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Letters tell story of soldiers’ lives on Han frontiers

JIANG YANG | 2017-07-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A beacon tower relic west of Yumen Pass 

The letters of garrison soldiers stationed in northwestern border areas of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) constitute a valuable contribution to Silk Road literature. These documents provide primary historical sources that can be used to study the lives and feelings of ordinary people along the Silk Road in the Han Dynasty.

Letters recorded on bamboo and wooden slips unearthed are called ji or records. They were the most commonly used instruments for transmitting information and sharing feelings in Qin and Han dynasties.


Governance of Western Regions
The Western Regions of the Han Dynasty refer to areas west of Yumen Pass, including the present-day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and parts of Central Asia. In 138 BCE and 119 BCE, Emperor Wu dispatched imperial envoy Zhang Qian to the kingdoms in Western Regions. Zhang’s diplomacy and the information gained about Western Regions facilitated the commercial connection of Han Dynasty with the world beyond its western borders.

Following Zhang’s expedition, the Han Dynasty stationed troops to guard the borders. Garrison troops and peasants were sent to homestead uncultivated land in the Hexi Corridor, a part of the Silk Road in Gansu Province, and grow grain there. The local administrative system of prefectures and counties was established around that time.

The Han also began to develop a system of early warning signals along the border as well as a postal service system, which required the construction of border cities, fortresses, courier stations, beacon towers and post stations. Military defense was integrated with the transportation and postal system, ensuring efficient traffic and postal service on the Silk Road.

In the chapter of “Biographies of the Western Kingdoms” in the History of Former Han Dynasty, historian Ban Gu (32-92) wrote: “Later, Piaoqi General Huo Qubing defeated and occupied the Western areas of the Xiongnu Empire and the princes Hunxie and Xiutu surrendered themselves to the armies of the Han Dynasty. The Xiongnu people of these areas were moved to other regions of the Han Dynasty. The central government then established Jiuquan Prefecture for the first time. Later, Chinese people were relocated to fill in those regions and three more prefectures—Wuwei, Zhangye and Dunhuang—were established. And the Yumen Pass and Yang Pass were also controlled by the central government.”

This channel from Zhangye to Dunhuang was an important part of the eastern sector of the Silk Road in Han Dynasty. A large number of garrison troops were stationed along this channel to settle in uncultivated land in this region and produce grain, while guarding the borders at the same time.

In the chapter of “Biography of Zhao Chongguo” in the History of Former Han Dynasty, Zhao Chongguo said: “The northern border of our nation from Dunhuang to Liaodong is about 11,500 li (5,750 kilometers) long. Thousands of soldiers are stationed at the fortresses and beacon towers.”

The stories of these unsung guardians of the Silk Road were largely lost to history until British archaeologist Marc Stein discovered 705 pieces of bamboo slips among the ruins of Great Wall beacon towers in northwestern Dunhuang, Gansu Province, in 1907. In 1914, Chinese scholars Wang Guowei and Luo Zhenyu compiled Lost Bamboo Slips in Desert Areas based on these newly discovered bamboo slips. By cross-referencing the information on the bamboo slips with historical documents, Wang and Luo pioneered a new way to conduct research on the Han Dynasty.

The letters of border soldiers found etched on bamboo slips in Dunhuang, Juyan and Xuanquan provide an extraordinary glimpse into life on the ancient Silk Road.     

Ordinary life
Scholars have long disputed what life was like for garrison soldiers along the Silk Road of Han Dynasty, and the letters provide a few clues.



Many of the letters are devoted to complaints about the hardships of official missions and guard duty. Two letters found at the site of a beacon tower in Dunhuang document the difficulties of garrison life in northwestern China.

One of the letters reads: “Tian Ziyuan, your excellency, we have not seen each other for a long time. Please take it easy and do not work too hard. You have been living for a long time outside of the passes. How is your daily life? What concerns me most is that after receiving the grains you sent to us three days ago, the food is going to be inadequate again. Ziyuan please pay attention.”
Another letter reads: “Er Shang bows to you. Recently, I have been short of drink and food. Would you please lend me 1 hu (60 kilograms) of grains…Master Yang, I weep to you. My gratitude for your kindness…”

The other side of the bamboo slip,  which might not be a part of the same letter, reads “The prefecture officials sympathize with the ordinary people like us, from the poor families who have long lived outside the Great Wall and new garrison troops are scheduled to replace us. Master Yang, please inform the prefecture officials of our situation on time…We are waiting to be replaced. When the replacement arrives, we will be able to go back home. I kowtow to you.”

According to the The History of Former Han Dynasty, the prefecture chief was called  dayin during the rule of Wang Mang, an official who rebelled against the Han and briefly established the Xin Dynasty (9-23 CE). The use of titles such as “dayin” in the letters indicates that all these letters were written during Wang’s regime. Judging from the words of Er Shang and others like him, the life of a soldier on the frontier was one of homesickness and deprivation.

As we can see from these letters, the border soldiers were not supplied with food or relieved from duty on time. All these details hint at the failure of Wang Mang’s policies and the tensions between the central government and minority regimes.

The letters are consistent with historical accounts, such as the chapter “Biographies of the Western Kingdoms” in the History of Former Han Dynasty. The records say “Wang Mang demoted and replaced previous lords and kings after he usurped the throne of the Western Han Dynasty. Because of this, the regimes of the Western Regions rebelled against and alienated themselves from the central government.”

Despite the strife all around them, garrison officials and soldiers still showed an enterprising spirit. They endeavored to make achievements in the border regions and contribute to the nation. One wrote: “I was dispatched to the Western Regions. I hope to annihilate the rebellious enemies and suppress all these regimes.” Another one wrote: “How can the debts of gratitude be unpaid? How can I neglect the duties as a royal servant?”


Ordinary feelings
Huan Kuan of Han Dynasty in his Discourses on Salt and Iron wrote that “In ancient times, forced labor was never more than a year or prolonged. Now, the people are forced to work thousands, even tens of thousands, of li away from home and even serve for two terms. Their parents are worried and their wives sigh day and night.”

Many literary works with themes of serving the nation, patrolling and homesteading in the frontiers and homesickness were written, but they were seldom recorded in history books. The letters of border soldiers in Han Dynasty unearthed along the Silk Road fill the void in scholarship.

Take for example one letter found in a Dunhuang beacon tower. It reveals a soldier’s feelings of helplessness at being unable to unite with his family because of his border patrol duties. In this letter, this soldier wrote to his parents that “The weather is severely cold, and I hope you take care.”

In the end of the letter, he thanked his elder brother and sister-in-law for taking care of his parents while he was away: “I regret that I am unable to take care of our parents. Thank you for taking care of them. Please accept my deep gratitude.”

Though the letters are fragmented and only partial messages are discernable, the soldiers’ desire to be reunited with family and regret over their inability to fulfil their filial duties can be seen.

Some of these letters expressed the author’s friendship toward his fellow soldiers. Take, for example, two letters unearthed in Juyan. One wrote: “I hope we can frequently write to each other and share about our experiences. That would be a great pleasure.” In another: “The spring has been upsetting. Zi You, I hope you dress warmly and eat well. I look forward to receiving your letters.”

Though brief, the two letters express sincere feelings, which are also commonly seen in the music bureau poems of that time. The phrases “eat well,” “dress warmly” and “long time, no see” in the letters of these border soldiers are also commonly seen in frontier poems of the Han Dynasty. The letters provide background information about the environment that birthed frontier literature in the Han Dynasty.

Jiang Yang is from the College of History and Literature, Northwest Normal University.