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Khotan civilization resulted from contact between China, the West

By Zhang Chunhai | 2016-04-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wu Xinhua (1963- ) is a research fellow and deputy director of the Research Center for Frontier Archaeology and Center for Foreign Archaeology of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).


Khotan, called Yutian in ancient China and Hetian today, locates in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Literally, Khotan means a rich place of jade in Tibetan. Wu Xinhua has participated in archaeological digs in Khotan for more than a decade, including a series of excavations of the No. 3 Buddhist Temple site at Topulukdong in Damago of Cele County and the Huyangdun Buddhist Temple in Xinjiang. Wu has helped to translate the works of British archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), including Ancient Khotan, Serindia and Innermost Asia.

Wu has his own opinions on the definition of the Silk Road. He said that the Silk Road has played an integral part in China’s development, acting as a transportation route and communication channel between Chinese and Western civilization. Ancient Xinjiang played a unique role in the Silk Road, and ancient Khotan is a typical example, said Wu to CSST.


CSST: Determining the origins of the Khotan people is an interesting subject, and it is difficult to find a clear answer. I noticed that your recent paper deals with this problem.


Wu: The origins of early inhabitants—including Khotan people—in the Tarim Basin has been the subject of much debate among scholars at home and abroad for almost a century. Now, it is generally acknowledged that before and after the early first century, Buddhism was introduced to the Tarim Basin and formed a certain cultural connection with the local populace.

In my opinion, based on written records, including Records of Khotan or other Buddhist literature, a certain number of inhabitants and towns existed there at least before the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), including some city-states in the oasis, which is the main constituent part of the 36 countries in the Western Region, modern-day Xinjiang. But the founding legend of the Kingdom of Khotan has been well documented in Chinese literature, including Buddhist documents and The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. According to the legend, a group of people led by an Oriental prince encountered another group of people from the Pamirs and Kunlun Mountains in the upper reaches of the Khotan River, or the region of Baiyu River and Moyu River, and started a war. Finally, the Oriental group defeated the other group, and the two peoples mixed together, forming the early inhabitants of Khotan.

This story has a lot of information on history and culture, and it is worthy of further attention. Now we have made a number of important findings in our archaeological studies. Research on the Hexi Corridor, Tianshan Mountain and the Tarim Basin, including an ancient settlement of the Khotan people, has gradually brought into focus a more accurate picture of history. There is much evidence showing that this kind of legend has some historical basis. Before the Han Dynasty, Chinese civilization, which is at the core of East Asia civilization, had already exerted a strong influence and its power radiated as far as Khotan, a main representative of the Tarim Basin, forming a leading force in this area.

This area became the core, intermediary, non-dual area and a unique point of access along the Silk Road, possessing the unique  role of serving as the communication channel for early Oriental civilizations. The mutual influence between the East and West can be seen in the legend of founding the Kingdom of Khotan in Records of Khotan.


CSST: What historical facts or processes does this legend correspond to?


Wu: The origin and spread of early Caucasians is a hot topic in international academia. And this issue mainly focuses on the grassland to the north of Tianshan Mountains. During their spread, a part of these early Caucasians moved to the neighborhood of the core area of Chinese civilization and then gradually retreated westward after the rise of the State of Qin.

It is recorded that the Lord of Mu (682-21 BCE), the dominant figure in the State of Qin and one of the Five Hegemons in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), engaged in a war with tribes in the Western Region, eliminating more than 20 states and extending the territory of the State of Qin westward for thousands of miles. So where did these conquered people in more than 20 states move?

A portion of them remained where they were and integrated with Qin people. The others, called the Saka in Chinese documents and the Scythians by Westerners, chose to move westward and their spoken language belonged to the Eastern Iranian family of languages. Certainly, there were some tribes of the Qiang nationality who spoke Sino-Tibetan languages after the Saka’s westward migration and settled in the areas to the south and north of Tianshan Mountains and on the northern slope of Kunlun Mountains.

Khotan is in the central area of the south road of the Silk Road. The unique counterparts of people from the Oriental state in the legend of the Kingdom of Khotan are the Saka who migrated westward. The Saka’s westward migration perfectly matched the historical period and background in that legend, so there is a great chance that they encountered another tribe in the upper reaches of the Khotan River. Those people who migrated to Khotan came from the neighborhood of the Oriental civilization’s core area and had deep knowledge of Oriental civilization. They integrated and mixed with the indigenous people of Khotan and became its early inhabitants.

The cultural background of these early inhabitants displayed two characteristics: The first is that their culture was Oriental in nature. The Oriental prince led his people to Khotan, and they stood for advanced Oriental culture. The second characteristic is that they had a mature knowledge of jade production. There is a connection between jade and early Chinese culture. The Qijia people of Gansu Province manufactured and used jade articles, and they played a role in transmitting the jade culture. The Qijia people were very familiar with the route through Khotan area, the northern slope of Kunlun Mountains and the Tarim Basin, and the jade produced in this region.

So the formation of early Khotan people has a close connection with the development of Oriental civilization, and the expansion and radiating function of Oriental civilization promoted people’s migration.


CSST: Khotan is the bright pearl of the Silk Road. What aspects of the Silk Road does Khotan reflect?


Wu: Khotan plays a significant role in the Silk Road, but scholars give it less attention than it deserves. For instance, in the past decade I have worked in the field of archaeological studies on Khotan Buddhism. To this day, a large quantity of relic sites of Buddhism still remain in Khotan. And local people’s lives are still filled with elements of Buddhist culture. For example, the decorative design on naan, a kind of crusty pancake served as the staple food of the Uygur and Kazak nationalities, is actually a lotus-shaped pattern, which comes from the Buddhist lotus symbol.

Zoroastrianism and ancient Hinduism also exerted a great influence on Khotan. Based on the legend, the Kingdom of Khotan was established by an Oriental prince, but the prince didn’t have any offspring. So he went to Vaisravana, the patron saint of Khotan, to pray for children, but who is Vaisravana? Actually, Vaisravana is the god of wealth. But why did Khotan people choose the god of wealth as their patron saint? This seems to indicate that the Silk Road used to be a significant channel of trade. At that time, the advantageous location of Khotan allowed it to become very prosperous through taxes and trade, so the god of wealth became its guardian. Vaisravana originally came from Hinduism and was not an intrinsic deity in Buddhism. So Buddhism borrowed and absorbed it from Hinduism, showing the influence of ancient India on Khotan. And this influence was the result of commercial intercourse and cultural exchanges on the Silk Road.


Zhang Chunhai is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.