An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Western Territories (xiyu 西域)

Oct 23, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Western Territories (xiyu 西域) roughly correspond to the area of the modern Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. The name came into being when the Han empire 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) gained control over the city-states along the Silk Road. The name was still in use during the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911) although in the narrow sense it only refers to that region during the Han period. During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) the Western Territories were called the "Pacified West" (anxi 安西), and were given the modern name of "New Borderlands" (xinjiang 新疆) when the region was conquered by the armies of the Qing during the 18th century.

The Han Protectorate of the Western Territories (xiyu duhufu 西域都護府)

Under the emperors Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) and Zhao 漢昭帝 (r. 87-74 BCE) the military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) of Luntai 輪臺 (near Qiuci 龜茲) and Quli 渠犁 were made the seat of a commandant for the envoys (shizhe xiaowei 使者校尉) who received and hosted the embassies of the Han court to the west. In 68 BCE Zheng Ji 鄭吉 was sent out to supervise the erection of the military colonies of Quli. He undertook a campaign against the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 for the domination of the state of Cheshi 車師 northeast of Quli.

The victory over the Xiongnu opened the southern route of the Silk Road for the Han empire. In 60 BCE the Xiongnu sub-khan Rizhu 日逐 submitted to the Han, so that also the northern route came into the hands of the Han. The Han empire did not incorporate this region into the empire itself (as normally administered commanderies) but took over military control over the native states in the form of a protectorate.

The protectorate was first administered by a commandant of cavalry (jiduwei 騎都尉) who was given the title of protector-general (duhu 都護) and had his seat in Wulei 烏壘. During the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the protector-general was an especially consigned official. The commandant over the military colonies of Quli was subordinated to the protector-general. The staff of the protector-general consisted of a vice commandant (fu xiaowei 副校尉), two commanders (sima 司馬), two sub-commanders (hou 侯) and two battalion commanders (qianren 千人).

Apart from the control over the city-states of the Silk Road, the protector-general also had the task to keep an eye on the activities of the peoples living further west, like the Dayuan 大宛, Wusun 烏孫 and Kangju 康居. He received their emissaries that were sent to present tributes to the court of the Han dynasty and organised their travel to the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). If there was a Chinese princess sent to the west to conclude "peace by marriage" (heqin 和親) the protector-general had to care for her safe travel. On several occasions Han princesses were sent to the Wusun. If there were disturbances or rebellions among the states of the Western Territories, these had to be put down by the garrisoned troops of the protectorate. The names of ten of the eighteen protector-generals of the Former Han period are mentioned in historiographical sources. When Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-22 CE) usurped the throne of the Han empire, the whole Western Territories rose in rebellion, and the protector-general had to flee.

After the foundation of the Later Han dynasty eighteen states of the Western Territories sent an group of envoys to the court of Emperor Guangwu 漢光武帝 (25-57 CE) with the request to reestablish the protectorate in order to bring peace to the region. Yet Emperor Guangwu refused. This was in 45 CE. Only in 74 CE Emperor Ming 漢明帝 (r. 57-75 CE) appointed Chen Mu 陳睦 as the new protector-general of the Western Territories. Yet Chen Mu was killed by the troops of the rebellious states of Yanqi 焉耆 and Qiuci.

In 91 CE Ban Chao 班超 was sent out as Chief Clerk in Command of Troops (jiangbing zhangshi 將兵長史) with the order to conquer the Western Territories. He was appointed protector-general and took seat in Taqian (or Tagan) 它乾 near Qiuci. His successors Ren Shang 任尚 and Duan Xi 段禧 were not happy enough to preserve the peace of the region. In 107 Duan Xi was killed, and the office of protector-general was finally given up. Instead, Ban Chao's son Ban Yong 班勇 was appointed Chief Clerk of the Western Territories (xiyu zhangshi 西域長史). This office had first been occupied by Xu Gan 徐幹, as a lieutenant of protector-general Ban Chao. There was no fix seat of the Chief Clerk. Xu Gan and Ban Chao set up their command in Shule 疏勒, Suo Ban 索班 in Yiwu 伊吾, Ban Yong in Liuzhong 柳中, and later Chief Clerks in Yutian 于闐.

Later Chinese dynasties of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600) period followed this institution and appointed Chief Clerks of the Western Territories.

The Tang Protectorate of the Pacified West (anxi duhufu 安西都護府)

The Tang empire also set up a protectorate over the Western Territories, but with a different administrative structure than the Han. After the conquest of the kingdom of Gaochang 高昌 in 640 CE the Tang court established the Protectorate of the Pacified West with the seat in Jiaohe 交河 (near modern Turpan 吐魯番, Xinjiang) in the newly created prefecture of Xizhou 西州.

