The Yuezhi (Chinese: 月氏; pinyin: Yuèzhī; Wade–Giles: Yüeh4-chih1, [ɥê ʈʂɻ̩́]) were an ancient Indo-European people first described in Chinese histories as nomadic pastoralists living in an arid grassland area in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, during the 1st millennium BC. After a major defeat by the Xiongnu in 176 BC, the Yuezhi split into two groups migrating in different directions: the Greater Yuezhi (Dà Yuèzhī 大月氏) and Lesser Yuezhi (Xiǎo Yuèzhī 小月氏).
The Greater Yuezhi initially migrated northwest into the Ili Valley (on the modern borders of China and Kazakhstan), where they reportedly displaced elements of the Sakas. They were driven from the Ili Valley by the Wusun and migrated southward to Sogdia and later settled in Bactria. The Greater Yuezhi have consequently often been identified with peoples mentioned in classical European sources as having overrun the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, like the Tókharioi (Greek Τοχάριοι; Sanskrit Tukhāra) and Asii (or Asioi). During the 1st century BC, one of the five major Greater Yuezhi tribes in Bactria, the Kushanas (Chinese: 貴霜; pinyin: Guìshuāng), began to subsume the other tribes and neighbouring peoples. The subsequent Kushan Empire, at its peak in the 3rd century AD, stretched from Turfan in the Tarim Basin in the north to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain of India in the south. The Kushanas played an important role in the development of trade on the Silk Road and the introduction of Buddhism to China.
The Lesser Yuezhi migrated southward to the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Some are reported to have settled among the Qiang people in Qinghai, and to have been involved in the Liangzhou Rebellion (184–221 AD). Others are said to have founded the city state of Cumuḍa (now known as Kumul and Hami) in the eastern Tarim. A fourth group of Lesser Yuezhi may have become part of the Jie people of Shanxi, who established the Later Zhao state of the 4th century AD (although this remains controversial).
Although some scholars have associated the Yuezhi with artifacts of extinct cultures in the Tarim Basin, such as the Tarim mummies and texts recording the Tocharian languages, the evidence for any such link is purely circumstantial.
Three pre-Han texts mention peoples who appear to be the Yuezhi, albeit under slightly different names.
In the 1st century BC, Sima Qian – widely regarded as the founder of Chinese historiography – describes how the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) bought jade and highly valued military horses from a people that Sima Qian called the Wūzhī 烏氏 (OC: *ʔa-kje), led by a man named as Luo. The Wūzhī traded these goods for Chinese silk, which they then sold on to other neighbours. This is probably the first reference to the Yuezhi as a lynchpin in trade on the Silk Road, which in the 3rd century BC began to link Chinese states to Central Asia and, eventually, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe.
The earliest detailed account of the Yuezhi is found in chapter 123 of the Records of the Great Historian by Sima Qian, describing a mission of Zhang Qian in the late 2nd century BC. Essentially the same text appears in chapter 61 of the Book of Han, though Sima Qian has added occasional words and phrases to clarify the meaning.
Both texts use the name Yuèzhī 月氏 (OC: *ŋʷjat-kje), composed of characters meaning "moon" and "clan" respectively. Several different romanizations of this Chinese-language name have appeared in print. The Iranologist H. W. Bailey preferred Üe-ṭşi. Another modern Chinese pronunciation of the name is Ròuzhī, based on the theory that the character 月 in the name is a scribal error for 肉.
The account begins with the Yuezhi occupying the grasslands to the northwest of China at the beginning of the 2nd century BC:
The Great Yuezhi was a nomadic horde. They moved about following their cattle, and had the same customs as those of the Xiongnu. As their soldiers numbered more than hundred thousand, they were strong and despised the Xiongnu. In the past, they lived in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian.
The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, but no archaeological remains of the Yuezhi have yet been found in this area. Some scholars have argued that "Dunhuang" should be Dunhong, a mountain in the Tian Shan, and that Qilian should be interpreted as a name for the Tian Shan. They have thus placed the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 km further northwest in the grasslands to the north of the Tian Shan (in the northern part of modern Xinjiang). Other authors suggest that the area identified by Sima Qian was merely the core area of an empire encompassing the western part of the Mongolian plain, the upper reaches of the Yellow River, the Tarim Basin and possibly much of central Asia, including the Altai Mountains, the site of the Pazyryk burials of the Ukok Plateau.
