Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy-Five

Between East and West

Between 200 and 110 BCthe Han Dynasty opens the Silk Road

GAO ZU, THE FIRST HAN EMPEROR,213 had been born a peasant; now he ruled over a China in which the old noble families of the states had begun to re-emerge in answer to the Ch’in harshness. The old problem of unity had not gone away.

On the other hand, the Chinese states were weary of war, and Gao Zu managed to hold the empire together with a quick-witted combination of heavy-handed authority and the promise of independence. He marched with his army against any dukes who showed signs of revolt, but he also proclaimed a general amnesty throughout the empire, meaning that all noble families who were not currently planning rebellion could live free from the fear of random arrest and execution. To those who had helped him establish his power, he granted freedom from taxes and service. In one rebellious city, which he was forced to besiege for over a month, he granted complete pardon to every man who fought against him, as long as they had not cursed him; only those who cursed him were put to death.1 The Ch’in emperors had clenched the imperial fist tighter and tighter; the Han king opened his fingers and gave freedom from oversight as a reward.

His greatest battles were fought against outsiders. China, unlike the civilizations to the west, did not face the constant encroachments of other organized armies. But nomads had roamed along the northern borders for centuries. The walls built along the northern edges of the old Chinese states, now being linked together into a Great Wall, had first been erected as a defense against raiding nomads that the Chinese states considered to be barbarian, non-Chinese, outside the borders of real Chinese society.

These nomads were not quite so barbarian as the Chinese liked to think. In fact the nearest nomadic tribes had begun to organize themselves into a loose association, a nation of sorts: the Xiongnu.2142 The association of tribes, each with its own leader, fell under the authority of a man appointed to be their king, or chanyu. In fact, the Xiongnu confederation was modelled after the Chinese government to the south.

The people themselves were probably descended from the Ti, the Jung, and the other “barbarians” who appear in earlier accounts.3 They were not so very different from the “Chinese proper,” as Sima Qian himself inadvertently reveals when he remarks that the Xiongnu were descended from a member of the Hsia Dynasty.4 But this was a likeness that most Chinese ignored, as Qian also reveals when he adds, quickly, that they are, of course, something a little less than human.

During the earliest years of the Han, the Xiongnu chanyu was a general named Mao-tun; he is one of the few nomadic leaders whose name survives, and he had organized his confederation to the point where they had a regular annual gathering place (somewhere in Outer Mongolia) and something like a voting system.5 Gao Zu collected a huge force of three hundred thousand men and marched up north to meet him. The nomads, like the Scythians a century before, used their mobility to their advantage; they retreated until the emperor and his personal force had ridden out ahead of the bulk of his army, and then turned—four hundred thousand horsemen strong—and attacked. It took seven days for Gao Zu to fight his way free.6

Afterwards, Gao Zu decided that it would be best to make peace. His empire was still filled with other generals who had fought in the war against the Ch’in, and who had not ended up with a throne; he did not want to start another war, against an outside power, with them at his back. He sent the Xiongnu gifts of money to pacify them, and—in a startling admission of Mao-tun’s power—he also sent one of his daughters up to be the warrior-king’s bride.

THE EARLY YEARS of the Han succession were less than smooth. Gao Zu died in 195 after a rule of only seven years, and was succeeded by his young son Hui-ti. But the real power in the Han court was held by Gao Zu’s widow, Kao-hou, who ruled as empress dowager and regent for her son.