In 662 the khan of the Western Turks 西突厥, Yipishekui 乙毗射匱, surrendered to the Tang, and the city-states formerly controlled by the Turks (Qiuci, Yutian, Shule, Zhujupo 朱俱婆, and five states in the Pamir Range), sent tributes to the Tang court. With the occupation of Qiuci, the seat of the protectorate was transferred to this city, and the four largest of the city-states, disposing of fortified city walls and garrisons, were made defense-commands. These were the so-called four defense commands of the Pacified West (anxi sizhen 四鎮), namely Qiuci, Yanqi, Yutian (at that time also called Pisha 毗沙), and Shule.

In 650, when the Western Turks rebelled, the seat of the protector-general was shifted back to Xizhou, and the four defense commands were disbanded for a time. Only in 657, when the Turkish leader Ashina Helu 阿史那賀魯 was defeated, Qiuci again became the seat of the protectorate. The next challenge came in the shape of the troops of Tubo 吐蕃 (Tibet) that occupied Qiuci in 670. At the same time the Turks again rebelled against the Tang empire. Ashina Duzhi 阿史那都支 who had formerly been appointed commander-in-chief (dudu 都督) of the area command (dudufu 都督府) of Fuyan 匐延 by the Tang court was defeated in 679 by Pacification Commissioner-in-Chief (anfu dashi 安撫大使) Pei Xingjian 裴行儉. Wang Fangyi 王方翼, the new protector-general, took seat in Suiye 碎葉, a garrison that replaced Yanqi as one of the four defense commands. In 686 again the Western Territories were lost to the kingdom of Tubo. General Wang Xiaojie 王孝傑 expelled the Tibetans and had garrisoned 24,000 Tang troops in the four garrisons in order to be better prepared for future conflicts.

During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) Prince Sisheng 嗣昇 of Shaan 陝 was bestowed the honorific title of Grand protector of the Pacified West, while the real business was done by vice protector Guo Qianguan 郭虔瓘. In 718 the emperor appointed Tang Jiahui 湯嘉惠 as the first military commissioner (jiedu jinglüe shi 節經略度使, short jiedushi 節度使) of the four defense commands. This measure corresponded to a general measure taken by the emperor to have a tighter military grip on the provinces of his empire.

The Protectorate of the Pacified West was from them on administrated by a the Military Commissioner of the Four Defense Commands (sizhen jiedushi 四鎮節度使), also called Military Commissioner of the Desert West (qixi jiedushi 磧西節度使). The seat of the commissioner was Qiuci. Shortly later the khan of the Ten Tribes (shixing 十姓) of the Western Turks asked to be permitted to take residence in Suiye. His request was answered positively, and Yanqi again became one of the four defense commands.

During the rebellion of An Lushan 安祿山, large contingents of troops from the west were sent to the east to put down the rebellion. The king of Tubo used this situation to conquer the Western Territories. Although the four garrisons could withstand the Tibetan troops, the contact between the garrisons of the protectorate and the capital Chang'an was cut down. Only in 781 Guo Xin 郭昕 was able to resume contact with the court. He was highly rewarded for being able to defend the four defense commands against the invaders. In 789, when the Buddhist monk Wukong 悟空 returned from India, he visited most of the four garrisons. Only shortly later the whole region fell into the hands of the king of Tubo and the Uyghurs 回鶻. The region was only conquered again by Chinese armies during the Qing period.

The territory of the Protectorate of the Pacified West was crudely divided into area commands (dudufu), the most important of which were the four defense commands.

There were some more protectorates established in the western regions during the Tang period, namely the protectorate of Beiting 北庭, the protectorate of Mengchi 濛池, and the protectorate of Kunling 昆陵.

The protectorate of Mengchi was administered from Suiye 碎葉 that was for a certain time itself one of the four defense commands. The office of protector-general was taken over by the Turkish khan Ashna Buzhen 阿史那步真 and his successors. The area was dominated by the Turkish people of the Türgiš 突騎施 so that in the late 7th century it was difficult for the Tang empire to enforce control. Mengchi was therefore only an indirectly administered (jimi 羈縻) protectorate. The area commands of Dayuan 大宛 (modern Toshkent, Uzbekistan; located on the ancient territory of Dayuan) and Kangju 康居 (modern Samarkand, Uzbekistan; the ancient site of the country of the Kangju), were located in the territory of the protectorate of Mengchi.