By the late 3rd century the Xiongnu monarch Touman even sent his eldest son Modu as a hostage to the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi often attacked their neighbour the Wusun to acquire slaves and pasture lands. Wusun originally lived together with the Yuezhi in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian Mountain. The Yuezhi attacked the Wusuns, killed their monarch Nandoumi and took his territory. The son of Nandoumi, Kunmo fled to the Xiongnu and was brought up by the Xiongnu monarch.
Gradually the Xiongnu grew stronger, and war broke out with the Yuezhi. There were at least four wars according to the Chinese accounts. The first war broke out during the reign of the Xiongnu monarch Touman (who died in 209 BC) who suddenly attacked the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi wanted to kill Modu, the son of the Xiongnu king Touman kept as a hostage to them, but Modu stole a good horse from them and managed to escape to his country. He subsequently killed his father and became ruler of the Xiongnu. It appears that the Xiongnu did not defeat the Yuezhi in this first war. The second war took place in the 7th year of Modu era (203 BC). From this war, a large area of the territory originally belonging to the Yuezhi was seized by the Xiongnu and the hegemony of the Yuezhi started to shake. The third war probably was at 176 BC (or shortly earlier) and the Yuezhi were badly defeated.
Shortly before 176 BC, led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 BC) 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 Modu, Laoshang Chanyu (ruled 174–166 BC), subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123.)
After their defeat by the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi split into two groups. The Lesser or Little Yuezhi (Xiao Yuezhi) moved to the "southern mountains", believed to be the Qilian Mountains on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, to live with the Qiang.
The so-called Greater (or Great) Yuezhi (Dà Yuèzhī, 大月氏) began migrating north-west in about 165 BC, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they defeated the Sai (Sakas): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Book of Han 61 4B). This was "the first historically recorded movement of peoples originating in the high plateaus of Asia."
In 132 BC the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, again managed to dislodge the Yuezhi from the Ili Valley, forcing them to move south-west. The Yuezhi passed through the neighbouring urban civilization of Dayuan (in Ferghana) and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of northern Bactria, or Transoxiana (modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).
The Yuezhi were visited in Transoxiana by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 BC, which sought an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian, who spent a year in Transoxiana and Bactria, wrote a detailed account in the Shiji, which gives considerable insight into the situation in Central Asia at the time. The request for an alliance was denied by the son of the slain Yuezhi king, who preferred to maintain peace in Transoxiana rather than seek revenge.
the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li [832–1,247 kilometers] west of Dayuan, 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 [beyond the middle Jaxartes/Syr Darya]. 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.
In a sweeping analysis of the physical types and cultures of Central Asia, Zhang Qian reports:
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. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women.
Daxia is located over 2,000 li southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold.
The next mention of the Yuezhi in Chinese sources is found in chapter 96A of the Book of Han (completed in AD 111), relating to the early 1st century BC. At this time, the Yuezhi are described as occupying the whole of Bactria, organized into five major tribes or xīhóu (Ch:翖侯, "Allied Prince"). These tribes were known to the Chinese as:
The Book of the Later Han (5th century CE) also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 BC, who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century BC (Baldev Kumar 1973).
Chapter 88 of the Book of the Later Han relies on a report of Ban Yong, based on the campaigns of his father Ban Chao in the late 1st century AD. It reports that one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang, had managed to take control of the tribal confederation:
More than a hundred years later, the xihou of Guishuang, named Qiujiu Que (Ch: 丘就卻, Kujula Kadphises) attacked and exterminated the four other xihou. He set himself up as king of a kingdom called Guishuang (Kushan). He invaded Anxi (Parthia) and took the Gaofu (Ch:高附, Kabul) region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Ch: 濮達) and Jibin (Ch: 罽賓, Kapiśa-Gandhāra). Qiujiu Que (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when he died. His son, Yan Gaozhen (Ch:閻高珍) (Vima Takto), became king in his place. He returned and defeated Tianzhu (Northwestern India) and installed a General to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang (Kushan) king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi.
A later Chinese annotation in Zhang Shoujie's Shiji (quoting Wan Zhen 萬震 in Nánzhōuzhì 南州志 ["Strange Things from the Southern Region"], a now-lost 3rd-century text from the Wu kingdom), describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. Chinese sources continued to use the name Yuezhi and seldom used the Kushan (or Guishuang) as a generic term:
The Great Yuezhi are located about seven thousand li [2,910 km] north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin [the Roman Empire]. The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it.
