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Yuezhi (Chinese 月氏; Wade-Giles: Yüeh-Chih) is the Chinese name for an ancient Central Asian people. They are believed to have been the same as or closely related to the Tocharians, who spoke an Indo-European language called Tocharian. They were originally settled in the Tarim Basin area, in what is today Gansu and Xinjiang, in China, before they migrated to Transoxiania, Bactria and then northern India, where they formed the Kushan Empire.
The Yuezhi are documented in detail in Chinese historical accounts, in particular the 1st century BCE "Records of the Great Historian", or Shiji, by Sima Qian. According to these accounts, "the Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian, or Heavenly Mountain (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang" (Shiji, 123), corresponding to the eastern half of the Tarim Basin.
The Yuezhi were apparently a Caucasoid people, as indicated by the portraits of their kings on the coins they struck following their exodus to Transoxonia (2nd-1st century BCE), and especially the coins they struck in India as Kushans (1st-3rd century CE). Ancient Chinese sources do describe the existence of "white people with long hair" (The Bai people of the Shanhai Jing) beyond their northwestern border, and very well preserved mummies with Caucasian features, today displayed at the Urumqi Museum and dated to the 3rd century BCE, have been found in precisely the same area of the Tarim Basin.
The Indo-European Tocharian languages also have been attested in the same geographical area, and although the first known epigraphical evidence dates to the 6th century CE, the degree of differentiation between Tocharian A and Tocharian B, and the absence of Tocharian language remains beyond that area, tends to indicate that a common Tocharian language existed in the same area of Yuezhi settlement during the second half of the 1st millenium BCE.
The Yuezhi were probably part of the large mouvance of Indo-European speaking peoples who were settled in eastern Central Asia at that time. Another example is that of the Caucasian mummies of Pazyryk, probably Scythian in origin, located around 1,000 kilometers north of the Yuezhi, and dated also to around the 3rd century BCE.
According to Han accounts, the Yuezhi "were flourishing" during the time of the first great Chinese Qin emperor, but were regularly in conflict with the neighbouring tribe of the Xiongnu to the northeast.
The Yuezhi exodus
The Yuezhi sometimes practiced the exchange of hostages with the Xiongnu, and at one time were hosts to Maodun , the son of the Xiongnu leader. Maodun stole a horse and escaped when the Yuezhi tried to kill him in retaliation for an attack by his father. Maodun subsequently became ruler of the Xiongnu after killing his father.
Around 177 BCE, the Xiongnu, led by one of Maodun's tribal chiefs, invaded the Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region, leading them to a crushing defeat. Maodun boasted in a letter to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe". The son of Maodun, Jizhu , further killed the king of the Yuezhi, and "made a drinking cup out of his skull".
Following the Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested for the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi also fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang, and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Small Yuezhi". According to the Hanshu, they only numbered around 150 famillies.
Finally, a large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin towards the northwest, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Wusun.
After 155 BCE, the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu, managed to disloge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Ta-Yuan in Ferghana, and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxonia, in modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 BCE.
Settlement in Transoxonia
The Yuezhi were visited by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 BCE, which was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. Although the request for an alliance was denied by the Yuezhi son of the slain king, who preferred to envoy peace in Transoxonia rather than to seek revenge, Zhang Qian made a detailed account, reported in the Shiji, that gives a lot of insight into the situation of Central Asia at that time.
Zhang Qian, who spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria, relates that "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li (1,000-1,500 kilometers) west of Dayuan (Ferghana), north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi (Parthia), and on the north by Kangju (Sogdiana). They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." (Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson).
Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. The Yuezhi were organized in five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief, and known to the Chinese as Xiūmì (Ch:休密), Guishang (Ch:貴霜), (Ch:雙靡), (Ch:肸頓) and Dūmì (Ch:都密).
In a sweeping analysis of the physical types and cultures of the Central Asia he visited in 126 BCE, Zhang Qian reports that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers." (Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson), clearly describing Indo-European types. A later chinese account of the 3rd century (the Nanzhouzhi) also describes the Yuezhi as a Caucasoid people of "reddish-white color".
Invasion of Bactria
Some time after 126 BCE, possibly disturbed by further rival incursions from the north, the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria, which had been conquered first by the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, and had then been settled by the Greek dynasties of the Seleucids and the Greco-Bactrians for the two centuries ever since.
As they settled in Bactria from around 125 BCE, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BCE: "The largest of these embassies to foreing states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." (Shiji, trans. Burton Watson).
Founders of the Kushan empire
By the end of the 1st century BCE, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi, the Kui-Shan (Ch: 貴霜, Guishang, origin of name Kushan adopted in the West), managed to take control of the Yuezhi confederation. From that point, the Yuezhi extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. The Yuezhi came to be known as Kushan among Western civilizations, however the Chinese kept calling them Yuezhi throughout their historical records over a period of several centuries.
The Yuezhi/Kushan integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities, became great promoters of Mahayana Buddhism, and their interactions with Greek civilization helped the Gandharan culture and Greco-Buddhism flourish.
During the 1st and 2nd century, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, their original grounds, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. They are related to have collaborated militarily with the Chinese against nomadic incursion, particularly when they collaborated with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in 84 CE, when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. Around 85 CE, they also assisted the Chinese general in an attack on Turfan, east of the Tarim Basin.
In recognition for their support to the Chinese, the Yuezhi requested, but were denied, a Han princess, even after they had sent presents to the Chinese court. In retaliation, they marched on Ban Chao in 86 CE with a force of 70,000, but, exhausted by the expedition, were finally defeated by the smaller Chinese force. The Yuezhi retreated and paid tribute to the Chinese Empire during the reign of the Chinese emperor Han He (89-106).
Later, the Yuezhi/Kushans established a kingdom centered on Kashgar around 120 CE, and introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art which developed into Serindian art.
Benefiting from this territorial expansion, the Yuezhi/ Kushans were among the first to introduce Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by direct missionary efforts and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Major Yuezhi missionary and translators included Lokaksema and Dharmaraksa, who went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
- "Records of the Great Historian, Han Dynasty II", Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231081677
- "The Tarim Mummies", J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair. Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0500051011
- Overview of Xiongnu history and their wars with the Yuezhi
- Craig Benjamin on Yuezhi migrations
- Kasim Abdullaev on Yuezhi migrations in Central Asia
- Notes to The Western Regions according to the Hou Han Shu from the University of Washington
- Lokesh Chandra on Yuezhi translators
- Yuezhi Sapadbizes coins
- Yuezhi Agesiles coins
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