Emperor Wudi and the Blood-Sweating Horses
During the Former Han era, Emperor Wudi was under constant pressure from the Xiong-nu, a nomadic people living in an area north of China. Deciding to end the humiliating peace treaty, the empeor embarked on an aggressive policy of punitive force.
For these ends, Wudi sent his envoy, Zhang Qian, to travel west of China to the territory of Yuezhi (月氏) in order to try and secure an ally who would attack the Xiongnu from the west while China attacked from the south under the leadership of the Han generals Wei Qing (衛青) and Huo Qubing (霍去病).
Despite the rough journey, which included Zhang Qian being held captive by the Xiongnu for more than ten years, the emperor’s loyal envoy eventually continued on his journey throughout much of the lands of Central Asia, bringing back a vast amount of information.
It was this information that enabled the Han to eventually gain a foothold in Central Asia. This is known as the “Zhang Qiang’s opening of the western frontier.”
Under the military leadership of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, the Han gradually drove out the Xiongnu and achieved suzerainty in Central Asia.
It was Zhang Qing who first reported to Emperor Wudi about the magnificent “Blood-sweating Horses” (Hanxue-ma 汗血馬) of Central Asia. These magnificent animals, believed to have descended from heavenly horses, were said to come from the kingdom of the Dayuan (大宛), in an area located in the Ferghana valley (Hanshu, “Xiyu zhuan”(12)).
Desiring the horses, Wudi sent envoys with “a thousand pieces of gold and a golden horse,” to the Dayuan, but the king was unwilling to give any animals to the Han.
Underestimating the chances of the faraway Chineseattacking Dayuan, the king killed the envoys, taking the treasures which they had brought. Upon hearing the news, Wudi sent over a hundred-thousand soldiers under command of Li Guangli (李広利) and the general of Ershi (貳師), and this force was to defeat the Dayuan.
Thus Wudi came to possess the famed horses. His great joy at this was expressed in the poem “Ode of the Heavenly Horse” introduced at the beginning of this article. Up until this time, the Han had been given horses as tribute from the Wusun (烏孫) people.
However, with the arrival of these more splendid horses from Dayuan, the Wusun horses came to be known as “the western-end horses (Xiji-ma 西極馬),” while the name “heavenly horses” came to be reserved for the horses of Dayuan (Shiji, “Dayuan-liezhuan”(13)).
The expedition to obtain the blood-sweating horses of Dayuan was under the greatest effort, and the crushing victory over Dayuan resulted in the other nations of Central Asia to recognize Han power.
After the defeat of the Dayuan the nations of Loulan (楼蘭), Anxi (安息), and Kangju (康居) began to send tribute to the Han, and this tribute included many kinds of new goods from Central Asia. The“Accounts of the Western Area (Xiyu zhuan)” appearing in the Hanshu describes this state of affairs as follows.
Reports of the heavenly horses and of grapes necessitated the opening of the roads to Dayuan and Anxi. From this, rare treasures such as brilliant jewels, turtle shell, rhinoceros horn, and kingfisher feathers filled the palace.
The four splendid horses: Pusao (蒲梢), Longwen (竜文), Yumu (魚目), and the blood-sweating horses are kept within the palace gates; and elephants, lions, fierce dogs, ostriches kept in the outer gardens. Rare items of foreign lands arrive from all four directions.
Hisao Matsuda who is a leading authority in Silk Road studies proposed the term “silk-horse commerce” in explaining the way in which trade in these two commodities served as the foundation for all the cultural and trade exchanges which occurred along the Silk Road.
Although the role of the steppe peoples and their horses tend to be forgotten when we think of the “Silk Road,” in fact this represents the other great pillar that cannot be ignored in considering the history of cultural exchange along the Silk Road.