The central Asian people who called themselves Kushana, who were among the conquerors of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom during the 2nd century BC, are widely believed to have originated as a dynastic clan or tribe of the Yuezhi. Because some inhabitants of Bactria became known as Tukhāra (Sanskrit) or Tókharoi (Τοχάριοι; Greek), these names later became associated with the Yuezhi.
The resulting Greco-Bactrian Kingdom lasted until the 2nd century BC. The area came under pressure from various nomadic peoples and the Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground in about 145 BC. The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. In about 140–130 BC, the Greco-Bactrian state was conquered by the nomads and dissolved. The Greek geographer Strabo mentions this event in his account of the central Asian tribes he called "Scythians":
All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana: the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes [Syr Darya], opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani.
The Roman historian Pompeius Trogus (1st century BC) attributes destruction of the Greco-Bactrian state to the Sacaraucae and the Asiani "kings of the Tochari". Both Pompeius and Justin (2nd century AD) record that the Parthian king Artabanus II was mortally wounded in a war against the Tokhari in 124 BC.
Several relationships between these tribes and those named in Chinese sources have been proposed, but remain contentious.
After they settled in Bactria, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree – as shown 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. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan and the Yuezhi were known as Tókharoi by the Greeks.
The area of the Hindu Kush (Paropamisadae) was ruled by the western Indo-Greek king until the reign of Hermaeus (reigned c. 90 BC–70 BC). After that date, no Indo-Greek kings are known in the area. According to Bopearachchi, no trace of Indo-Scythian occupation (nor coins of major Indo-Scythian rulers such as Maues or Azes I) have been found in the Paropamisade and western Gandhara. The Hindu Kush may have been subsumed by the Yuezhi,[original research?] who by then had been dominated by Greco-Bactria for almost two centuries.
As they had done in Bactria with their copying of Greco-Bactrian coinage, the Yuezhi copied the coinage of Hermeaus on a vast scale, up to around 40 AD, when the design blends into the coinage of the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Such coins may provide the earliest known names of Yuezhi yabgu (a minor royal title, similar to prince), namely Sapadbizes[original research?] and/or Agesiles, who both lived in or about 20 BC.
After that point, they extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. Despite their change of name, most Chinese authors continued to refer to the Kushanas as the Yuezhi.
The Kushanas integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities and 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 centuries, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. The Kushanas collaborated militarily with the Chinese against their mutual enemies. This included a campaign 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. In around AD 85, the Kushanas also assisted the Chinese in an attack on Turpan, east of the Tarim Basin.
Following the military support provided to the Han, the Kushan emperor requested a marriage alliance with a Han princess and sent gifts to the Chinese court in expectation that this would occur. After the Han court refused, a Kushan army 70,000 strong marched on Ban Chao in 86 AD. The army was apparently exhausted by the time it reached its objective and was defeated by the Chinese force. The Kushanas retreated and later paid tribute to the Chinese emperor Han He (89–106).
In about 120 AD, Kushan troops installed Chenpan – a prince who had been sent as a hostage to them and had become a favorite of the Kushan Emperor — on the throne of Kashgar, thus expanding their power and influence in the Tarim Basin. There they introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art, which developed into Serindian art.
Following this territorial expansion, the Kushanas introduced Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by both direct missionary efforts and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Major Kushan missionaries and translators included Lokaksema (born c. 147 CE) and Dharmaraksa (c. 233 – c. 311), both of whom were influential translators of the Mahayana sutras into Chinese. They went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
In the Records of the Three Kingdoms (chap. 3), it was recorded that in 229 AD, "The king of the Da Yuezhi [Kushanas], Bodiao 波調 (Vasudeva I), sent his envoy to present tribute, and His Majesty (Emperor Cao Rui) granted him the title of King of the Da Yuezhi Intimate with the Wei (Ch: 親魏大月氏王, Qīn Wèi Dà Yuèzhī Wáng)."
Soon afterwards, the military power of the Kushanas began to decline. The rival Sasanian Empire of Persia extended its dominion into Bactria during the reign of Ardashir I around 230 CE. The Sasanians also occupied neighboring Sogdia by 260 AD and made it into a satrapy.
Xiao Yuezhi may have been used as a generic term for various Caucasoid minorities that remained in northern China (following the migration of the Greater Yuezhi). The term is used of peoples in locations as diverse as Tibet, Qinghai, Shanxi and the Tarim Basin.