The protectorate of Kunling was located in the region of modern Yining 伊寧, Xingjiang, and likewise an indirectly administered protectorate. The office of protector-general was taken over by the local ruler Ashna Mishe 阿史那彌射 and then his grandson Xianceng 獻曾. The protectorate was later given up.

The protectorate of Beiting supervised the area commands of Damo 大漠州 (around Fuhai 福海, Xinjiang), Yinshan 陰山州 (near Lake Alakol, Kazakhstan), Xuanchi 玄池州 (near Lake Zaysan, Kazakhstan), Yanbo 鹽泊州 (near Karamay 克拉瑪依, Xinjiang), Fuyan 匐延州 (near Hoboksar 和布克賽爾, Xinjiang), Jinman 金滿州 (near modern Jimsar 吉木薩爾, Xinjiang), Jinfu 金附州 (near Qitai 奇臺 and Mulei 木垒, Xinjiang), Shuanghe 雙河 (near Wenquan 溫泉, Xinjiang), Yanmian 咽麪 or 咽麵 (around Taldykorgan, Kazakhstan), Wenlu 嗢鹿 (modern Yining, Xinjiang), Jieshan 絜山 or Jieshan 潔山 (north of Lake Issyk Gul in modern Kirgizstan), and some other short-lived area commands whose location is not known, like Yingsuo 鷹娑, Yanlu 鹽祿, Gexi 哥係, Gushu 孤舒, Xiyan 西鹽, Dongyan 東鹽, Chile 叱勒, Jiase 迦瑟, Pingluo 憑洛, Shatuo 沙陀, or Dalan 答爛.

Outside the territory directly controlled by protectors-general, the Tang general Wang Mingyuan 王名遠 established 16 area commands (dudufu) in the region beyond the Pamir Range. Part of their rulers were appointed commanders-in-chief (dudu), while others were only made prefects. All these territories were further divided into indirectly administered prefectures (jimizhou 羈縻州). This means that the Tang empire relied on the loyalty of the native rulers and did not appoint any Tang officials. In return for the official titles as administrators of the Tang empire, the native rulers had to offer tributes to the Tang court. Formally, these area commands were subordinated to the Tang Protectorate.

  • Yuezhi 月氏都督府, located in the Tokhara (modern Uzbekistan) around the city of Yehuan 遏換 or Yehuo'ahuan 葉護阿緩, named after the people of the Tokharians (Yuezhi 月氏; modern Kunduz, northern Afghanistan)
  • Taihan 太汗都督府 or Dahan 大汗, located in the former territory of the Hephthalites (Chinese name Yeda 嚈噠), the city of Huolu 活路 (modern Mazār-e Sherif, Afghanistan)
  • Tiaozhi 條枝都督府, country of Hedaluozhi 訶達羅支, city of Fubaosedian 伏寶瑟顛 (modern Ghazni, Afghanistan)
  • Dama 大馬都督府 or Tianma 天馬, country of Jiesu 解蘇, city of Suman 數瞞 (modern Dushanbe, Tajikistan)
  • Gaofu 高附都督府, country of Guduoshi 骨咄施, city of Yaosha 妖沙 (modern Danghara, Tajikistan)
  • Xiuxian 修鮮都督府 or Youxian 脩鮮, country of Jibin 罽賓, city of Yege 遏紇 (modern Mektar Lam in northeastern Afghanistan)
  • Xiefeng 寫鳳都督府, country of Shiyuanyan 失苑延 or Fanyan 帆延, city of Fuli 伏戾 or Luolan 羅爛 (modern Bamiyan, central Afghanistan)
  • Yuepan 悅般都督府, country of Shihanna 石汗那, city of Yan 豔 (border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan)
  • Qisha 奇沙州都督府, country of Huotejian 護特健 or Huoshejian 護時犍, city of Yemi 遏密 (modern Sar-e Pol, northern Afghanistan)
  • Hemo 和默州都督府 or Gumo 姑墨, country of Damo 怛沒, city of Dacheng 怛城 or Damo 怛沒 (modern Termiz, northern Afghanistan)
  • Yi'ao 挔{扌+敖}州都督府 (or Lü'ao 旅獒), country of Wulahe 烏拉喝, city of Mojie 摩竭 (modern Andikhoy, northwestern Afghanistan)
  • Kunxu 崑墟州都督府, country of Huomiduo 護密多 or Duolejian 多勒建, city of Dibaona 抵寶那 (modern Maymana, northwestern Afghanistan)
  • Zhiba 至{揗-目+又}州都督府 or Zhiba 至拔, country of Jumi 俱密國, city of Cuose 措瑟 or Chuse 褚瑟 (modern Obigarm, southern Tadjikistan)
  • Niaofei 鳥飛州都督府, country of Huomiduo 護密多, city of Moting 摸廷 or Mokui 摸逵 (modern Zebak, northeastern Afghanistan)
  • Wangting 王庭州都督府, country of Jiuyuedejian 久越得犍, city of Bushi 步師 (modern Qabodiyan, southern Tajikistan)
  • Bosi 波斯都督府, on the territory of Persia, city of Lingcheng 陵城 or Jiling 疾陵 (modern Zābol, SE Iran; some Chinese nationalists identify Jiling with Teheran)

