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The Ta-Yuan (in Ferghana) was one of the three advanced civilizations of Central Asia around 130 BCE, together with Parthia and Greco-Bactria (Han Shu, Former Han Chinese Chronicles).

The Ta-Yuan (大苑, Ta-Yuan or Dawan, lit. “Great Yuan”) were a people of Ferghana in Central Asia, described in the Chinese Chronicles (Shiji) and in the Chinese Former Han History (Han Shu), following the travels of Zhang Qian in 130 BCE, and the numerous embassies that followed him into Central Asia thereafter.

These Chinese accounts describe the Ta-Yuan as urbanized dwellers with Indo-European features, living in walled cities and having "customs identical to those of the Greco-Bactrians", a Hellenistic kingdom that was ruling Bactria at that time in today’s northern Afghanistan. The Ta-Yuan are also described as manufacturers and great lovers of wine.

The Ta-Yuan were probably the descendants of the Greek colons who were established by Alexander the Great in Ferghana in 329 BCE and prospered within the Hellenistic realm until they were isolated by the migrations of the Yueh-Chih around 160 BCE. It has also been suggested that the name “Yuan” was simply a transliteration of the words “Yona”, or “Yavana”, used througout antiquity in Asia to designate Greeks (“Ionians”), so that Ta-Yuan (lit. “Great Yuan”) would mean "Great Ionians".

The interaction between the Ta-Yuan and the Chinese is historically crucial, since it represents the first major contact between an urbanized Indo-European culture and the Chinese civilization, opening the way to the formation of the Silk Road that was to link the East and the West in material and cultural exchange from the 1st century BCE to the 15th century.


Hellenistic legacy

The region of Ferghana was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE and became his most advanced base in Central Asia. He founded the fortified city of Alexandria Eschate (Lit. “Alexandria the Furthest”) in the southwestern part of the Ferghana valley, on the southern bank of the river Syr Darya (ancient Jaxartes), at the location of the modern city of Khujand (also called Khozdent, formely Leninabad), in the state of Tajikistan. Alexander built a 6 kilometer long brick wall around the city and, as for the other cities he founded, had a garrison of his retired veterans and wounded settle there.

The whole of Bactria, Transoxonia and the area of Ferghana remained under the control of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire until 250 BCE. The region then wrested independence under the leadership of its governor Diodotus of Bactria, to become the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.

Greco-Bactrian kingdom

Probable Greek soldier, woollen wall hanging, 3rd-2nd century BCE, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum.

The Greco-Bactrians held their territory, and according to the Greek historian Strabo even went beyond Alexandria Eschate and " extended their empire as far as the Seres and the Phryni" (Strabo XI.XI.I (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Strab.+11.11.1)). There are indications that they may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 200 BCE. Various statuettes and representations of Greek soldiers have been found north of the Tien Shan, and are today on display in the museum of Urumqi (Boardman).

Yueh-Chih migrations

To the east of Ferghana, in the Tarim Basin region, lived an Indo-European nomadic people called Tocharian by the Greeks, and Yueh-Chih by the Chinese. According to the Han Chronicles, following a crushing defeat in 162 BCE by the Xiongnu (Huns), the Yueh-Chih fled from the Tarim Basin towards the west, crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Ta-Yuan in Ferghana, and re-settled north of the Oxus in modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Ta-Yuan remained a healthy and powerful civilization which had numerous contacts and exchanges with China from 130 BCE.

To the south, the Yueh-Chi adopted the Hellenic civilization and writing before expanding further southward into Bactria around 125 BCE, and then going on to form the Kushan Empire in India from the 1st century CE.

Chinese accounts of the Ta-Yuan kingdom

Around 130 BCE, at the time of Zhang Qian’s embassy, the Ta-Yuan were described as inhabitants of a region corersponding to the Ferghana, to the west of the Chinese empire. “The capital of the kingdom of Ta-Yuan is the city of Kwe-shan (Khujand), distant from Ch'ang-an 12,550 li. The kingdom contains 60,000 families, comprising a population of 300,000, with 60,000 trained troops, a Viceroy, and a National Assistant Prince. The seat of the Governor General lies to the east at a distance of 4,031 li.” Han Shu

Silver coin of the Greco-Bactrian king Heliocles I(150-125 BCE) at the time of Zhang Qian's embassy.

