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Han Empire’s pioneering contribution to Silk Road

ZHANG DEFANG | 2021-09-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The ruins of Heishui City, or Khara-Khoto, located in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was an important fortress city of the Western Xia Kingdom (1038–1227), a Tangut-ruled kingdom of China. It is one of the best-preserved city ruins along the Silk Road. Photo: CFP

Since the early 20th century, a large number of bamboo and wooden slips dated to the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Jin (265–420) dynasties have been unearthed in western China. These slips offer significant information about the route of the Silk Road at that time. Archives and unearthed slips show that the Han Empire’s operation upon the Silk Road varied with different sections of the routes, so as to keep the Silk Road open and prosperous.


Eastern section of Silk Road

The routes from Chang’an [the Han capital, in present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi Province] to Dunhuang [in present-day Gansu Province], known as the eastern section of the Silk Road, has attracted the attention of academia since the 1980s. Experts think that this section was geographically divided by the Yellow River into Hedong [east of the river] and Hexi [west of the river]. Sandwiched by two mountains [the Qilian and Heli mountains], the Hexi Corridor is such a narrow stretch of deserts and oases, that the routes within this region could only run east to west. Different from the Hexi Corridor, the Longdong Plateau [part of the Loess Plateau] features mountains, rivers, and precipitous paths. Within this area, ancient routes varied with time, among which the most convenient one was known as the Northern Route, starting from Chang’an, passing through Mount Long and Guyuan [in present-day Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region], crossing the Yellow River in Jingyuan County, and arriving at Wuwei City [both in present-day Gansu Province]. 


As the Silk Road thrived during the Han and Tang (618–907) dynasties, the Northern Route became the main path linking Chang’an with Dunhuang. It has been confirmed by the unearthed Han Dynasty wooden slips. Two wooden slips unearthed respectively at the Jiaqu Houguan Site [in present-day Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region] in 1974 and at the Xuanquanzhi Site [in Dunhuang] in 1990, together record the locations of yizhi [ancient relay stations along the Silk Road, where travelers and postmen could rest and eat] between Chang’an and Dunhuang. The distance between Xi’an and Dunhuang is nearly 2,000 kilometers. There used to be 45 relay stations on 1,700 kilometers of this route, with an average distance of about 38 kilometers between each station. Information of relay stations within the remaining 300 kilometers was unclear due to the missing parts of the wooden slips. The unearthed slips indicate that the Silk Road of the Han era was protected and supported by the Han court.  

