How China’s Silk Road Ambitions Are Reshaping the World of Archaeology
On a balmy afternoon in late March, Chinese archaeologist Wang Jianxin descended from his flight at Tashkent International Airport, trailed by a team of 10 researchers.
A tanned figure with flowing, shoulder-length white hair, the 70-year-old had a spring in his step as he strode toward the terminal. After three years stuck in China due to the pandemic, he was about to restart the search that has consumed the past decade of his life.
Wang and his team believe they are close to unraveling one of the great mysteries of the ancient world: the Greater Yuezhi Westward Migration.
During the 2nd century B.C., an alliance of nomadic tribes known as the Yuezhi fled from what is today northwest China into Central Asia. It was a gigantic movement of people that sent shockwaves across the region and forged new ties between East and West.
According to Chinese histories, the Yuezhi migrated west to escape the Xiongnu, a rival nomadic tribe from northern China. The Yuezhi had once been the greater of the two powers, but in 176 B.C. they suffered a catastrophic military defeat — one which ended with the Xiongnu turning the head of the Yuezhi king into a drinking vessel. After the battle, the Yuezhi survivors split into two camps, with the larger group deciding to seek sanctuary in Central Asia.
Their arrival in the region triggered chaos. Several smaller tribes were displaced, which then led to further political upheaval. Soon after, a group of nomadic peoples united to overthrow the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, a powerful empire that had ruled the region for over 100 years.
Back in China, meanwhile, news of the Greater Yuezhi’s westward migration also reached the ears of Emperor Wu, the ruler of the Han empire. He decided to send a trusted envoy, Zhang Qian, on a diplomatic mission to Central Asia. The goal: to convince the Yuezhi to unite with the Han, allowing them to launch a pincer attack on the Xiongnu.
Though the mission ultimately failed, Zhang’s journey still had an impact that lasted centuries. For many scholars, it was responsible for opening up the Silk Road trade routes connecting China with the rest of Eurasia.
Today, the Yuezhi migration is widely viewed as a seminal historical event. Yet the journey — and the people who undertook it — largely remain an enigma. Generations of researchers have searched for archaeological evidence of the Yuezhi’s long march to Central Asia. All have failed.
“No other people are shrouded in as many mysteries as the nomadic people of the Yuezhi, and this is an important key in thinking about the history of Central Asia and the history of East-West exchanges,” the Japanese scholar Nakao Toshiaki wrote in 1999. “Therefore, researchers are particularly perplexed. There is simply too little information about the Yuezhi.”
But that might be about to change. Over the past decade, China has suddenly begun to take a keen interest in the hunt for the Yuezhi. Chinese researchers like Wang have received lavish funding grants, allowing them to conduct major excavations in Central Asia for the first time.
The trigger for this shift has been the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The trillion-dollar project — designed to strengthen China’s ties with countries across Eurasia — is usually associated with infrastructure investment, but it also has a cultural dimension.
For Chinese archaeology, the BRI has been a game-changer. Until a decade ago, Chinese archaeologists were almost entirely focused on domestic research. No Chinese team had ever undertaken a major dig overseas — the funding just wasn’t there.
Now, the situation has reversed. Chinese academics are being actively encouraged to pursue research related to the ancient Silk Road, and receiving the kind of funding grants their predecessors could only dream of. Wang’s team now flies out to Uzbekistan on a regular basis, and is leading multiple excavation projects in partnership with local researchers.
This has already led to several important breakthroughs. Wang’s team not only brings plenty of resources with them, but also new techniques and know-how. The Yuezhi’s original homeland, after all, was in northwest China, and Wang — unlike many of his international colleagues — has spent practically his entire career researching nomadic tribes from that region.
The Chinese team has already managed to uncover traces of former Yuezhi camps in the mountains near China’s western frontier. Now, they are extending their search into Uzbekistan, hoping to find a similar trail of evidence along what they judge to be the most likely route for the westward migration.
Though Wang is trying to stay calm, he believes he could be on the verge of a historic discovery.
1. New beginnings
The hunt for the Greater Yuezhi began in earnest 50 years ago. In late 1978, a team of Soviet archaeologists began excavating a mound a few kilometers outside the city of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. Their preliminary surveys had indicated that a large, 4,000-year-old Zoroastrian temple lay beneath the mound.
What they found was far stranger. On Nov. 15, one of the researchers noticed a ray of golden light emanating from the mound at the western end of the hill. After further investigation, the team uncovered six tombs containing a trove of exquisite gold artifacts. These tombs, known as the Tillya Tepe site, proved to be one of the most significant archaeological finds of the last century.
