Kushan History Kushan History

The Yu-chi period, 220 BC to 30 AD

For the early part of Kushan history written sources are all external. There is quite a large amount of Chinese material and some Western material. This poses a problem for study of the period. It is only possible to judge the impact the Yu-chi had on others. When the Yu-chi were peaceful, especially in the period 90 BC to 10 AD, when they were of very little interest to anyone else, written sources dry up.


SC 110.6a, HS 94A.5a
c.210 BC

Both the Han-Shu and the Shih-Chih deal with the early history of the Yu-chi. These passages are concerned with the expulsion of the Yu-chi from their homeland by the Hsiung-nu. It is hard to put too much faith in every detail as the events are nearly hundred years old when this was written and the information is second hand.

At that time, the Eastern Hu were powerful and the Yüeh-chih strong.
The chief (shan-yü) of the Hsiung-nu was named T'ou-man. T'ou-man 
could not withstand the (Chinese) Ch'in (dynasty) and migrated to the north.
SC 110.6a, HS 94A.5b
He then sent Mao-tun (the unwelcome eldest son of Tou-man) as a hostage to the
Yüeh-chih.  And when Mao-tun had become a hostage among the Yüeh-chih, 
(his father) T'ou-man suddenly attacked the Yüeh-chih. The Yüeh-chih wanted
to kill Mao-tun, but Mao-tun stole a good horse from them, and having mounted 
it he fled and returned (to his country)
SC 110.7a, HS 94A.6b
After 209 BC
After having returned (from a campaign against the Hu), he went to the West
and smote and chased the Yüeh-chih, and going to the South he conquered 
Lou-fan...
SC 110.8a
The Kings and Generals of the Right dwell in the western part (of the 
Hsiung-nu territory), up to the region west of Shang commandery (N.  E. Shensi)
where they border upon the Yüeh-chih,' the Ti and the Ch'iang.


SC 110.10b, HS 94A.11a
176 BC

A letter from Mao-Tun to the the Han emperor gives some details of what happened to the Yu-chi. The claim that the Hsiung-nu have destroyed the Yu-chi is a great exageration.

Now since these small officials have spoilt the treaty (between our 
countries), I have punished the yu-hsien-wang, and sent him to
the west to seek the Yüeh-chih and to attack them.  By the good fortune
(bestowed by) Heaven, by the good quality of our officers and soldiers
and by the strength of our horses, he has destroyed and exterminated the
Yüeh-chih; he has completely beheaded and killed, subdued and vanquished
them. (Moreover), he has pacified Lou-lan, Wu-sun, Hu-ch'ien and twenty-six
adjoining countries, and all these have been made Hsiung-nu (territory): 
all the peoples who draw bows have been united into one family...


HS 61.4a
c.119BC

This is from the biography of Chang Ch'ien. It discribes the relations of the Wu-sun and the Yu-chi. The events described belong to the period after the Hsiung-nu attack in 177BC and before the conquest of Bactria in c.128BC.

 When I, your servant, was dwelling among the Hsiung-nu, I heard that
 the king of the Wu-sun has the title of K'un-mo. The father of the 
 K'un-mo, Nan-tou-mi, originally lived ,together with the Great 
 Yüeh-chih in the region between Ch'i-lien and Tun-huang.  It was
 a small country.  The Yüeh-chih attacked and killed Nan-tou-mi 
 and took his territory, and the people fled to the Hsiung-nu...
 
 At that time the Yüeh-chih had already been defeated by, the
 Hsiung-nu, and they had gone to the West and attacked the Sai king 
 (or Sai-wang). The Sai king (Sai-wang) had gone to the South and 
 migrated to a distant (region), and the Yüeh-chih had occupied 
 their territory. When the k'un-mo (Nan-tou-mi's son) had grown up, 
 he himself asked the shan-yü (of the Hsiung-nu) for permission 
 to requite the injury (inflicted upon) his father, and subsequently
 he went to the West and attacked and defeated the Great Yüeh-chih.
 (Thereupon) the Great Yiieh-chih again moved (further) westwards 
 and migrated to the territory of Ta-hsia. The K'un-mo seized their 
 masses (possibly their cattle?) and consequently remained in (the 
 ancient Sai territory).


SC 123.1a
140 to 134BC

The Shih-Chi was composed in one hundred and thirty chapters by Ssu-ma T'an. He died in 110BC and the work was completed by his son Ssu-ma Chi'en around 100BC. Several sections, including this one, may have been taken from the Han Shu, the official history of the Han empire. This account is the start of a story about the journey of Chang Chi'en, who may be fictitious.

