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Adventure of Zhang Qian

by Something Something

Zhang Qian 張騫 was a Chinese official and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy to the world outside of China during the Han dynasty. Today, Zhang Qian's travels are associated with the major route of transcontinental trade, the Silk Road. His missions opened trade routes between East and West and exposed different products and kingdoms to each other through trade. Zhang's accounts were compiled by Sima Qian in the 1st century BC. The Central Asian parts of the Silk Road routes were expanded around 114 BC largely through the missions of and exploration by Zhang Qian. Today, Zhang is considered a Chinese national hero and revered for the key role he played in opening China to the wider world of commercial trade.

  Table of Contents / Timeline



-140 Jan 1 -

Xian, China

At the time the nomadic Xiongnu tribes controlled what is now Inner Mongolia and dominated the Western Regions, Xiyu (西域), the areas neighbouring the territory of the Han Dynasty. The Han emperor was interested in establishing commercial ties with distant lands but outside contact was prevented by the hostile Xiongnu.

Zhang Qian at the Gobi Desert


First Mission

-138 Jan 1 -

Xian, China

The Han court dispatched Zhang Qian, a military officer who was familiar with the Xiongnu, to the Western Regions in 138 BC with a group of ninety-nine members to make contact and build an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. He was accompanied by a guide named Ganfu (甘父), a Xiongnu who had been captured in war. The objective of Zhang Qian's first mission was to seek a military alliance with the Yuezhi, in modern Tajikistan.

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Captured by the Xiongnu

-138 Dec 30 -

Inner Mongolia, China

However to get to the territory of the Yuezhi he was forced to pass through land controlled by the Xiongnu who captured him (as well as Ganfu) and enslaved him for ten years. During this time he married a Xiongnu wife, who bore him a son, and gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader.



-128 Jan 1 -

Xinjiang, China

Zhang and Ganfu (as well as Zhang's Xiongnu wife and son) were eventually able to escape and, passing Lop Nor and following the northern edge of the Tarim Basin, around the Kunlun Mountains and through small fortified areas in the middle of oases in what is now Xinjiang until they made their way to dayuan and eventually to the land of the Yuezhi.


Living with the Yuezhi

-127 Jan 1 -

Fergana Valley, Uzbekistan

The Yuezhi were agricultural people who produced strong horses and many unknown crops including alfalfa for animal fodder. However, the Yuezhi were too settled to desire war against the Xiongnu. Zhang spent a Year in Yuezhi and the adjacent Bactrian territory, documenting their cultures, lifestyles and economy, before beginning his return trip to China, this time following the southern edge of the Tarim Basin


Captured again

-127 Jun 1 -

Dunhuang, China

On his return trip he was again captured by the Xiongnu who again spared his life because they valued his sense of duty and composure in the face of death. Two years later the Xiongnu leader died and in the midst of chaos and infighting Zhang Qian escaped. Of the original mission of just over a hundred men, only Zhang Qian and Ganfu managed to return to China.



-125 Jan 1 -

Xian, China

Zhang Qian returned in 125 BC with detailed news for the Emperor, showing that sophisticated civilizations existed to the West, with which China could advantageously develop relations. The Shiji relates that "the Emperor learned of the dayuan (大宛), Daxia (大夏), Anxi (安息), and the others, all great states rich in unusual products whose people cultivated the land and made their living in much the same way as the Chinese. All these states, he was told, were militarily weak and prized Han goods and wealth". Upon Zhang Qian's return to China he was honoured with a position of palace counsellor


Second Mission

-122 Jan 1 -

Sichuan, China

On his mission Zhang Qian had noticed products from an area now known as northern India. However, the task remained to find a trade route not obstructed by the Xiongnu to India. Zhang Qian set out on a second mission to forge a route from China to India via Sichuan, but after many attempts this effort proved unsuccessful.

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Third Mission

-119 Jan 1 -

Sindhu, India

In 119–115 BC Zhang Qian was sent on a third mission by the emperor, to develop ties with the Wusun (烏孫) people. This time, more than three hundred people were along with Zhang. They arrived at Wusun smoothly and visited Qangly, dayuan, dayueshi, Daxia, Anxi, Sindhu (in India) and other countries.

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Final Return

-115 Jan 1 -

Xian, China

The Shiji reports that Zhang Qian returned from his final expedition to the Wusun in 115 BC. After his return he "was honoured with the post of grand messenger, making him among the nine highest ministers of the government. A Year or so later he died.

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115 Jun 1 -

Xian, China

From his missions Zhang Qian brought back many important products, the most important being alfalfa seeds (for growing horse fodder), strong horses with hard hooves, and knowledge of the extensive existence of new products, peoples and technologies of the outside world. He died c. 114 BC after spending twenty-five years travelling on these dangerous and strategic missions. Although at a time in his life he was regarded with disgrace for being defeated by the Xiongnu, by the time of his death he had been bestowed with great honours by the emperor. Zhang Qian's journeys had promoted a great variety of economic and cultural exchanges between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions. Because silk became the dominant product traded from China, this great trade route later became known as the Silk Road.


  • Loewe, Michael (2000). "Zhang Qian 張騫". A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han, and Xin Periods (220 BC – AD 24). Leiden: Brill. pp. 687–9. ISBN 90-04-10364-3.
  • Yap, Joseph P, (2019). The Western Regions, Xiongnu and Han, from the Shiji, Hanshu and Hou Hanshu. ISBN 978-1792829154.
  • Yü, Ying-shih (1986). "Han Foreign Relations". In Twitchett, Denis; Fairbank, John K. (eds.). The Cambridge History of China, Volume 1: The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 377–462.

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