Kao-hou was not the emperor’s only wife (he also had a whole constellation of sons born to noblewomen who became his wives and concubines after he took the title of emperor), but she had been his wife back in the days “when he was still a commoner.” She was a “woman of very strong will,” and her son Hui-ti was, “by nature, weak and soft-hearted.”7 She poisoned and put to death an array of royal sons and wives, in an excess of cruelty that sickened her son: “Emperor Hui gave himself up each day to drink,” Sima Qian says, “and no longer took part in affairs of state.”8 At twenty-three, he died. His mother was less than heartbroken: “Mourning was announced and the Empress Dowager lamented,” Qian writes, “but no tears fell from her eyes.”9

In fact her son’s death allowed her to install various brothers, sisters, and cousins from her own family as generals, ministers, secretaries, and dukes, which cemented her own power. With the cooperation of Hui-ti’s widow, she produced a baby which she claimed to be Hui-ti’s heir apparent; palace rumor said that the child was actually the son of a lady-in-waiting (Hui-ti had, apparently, been too consistently soused to father a son of his own). The new emperor was installed, but as he grew older he began to ask awkward questions about his parentage. The empress dowager then had him murdered and appointed another putative son of Hui-ti emperor in his place.10

This heir-juggling kept her in power for nine more years, but by the time she died in 179, she had grown so unpopular that the court rose up and slaughtered every relative of Kao-hou that they could get their hands on. The removal of her family left the throne and a good many government jobs open, but the Han Dynasty—unlike the Ch’in—survived this particular crisis. Despite the chaos in the court, the throne had not indulged in the harsh micromanagement of the people that had made the First Emperor’s family so unpopular: “The common people succeeded in putting behind them the sufferings of the age of the Warring States,” the Grand Historian sums up, “and ruler and subject alike sought rest in surcease of action.…Punishments were seldom meted out…while the people applied themselves to the tasks of farming, and food and clothing became abundant.”11 The throne had managed to keep the barbarians out and to leave the people alone to conduct their own lives, and as a result of this laissez-faire policy, China was prospering. Prosperous people are disinclined to revolt; once the unpopular family of Kao-hou had been cleared out, another son of the dead Gao Zu by a concubine was proclaimed emperor.

This young man, Wendi,215 inherited an empire which still had no imperial trappings: nothing to hold it together apart from the memory of previous unpopular and repressive rules which inclined the people to be on his side, as the anti-Ch’in king. Wendi’s hold on power for over twenty years, until his natural death (he reigned from 179 to 156), displayed a great deal of tact; like his father, he capitalized on this negative bond and kept his hands out of local business as much as possible.


75.1 Han China

Like his father, he also faced the possibility of invasion. Nomads from even farther to the north—not part of the Xiongnu confederation, and called by the Chinese the Yuezhi—had begun to move down towards the Xiongnu territory. They were driven, like the Celtic tribes, by a complex intersection of hunger, overpopulation, and ambition, and their goal was to come south into China itself.

But the Xiongnu drove them away, deflecting them off to the west: “The Xiongnu had defeated the king of the Yuezhi,” Sima Qian relates, “and had made his skull into a drinking vessel.”12 (Which suggests, if not identity, certainly a cultural relationship with the nomadic Scythians a little farther to the west, who had the same charming custom.) This move west had a domino-like effect: around 160 BC, they ran head-on into Bactria, overran it, and settled along its north, all the way to the Oxus river. It was one of the first lasting contacts between peoples from the far east and those closer to the Mediterranean. For the Han Dynasty, it was also a danger avoided. The Xiongnu had mustered itself against the barbarians, and Wendi was prevented from the necessity of recruiting a large army to fight back.

When he died around 157, he managed to pass his crown, without incident, on to his son, who in turn passed it along to his son: the emperor Wudi, who began his rule around 140. Wudi, who counts as either the sixth or seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty (depending on how many of the infants you include), began his fifty-three-year reign by campaigning up to push the encroaching Xiongnu back a little bit. This was the end of the tradition of pacification that Gao Zu had begun. The Han throne was now strong enough to survive a war.