Luntai 輪臺

The name Luntai 輪臺 refers to two different places.

There was a small state of Luntai 輪臺, also called Luntou 侖頭, in the area of modern Luntai, Xinjiang, that was destroyed by the Chinese general Li Guangli 李廣利 in 102 BCE. When the Western Territories 西域 were conquered by the Han empire 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), a commandery (xiaowei 校尉) was set up in Luntai that had to oversee the military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) opened in that area and from which the Han troops were to be supplied. The place was so suited that it was decided to erect there the fortified city of Wulei 烏壘 there (near the former statelet with the same name) and to choose Luntai as the seat of the Protector-general of the Western Territories (xiyu duhu 西域都護). During the Tang period 唐 (618-907) Wulei was made a prefecture (zhou 州).

The other place called Luntai 輪臺 was an important military garrison in the prefecture of Tingzhou 庭州 located near modern Ürümchi 烏魯木齊, Xinjiang. The garrison was built in 652 for the protection of the new northern route of the Silk Road that went along the northern slopes of the Tianshan Range 天山. In 650 it was transformed into the seat of an area command (dudufu 都督府) whose commander had to supervise the area command of Jinman 金滿 the territory of which was inhabited by the Chuyue 處月 tribe of the Western Turks 西突厥. Luntai was furthermore an important regional trade spot for the merchants of the Silk Road as well as the various Turkish tribes living in the surroundings. In 771 the additional garrison of Jingsai 靜塞 was built. Luntai was still a city during the Mongol invasion but became depopulated afterwards.

Yiwu 伊吾 (Turkic name Hami) and the Prefecture of Yizhou 伊州

The prefecture (zhou 州) of Yizhou 伊州 was one of the three prefectures the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) set up in the Western Territories 西域. It included the three districts (xian 縣) of Yiwu 伊吾, Rouyuan 柔遠 and Nazhi 納職. Yiwu was located in the place of modern Hami 哈密, Xinjiang. In 630 the prefecture was still called Xiyi 西伊, but two years later the word "western" (xi 西) was dropped. During the mid-8th century the area was for a short time administered as commandery (jun 郡) of Yiwu.

Yiwu was a large oasis in the desert region and therefore an important place for the supply of the Chinese armies already during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). The military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田) in Yiwu at that time were overseen by a commander for grain supply (yihe duwei 宜禾都尉). Yiwu was from the late 6th century on inhabited by Turkish tribes that submitted to the Tang Pacification Commissioner-in-Chief (anfu dashi 安撫大使) Li Daliang 李大亮. In 710 a garrison was built up in Yiwu with a strength of 3,000 men. In 762 the prefecture fell into the hands of the Tibetans and could only be reoccupied by the Tang armies under Zhang Yichao 張議潮 for a short time in 850.

The Prefecture of Tingzhou 庭州 (Turkic name Jimsar) and the Protectorate of Beiting 北庭

The prefecture (zhou 州) of Tingzhou 庭州 was one of the three prefectures the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) set up in the Western Territories 西域. It included the districts (xian 縣) of Jinman 金滿, Luntai 輪臺, Pulei 蒲類, and later also Xihai 西海. The seat of the prefect was Jinman (modern Jimsar 吉木薩爾). The region was during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) part of the kingdom of Rear Cheshi 車師後部 and was at the beginning of the 7th century controlled by a Turkish yabghu (Chinese transliteration yehu 葉護), a leader of the Western Turks 西突厥. The yabghu submitted to the Tang after their armies had destroyed the kingdom of Gaochang 高昌.

