Zhang Qian: Pioneer Explorer of the Route to the West

By David Wu, Epoch Times
October 5, 2013 Updated: October 5, 2013

Zhang Qian (張騫) is venerated as the pioneer of diplomacy and trade who opened up China to the world and paved the way for the development of East-West cultural and economic exchange through his two missions to the regions west of China during the Han Dynasty (漢朝) (206 B.C.–A.D. 220).

The route he established through the Western Regions, or Xiyu (西域), which encompassed modern-day Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia, later became known as the famous Silk Road (絲綢之路).

Ever since the establishment of the Han Dynasty, the nomadic Xiongnu (匈奴) (centuries later they were to be referred to as Huns) had been the most threatening enemy from the north and west.

Emperor Wu of Han, known as Han Wudi (漢武帝), abandoned the previous defensive foreign policy of his grandfather and father, emperors Wen and Jing, and launched a series of attacks against the Xiongnu.

There was an Asian tribal group in the Western Regions called the Da Yuezhi (大月氏), or “Great Yuezhi,” whose king had been killed by the Xiongnu, and they sought revenge.

Seeing this as an opportunity, Emperor Wu sent an envoy to the Da Yuezhi to seek a military alliance with them against the Xiongnu.

However, to reach the Da Yuezhi, one had to pass through Xiongnu territory. Zhang Qian, a military officer of Han, volunteered and was chosen to be the imperial envoy that would make the long, perilous journey to complete this mission.

Epic Journeys

Around 139 B.C., in his first diplomatic mission, Zhang Qian led a group of some 100 delegates west, including a Xiongnu guide.

Unfortunately, all were captured by the Xiongnu before they could complete their journey.

Zhang Qian was held for many years and later took a Xiongnu wife. However, determined to complete his mission, he hid his true feelings and never gave up seeking an opportunity to escape.

After 10 years, he managed to escape with the Xiongnu guide. They overcame many difficulties until they finally reached the Da Yuezhi nation. However, by then the political situation had changed and the new king of the Da Yuezhi had no intention of attacking the Xiongnu.

Although his original mission was unfulfilled, Zhang learned much through his journeying. Before he returned to China, he spent over a year traveling among the different tribes that had settled in the vast western area. He not only documented their life and culture but also introduced Chinese culture to the tribes.

On his way back to China, Zhang Qian was, again, captured by the Xiongnu. However, because the Xiongnu were impressed by his courage and determination, they spared his life.

A year later, when unrest broke out in the Xiongnu state, he managed to escape again, this time with his wife and son. Zhang made his way back to Chang’an (長安), then the capital of China.

During his 13 years away from China, Zhang was able to collect large amounts of rich information about many of the tribes and nations in the Western Regions.

After hearing Zhang Qian’s reports about his journey, Emperor Wu was inspired to finally defeat the Xiongnu and expand China’s territory.

In 119 B.C., Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian out on his second mission to the west in the hope of forming an alliance against the Xiongnu with another nomadic tribe, the Wusun (烏孫). The Wusun lived in a valley north of the Tarim Basin in what is today’s Xinjiang region of northwestern China.

Although the mission to form a military alliance was not successful, Zhang Qian sent his assistant to visit other nations in the area and successfully established and maintained good diplomatic relations with many nations in the Central Asian region.

Zhang Qian’s two epic journeys to the Western Regions covered many of the countries in Central Asia and Western Asia (the Middle East), including Ferghana (eastern Uzbekistan), Sogdiana (Uzbekistan), Bactria (Afghanistan), and India.

Alfalfa, walnuts, pomegranates, and superior breeds of horses were just a few of the goods introduced into China. Meanwhile, Central Asia and Western Asia came to know more about Chinese culture and products, especially silk.

Zhang Qian is honored for the development of the ancient Silk Road and for being instrumental in promoting diplomatic ties, trade links, and cultural exchange between China and countries in Central and Western Asia.