Pushing back the Xiongnu was the least of Wudi’s accomplishments. He had decades of relatively peaceful Han authority behind him, and the Ch’in oppression was far enough into the past so that, finally, the emperor could put his hands down into the dirt of his country long enough to shape it into something more like an empire. He reintroduced taxes; he took control of the trade of iron, salt, and alcohol as government monopolies; he cut back down to size local officials who had taken advantage of the Han hands-off policies to enrich themselves.13 He began to rebuild a bureaucracy, introducing for the first time the requirement that officials take, and pass, a qualifying examination.14

Not long after taking the throne—probably right around 139 BC—he also sent an ambassador named Zhang Qian to find out what lay beyond his western border. We do not know exactly what impelled him to do this, but some trickle of commerce and exploration from the west must have made it all the way past the Han border. Sima Qian records the curiosity that this produced on both sides: “All the barbarians of the distant west craned their necks to the east and longed to catch a glimpse of China,” he writes.15

Zhang Qian’s trip did not go particularly well at first; he was captured by the Xiongnu and taken to the chanyu. Rather than killing him, though, they kept him a captive and even gave him a wife: and after he had lived there ten years, he “was less closely watched than at first” and managed to escape. After that he travelled through the west, visiting Bactria and Parthia, and seeing firsthand the movement of the Yuezhi nomads along the northern parts of the world. When he returned in 126, to great acclaim, he was able to report on both kingdoms.

Bactria, he told the emperor, was a land of settled farmers, but had no king: “only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities.”16 In fact, surviving coins suggest that the last Bactrian king of Greek descent was a man named Heliocles, whose reign must have been brought to an end, around 130 BC, by the invading Yuezhi. Zhang Qian was arriving in Bactria just as the invading nomads were overrunning the country.

Most likely the ruling class had gone south into India, at the arrival of the nomads: Zhang Qian also reports that the Bactrians told him about a land they called Shen-tu, which lay “several thousand li southeast,” where the people “cultivate the land.” “The region is said to be hot and damp,” he says, winding up the identification with “the inhabitants ride elephants when they go into battle, and the kingdom is situated on a great river.” The flight of Bactrian Greeks across the mountains into India had broken the Bactrian kingdom into two: the original Greek Bactrians, now overrun by Yuezhi, and an “Indo-Greek” kingdom farther south.

In a matter of decades, these “Indo-Greeks” became much more Indian than Greek. Their most famous king was Menander I, who came to power around 150 BC. His coins show him in Greek armor and are inscribed in Greek, but he is remembered in a Buddhist sacred text called the Milinda Panha for his conversion to Buddhism. “None was equal to Milinda in all India,” the text begins, “mighty in wealth and prosperity, and the number of his armed hosts knew no end.” Despite this, he had unending questions about the nature of his own authority and the world in which he fought for dominance. One day, after reviewing his “innumerable host” of “elephants, cavalry, bowmen, and soldiers on foot,” he asked to speak with a scholar who might help him resolve his difficulties, and in the conversation that followed was introduced to the principles of Buddhism.17

According to the Milinda Panha, this ultimately led to the king’s abdication, after which he became a pilgrim: “Afterwards, taking delight in the wisdom of the Elder,” it concludes, “he handed over his kingdom to his son, and, abandoning the household life for the houseless state, grew great in insight.”18 This is possible, but unlikely; Menander is remembered not only for his conversion but for the extension of the Indo-Greek border almost all the way to Pataliputra, a campaign which must have involved years and years of fighting. A later Buddhist scripture, theGargi-Samhita, confirms this: it says that the “Yavanas,” the Greeks, reached the “thick mud-fortifications at Pataliputra, all the provinces…in disorder.”

Whether or not Menander then retired from warfare, his conquests pushed back a Hindu kingdom and extended a Buddhist one, which preserved his greatness in the Buddhist texts. When he died, in 130, his remains were enclosed into the sacred monuments known as stupas: “Sacred heaps,” as the Milinda Panha calls them, “beneath whose solid dome the bones of the great dead lie.”