Chang Chi'en was a man from Han-chung. In the chien-yüan era. He was active as a 
Gentleman (-of-the-Palace). At that time the emperor had heard (the statement of) 
Hsiung-nu who had surrendered (to the Han), and who all said that the Hsiung-nu had 
defeated the king of the Yüeh-chih and had made a drinking vessel from his skull,
and that the Yüeh-chih had feld and constantly bore a grudge against the Hsiung-nu,
without having (an ally) with whom they could attack them...


SC 123.2a,HS61.2a
c.129BC

This account occurs in both the Han-Shu and the Shih-Chi. There is some disagreement between the two texts. The Crown Prince might be the principal Consort (wife) of the king, or possibly her son. All three are given in texts.

 The king of the Great Yiieh-chih had been
 killed by the Hu (Hsiung-nu), and they (Yüeh-chih)
 had set up his crown-prince as their king. They had subdued
 Ta-hsia and dwelt (in that region.) The country is rich and
 fertile and there are few bandits. (Hence) they felt safe and happy;
 moreover, they regarded themselves as being far away from the
 Han and had absolutely no intention to take revenge on the Hu
 (Hsiung-nu). (Chang) Ch'ien went from the Yüeh-chih to Ta-hsia, 
 but he could after all not come to an agreement with the
 Yüeh-chih.


SC 123.3b
c.125BC

Sections from SC describe the countries under the control of the Yu-chi at the time they had refused the Han's alliance. At this time, probably before 129BC the Yu-chi had probably overrun Bactria. The section also includes a description of prior Yu-chi history.

Kang-chü (Sogdia) is situated about 2,000 li north-
west of Ta-yiian (Ferghana). It is a nomadic state, with much the
same customs as the Great Yüeh-chih.  It has 80,000 or 90,000
archers, and borders upon Ta-yüan. The country is small.  Towards
the south it is subservient to the Yüeh-chjh, towards the east it is
subservient to the Hsiung-nu...

The (country of the) Great Yüeh-chih is situated about
2,000 or 3,000 li west of Ta-yüan (Ferghana); they dwell north of
the river Kuei (Oxus).  To the south of them there is Ta-hsia;
to the West, An-hsi (Parthia); to the north, K'ang-chü (Sogdia).
It is a nomadic state: they move about, following their cattle, and
they have the same customs as the Hsiung-nu.  There are about
100,000 or 200,000 archers.  Formerly they were strong and treated
the Hsiung-nu with contempt.  But when (the Hsiung-nu ruler)
Mao-tun had come to the throne, he attacked and defeated the
Yüeh-chih, and finally the Lao-shang chieftain of the Hsiung-nu
killed the king of the Yüeh-chih and made a drinking-vessel from
his skull.  At first the Yüeh-chih had been living in the region
between Tun-huang and Ch'i-lien (Western Kansu) (but), when they
had been defeated by the Hsiung-nu, they went far away.  They
passed through Ta-yüan and to the west (of that country) they
smote Ta-hsia and subdued it.  Subsequently they had their capital
north of the Kuei river (Oxus), and (this) they made their royal
court.  The remaining small groups who had been unable to go away
maintained their position (among) the Ch'iang (Proto-Tibetan
tribes) of Nan-shan (region of Kara-nor); these are called the
'Lesser Yüeh-chih'.

SC 123.5b
Ta-hsia is situated more than 2,000 li south-west of
Ta-yüan (Ferghana), south of the Kuei river.  As to their customs:
they are sedentary and have walled cities and houses.  Their customs
are the same as those of Ta-yüan. They have no great kings or
heads, but everywhere in their walled cities and settlements they
have installed small heads.  Their troops are weak and fear war,
(but) they excel in commerce.  When the Great Yüeh-chih migrated
to the West, they attacked and vanquished it, and they completely
subdued and tamed (the people of) Ta-hsia. Ta-hsia has a large
population, amounting to more than a million.  Its capital is named
the city of Lan-shih; there is a market where all (kinds of)
articles are sold.  To the south-east of it lies the country of Shen-tu 
(India)...

SC 123.8b
c.119BC
(Chang) Ch'ien consequently sent out assistant envoys
on missions to Ta-yüan, K'ang-chu, Great Yüeh-chih, Ta-hsia,
An-hsi, Shen-tu, Yu-t'ien (Khotan), Han-Mi  and the (other)
adjoining countries...



HS 96A.14b
First Century AD

This passage describes the kingdom of the Great Yu-chi in the first century BC. At this time it was divided into five yabgu. The first mention of the Kushans is as one of these yabgu (Kuei-shuang). As the translation is unclear some people have assumed that the Kuei-shang are a subject people in Bactria and that the later Kushan Empire is not an extension of the Yu-chi.

