Previous page  
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

Zhang Qian hears of Greece and India: 138-125 BC

The purpose of the journey of Zhang Qian is political (sent by the emperor Wudi to find allies in the west against the marauding Xiongnu), but his discoveries give him the status of an explorer.

In 138 BC he sets off through the Jade Gate at the western end of the Great Wall. Ahead is the vast open territory of the Xiongnu. The little party of 100 must have seemed very vulnerable. The most important member is a former slave, captured as a child from the Xiongnu and put to work in a Chinese family. He is their only means of talking to the barbarians.

The entire group is soon captured. They are kept prisoner, but they are well treated. Zhang Qian is even provided with a wife, by whom he has a son. After twelve years he escapes, together with his wife and the faithful slave. As a loyal envoy, he continues his mission - heading west rather than homewards. Eventually he reaches the Yueqi, to the north of Bactria. They have no interest in attacking the Xiongnu on behalf of the Chinese, so on its own terms his journey has been a lengthy failure.

But Zhang Qian has been looking around. And he has made some surprising discoveries.

The first is that Bactria has a different culture from the surrounding regions. The reason, Zhang Qian learns, is that a conqueror, Alexander the Great, came here from the west. As a result this place has Greek coins, Greek sculpture and a Greek script. Zhang Qian's presence here is the first recorded contact between the civilizations of the Far East and of the Mediterranean.

Even more surprising, the explorer finds in Bactria objects of bamboo and cloth made in southern China. They are brought here, he is told, by merchants from a land to the southeast, situated on a great river, where 'the inhabitants ride elephants when they go into battle.

The envoy heads home. Arriving back through the Jade Gate, the little group astonishes the Chinese. Zhang Qian and the faithful slave are all that remain of the party which set off thirteen years previously. The barbarian wife is an interesting addition.

Zhang Qian is given high office in the imperial bureaucracy. Even the slave is ennobled - with the resounding title 'Lord Who Carries Out His Mission'. And in view of the new information about the unknown land, another expedition is sent out.

Zhang Qian reasons that if the land of the elephants is southeast of Bactria, it must be southwest of China and probably not too far away. The expedition sent to reach this land is frustrated by the jungle of southeast Asia and by fierce tribes, but evidence is found that merchants do occasionally travel this way to a kingdom in the west where there are elephants. From China's point of view India, along with Greece, is now on the map.

On Zhang Qian's northern route, contact between the civilizations soon becomes commonplace. By 106 BC, twenty years after his return, the Silk Road is an established thoroughfare.

Previous page