The Han dynasty of China (2nd century bc2nd century ad) originated in chaos. Following the death of Shih Huang-ti, the founder of the Ch'in dynasty who unified China and saw to the completion of the Great Wall, the Ch'in dominions sank into conflict and confusion. Out of those depths, the Han dynasty arose--created by its first emperor, Kao-ti, a peasant and former bandit warlord who fought his way to the throne in 202 bc. For more than four centuries, the Han dynasty ruled a state larger than one contemporary, Kushan India, and wealthier than another contemporary, Imperial Rome. But Han China might never have survived so long and accomplished so much if not for China's "Marco Polo"--Chang Ch'ien, whose exploits secured China's borders and greatly extended her influence less than a century after the Han dynasty began.
As was the case with so many Chinese states, the young Han empire endured a constant struggle with nomadic barbarians to the north. The relationship was both symbiotic and antagonistic. During times of peace, the main body of barbarians--the Hsiung-nu, or Huns--traded with Chinese farmers and artisans for crucial goods that they could not produce in their own lands, including armor, weapons, agricultural products and silk. In times of war, however, those same northern farms and towns became the primary target of Hsiung-nu raids. At first, the Han attempted to fend off the Hsiung-nu with the two tried-and-true weapons of the Chinese arsenal: chariots and culture. But the chariot was woefully inadequate to the task of defeating steppe cavalry in battle. And the old strategy of creating economic and cultural dependency among China's neighbors failed as well--the Hsiung-nu, enjoying significant military advantage, simply had their cake and ate it, too.
It was during the reign of Emperor Wu Ti (beginning in 140 bc) that Han China stiffened its resistance to the barbarians. Wu Ti, known as "The Martial Emperor," reorganized and centralized the Han state, creating an enormous military machine expert at engineering and road-building. To sharpen his new armies' skills and expand Han influence, he launched military expeditions in all directions--from Vietnam and Burma to Korea and Mongolia.
Perhaps most important, Wu Ti transformed Chinese military tactics. He armed his new military with iron and steel swords, plate or scale mail and crossbows. Wu Ti's armies were also increasingly composed of highly skilled, experienced mercenaries, many on horseback, rather than the poorly trained conscripted footmen of earlier Han and Ch'in armies. Wu Ti's armies benefited from the leadership of valorous and talented generals. They enjoyed good logistics. And they were always closely followed in victory by Chinese officials, settlers and artisans, who imposed cultural hegemony over the conquered territories.
Nevertheless, the Han campaigns of the mid-2nd century bc, even when successful, cost a great deal. The Han rarely won outright military victories over the large and mobile Hsiung-nu armies, while the Han's marginal victories were bloody--one commander returned from a "successful" campaign with only 10,000 of the 60,000 soldiers with whom he had set out. Wu Ti knew that even his revitalized state could not eliminate the Hsiung-nu threat alone. He needed allies.
During constant tribal warfare in Mongolia, the Hsiung-nu had displaced many other barbarian tribes, including the Yueh-chih. Deserters from the Hsiung-nu told the Chinese that they had defeated the king of the Yueh-chih and "made a drinking vessel of his skull." Unable to find allies among other barbarian or Central Asian states, the Yueh-chih had fled westward, the deserters reported.
Wu Ti saw an opportunity. He prepared a mission to the Yueh-chih to propose an alliance, and called upon his nobles and generals for a volunteer to lead it. Chang Ch'ien stepped forward. The official historian of the Han, writing centuries later, portrayed Chang, an officer of the imperial bodyguard, as a "man of strong physique and of considerable generosity; he inspired the trust of others and the barbarians loved him." Chang would need these qualities to make Wu Ti's plan successful. To establish contact with the Yueh-chih meant a journey of 2,000 miles or more through rugged, little-known territory patrolled by a highly mobile enemy. Furthermore, the Chinese didn't know exactly where the Yueh-chih had gone.
Setting out in 138 bc with 100 retainers, including a trusted barbarian slave known as Kan-fu, Chang had to journey directly through Hsiung-nu army lines. Not surprisingly, his party could not long elude capture. The Hsiung-nu took Chang before their monarch, the Shan-yu, who asked Chang why the Han emperor thought he could send envoys through Hsiung-nu territory with impunity.
Chang stayed in Hsiung-nu hands for 10 years, even marrying a Hsiung-nu woman and fathering children. Eventually, however, the barbarians allowed Chang to move his family to the western part of Hsiung-nu territory, and he soon escaped with a few retainers. Journeying through several Central Asian states whose leaders expressed great interest in trade with the Han, Chang finally reached the new dominion of the Yueh-chih, in the region the Romans called Bactria. Chang made his pitch. The Yueh-chih, however, expressed no interest in returning east to battle their old enemies. Chang spend a year with the Yueh-chih but made no headway. Finally, he headed back to Han China--only to be captured again by the Hsiung-nu. Following another year of captivity, Chang, his wife and the faithful Kan-fu slipped away and made it back to Wu Ti's court--12 years after Chang had first set out on his mission.