Through the 1980s, the global archaeological community remained captivated by the glittering relics found at the Tillya Tepe site. Who had created them? As the tomb was confirmed to date from the early days of the Kushan Empire — a dynasty that rose to power in the 1st century A.D. — many scholars began to focus their attention on the Greater Yuezhi.
There was consensus among historians that the Kushan Empire had been founded by one of the Yuezhi’s five leaders, or “xihou.” In other words, the golden tombs could have belonged to that mysterious group that arrived in Central Asia from the East.
For a long time, however, Wang Jianxin knew nothing about these scholarly debates. When the Tillya Tepe site was discovered, he was a 25-year-old chemical factory worker furiously preparing to retake China’s college entrance examinations.
Like millions of his peers, Wang had been impacted by the Cultural Revolution, and had dropped out of school before completing junior high. When China restored college exams in 1977, he took the tests but failed to make the cut. Fortunately, he passed at the second attempt and won a place at his preferred school: the Department of Archaeology at Northwest University in Xi’an.
During his early years at Northwest University, his professors rarely mentioned the Yuezhi. Though China was starting to open up to the outside world, communication between Chinese archaeologists and their international colleagues remained limited.
What’s more, China’s academics were captivated by the extraordinary domestic discoveries being made at the time: from the jaw-dropping Terra-cotta Army in Xi’an to the strange relics at Sanxingdui. The Yuezhi were considered a peripheral topic — just one of several nomadic tribes living on the fringes of the Han empire.
Wang only became aware of the huge international interest in the Yuezhi in 1991, when the Japanese archaeologist Takayasu Higuchi traveled to Xi’an to give a lecture at Northwest University. During this talk, Higuchi asked his Chinese audience: “Where are the archaeological relics of the Yuezhi in China?” The audience was silent. Shocked, Higuchi then said: “You know, China is the homeland of the Yuezhi.”
Wang, who served as a translator at the event, recalls feeling stung by the professor’s comment. Over the following years, as he rose through the ranks at Northwest University, he began researching the Yuezhi in his spare time. Then, after he was appointed director of the archaeology department’s teaching and research unit in 1995, he began seriously considering making the tribe his main area of focus.
For the new director, it felt like a good fit. Northwest University’s archaeology department had a long tradition of Silk Road research. Xi’an, where the school is located, was once the capital of the Han empire and is widely considered to be the starting point of the ancient Silk Road. In 1938, the department’s founder, Huang Wenbi, had led the excavation of the tomb of Zhang Qian — the ancient diplomat who once journeyed to Central Asia on behalf of the Han emperor.
Finding traces of the Yuezhi, Wang believed, would put his department on the map. “This is a hot topic that the international archaeological community is paying attention to,” he recalls saying. “It was precisely because of the Greater Yuezhi migration that the later Silk Road was formed. What better starting point is there?”
2. Into the mountains
Wang began his hunt for the Yuezhi by searching for the tribe’s original homeland in western China. At first glance, this appeared to be a straightforward task. After all, China’s two classical works of history — Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian” and the “Book of Han” — offer clear and consistent accounts of the Yuezhi’s homeland. Both placed it “between Dunhuang and Qilian” — an area typically associated with what is today the Hexi Corridor in northwest China’s Gansu province.
But Wang’s initial efforts went nowhere. After years of excavations in the Hexi Corridor between Dunhuang and the Qilian Mountains, his team had found zero useful evidence. In fact, no one had ever found any traces of the Yuezhi in that region.
Why was this the case? Wang suspected the problem may lie in his interpretation of the world “Qilian.” Today, Qilian refers to a mountain range running along the border of the northwestern Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu. But 2,000 years ago, the word could also refer to the Tianshan Mountains — a mountain range on the western frontier of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which connects China with Central Asia. In the Xiongnu language, “Tian” was pronounced as “Qilian.”
So, Wang decided to try his luck in Xinjiang. In 2000, he led a team to Baren Township, in the eastern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains. Arriving at the dig site, he saw a vast expanse of grassland sitting below snow-capped mountains, where glaciers flowed down to form rivers and the white clouds above blended seamlessly with the peaks.
This is more like it, Wang recalls thinking.