The Xuanquanzhi Site is an ancient postal and relay station with the most inscriptions on Han Dynasty wooden slips. The main building at this site was a courtyard of about 2,500 square meters, with 29 rooms inside and outside. The unearthed slips record that normally this station had a staff of 37 people, 40 postal horses, and more than 10 stagecoaches. The 45 similar stations between Chang’an and Dunhuang were an indication of the national power of the Han Empire at that time, as it guaranteed the smooth flow of the Silk Road politically, economically, and militarily.
In addition to the Northern Route, there was a Southern Route, which started from Chang’an, headed west along the Wei River, passed through Baoji City [in present-day Shaanxi Province], crossed the Yellow River in the west of Lanzhou City [in present-day Gansu Province], Wushao Mountain, and arrived at Wuwei City. By the Tang era, this route had become the main path between Chang’an and Dunhuang, which remained in use for over 1,000 years.
Middle section of Silk Road
The middle section of the Silk Road referred to the routes on the north and south of the Tianshan Mountains [partly located in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (hereinafter called Xinjiang)]. During the Han era, the Western Regions in a narrow sense referred to the area south of the Tianshan Mountains. At that time, the passable routes were along the southern and northern edges of the Tarim Basin, to wit the southern branch and northern branch mentioned in the Book of Han [covering history between 206 BCE and 23 CE].
According to the Book of Han, the Western Regions started to communicate with the Central Plain [commonly refers to the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River, a historical and cultural concept that represents China] since the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BCE). There were originally 36 states in this area, later divided into more than 50 states. All the states were situated to the west of the Xiongnu [nomadic pastoral people who at the end of the 3rd century BCE formed a great tribal league in Central Asia] and the south of Wusun [a state of an Indo-European semi-nomadic people]. Most of these states were oasis city-states distributed along the southern and northern branches of the Silk Road in the Western Regions. An oasis was usually inhabited by a tribe or an ethnic group, and it was called a “state” no matter how small it was. These “states” were completely different from a “state” in the modern sense.
The southern branch of the Silk Road in the Western Regions, according to the Book of Han, started from Shanshan [also known as Loulan, an ancient state in today’s Xinjiang] along the northern foot of the Kunlun Mountains, and led west along the Tarim River to Shache [also called Yarkant, an ancient kingdom on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin]. This southern branch led west through Pamirs Plateau into Darouzhi [home of the nomadic people who later established the Kushan Empire in Central Asia in the 1st century] and the Parthian Empire. The inscribed slips unearthed from Xuanquanzhi Site mention 10 states along this southern branch, including Shanshan, Jingjue [also called Niya, an independent oasis state on the southern edge of the Tarim Basin], and Yutian [the Kingdom of Khotan, an ancient Buddhist kingdom]. The Protectorate of the Western Regions [an imperial administration set up by the Han Empire to manage many states in the Western Regions] was officially established in 60 BCE. As local regimes under the Protectorate of the Western Regions, the states along the southern branch were put under an obligation to protect transit envoys. They served as stopovers that provided accommodation.
In the late Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE), the practice of tuntian [a state-promoted system of agriculture, through which land was farmed by and for the military] in Yixun [in present-day Xinjiang] played the most important role in safeguarding the southern branch of the Western Regions. According to the Book of Han, in 77 BCE, a Chinese envoy was sent to kill the Loulan King after several Han envoys were kidnapped and killed, and he succeeded. The king’s younger brother Weituqi was then assigned as the king of Loulan by the Han ruler, and the kingdom was renamed Shanshan. The newly installed king requested the presence of Han forces in Yixun, due to his fear of retribution from the sons of the assassinated king. A Chinese army was therefore stationed at Yixun and practiced tuntian, and a commandant office was established there. From 77 BCE to the end of the Western Han Dynasty, the tuntian practice at Yixun was a political, economic, and military measure of the Han Empire to protect the southern branch of the Silk Road in the Western Regions.
The northern branch of the Silk Road in the Western Regions also began from Dunhuang, leading westward along the southern foot of the Tianshan Mountains and the northern rim of the Taklimakan Desert, crossing the Pamirs Plateau and arriving in Central Asia. There were 10 city-states recorded in the Han Dynasty slips, such as Jushi, Quli, Qiuci, and Shule [all in present-day Xinjiang]. These oasis states were important stopovers along the Silk Road. The Han government took a series of important measures to encourage them to contribute to the smooth flow of the Silk Road. The most significant measure was setting up the Protectorate of the Western Regions and sending an army, commanded by Wuji Xiaowei [a title of a military commander], to practice tuntian. These efforts were recorded in detail on the unearthed wooden slips.
Han Empire’s efforts
The Book of Han recorded that in 60 BCE, an internal disturbance occurred among the Xiongnu ruling clique, and Xianxianshan, King Rizhu of the Xiongnu, wanted to pledge allegiance to the Han imperial court. He sent messages to Zheng Ji (a Han general who later served as the first Protector General of the Western Regions, ?–49 BCE). Soon, Zheng sent out 50,000 people from Quli and Qiuci to welcome King Rizhu. Led by Zheng, King Rizhu and 12,000 of his troops and 12 military officers travelled to the Han capital. The Han emperor honored King Rizhu as “Marquis Gui De.” King Rizhu’s allegiance to the Han and the establishment of the Protectorate of the Western Regions marked the complete decline of the Xiongnu and the Han’s complete control over the Western Regions. 
The wooden slips unearthed from Xuanquanzhi Site provide records of King Rizhu’s journey and the relevant receptions, which confirmed his allegiance to the Han Empire. For example, a wooden text mentioned that in 60 BCE, Han Zeng (?–56 BCE), whose title was Cheqi General, sent out court officials to receive King Rizhu in Jiuquan [in present-day Gansu Province]. 
The eastern section of the Silk Road was directly under the Han central government, and 45 relay stations ensured the safety of long-distance travel. The Western Regions were completely different. The Protectorate of the Western Regions oversaw the Western Regions on behalf of the Han central government, and the oasis city-states received their responsibilities from the central authority while keeping their original status. In addition to traditional archives, a large number of unearthed Han Dynasty wooden slips further proved that without the Han Empire’s powerful guarantee for the political, military, economic, and diplomatic aspects of the Western Regions, it would be impossible to keep the smooth flow of the Silk Road during the Han era.
Zhang Defang is a distinguished fellow from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at Shaanxi Normal University.