An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Loulan 樓蘭

Oct 16, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The state of Loulan 樓蘭 was located in the eastern part of the Western Territories (xiyu 西域), in the modern district of Ruoqiang 若羌, Xinjiang. It flourished in the second century BCE and controlled the region around Lake Lop Noor, reached to the River Kongque 孔雀河 (vanished since) in the north and River Milan 米蘭河 in the south. The Chinese commandery (jun 郡) of Dunhuang 敦煌 was the eastern neighbour of Loulan.

Loulan was famous for its cattle breeding and produced a lot of donkeys, horses and camels. The blacksmiths from Loulan also produced weapons for the 2,900-troops strong army. In Loulan lived about 14,000 persons. The language of Loulan belonged to the Indo-European language family and was similar to the tongues of Yanqi 焉耆 and Qiuci 龜茲. As the first state on the way to the west along the Silk Road, Loulan had to suffer from the requisitions the troops of the Han empire 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) demanded, and often robbed missions of the Han, according to Chinese historians as "eyes and ears" of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴, the main target of the military campaigns of the Han.

In 108 therefore, general Zhao Ponu 趙破奴 was sent out to punish Loulan. He captured the king of Loulan who immediately declared his submission. In fear of being attacked by the Xiongnu, the king concurrently sent an envoy to the Xiongnu to demonstrate his willingnis to further cooperate with the powerful khan. The Loulans so continued harassing the Chinese on their way to the west, and therefore the Han court sent out Fu Jiezi 傅介子 to Loulan in 77 BCE. Fu Jiezi killed King Chang-gui 嘗歸 (also called An-gui 安歸) and enthroned his younger brother Wei-tu-qi 尉屠耆 as king of Loulan.

The new "puppet" king was forced to transfer his capital to the south and to change the name of his country to Shanshan 鄯善. In Yixun 伊循 (modern Milan 米蘭, Türkic name Miran), the Han established military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) to ensure the military supply of their troops in the Western Territories. From Dunhuang to Loulan, signal towers (fengsui tingzhang 烽燧亭障) provided for a quick communication.

Loulan is famous for the tomb findings in that region that mainly date from the 2nd centry BCE to the 3rd century CE. The older tombs of the period contain boat-shaped coffins and are marked with paddle-shaped boards. This shows that the people during that time still lived of Lake Lop Noor. They wore woolen clothes and leather shoes. The tombs from the later part of the period are furnished with jade, lacquer and bronze objects, and the dead wore silk clothes. The tombs of Loulan are famous for the 2,000 years old mummies. The interesting point in fact is that these mummies show that the inhabitants of Loulan were not of Mongolian ("Asian") but of Indo-European stock. Lake Lop Noor has virtually dried up since, and the plain has served for the first tests of atomic bombs during the early 1960s.

Li Kai 李愷 (1994). "Loulan" 樓蘭", in Xue Li 雪犁, Li Kai 李愷, Qian Boquan 錢伯泉, ed. Zhongguo sichou zhi lu cidian 中國絲綢之路辭典 (Ürümqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe), 21.
Ma Yong 馬雍 (1992). "Loulan 樓蘭", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 620.