The prefecture of Tingzhou was the northernmost Chinese prefecture in the region and therefore had a great military importance. In order to feed the garrison, military colonies were set up. In 684 the garrison of Hanhai 瀚海 was manned by 12,000 troops. These were to take control over the Western Turks living north and west of Tingzhou. In 702 the protectorate (duhufu 都護府) of Beiting 北庭 was set up in Tingzhou, ten years later the protectorate was headed by a military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) for the region of Yixi 伊西. He had the command over the troops of Hanhai, Tianshan 天山 and Yiwu 伊吾. The large size of the garrison and the importance of Tingzhou as a border market contributed to the economical prosperity of the region. In 790 Tingzhou was occupied by the Tibetans and in the 850s fell into the hands of the Uyghurs 回鶻. Jimsar became the capital of the five Uyghur cities (Beš Baliq 別失八里).

The Prefecture of Xizhou 西州 (Turkic name Turpan or Turfan)

The prefecture (zhou 州) of Xizhou 西州 was one of the three prefectures (zhou 州) the Tang empire 唐 (618-907) set up in the Western Territories 西域. It included the districts (xian 縣) of Gaochang 高昌, Liuzhong 柳中, Jiaohe 交河, Puchang 蒲昌 and Tianshan 天山. During the mid-8th century the area was for a short time administered as commandery (jun 郡) of Jiaohe.

The seat of the prefecture, Gaochang (from 762 on called Qianting 前庭), was located in the place of modern Karakočo 哈拉和卓 (also writen 喀拉和卓), Xinjiang (near Turfan 吐魯番), and is part of the Turfan Basin. The first name of the prefecture was Xichang 西昌, but it was soon renamed Xizhou. The region had formerly been part of the kingdom of Gaochang whose dynasty was defeated by the Tang armies in 640. Jiaohe (Gaochang) was the first seat of the Protectorate of the Pacified West (Anxi duhufu 安西都護府) before it was transferred to Qiuci 龜茲 in 658. On that occasion the area command (dudufu 都督府) of Xizhou was set up.

In 714 a military garrison was set up in Tianshan, with a strength of 5,000 men. The administration of the region was transformed into the commandery of Jiaohe in 742, but in 758 the prefecture of Xizhou was revived. Xizhou was occupied by the Tibetans in 791 and in 866 by the Uyghurs 回鶻. The Uyghur khan Pugujun 僕固俊 declared his submission to the Tang court, and Yizhou was put under the administration of the military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) of Guiyi 歸義 in Shazhou 沙州 (Dunhuang 敦煌). The region was during that time also called Kočo (Chinese form Hezhuo 和卓 or Huozhou 火州) or "protectorate (duhu 都護) of Yi" 亦. Under the Mongols, the region was called the prefecture of Huozhou 火州 (a name derived from the name Kočo or Karakočo) and was administered by the garrison of Beš Baliq 別失八里.

The vicinity to the westernmost regular prefectures of the Tang empire resulted in a relatively good infrastructure of the region. In the 9th century there was a mixed population in Xizhou, consisting of Chinese, Uyghurs and other natives. The inhabitants produced grain, grapes and fabric. In the desert climate, a lot of administrative documents from the Tang period have survived.

Suiye 碎葉

Suiye 碎葉 was for several decades one of the four defense commands (sizhen 四鎮) of the Protectorate of the Pacified West (Anxi duhufu 安西都護府) of the Tang empire 唐 (618-907). It was located near Tokmak and Lake Issyk Gul in modern Kirgizstan. Before the Tang period it had been an important trade spot and was controlled by the Western Turks 西突厥. Suiye was made an indirectly administrated prefecture (jimizhou 羈縻州) of the Tang empire after the Turk leader Ashina Helu 阿史那賀魯 had been defeated, with a Turk leader named Anchebishi 安車鼻施 as a prefect (cishi 刺史).

In 679 another Turkish leader, Ashina Duzhi 阿史那都支, was defeated by the Tang armies. In order to forestall further uprisings against the Tang, Suiye was transformed into a garrison called Baoda 保大 and replaced Yanqi 焉耆 as defense command. The protector-general (duhu 都護) of Beiting 北庭 sometimes took over the office of the commander of Suiye. The garrison was manned by troops from the garrisons of Tianshan 天山 and Hanhai 瀚海 from the prefectures of Tingzhou 庭州 and Xizhou 西州. In 719 a Western Turk khan asked for the permission to take residence in Suiye. The Tang court corresponded to his wish, and Suiye was reduced to a normal garrison while the defense command was transferred back to Yanqi. In the mid-8th century Suiye was lost to the Türgiš 突騎施 and Qarluqs 葛邏祿.

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