the emperor’s arch enemies was the Xiongnu, a Turkish-speaking nomadic tribe that controlled vast tracts of land in Central Asia, from the Aral Sea to Eastern Mongolia, and sometimes carried out raids into China.
Chang Ch’ien’s first westward journey
In 138 BC, Chang Ch’en, commander of the Imperial Palace Gate Guards, volunteered to carry out the long and perilous journey to the Yueh-chih people and convince them to enter into an alliance with the Han Emperor.
The Yueh-chih used to inhabit the Dunhuang, but had been driven away by the Xiongnu and now lived along the River Amu Dar’ya, west of the Pamir Mountains. Emperor Wu-ti hoped that they could be convinced to participate in a joint attack, where the Han and the Yueh-chih would simultaneously attack the Xiongnu from the east and west.
10+ years with the Xiongnu
Chang Ch’en started out on his journey accompanied by a hundred men, but before they could reach the Yueh-chih they were attacked and captured by the Xiongnu in Hexi. Instead of killing them, the Xiongnu kept them as prisoners for more than 10 years. During his time in captivity, Chang Ch’en was treated surprisingly well, and he was even allowed to marry a Xiongnu woman. Together, they had a son.
Escape and continued journey
Despite the many years with the Xiongnu, Chang Ch’en didn’t give up on his mission or change sides. Eventually, he managed to escape, and instead of running back to safety in China he continued his journey westward in search of the Yueh-chih.
Chang Ch’en took the northern Silk Road route, passing along the southern Tien Shan and over the Kashger and Pamir mountains. Eventually, he reached Kokand, Fergana (today’s Turkistan) where the king treated him in a friendly manner, and also informed him about where the Yueh-chich could be found nowadays.
Reaching the Yueh-chih
When Chang Chi’en finally reached the Yueh-chih, he found out that they were no longer nomads. They had settled down in fertile lands in Bactria and had no interest in going to east to take revenge on the Xiongnu.
Chang Ch’ien stayed with the Yueh-chih for over a year, before embarking on his long journey home. He didn’t want to take the same route back, so he opted for the southern Silk Road route instead.
Captured by the Xiongnu
On his way home, Chang Ch’ien was discovered by the Xiongnu who re-captured him. This time, they could only hold him for a year, because their king died in 126 BC and the ensuing confusion gave Chang Ch’ien a chance to escape together with his wife and son.
Back in Chang’an
Chang Ch’ien and his family all made it to Chang’an, the capital of the Hans. He had been away for 13 years and he had not managed to convince the Yueh-chih to help the Han Emperor, but he did bring back something very valuable to the empror: great knowledge about the lands to the west, including information about the geography, the travel routes and the peoples who lived there. In addition to his own experiences, Chang Ch’ien had also gathered information from other travellers, which ment that he could provide the emperor with info about regions such as Anxi (Persia), Tiaozhi (Arabia) and Da Ch’in (the Roman Empire).
One of the things that Chang Ch’ien informed Emperor Wu-ti about was the astonishingly large and high-quality horses found in Kokand. Ch’ien called them heavenly horses (celestial horses), since he believed that they were descendants of supernatural sky horses. You can read more about these horses farther down on this page.
Chang Ch’ien’s second westward journey
In 119 BC, Emperor Wu-ti sent Chang Ch’ien on a new expedition to Central Asia. The objective was the same as last time, i.e. to seek an alliance with a nomadic tribe, but this time the tribe of choice was the Wu-sun, who lived in the River Ili region.
Wu-ti left China with more than 300 men, two horses per man, and a lot of valuable gifts, such as gold and silk, that the emperor wanted to give to the western leaders to win them over. They travelled with both cattle and sheep.
We don’t know exactly which route they took this time. The records indicate that they passed Dunhuang, crossed the Tarim Basin and reached Kucha. Eventually, the got to the Wu-sun kingdom along the River Ili.
Chang Ch’ien failed to convince the Wu-sun to attack the Xiongnu, but he did arrange a marriage alliance that brought the Han dynasty and the Wu-sun closer together.
After dealing with the Wu-sun, Chang Ch’ien sent envoys to other western kingdoms, such as India and Parthia. This opened up the lines of communication and kingdoms interested in having good relations with the Han began sending their own envoys to the Chinese court. The new ties formed between the Han and the various kingdoms in the west also helped increase international trade, and the traffic on the Silk Road flourished.
Return to China
Chang Ch’ien second trip to the west didn’t last as long as the first one, but he was still away from China for several years before returning home. His health was not in good condition when got back, and he died the following year (113 BC), appoximately 50 years old.
The stories from his adventures came to have a profound impact on writers and artists for centuries, and he is still honored for his positive impact on trade along the Silk Road.
One of the things that greatly impressed Chang Ch’ien during his travels west were the horses of Kokand. These horses were larger and better muscled than they Chinese horses, and also had a remarkable stamina. Chang Ch’ien believed that they were the descendants of supernatural sky horse and called them celestial horses.
Unspurprisingly, the Han Emperor wanted to procure this type of horse for his army, but it proved more difficult than expected. The emperor sent an envoy to the King of Fergana, offering him gold coins in exchange for celestial horses, but not only was the offer refused – the envoy was actually stripped and murdered.
First military campaign
When the emperor found out about he faith of the envoy, he became furious and decided to take the horses by force instead. He picked a man named Li Guangli to head an expedition consisting of 6,000 men on horses and thousands of foot soldiers. They set off in 104 BC, but despite their great numbers they failed to defeat the Ferganas and eventually had to retreat to Dunhuang.
Second military campaign
In 102 BC, Li Guangli embarked on a second campaing to Fergana. This time, he was accompanied by 60,000 men, 100,000 head of cattle, 30,000 horses, and thousands of donkeys and camels.
This time, the campaign was successful. After beseiging the Fergana capital, Li Guangli returned to the Chinese court with a large group of celestial horses, plus 3,000 other stallions and mares. Fergana had also agreed to send two celestial horses to the Chinese court each year.
Celestial horses in China
The celestial horses brought to China by Li Guangli were used for breeding to make China less reliant on horses from Fergana.
These horses were highly adored by the Chinese and frequently depicted on Chinese art. Owning, or even being allowed to ride, a celestial horse was a major status symbol.
Curiously, the celestial horses are described in Chinese sources as sweating blood. This is not something noted in ancient texts only; Silk Road travellers as late as the 19th and 20th century AD described the same phenomenon. The exact cause remains unknown, but a likely explanation is a parasite that burrows under the skin of the horse, producing swellings that eventually burst and bleed.