“If you think about it, a nomadic group as large as the Yuezhi could not possibly have survived in the Hexi Corridor,” Wang told Sixth Tone. “Their total population was estimated to be between 500,000 and 1 million. But the Hexi Corridor is mostly a vast desert, suitable only for an oasis economy, not for grazing. We were just misled by the word ‘Qilian’ for so many years.”
From 2001, Wang’s team discovered more than 600 former nomadic settlements on both sides of the eastern Tianshan Mountains. In the process, they pioneered the study of ancient nomadic tribes — developing new theories and techniques that have since been widely adopted.
In the past, archaeologists searching for evidence of nomadic tribes on the Eurasian grasslands had mainly looked for the “Scythian Three Elements”: namely, developed weapons, horse harnesses, and animal-themed artworks. But Wang found that it was far more effective in practice to search for another “trinity”: settlements, rock paintings, and tombs.
Of the three, settlements are the most important — and most often overlooked. For a long time, people believed that nomadic peoples were always traveling — moving to fresh pastures and water sources — and did not form permanent settlements. But this is a misconception that can easily be dispelled by common sense, according to Wang.
“Think about it, most of the nomadic peoples in Eurasia lived on the northern grasslands where there is a long, harsh winter that can last up to half a year with temperatures dropping as low as minus 40 to 50 degrees Celsius,” said Wang. “They had to establish settlements to ensure that they and their livestock could survive the winter.”
Based on his archaeological findings, ancient nomads usually built their winter settlements on the southern sides of mountains or in valleys, to avoid the wind and face the sun, Wang said. Interestingly, the tribes also had summer settlements, which were used only by the rulers and nobles and were usually located on the small hills north of the Tianshan Mountains.
“Imagine the scene: the weather warms up, and ordinary herdsmen go out to graze,” Wang said. “But the nobles stay in their settlements on the hillside. They can overlook the herdsmen and their cattle and sheep on the grasslands, while also watching out for potential invaders.”
3. Making history
After nearly a decade working in the Tianshan Mountains, Wang had a good grasp of the Yuezhi people’s settlements, rock paintings, and tombs — and how to find them. Naturally, the next step for his research would be to extend his search beyond China’s borders: traveling into the western Tianshan area and trying to identify the Greater Yuezhi Westward Migration route.
But to accomplish this, he would need to do something no Chinese archaeologist had officially done before: conduct an archaeological dig overseas.
In 2009, Wang made his first trip to Uzbekistan, but only as a regular tourist. He visited Uzbekistan several more times over the following years, familiarizing himself with the local geography and building connections with local archaeologists. But he still wasn’t able to start a formal excavation.
The reason was simple: lack of funding. Wang had received grants from China’s National Bureau of Cultural Relics to search for traces of the Yuezhi in Xinjiang. But this money could only be used for domestic projects, and couldn’t be spent abroad. His project seemed to be stuck in a permanent limbo.
Then, out of nowhere, the funding taps suddenly turned on. On Sept. 7, 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, in which he proposed the joint construction of a “Silk Road Economic Belt.” Just one month later, Wang was informed his team would receive special funding from Shaanxi province to conduct research in Central Asia: 2 million yuan ($289,000) per year.
It was the start of a new era for Chinese archaeology. Over the next five years, the country’s researchers would venture overseas for the first time, working on major excavations all around the world.
Archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences took part in digs in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, as well as an ancient Mayan city in Honduras. Nanjing University scholars surveyed dozens of sites in Iran, while researchers from Hunan province excavated a Buddhist monument in Bangladesh.
By the end of 2013, Wang had signed a cooperation agreement with the Institute of Archaeology at Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences, allowing him to form a joint Sino-Uzbek team of more than 10 researchers to search for ancient nomadic settlements in the western Tianshan Mountains. He was finally ready to get to work.
4. East meets West
The western edge of the Tianshan Mountains was a relatively short journey from Wang’s previous base in Xinjiang. But in archaeological terms, it was a different world. After years exploring the vast grasslands by himself, Wang was now entering a fiercely competitive arena.
From Aurel Stein’s controversial expeditions across Central Asia and northwest China in the 1900s, the international archaeological community — and Western archaeologists especially — have been deeply engaged in Silk Road research for over a century. When Wang arrived in Uzbekistan, he found that many other teams from countries including Russia, France, Italy, and Japan were already stationed there.
The Chinese were received coolly. In 2014, Wang recalls meeting Professor Maurizio Tosi from the University of Bologna in Samarkand. “Why did you guys come?” Tosi asked bluntly. The implication, Wang knew, was that his team had been in Uzbekistan for 15 years, and had already discovered everything worth discovering. Wang could only smile and say that their academic goals might be different.