The king of the country of the Great Yüeh-chih resides at the city of Chien-shih,
'at a distance of 11,600 from Ch'ang-an. It is not controlled by the (Chinese) 
governor general (in Central Asia).  It has a population of 100,000 households, 
with 400,000 people and 100,000 excellent soldiers.  In the eastern direction it 
is 4,740 li to the residence of the governor-general, and in the western direction 
it takes forty-nine days' journey to reach An-hsi (Parthia).  In the south it 
borders on Chi-pin (North-West India). Its soil, climate, products, prevailing
popular customs and money are the same as those of An-hsi. (This country) produces
one-humped camels.  The Great Yüeh-chih originally formed a nomadic state; 
they moved about, following their cattle, and had the same customs as the Hsiung-nu.
As their archers numbered more than a hundred thousand, they were strong and treated
the Hsiung-nu with contempt.  Originally they lived between Tunhuang and Ch'i-lien. 
But when the shan-yü Mao-tun had attacked and defeated the Yiieh-chih, and when 
the Lao-shang shan-yü had killed the Yüeh-chih (king) and had made a drinking
vessel from his skull, then the Yüeh-chih went far away.  They passed through
Ta-yüan (Ferghana), and to the west (of that country) they smote Ta-hsia (Bactria)
and subdued it.  They had their capital north of the Kuei River (Oxus), and (this)
they made their royal court.  The remaining small groups who had been unable to go 
away maintained their position (among) the Ch'iang (proto-Tibetan tribes) of Nan-shan 
(region of Kara-nor); these are called the "Lesser Yüeh-chih". Ta-hsia originally
had no great kings or heads, but everywhere in their walled cities and settlements 
they had installed small heads. The people are weak and fear war, therefore when the
Yüeh-chih came migrating (to the West) they completely subdued and tamed them. 
Together they support the envoys of the Han.

'There are five hsi-hou (yabgu) 
    (i) the yabgu of Hsiu~mi ag resides in the walled city of Ho-mo,
    at 2,841 li' from the (headquarters of the) governor~general and at
    7,802 li from the Yang gate (near Tunhuang);
    (2) the yabgu of Shuang-mi resides at the walled city of Shuang-
    mi, at 3,741 li' from the (headquarters of the) governor-general
    and at 7,782 Ii from the Yang gate;
    (3) the yabgu of Kuei-shuang resides at the walled city of Hu-tsao 
    at 5,940 li from the (headquarters of the) governor-general and at 
    7,982 Ii from the Yang gate;
    (4) the yabg of Hsi-tun at resides at the walled city of Po-mao, a-
    at 5,962 li' from the (headquarters of the) governor-general and at
    8,202 li from the Yang gate;
    (5) the yabgu of Kao-fu an resides at the walled city of Kao-fu, an
    at 6,041 li' from the (headquarters of the) governor-general and at
    9,293 li from the Yang gate.  These five yabgu all belong to the
    Great Yiieh-chih.'

HS 96A.10b
c.60BC

The Sai described here are probably the Indo-Parthian kingdoms. For more details see the section on the Scythian Wave. Also consider the report by Chang Ch'ien in HS 61.4a

 Formerly, when the Hsiung-nu had defeated the Great Yüeh-chih, the 
 Yüeh-chih went to the West and became rulers of Ta-hsia, whereas 
 the Sai king (or the Sai-wang) went southwards and became ruler(s) of 
 Chi-pin. 8 The Sai race was divided and dispersed, and everywhere they
 formed several kingdoms.  The kingdoms to the north-west of Su-le (Kashgar)
 such as Hsiu-hsiin - and Yilan-tu, all belong to the original Sai race.


Dio's Roman History: Book LIV

This is a record of an embassy from India to Rome in 20 BC. The embassy could have been from the Indo-Parthians or the early Kushans it is hard to tell. The issues by Kajula of a coin based on the Roman Denarii has often been linked to the treaty of friendship mentioned here. This is, I think, a rather fanciful connection and the treaty should be ascribed to the Indo-Parthians.

But Augustus, for his part, returned to Samos and once more passed 
the winter there. In recognition he gave the islanders their
freedom, and he also attended to many matters of business. For a 
great embassies came to him, and the people of India, who had already
made many overtures, now made a treaty of friendship, sending among
other gifts tigers, which were then for the first time seen by the
Romans, as also, I think, by the Greeks.
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Chronology of Kushan History
Military History of the Kushans
Contacting the Author

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