Zhang Qian 张骞

An diplomat who explored the Silk Road


Chinese Name: 张骞

English Name: Zhang Qian

Other Names: Ziwen 子文

Born: 164 BC

Died: 114 BC


Opening the Silk Road 开通丝绸之路

Fight against the Huns 抗击匈奴

Zhang Qian 张骞
Zhang Qian 张骞

Brief Biography of Zhang Qian

Zhang Qian was an outstanding diplomat, traveler, explorer, and pioneer of the Silk Road in the Han Dynasty.

Zhang Qian (about 164-114 BC), courtesy name Ziwen 子文, is a native of Hanzhong County 汉中郡, Shaanxi Province 陕西省. His hometown is in Bowang Village 博望村, 2 kilometers south of Chenggu County 城固县, Hanzhong City 汉中市, Shaanxi Province, on the bank of the Han River 汉江.

Zhang Qian is full of pioneering and adventurous spirit. In the second year of Jianyuan 建元 in the Western Han Dynasty 西汉 (139 BC), at the order of Emperor Wu of the Han 汉武帝, Zhang Qian set out from Chang’an, the capital of the Han Dynasty with Gan Fu 甘父 as the guide, and led more than 100 people to the Western Regions, opening the north-south road from the Han Dynasty to the Western Regions, that is, the famous “Silk Road 丝绸之路”. Emperor Wu of the Han granted him the title of Bowang Marquis with military merit (the fief is now in Bowang Town 博望镇, Fangcheng County 方城县, Henan Province 河南省).

Zhang Qian 张骞
Emperor Wu of Han 汉武帝

Sima Qian 司马迁 praised Zhang Qian mission to the Western Regions as “hollow”, which means “opening the road”. Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions twice, opening up land transportation between China and Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and even Europe. Since then, the Chinese have sold silk, tea, lacquerware, and other products to the Western Regions, Central Asia, and other countries through this channel, while importing gems, glassware, and other products from Europe, West Asia, and Central Asia.

Zhang Qian is known as “the pioneer of the Silk Road” and “the first Chinese to open his eyes to the world”.

In the third year of Yuanding (114 BC) of Emperor Wu of the Han, Zhang Qian died of illness in Chang’an and was buried in his hometown in Hanzhong 汉中.

Personal Life and Major Contributions

Early experience

Zhang Qian was born in 164BC, the 16th year of Emperor Wen of the Han 汉文帝. When Emperor Wu of the Han ascended the throne, he served as an aide named “Lang 郎” in the imperial court. Zhang Qian has perseverance, broad-minded bearing, and good qualities of treating others with faith. This is the reason why Zhang Qian was able to overcome all kinds of unimaginable dangers and obtain important factors for his career success.

Zhang Qian 张骞
The statue of Zhang Qian 张骞塑像

During the Chu Han War, Maodun Chanyu 冒顿单于 took the opportunity to expand his power, control the vast areas of northeast, north, and west China, and establish a unified slave owner regime and a powerful military machine. In the early Western Han Dynasty, the Huns used the Western Regions as their military strongholds and economic backing frequently occupied the territory of the Han Dynasty and harassed and plundered the residents of the Central Plains.

In the process of fighting against the Huns, the rulers of the Western Han Dynasty gradually realized the importance of the Western Regions. Especially after Emperor Wu of the Han ascended the throne, he learned from the words of the Huns that the Dariu clan 大月氏 who moved to the west wanted to revenge the Huns. But because of the fact that no one helped them, so he decided to communicate with the Western Regions and wanted to unite with the Dariu clan to attack the Huns and “cut off the right arm of the Huns”.

Fight against the Huns

In February and April of the sixth year of Yuanshuo 元朔 (123 BC), Wei Qing 卫青, the general, sent troops to attack the Huns twice. Emperor Wu of the Han ordered Zhang Qian to attack Mobei from the army as a Xiaowei.

In the second year of Yuanshou (121 B.C.), Zhang Qian and Li Guang 李广, the “flying general”, led the army out of Youbeiping (now northeastern Hebei) to attack the Huns.

Zhang Qian 张骞
Zhang Qian’s Mission to the Western Regions 张骞出使西域

In the fourth year of Yuanshou (119 BC), Emperor Wu of the Han appointed Zhang Qian as the general of Zhonglang and sent him to the Western Regions for the second time to unite Wusun 乌孙 to fight against the Huns. Zhang Qian sent his deputy envoys to such countries as Dawan 大宛, Kangju 康居, Dariu clan 大月氏, Anxi 安息, Poison, Yutian, and Yumi to carry out diplomatic activities, covering Central Asia and South West Asia. The farthest envoys arrived at the Roman Empire and North Africa along the Mediterranean coast, and the hidden danger of northwest frontier defense gradually disappeared over the years.

Return the Western Regions to the Han Dynasty

Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions to return to the Han Dynasty for the second time, bringing the envoy of Wusun. Wusun and the Western Han Dynasty began friendly exchanges on the basis of equality. In the following year, Han and Western Regions officially started equal and friendly exchanges, and the first climax of diplomatic activities between the Han and Western Regions began to come.

Zhang Qian 张骞
The Silk Road 丝绸之路

Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions as an envoy and got in touch with the local customs of the Western Regions. It was the Han Dynasty that began to understand the Western Regions, which established a friendly relationship with the Western Regions and laid the foundation for the Western Han Government to set up the Western Regions Capital Protectorate and formally put the Western Regions under the jurisdiction of the Western Han Government. The envoys of the Han Dynasty kept coming and going to various countries in the Western Regions more than a dozen times a year, or at least five or six times, in the name of “Bowang Marquis”, in order to win the trust of other countries.

In the second year of Emperor Xuan of the Han Dynasty (60 years ago), the Western Han government set up the Western Regions Metropolitan Protectorate to take charge of the affairs in the Western Regions and protect the traveling businesses. From then on, the Western Regions were officially under the rule of the central government.

Video: Zhang Qian’s Discovery of Early Silk Road

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