In 2015, Wang’s team began their excavations in the western suburbs of Samarkand, on the northern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains. Wang had long earmarked this site as a likely Yuezhi settlement. And the dig quickly unearthed a number of ancient nomadic artifacts.
On closer inspection, however, the team realized the objects and burial styles used at the site were slightly different from those they had encountered in Xinjiang’s Yuezhi settlements. They concluded the site must have belonged to another nomadic tribe that lived during the same era as the Yuezhi, the Kangju.
Though Wang had failed to find the Greater Yuezhi, the discovery of the Kangju was still a major academic breakthrough. The find caused a sensation in Samarkand; even Professor Tosi changed his tune and asked if Wang’s team was willing to collaborate with him.
Wang knew that his achievement had caught many of his peers off-guard, but he wasn’t surprised by his quick success. Though other researchers had spent years in the area, they often looked at the landscape with different eyes, he said.
“Us Chinese archaeologists have different perspectives and habits from Western archaeologists,” Wang said. “They seem to have an obsession with cities, and always want to excavate things like city walls, palaces, and temples. We, by contrast, are skilled at finding nomadic cultural settlements that they have overlooked for many years.”
The find near Samarkand also helped Wang narrow down his search for the Yuezhi. In ancient Chinese histories, the Kangju were said to live to the north of the Greater Yuezhi. The team should shift their focus to the area south of the western Tianshan Mountains, Wang reasoned.
For the next year, the team conducted surveys and small-scale excavations in the region between the western Tianshan mountains and the Amu River, hoping to find tombs or relics left by the Yuezhi. Each time, however, they returned empty-handed.
But in late 2016, one of the team members, Liang Yun, stumbled upon a layer of ash next to the Sulhan River, a tributary of the Amu River. Liang shouted for the others to come over and dig deeper with their shovels. Beneath the ash, they found a stash of human bones.
As they walked further along the river, the team continued to find more human remains and pottery shards. Preliminary analysis indicated that they dated from the Greater Yuezhi or Kushan period.
The team was overjoyed: Two years of tireless work had finally borne fruit. Heavy snowfall soon forced them to withdraw back to Xi’an, but in the summer of 2017 they returned to the site. Further excavations quickly uncovered a strip of stone piles, beneath which lay a human skull.
After thoroughly analyzing these objects, Wang was convinced that he had finally found what he’d been searching for: relics from the Greater Yuezhi.
The team sent the bones from the site back to their laboratory in Xi’an for chemical analysis. The tests produced intriguing results. As expected, the bone composition indicated that the nomads had a diet heavy on animal protein. But they also regularly consumed so-called C3 crops, such as rice and wheat. This indicates that nomadic tribes such as the Yuezhi were not necessarily the bloodthirsty conquerors that many imagine.
“If these bones do belong to the Greater Yuezhi who migrated west, then we can learn that they did not destroy the original agriculture upon arriving in Central Asia,” said Professor Ling Xue, a bone chemistry expert at Northwest University who participated in the study. “Instead, they adapted to the local environment and way of life.”
For Wang, the findings suggest that the peoples of ancient Central Asia had a unique way of coexisting together. In Europe and East Asia, pastoral and agricultural communities lived in separate areas, and sometimes clashed. But in Central Asia, an “overlapping and peaceful coexistence pattern” seems to have prevailed.
“This is related to the unique and diverse topography of Central Asia,” Wang said. “The spatial distance between pastoral and agricultural communities … was small, and peaceful coexistence was the best choice for mutual survival.”
To verify this theory, Wang shifted his focus to the ancient agricultural peoples from the region. From 2017 to 2019, his team studied several sites belonging to the Kushan people on the eastern bank of the Sulhan River.
This work not only strengthened his belief that tribes in Central Asia lived peacefully alongside each other, it also led him to an even more striking conclusion: The longstanding claim that the Greater Yuezhi established the Kushan Empire may be incorrect. Instead, the Yuezhi and the Kushan people may have been contemporaries.
“These two groups of people were intertwined in the North Bactria region, with the Yuezhi people grazing in the hills and mountains around the river valley plains, while the Kushan people engaged in irrigation agriculture on the river valley plains,” said Wang. “When the Greater Yuezhi arrived, they once ruled over some agricultural communities including the Kushan. However, more than 100 years later, the Kushan rose to power and in turn ruled over the Greater Yuezhi, establishing the Kushan Empire.”