For Chang's efforts, Wu Ti named him supreme counselor of the palace. Chang's embassy to the Yueh-chih had itself been a failure, but his overall mission conferred great benefits on the Han empire. While in Central Asia, Chang had collected a great deal of political and economic information and military intelligence on empires lying farther south and west, including northern India, Parthia and Syria--the eastern outpost of the Roman Empire. Chang, for example, had a soldier's interest in horses and told his emperor of one breed he had seen in the Fergana valley. Those horses exhibited impressive stamina and speed, and enjoyed a certain mystic renown for "sweating blood"--probably evidence of a parasitic infection. They would be superb mounts for China's new cavalry arm, Chang reported. Wu Ti saw great opportunities for trade as well as alliance, though most of his subsequent diplomatic envoys fell prey to nomadic attacks.
Chang Ch'ien soon joined Han China's supreme general, Wei Ch'ing, with a rank equivalent to a colonel because of his special talent for collecting intelligence. During campaigns against the Hsiung-nu in Mongolia, his surveys of available water and pasture grounds helped save the Han army, for which he received the noble title of Po-wang. Unfortunately, Chang's next military adventure did not go as well. As superintendent of the guards, Chang set out with the famed General Li Kuang to attack the main body of the Hsiung-nu. Li was soon surrounded, but Chang failed to relieve Li's army in time, leading to huge losses. Han policy dictated beheading for such a military defeat, but Chang accepted discommendation instead.
Now considered a "commoner," Chang sought to convince Wu Ti of the need for further diplomatic efforts to the west--for if he led them, he might regain his noble status. Chang also sincerely believed that China's destiny lay to the west. He told Wu Ti about a former protectorate of the Hsiung-nu, Wu-sun, that might be persuaded to attack the Hsiung-nu to recover its old tribal homelands.
Wu Ti agreed with Chang's counsel and sent him westward with 300 cavalry and an enormous treasure of silks, metals, livestock and other valuables. Chang soon split his mission into four envoys on separate missions within the western states. While Chang's mission to Wu-sun did not succeed at first, his other envoys returned to China with information, trade goods and emissaries.
Eschewing China's traditional insularity, Han envoys and merchants streamed into Central Asia, using the name of Chang Ch'ien as a pledge of good faith among the city-states they found there. Eventually, Wu Ti even achieved Chang's original purpose of cementing a matrimonial alliance with Wu-sun. Following the marriage, however, the other western states, enjoying the benefits of trade with Han China as well as their own independence, still saw no reason to strike up a formal alliance with Wu Ti's empire.
The emperor pursued a two-track strategy to change their minds. First, he waged another successful war on the Hsiung-nu, inflicting some 90,000 casualties. Second, he set out to conquer the small Central Asian state of Fergana in 101 bc--the land where Chang had seen the horses that "sweated blood." Actually, the horses served as Wu Ti's pretext. First, he sent emissaries to retrace Chang's steps and ask the ruler of Fergana to trade some of his horses to China, but the ruler repeatedly refused. During one particularly acrimonious exchange, several Chinese envoys were killed. Wu Ti immediately sent an army of delinquent youths and criminals against Fergana. They were repelled. Finally, he sent a proper army to force the issue, and Fergana fell.
As the victorious Han army marched home from Fergana, the official Han history reports, "the rulers of all the small states they passed through, having heard of the defeat of Ta-yuan, sent their sons or brothers to accompany the army to China, where they presented gifts, were received by the emperor, and remained at the Han court as hostages." Thus, Chang Ch'ien's plan to use diplomacy, trade and limited shows of force to expand Han China westward succeeded beyond all expectations. And when the leader of the main body of the Hsiung-nu bowed his head in submission to Wu Ti's great-grandson in 51 bc, the grand strategy to guarantee Han China's security--devised by Emperor Wu Ti and, to a large extent, by Chang himself--came to its ultimate fruition. (That same year, Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls and invaded Britain.) Chang, however, did not live to see his missions bear fruit. Only a year after he returned from his trip to Wu-sun, he died.
The successful campaigns of Wu Ti and Chang Ch'ien left China secure to trade, build and regroup. At the same time, Chang's westward travels had a long-term impact on both Chinese and Western history. In 105 bc, a Chinese ambassador, again following the trail Chang had blazed decades before, reached the borders of Iran, where he was presented to the Parthian king, Mithridates II. Mithridates reciprocated by sending an ostrich egg and a troupe of conjurors back to Emperor Wu Ti.
And Chang Ch'ien's name continued to elicit great respect in Central Asia and pride in China for many centuries to come.