Zhang Qian, the Chinese Marco Polo


Over one thousand years before Marco Polo the Han emissary Zhang Qian traveled west to present day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, opening routes later called the Silk Road.

The year was 138 BCE when the emperor Wu-Ti of the Han Dynasty sent his emissary, Zhang Qian on a quixotic journey westward from the Han capital of Xi’an, in the central part of China. Zhang Qian’s mission was to find a nomadic people by the name of the Yueh-chih and forge a treaty with them against another group of steppe nomads called the Hsiung-nu. The Yueh-chih were pushed from their homes in the north by the Hsiung-nu and now were rumored to live far to the west in the mountains beyond a flat basin containing a harsh and uncompromising desert.

The Emperor’s Plan for Subjugating a Rebellious Tribe

The war-like and unconquered Hsiung-nu challenged the authority of the Han. Wu-Ti knew that these steppe peoples must be subjugated if he was to retain his position as the “Son of Heaven”. With the mounted warriors of the Yueh-chih attacking from the west and the Han armies driving north from the east, the Hsiung-nu would find themselves caught in a terrible vise and would be driven into abeyance to Wu-ti or into oblivion. The Yueh-chih then would be given their ancestral lands back by the benevolence of the great emperor and the Han would finally know peace throughout the empire.

The Results of Zhang’s Quest

In their book China, John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer describe how Zhang Qian was captured by the Hsiung-nu while searching for the Yueh-chih. He was held as their captive for several years. Upon his release, Zhang dutifully returned to his mission and did ultimately find the Yueh-chih in present day Afghanistan where they had become a settled people and were on the verge of expanding their civilization down the Indus River valley into India.

The Yueh-chih were no longer interested in East Asian conflicts, so the emperor’s invitation was declined and Zhang returned to Xi’an in 126 BCE. The emissary Zhang Qian traveled for twelve years and covered over two thousand miles from the heart of Chinese civilization into Central Asia and back again with seemingly little to show for his efforts. Wu-ti dispatched Zhang a second time in 115 BCE to another people in the Ili Valley of Kazakhstan and was again rebuffed.

The Han’s Efforts Ultimately Lead to Success

Other contacts with Central Asia followed Zhang’s missions from the Han. After 52 BCE, the southern half of the Hsiung-nu capitulated to the Han, freeing the dynasty’s armies for further expansion south and westward. In 42 BCE Han armies garrisoned the line of oases south of the Tien Shan Mountains skirting the Taklimakan Desert and ultimately arrived at the Pamir Mountains in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. These forces then penetrated into the ancient Hellenist kingdom of Sogdiana along the Jaxartes River, thus projecting Chinese military power over two thousand miles from its base, Xi’an, in eastern Asia.

The Formation of the Silk Road

Many historians, such as William McNeill in his signature work, Rise of the West mark this time in the first century BCE as the end of Chinese isolation in eastern Asia and the opening of important trade routes from China to the west that collectively would later become known as the “Silk Road”. These routes were protected and maintained by military powers such as the Han and the Parthians in present day Iran because of their economic benefit. All of this began with the hapless emissary Zhang Qian embarking on his journey across a western expanse of mountains and deserts to Central Asia.