Throughout the Chin and Han period (221 BC-220 AD) China's most formidable foreign opponent was the Xiongnu, a Turkish-speaking nomadic tribe which, at its apex of power early in the second century BC, held sway over a territory that extended all the way from Eastern Mongolia to the Aral Sea. From time to time its cavalrymen rode southward and raided China, much to the distress of the people in the border. The Chinese built the Great Wall to protect themselves but even that was not enough. So when Wu-ti took over the empire, he only had two things in mind - defense and trade.
The Big Yueh-chih people once lived in the Dunhuang, Gansu area and had been defeated by the Xiongnu and driven out to the Amu Dar'ya River west of the Pamirs. Wu-ti planned to form an alliance with the Xiongnu's old enemies, the Yueh-chih people to attack the Xiongnu from the east and west together. Wu-ti now needed a man with great physical strength and noble character to take the journey to Yueh-chih, where is thousands miles away.
Chang Ch'ien's Explorations to the West
In 138 BC, Chang Ch'ien (d. 114 BC) or Zhang Qian, the commander of the guards at the imperial palace gates, volunteered to the hazardous journey to persuade Yueh-chih. He left with hundred men. On his way, he and his men were captured by the Xiongnu in Hexi (Gansu Province) for more than 10 years. He was well treated by the Xiongnu and married to a Xiongnu wife. With her, they had a son. However he never forgot his mission to Yueh-chih in the west and managed to escape. With great determination, Chang Ch'ien continued to travel westward the "northern route", along the southern Tien Shan, passed over Kashger and then the Pamirs. Finally Chang Ch'ien arrived Kokand, Fergana (Turkistan) and was friends with the king. He resumed his journey to the west after the king informed him that the Yueh-chih had imgrated from the Ili river to the Amu Dar'ya river. By the time Chang Ch'ien reached the Yueh-chih people, they had already abandoned their nomadic life and become sedentary and civilized people. They lived in peace and contentment in the fertile Bactria and no longer wanted to return to the east or revenge on the Xiongnu. Chang Ch'ien lived among the Yueh-chih for more than a year, then made his way back to the east. Being cautious Chang Ch'ien didn't want to go back with the same route as he came; so he returned on the "southern route" instead. He safely passed the Pamirs, then Kusha and Cherchen. However before he left Tarim Basin, he was again captured by the Xiongnu for one year. In the confusion that followed the death of Xiongnu king at 126 BC, he managed to escape with his wife and son and returned to Chang'an (Xian), the capital of Han dynasty. This trip lasted 13 years. When he returned, only one man out of the origional hundred came back with him.
Even though Chang Ch'ien didn't succeed his mission, he brought back a wealth of firsthand information on the history, geography, and cultural conditions of Central Asia and also about the regions further west like Anxi (Persia), Tiaozhi (Arabia) and Da Ch'in (Roman Empire).
Between 119 and 115 BC, Wu-ti send Chang Ch'ien to Central Asia again, this time to seek the alliance with another nomadic tribe, Wu-sun, a people lived in the Ili river (Xinjiang) region. Wu-ti also intended to make friendly ties with the western kingdoms by offering gifts. Thus Chang Ch'ien left with more than three hundred men. Each man had two horses. They took cattle and sheep with them and made arrangements to offer gold, silk and other gifts in great quantities. It is not clear which route he took on the second trip. The records seem to indicate that he passed Dunhuang, Loulan, then entered the Tarim basin and Kucha, and finally arrived to the capital of Wu-sun kingdom in the Ili river. He was successful in arranging a marriage alliance with Wu-sun but couldn't get Wu-sun to agree to revenge on Xiongnu openly. Chang Ch'ien then successively sent envoys to other kingdoms including Parthia and India. They were welcomed by the distant countries. When an Han envoy reached Parthia, its king sent 20,000 cavalrymen to welcome him on the eastern frontier. At the same time, the kingdoms sent their own envoys to Han. From then on, the diplomatic missions were dispatched regularly along with commercial trading. The traffic on the Silk Road began to flourish as never before.
After a lifetime of travel and danger, Chang Ch'ien's health was deteriorated as he returned from the second trip. He died immediately the following year. The later travellers on the Silk Road honored him as the founder of the Silk Road. His adventures inspired writers and artists for centuries. (Picture on the top-right: Chang Ch'ien bids farewell to Emperor Wu-di as he embarks on his journey to Yueh-chih, a mural from cave 323 of the Mogao caves, Dunhuang)
While Chang Ch'ien was staying at Fergana, he was particularly impressed with the fine horses of Kokand which sweated blood and were believed to be the descendants of supernatural or celestial horses. From him, Wu-ti learned that two thousand miles away in Fergana, great steeds of sixteen hands were bred, and named them 'Heavenly Horses' or 'Celestial Horses'. Since the campaigns agaist Xiongnu demanded vast numbers of war horses with qualities of size, stamina and muscle not possessed by indigenous breeds, Wu-ti decided to bring those Celestial Horses to Han's court.
Why the horses sweat blood in Fergana remained a mystery till this century. Apparently it was caused by parasite which burrowed under the skin in the region of the shoulder or the back and produced little swellings which burst and bled. The 'sweating blood' horses were also recorded by the Silk Road travellers in the 19th and 20th centuries, which seems to indicate that it may have been a common disease on the horses of those regions.
Wu-ti's Military Expeditions to Fergana
Wu-ti's initial attempt to trade the Celetial Horses with gold coins was rejected by the king of Fergana and the Han envoy sent for the negotiation was murdered and stripped. When the news arrived Chang'an, Wuti was furious and decided to take them by force. He appointed Li Guangli to lead the expedition. In 104 BC, Li Guangli set off to win the horses with 6000 horsmen and thousands of foot soldiers. However they were not able to defeat Fergana and forced to retreat to Dunhuang. There Li Guangli with only few remaining men waited for the reinforcements from Wu-ti. In 102 BC, Wu-ti embarked the second military campaign in an army of 60,000 men, 30,000 horses, 100,000 head of cattle and thousands of donkeys and camels marching out towards Fergana. They reached the capital and successfully besieged it. They returned to China with a great haul of the famous Fergana steeds. Fergana provided them with the best celetial horses as well as 3000 ordinary stallions and mares. Furthmore two celestial horses would be sent every year. The two campaigns had lasted four years.
Since then the 'celetial horses' were bred in China. They became status symbols for rich men and officials. Furthermore the event had left traces in the history of art. In October 1969, a general's tomb of the second century AD, discovered near Wu-wei (Gansu province), yielded the treasure of bronze horses. Those bronze statuettes are now considered to be one of the finest known works of Han art. Among them is the famous "Flying Horse" (See picture on the right), its head and tail raised high in a proudly untrammelled gallop, its fleeting touch with the earth brilliantly suggested in the one hoof borne on a flying swallow. This is doubtlessly a miniature of the horse imported from Fergana during Wu-ti expeditions in Central Asia. It is the best artwork of 'celetial horse' known today.
Trade Route Establishment
Thus the by-product of the Xiongnu's campaigns and the exploration by Chang Ch'ien was the opening of the eastern routes of the Silk Road. Once the trade route was opened up, it benifited people and governments of all sides. The Chinese imported horses, cattle, and furs and hides from Central Asia, while the Central Asians obtained silk from China. Cucumber, walnut, sesame, alfalfa and pomegranate were subsequently introduced to China during Han period as well as grapes that served as a new material for Chinese to make wine.