Wang knew that his theory went against the mainstream view that had prevailed in the international archaeological community for decades. To confirm his ideas about the Yuezhi’s westward migration and their relationship with the Kushan people, Wang decided to conduct DNA testing on human remains found in both the eastern and western Tianshan Mountains.
However, this work hit an unexpected roadblock. In 2018, Uzbekistan banned researchers from removing archaeological samples from the country. Wang began looking for opportunities to jointly set up a laboratory with a local university, so he could continue to conduct osteo-archaeological and DNA research. He was still searching for a partner when the pandemic hit.
5. Next steps
For nearly three years, Wang was unable to travel outside China due to the country’s strict COVID-control measures. But he didn’t slow down his work. With China continuing to push the BRI, Wang emerged from the pandemic with far greater resources, funding, and manpower at his disposal than ever before.
In 2021, Xi’an hosted a major summit of leaders from China and Central Asia, where then-Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced the launch of a Collaborative Research Center for Archaeology of the Silk Roads. Two months later, the new center opened at Northwest University, with Wang named as its chief archaeologist. It has since signed cooperation agreements with ten universities and research institutions in eight countries.
Now, with China’s borders finally open again, Wang is busy reviving a raft of different projects in Uzbekistan. In his words, he felt like he spent the pandemic drawing a bowstring taut, and he’s now ready to release it and let the arrow fly.
There are still 30 or 40 tombs left to excavate at a cemetery near Samarkand. The investigation along the Sulham River must continue. He needs to finish setting up a joint laboratory with a university in Samarkand to analyze his team’s findings. And he has been tasked with helping to create a new Sino-Uzbek archaeological and cultural heritage protection center in Samarkand, to promote China’s “great site protection” efforts overseas.
To some, China’s huge recent investment into Silk Road research may appear to represent a challenge to the Western archaeological community. But Wang insists that he doesn’t see it that way. In his view, Chinese and Western archaeologists have a lot to learn from each other.
“During a 2021 international academic conference on the Saka people, I found it interesting that in Chinese scholars’ presentations the Sakas had Western appearances — with high noses and deep-set eyes — but in Western scholars’ presentations they were depicted as Asians,” said Wang. “What does this show? It shows that people like to pay attention to differences. It’s only by bringing these two perspectives together that we can get a complete picture.”
Archaeologists in Uzbekistan echo this point. Several scholars who spoke with Sixth Tone stressed that they had learned a lot from their collaborations with Western colleagues. But they added that their Chinese partners had also brought a lot to the table — especially their expertise in protecting relics and building museums to promote their work.
“China has already achieved the pinnacle of success in museums, preservation, and the popularization of historical artifacts,” said Zafar Rakhmonov, a researcher at the Archaeological Research Center of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan. “We benefit from the Chinese experience in conducting comprehensive research on archaeological sites, establishing museums, and preserving the cultural heritage of Uzbekistan.”
Wang, meanwhile, has ambitions to extend his search for the Yuezhi even further. The dawn of the Kushan Empire is not the end of the story. Wang believes that after the Kushan Empire declined, the Greater Yuezhi may have risen again in the Bactria region and established another powerful empire known as the Kidarites. The name “Yuezhi” finally disappeared into history only in 466 A.D., when the Kidarites were conquered by the Sasanian Empire.
To prove all of this, Wang’s team will need to gather an impeccable chain of evidence. But Wang is confident that he has the resources to do that. His task now is to create the larger research operation he will need — setting up new teams and training a new generation of researchers.
Deng Chen, 25, is the youngest of this new cohort. She first developed a passion for the Silk Road during a visit to the Mogao Caves in northwest China during high school. In 2019, she became one of Wang’s graduate students at Northwest University, focusing on bronze culture in ancient Central Asia.
Like many of her peers, she was forced to spend the entire pandemic in Xi’an, anxiously wondering whether she would ever be able to see Uzbekistan in real life. “I was so frustrated that I felt like my life had been filled with hope then plunged into the abyss,” she said.
But in March, Deng finally boarded a flight to Tashkent. As she gazed out of the plane window at the Tianshan Mountains below, she felt her heart racing with excitement. Shortly after landing, she posted a message to her feed on the social app WeChat. “Hello, my second hometown that I’m meeting for the first time.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: An aerial view of the Tianshan Mountains in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, 2022. Wang Jianfeng/VCG)