Stone palette depicting Yuezhi king and attendants

Fighting Their Way Westward: The Nomadic Yuezhi People

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The Yuezhi were an ancient nomadic group of people from Central Asia who spoke an Indo-European language. It is likely that most people today are unfamiliar with the Yuezhi Civilization. As they were nomads, the Yuezhi are best-known for their migration westward, which had a chain reaction on the other civilizations in that region. The main sources of information regarding the Yuezhi are ancient Chinese records. Nevertheless, they have also been mentioned by some Western sources, and some of the coins minted by Yuezhi rulers have survived.

The Yuezhi Homeland

According to Sima (Zhang) Qian’s Shiji (known also as the Records of the Great Historian ), which was completed towards the end of the 2nd century BC, the Yuezhi (月氏) were originally from the area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang. In other words, the Yuezhi originated in the area which is now the Chinese province of Gansu.

Zhang Qian leaving for his expedition to Central Asia. During his travels, Qian met and recorded information about the Yuezhi people.

Zhang Qian leaving for his expedition to Central Asia. During his travels, Qian met and recorded information about the Yuezhi people. ( Public Domain )

An alternate interpretation of the text suggests that the Qilian Mountains may be a reference to the Tian Shan instead, as it has been speculated that the Chinese name of the mountain (i.e. Tian Shan) was derived from its name in the Xiongnu language (i.e. Qilian). Based on this interpretation, the Yuezhi are placed further west, in the northern part of modern Xinjiang. Another theory, based on older Chinese sources, suggests that the Yuezhi were originally from present day Mongolia, and only migrated to Dunhuang (either in Gansu or Xinjiang) later on.

A section of the Tian Shan mountain range.

A section of the Tian Shan mountain range. ( Chen Zhao/CC BY 2.0 )

A Series of Battles for the Nomads

Regardless of where the Yuezhi originated from, it is agreed that they were defeated by the Xiongnu, another nomadic tribe, during the 2nd century BC, and were forced to migrate to the west. The Yuezhi were then forced to migrate again, this time to the south, when they were attacked by the Wusun. Travelling south, the Yuezhi encountered the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, and defeated them, an event that was recorded not only in the ancient Chinese sources, but also by the Greek geographer, Strabo.

In the ancient Chinese sources, the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom is referred to as Daxia (大夏). According to the Shiji, this country was located over 2000 li (1000 km/621.4 mi) to the southwest of Dayuan (大宛) (located in the Ferghana Valley), and to the south of the Gui (媯) (Oxus) River. In addition to Sima Qian’s work, the invasion of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom can also be found in a 5th century AD piece of work known as the Hou Han Shu (also known as the Book of the Later Han ).

Both these ancient Chinese sources agree that the Yuezhi defeated Daxia. According to the Shiji, the Yuezhi established a royal court on the northern bank of the Gui River after attacking Daxia. According to the Hou Han Shu , the Yuezhi divided Daxia between five xihou ( 翖侯) (‘Allied Princes’). In comparison, Strabo depicts the Yuezhi as a Scythian tribe:

“Now the greater part of the Scythians, beginning at the Caspian Sea, are called Däae, but those who are situated more to the east than these are named Massagetae and Sacae, whereas all the rest given the general name of Scythians, though each people is given a separate name of its own. They all [are] for the most part nomads. But the best known of the nomads are those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks, I mean the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who originally came from the country on the other side of the Iaxartes River that adjoins that of the Sacae and the Sogdiani and was occupied by the Sacae.”

Map of the Yuezhi civilization’s migrations.

Map of the Yuezhi civilization’s migrations. ( Public Domain )

Changes to a Sedentary Lifestyle and New Empire

Following the conquest of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, the Yuezhi abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, and became sedentary. Additionally, the adopted a Hellenized way of life, preserved their predecessors’ agricultural and trading systems, and began using the Greek alphabet as well as minting coins in the Graeco-Bactrian style.

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