75.2 The Parthians

Zhang Qian’s report also extended farther west, into Parthia, where a king was still very much on the throne. Antiochus Epiphanes had been forced to fight off Parthian attacks, and the three Seleucid kings who came after him had been faced with the same hostile invasions. The Parthians were, essentially, not very different in their origins than the Xiongnu; they were nomadic horsemen, hardy and good in battle, and they had begun to encroach further and further on the Seleucid border, pushing it closer to Syria. By the rule of the third king after Antiochus Epiphanes—Demetrius II, also called Nicator—they had run across the middle of the old Assyrian heartland between the Tigris and Euphrates. This land was firmly enough under Parthian control for the Parthians to build themselves defensive walls. These Parthian Walls were constructed from the large pieces of stone they found lying around, and used; the monuments of Ashurnasirpal were broken up and pressed into duty to guard his old domain from recapture by the Seleucids.

In 139, the Parthian king Mithridates I actually captured Demetrius Nicator in battle, and hauled him back to Parthia. Demetrius Nicator was treated well, held in comfortable confinement, but he spent ten years as a Parthian prisoner, which was horrendously embarrassing for the king of the once-great Seleucids. Josephus claims that he died, still in captivity: “Demetrius was sent to Mithridates,” he writes, “and the king of Parthia had Demetrius in great honor, till Demetrius ended his life by sickness.”19 Other accounts say that he escaped and died later, to be succeeded first by one son (who was murdered after less than a year) and then another.

Meanwhile the Parthians campaigned closer and closer to Babylon, and built themselves a camp at Ctesiphon, which they could use to penetrate even deeper into Seleucid land. This growing Parthian power was reflected in Zhang Qian’s report to his king. The Parthians, he said, were an impressive and, to his eye, highly organized civilization: “They have walled cities,” he related, “several hundred cities of various sizes.” Parthian farmers grew rice, wheat, and grapes for wine; their merchants travelled far to trade with distant countries. And by this point, their empire stretched all the way out to a land which Zhang Qian called T’iao-chih, where it was “hot and damp,” where there were “great birds which lay eggs as large as pots,” where “the people are very numerous and are ruled by many petty chiefs,” but where all the chiefs pay attention to the king of Parthia, who gives them orders “and regards them as his vassals.”20 The description is of the Mesopotamian valley. The Seleucids had been pushed all the way out of the land between the rivers; they were no longer an empire to concern the Romans.

That place had been taken by the Parthians themselves. Wudi’s long and distinguished reign overlapped with that of the greatest Parthian king of all: Mithridates II, the Great. He came to the throne of Parthia in 123, and before long was alarming the Roman authorities in Asia Minor; one Lucius Cornelius Sulla, whose biography Plutarch records, was sent to keep an eye on “the restless movements of Mithridates, who was gradually procuring himself[a] vast new acquired power and dominion.”21 Sulla travelled as far as the Euphrates and there met an ambassador that Mithridates had sent to meet him: “As yet,” Plutarch says, “there had been no correspondence between the two nations” Sulla was “the first Roman to whom the Parthians made address for alliance and friendship.”

Mithridates also sent merchants and envoys east. “When the Han envoys first visited the kingdom of An-hsi [Parthia],” says Sima Qian, “…the king of An-hsi dispatched envoys of his own to accompany them, and after the latter had visited China and reported on its great breadth and might, the king sent some of the eggs of the great birds which live in the region…to the Han court as gifts.”

Envoys from the east were travelling west at the same time. After Zhang Qian’s explorations, more men were dispatched from the Han court along his path: “After Zhang Qian achieved honor and position by opening up communications with the lands of the west,” says Sima Qian, “all the officials and soldiers who had accompanied him vied with one another in submitting reports to the emperor…requesting to become envoys.”22

These journeys west involved some fighting, as Han armies put down resistance from various local tribes in the lands through which the new trade route ran. But by 110, the trade route from west to east was thoroughly established. Outposts along the road, staffed by Chinese garrisons, protected traders from bandits. The Parthians bought Chinese goods, particularly silks and lacquer, which they did not make themselves. The Chinese emperor bought Parthian horses, which he admired for their speed and beauty. More and more foreign visitors came to the Han court, where the emperor would parade them along the coast to show them the size and wealth of the Han kingdom. And in Parthia itself, Mithridates II, who appears both in Plutarch and in Sima Qian, stood as a bridge between the two great and growing empires of the west and east.


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