Some of the Lesser Yuezhi settled among the Qiang people of Huangzhong, Qinghai, according to archaeologist Sophia-Katrin Psarras. Yuezhi and Qiang were said to be among members of the Auxiliary of Loyal Barbarians From Huangzhong that mutinied against the Han dynasty, in the Liangzhou Rebellion (184–221 CE).
Elements of the Lesser Yuezhi are said to have been a component of the Jie people, who originated from Yushe County in Shanxi. Other theories link the Jie more strongly to the Xiongnu, Kangju, or the Tocharian-speaking peoples of the Tarim. Led by Emperor Shi Le the Jie established the Later Zhao state (319–351) and were massacred by King Ran Min of the Ran Wei state, during the Wei–Jie war.
In Tibet, the Lesser Yuezhi constituted the Gar or mGar – a clan name associated with blacksmiths. The Gar became influential during the period of the Tibetan Empire – until the end of the 7th century, when 2,000 of them were massacred by the Tibetan emperor Tridu Songtsän.
Some of the Lesser Yuezhi are said to have founded the city state of Cumuḍa (also Cimuda or Cunuda), near the Lop Nur lake system, in the eastern Tarim. Cumuḍa and its people were known to the Han as 仲雲 Zhongyun (pinyin; Wade–Giles Tchong-yun). In the 10th century, a Chinese monk named Gao Juhui, who had traveled to the Tarim Basin, stated that the Zhongyun were descendants of the Xiao Yuezhi, and that the king of Zhongyun resided near Lop Nur. (Following the subsequent settlement of Uyghur-speaking people in the area, Cumuḍa became known as Čungul, Xungul and Kumul. Under subsequent Han Chinese influence, it became known as Hami 哈密.)
The relationship between the Yuezhi and other Central Asian peoples is unclear. Based on claimed similarities of names, different scholars have linked them to several groups, but none of these identifications is widely accepted.
Mallory and Mair suggest that the Yuezhi and Wusun were among the nomadic peoples, at least some of whom spoke Iranian languages, who moved into northern Xinjiang from the Central Asian steppe in the 2nd millennium BC.
Scholars such as Edwin Pulleyblank, Josef Markwart (a.k.a. Joseph Marquart) and László Torday, suggest that the name Iatioi – a Central Asian people mentioned by Ptolemy in Geography (AD 150) – may also be an attempt to render Yuezhi.
There has been only limited scholarly support for a theory developed by W. B. Henning, who proposed that the Yuezhi were descended from the Guti (or Gutians) and an associated, but little known tribe known as the Tukri, who were native to the Zagros Mountains (modern Iran / Iraq), during the mid-3rd millennium BC. In addition to phonological similarities between these names and *ŋʷjat-kje and Tukhāra, Henning pointed out that the Guti could have migrated from the Zagros to Gansu, by the time that the Yuezhi entered the historical record in China, during the 1st millennium BC. However, the only material evidence presented by Henning, namely similar ceramic ware, is generally considered to be far from conclusive.
When manuscripts dating from the 6th to 8th centuries AD written in two hitherto-unknown languages were discovered in the northern Tarim Basin, the early 20th-century linguist Friedrich W. K. Müller assumed that the authors were Tókharoi and referred to the newly discovered languages as "Tocharian". This became the common name for both the languages of the Tarim manuscripts and the people who produced them. Most historians now reject the identification of the Tocharians of the Tarim with the Tókharoi of Bactria, who are not known to have spoken any languages other than Bactrian. Other scholars suggest that the Kushanas may previously have spoken Tocharian before shifting to Bactrian on their arrival in Bactria, an example of an invading or colonising elite adopting a local language. However, while Tocharian contains some loanwords from Bactrian, there are no traces of Tocharian in Bactrian.
Another possible endonym of the Yuezhi was put forward by H. W. Bailey, who claimed that they were referred to, in 9th and 10th century Khotan Saka Iranian texts, as the Gara. According to Bailey, the Tu Gara ("Great Gara") were the Great Yuezhi. This is consistent with the Ancient Greek Τόχαροι Tokharoi (Latinised Tochari) in reference to the faction of the Kushans that conquered Bactria, as well as the Tibetan language name Gar (or mGar), for the members of the Lesser Yuezhi who settled in the Tibetan Empire.