Transportation, boarding, lodging, and trade along the early silk road: a preliminary study of the Xuanquan manuscripts.

Author:Yang, Jidong

    Much of our current knowledge about the early Silk Road comes from the first three of the Chinese twenty-four histories: Shiji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Records of the Grand Scribe), Honshu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Book of Han), and Hou Honshu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Book of Later Han). It is well known that all these works, written by court historians from the Han (206 B.C.E.--220 C.E.) to the Southern Dynasties (317-589), focus on the politics inside of the capital and shed little light on life in the provinces. In these sources, the history of the early Silk Road consists of a series of events that were brought to the attention of the Han emperor and his closest ministers. They provide few clues about the daily life along the early Silk Road, nor can they offer answers to questions such as the volume of traffic along the ancient trade route, accommodations for envoys and merchants, and the kinds of foreign commodities welcomed by the Chinese.

    The discovery of a great number of Han Dynasty manuscripts at the Xuanquan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] site near Dunhuang has provided scholars with a precious chance to look at the ancient Silk Road from a novel perspective. This site, nowadays deserted and uninhabited, contains the ruins of a postal and relay station of the Han Dynasty. Large-scale excavations at Xuanquan took place in the early 1990s. (1) The most valuable of the unearthed objects are Han official documents written on about 23,000 wooden strips and several hundred pieces of silk and paper, (2) dating between 111 B.C.E. and 107 C.E. Perhaps due to their sheer volume, the Xuanquan manuscripts have been kept and studied by the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology for more than two decades. (3) Although the institute had reportedly transcribed all of the manuscripts by 2003, (4) only a fraction of the total corpus has been published. (5) The best-known collection is Dunhuang Xuanquan Hanjian shicui, (6) which contains 272 punctuated and annotated Xuanquan documents.

    Although published Xuanquan documents account for only about two percent of the entire excavated corpus, the contents of these documents have been startling to students of early imperial China. (7) One of the main values of these materials lies in their potential to illuminate the routine operation of the early Silk Road--a subject that has been little discussed or studied since the Han period. Many of the excavated manuscripts record the activities of the Chinese and Central Asians traveling along the Gansu Corridor at the time and were left behind by low-level Han government employees responsible for administering the daily traffic on the route. In this essay I address several issues related to accommodation, transportation, and trade along the early Silk Road by using the documents published in Dunhuang Xuanquan Hanjian shicui. Since the compilers of the book have clearly stated in the introduction that it includes the "finest pieces" of Xuanquan manuscripts, (8) we have reason to make some preliminary observations even if the majority of Xuanquan documents are still unavailable to most researchers.


    Xuanquan was a county-level postal and relay station, or zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], during the Han period. The postal system was one of the most important parts of the Han state machine. Since its inception, the Chinese empire had relied on the production and circulation of written documents for daily administration. (9) In a sense, postal service played a larger role than the military in binding the empire together, because it was through this system that everyday communications between the capital and provinces were made and the central government's control over the vast territory was realized. In spite of its obvious importance, however, the Qin-Han postal system drew little attention from the authors of Shiji, Honshu, and Hou Honshu. Nor is it mentioned in the surviving fragments of the six earliest monographs on Han institutions, known to later historians as Hanguan liuzhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (10) The discovery of the Xuanquan site provided modern historians with a glimpse into a Han postal and relay center. Numerous manuscripts unearthed at the site indicate that this facility was referred to as a zhi during the four centuries of the Han (which includes the short-lived Xin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] regime, 8-23 C.E.). (11) The complex was roughly square in layout and enclosed by four walls, each of which were about 50 meters long and 1.5 to 2 meters thick, and made of sun-dried earth bricks. The complex's only gate opened toward the east. The center of the site was a large courtyard, surrounded by at least twenty-seven rooms. Outside the walls, at the northwest and southwest corners of the complex, stood two large watch towers, each built on a foundation of 49 square meters. Remains of three horse stables were found right outside the south wall. (12)

    The status of the zhi in the Han postal network is clearly reflected in a manuscript excavated at the Xuanquan site (13) and identified by Chinese researchers as a "mileage chart" (daoli bu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or licheng jian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (14) This undated fragment records the distances between some major postal stations in the northwestern territory of the Han, which included the Gansu Corridor. One of the possible uses of this document was for ancient travelers to plan their trips. As we know, the Chinese took control of the Gansu Corridor and its neighboring areas in the late second century B.C.E. after expelling the Xiongnu from this region. (15) Shortly afterwards the Han Dynasty launched a policy of massive immigration and colonization, which entailed relocating people from the Central Plains to the newly conquered territories and establishing four new prefectures (jun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the oases along the corridor. Each of the prefectures administered several counties (xian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (16) As seen in the Xuanquan mileage book, the seats of those county governments functioned not only as the administrative centers but also major stops in the postal and relay network. When the route between two counties, which sometimes traversed barren land, was too long for a traveler to cover in one day, a zhi was built to provide lodging and food to travelers. Xuanquan Station does not appear in the surviving part of this excavated mileage chart. But according to a study by Miyake Kiyoshi, it was located in the eastern part of Dunhuang Prefecture and on the east-west highway through the Gansu Corridor. (17) The unearthed manuscripts mention two other zhi-level postal stations to the east and west of Xuanquan, named Yuli [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] lit and Zheyao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], although it is impossible to pin them down precisely on a modern map. Further east and west were two of the six counties subsumed under Dunhuang Prefecture, namely Guangzhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Xiaogu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], both of which were relatively large oases. Apparently, Xuanquan and the two neighboring zhi were established by the Han government to provide services to those traveling between Guangzhi and Xiaogu, because the distance between these two county seats was long and the natural environment harsh. The facts that Xuanquan is located at the foot of the glacial Qilian Mountains and that its name literally means "hanging spring" suggest the existence of a small water source nearby, especially in Han times--most likely the reason why this site was chosen to build a large postal facility. (18)

    Xuanquan documents have also revealed how the postal station was routinely managed. Probably because of its importance, the facility was at least sometimes under the direct supervision of the governor (taishou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Dunhuang Prefecture, who sent his close subordinates (shoushu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) to be "in charge of Xuanquan Station." (19) The station received from the prefecture frequent deliveries of millet, the staple for employees, travelers, and animals. An excavated document mentions that, on the seventh day of the tenth month of the first Shenjue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] year (61 B.C.E.), 9 xiaoshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and 6 clou (equaling ca. 190 liters or 7 cubic feet (20)) of millet were delivered to the postal station by an assistant from the Dunhuang granary. (21) Another undated document reports that the Xuanquan staff made an inventory of the facility's food storage and found 7,118 shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 4 dou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and 6 sheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ca. 142,370 liters or 5,028 cubic feet) of millet, a volume that indicates the presence of a sizable granary. (22) It is also clear that the daily consumption of millet by humans and animals was carefully calculated and tracked. (23) But millet was not the only type of food recorded in the Xuanquan manuscripts. A relatively long document contains a detailed account of food consumed by a Han diplomatic delegation at the postal station in the first Shenjue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] year (61 B.C.E.), including millet, rice, mutton, beef, fish, wine, and sauce. (24) Some other documents mention chickens, which appear to have been a luxury available only to important travelers such as government officials. (25)

    As a postal and relay station, Xuanquan kept a large number of relay horses (zhuanma [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (26) Several published Xuanquan manuscripts directly relate the management of horses. As with food and money, most of the animals were supplied by the local government to the station. (27) Each month, the Xuanquan official in charge of the stables had to...

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