To their south-west were the territories of the Yueh-Chih, with the Greco-Bactrians further south still, beyond the Oxus. “The great Yueh-chih is situated about 2000 or 3000 li west of Ta-yuan; they dwell north of the river Kuei (Oxus). To the south of them there is Ta-hsia (Bactrians), to the west, An-his (Parthians); to the north K'an-chu (Sogdians).” Shiji 123.5b

The Hou Han Shu then explains that the Yueh-Chih originally inhabited the area East of the Ta-Yuan, in the Tarim Basin, before they suffered a crushing defeat against the Xiong-Nu and their leader Mao-tun in 176 BCE, forcing them to cross the territory of the Ta-Yuan and resettle in the West by the banks of the Oxus, between the territory of the Ta-Yuan and Bactria to the south.

Urbanized city-dwellers

The customs of the Ta-Yuan are said by Zhang Qian to be identical to those of the Bactrians in the south, who actually formed formed the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom at that time.

“Their customs [the Bactrians] are the same as those of Ta-yuan. The people have fixed abodes and live in walled cities and regular houses like the people of Ta-Yuan. They have no great kings or heads, but everywhere in their walled cities and settlements they have installed small kings.” Shiji 123.3b

They are described are town-dwellers, in opposition to other populations such as the Yueh-Chih, the Wun-Sun or the Xiong-Nu who were nomads. “They have walled cities and houses; the large and small cities belonging to them, fully seventy in number, contain an aggregate population of several hundreds of thousands…There are more than seventy other cities in the country.” Han Shu

Indo-European traits

“The people of Ta-Yuan have deep sunken eyes, and bushy beards and whiskers. They are clever traders, and dispute about the division of a farthing. Women are honorably treated among them, and their husbands are guided by them in their decisions.” Shiji 123

They are great manufacturers and lovers of wine, a characteristic often associated with Greeks: “Round about Ta-Yuan they make wine from grapes. Wealthy people store up as much as 10,000 stone and over in their cellars, and keep it for several tens of years without spoiling. The people are fond of wine.” Shiji 123

Interactions with China

Following the reports of Zhang Qian (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yueh-Chih against the Xiong-Nu, in vain), the Chinese emperor Wu-Ti became interested in developping commercial relationship with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia: “The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Ta-Yuan) and the possessions of Bactria and Parthia are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China” Shiji 123

The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. “Thus more embassies were dispatched to An-si [Parthia], An-ts'ai [the Aorsi, or Alans], Li-kan [Syria under the Seleucids], T'iau-chi [Chaldea], and Shon-tu [India]…As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.” Shiji 123

A horse of the Late Han Dynasty (1st-2nd century CE)

The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses in the possession of the Ta-Yuan ("Heavenly horses"), which were of capital importance to fight the nomad Xiong-Nu. After the refusal of the Ta-Yuan to offer them enough horses, the Chinese sent an army in 104 BCE but failed, through lack of preparation and because they underestimated their adversaries: “The army of Yuan is weak; if we attack it with no more than three thousand Chinese soldiers using crossbows, we shall be sure to vanquish it completely.” Shiji 123

They then sent a second army of 100,000 men to subdue them and finally obtained 3,000 horses through negotiation, although they did not manage to take the Ta-Yuan capital: “On its arrival there the Chinese army consisted of thirty thousand men. An army of Yuan gave battle, the victory being gained by the efficiency of the Chinese archery; and this caused the Yuan army to take refuge in their bulwarks and mount the city walls… After all, the Chinese were unable to enter the inner city, and, abandoning further action, the army was led back.” Shiji 123

Contacts with the West were re-established following the peace treaty with the Yuan. Ambassador were once again sent to the West, caravans were sent to Bactria.

An era of East-West trade and cultural exchange

The Silk Road essentially came into being from the 1st century BCE, following the efforts of China to consolidate a road to the Western world, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Ta-Yuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west.

Intense trade followed soon, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied by the Parthians) from the 1st century BCE to the point that the Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds. This is attested by at least three significant authors:

This is also the time when the Buddhist faith and the Greco-Buddhist culture started to travel along the Silk Road, penetrating in China from around the 1st century BCE.

See also

  • History of Buddhism
  • Greco-Buddhism


  • Sima Qian, Records of the grand historian of China. Translated from the Shih chi of Sima Qian by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961, Volume II, ISBN 0231081677
  • “Zhang Qian's mission to the West”, translation by Friedrich Hirth published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, 37/2 (1917), pp. 93-116, adaptation by J.Moore, Department of History, Austin College.
  • Han Shu, as translated by A. Wylie in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vols. III (1874), pp. 401-452, V (1876), pp. 41-80, and X (1881), pp. 20-73, and XI (1882), pp. 83-115, adaptation by J.Moore, Department of History, Austin College.
  • "The diffusion of Classical art in Antiquity", John Boardman, Princeton University Press, 1993 ISBN 0691036802

External link

Selection from the Han narrative stories (http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/history/jmoore/HanNarrativeHistories.htm)

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