An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yutian 于闐 (Khotan)

Oct 16, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The state of Yutian 于闐 (Türkic name Khotan) ruled over the region of modern Yutian 于田, Moyu 墨玉 and Luopu 洛浦, Xinjiang. It was also known by the names of Yutian 于窴, Jusadanna 瞿薩旦那, Huanna 渙那, Qudan 屈丹, Yudun 于遁 or Huadan 豁丹. The population of the city during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) was 19,000 persons living in 3,300 households. The army could be as large as 2,400 troops. The people of Yutian were related to the Sakas (Chinese transliteration Sai 塞) and spoke a language belonging to the Indo-European family.

The native name of Yutian was Gostan, and the region was called Gostana (compare the Chinese transcription Jusadanna). The king was supported by two generals and two Masters of the Cavalry (qijun 騎君), two cityheads (chengzhang 城長) and interpreters. Yutian was famous for the precious jades found in the White Jade River 白玉河 (Yurungkaš River 玉龍哈什河) and the Black Jade River 黑玉河 (Karakaš River 喀拉哈什河).

At the beginning of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), Yutian was occupied by the neighbouring state of Shache 莎車. It took the noble families of Yutian a few decades before King Guang-de 廣德 was able to found a stable reign. He even succeeded in occupying all states between Jingjue 精絕 and Shule 疏勒 and to control the largest part of the southern route of the Silk Road.

Yet the mighty steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 ordered the armies of Yanqi and Qiuci to conquer Yutian, and King Guang-de had to submit to the Xiongnu. His master changed, when the Han general Ban Chao 班超 expelled the Xiongnu from the Silk Road.

In 86 CE, Yutian killed the ruler of Shache which had been enthroned by the Xiongnu. Shache escaped the control of Yutian in a large-scale rebellion of the cities of the Western Territories (xiyu 西域) in 106. The insurgency could only brought down in 127 by general Ban Yong 班勇.

In 129, King Fang-qian 放前 enthroned his favourite as ruler in Yumi 扜彌, but was forced to cede his control over Yumi in 132, when a great Han army threatened Yutian. The King of Yumi took revenge for this affair in 151 when the Chief Clerk in Command of Troops (zhangshi 長史) of the Western Territories, Zhao Ping 趙平, died in Yutian. He accused King Jian 建 to have murdered the Han official. The new Chief Clerk, Wang Jing 王敬, led an army to Yutian and killed King Jian. His son and successor, King Anguo 安國, again interfered in the dynastic affairs of Yumi in 175.

After the demise of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), Yutian was one of the large independent states on the Silk Road, but nevertheless paid formal tributes to the courts of the Cao-Wei 曹魏 (220-265), Jin 晉 (265-420), Former Liang 前涼 (314-376), Former Qin 前秦 (351-395) and Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) dynasties.

In 445, the chieftain of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾, Mu-li-yan 慕利延 (r. 436-452), withdrew to Yutian after a battle lost against the Northern Wei. In Yutian he killed the king and several nobles and occupied the whole region for a while. In 457 Yutian again sent tributes to the Northern Wei, and its king was given a Wei princess called "Lady Fairy" (Xian Ji 仙姬).

The steppe federation of the Rouran 柔然 attacked Yutian in 470, and in the following decades, Yutian had to send tributes to the court of the Yeda 嚈噠 (often translated as "Hephthalites"). Only in the 490s the contact to the Northern Wei court was resumed, and Yutian even sent tributary missions to the court of the Liang dynasty 梁 (502-557) taking with them jade Buddhas to present them to Emperor Wu 梁武帝 (r. 502-549), a great adherent of Buddhism.

This situation of intense contacts with the Chinese courts changed again with the rise of the federation of the Türks (Tujue 突厥) in the 6th century.

In 639, a large mission was sent to the court of the Tang 唐 (618-907) court in Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), where several embassadors stayed for a longer time. In 644 the Buddhist monk Xuanzang 玄奘 arrived in Yutian back from India, where he had collected a large amount of Buddhist writings. He stayed in Yutian for a longer period of time and translated numerous writings into Chinese, as told in his book Da-Tang Xiyu ji 大唐西域記.

In 648, the Tang general Xue Wanbei 薛萬備 conquered Qiuci on the northern route of the Silk Road and also traveled to Yutian. He urged King Fu-du Wei-chi 伏闍尉遲 to visit the court in Chang'an, where he was received with greatest honours before he returned. Yutian was made one of the four defense commands (sizhen 四鎮) of the Protectorate of the Pacified West (Anxi duhufu 安西都護府) in 658.

A year later Yutian suffered the first raid by the Türks. In the north, the power of the Western Türks (Xi Tujue 西突厥) grew, and in the south, Yutian was threatened by the increasing strength of the kingdom of Tubo 吐蕃 (Tibet). The armies of Tubo occupied Yutian in 670 and became so strong that the Tang court recalled the Protector-general of the Pacified West.

Four years later, King Fu-du Xiong 伏闍雄 was able to get rid of the Tibetans and paid a visit to the capital of the Tang. For this loyalty he was appointed head of the area command (dudufu 都督府) of Pisha 毗沙 and had to oversee ten indirectly governed prefectures (jimizhou 羈縻州).

The next decades were characterised by a permanent fight for power between Tubo and the Tang empire. Yutian was during that time an important garrison for the Tang armies that were commanded by famous generals like Gao Xianzhi 高仙芝 or Tang He 湯和. In 725 King Tiao 眺, supported by the Western Türks, rebelled against the Tang, but was killed soon and replaced and succeeded by a series of rulers willing to serve as vassals to the Tang empire. In 749 King Sheng 勝 paid hommage to the Tang emperor and was given a Tang princess to his wife. He cooperated with general Gao Xianzhi and several times defeated the armies of the kingdom of Tubo. He even personally led a contingent to Chang'an in order to support the Tang court against the rebellion of An Lushan 安祿山 (703-757). His successor Wei-chi Yao 尉遲曜 continued campaigning against the Tibetans.

The kingdom of Tubo disintegrated in the mid-9th century, so that Yutian was able to control the southern route of the Silk Road without being further harrassed from the south. The relations with the court in Chang'an were also suspended. Instead, the military commissioner (jiedushi 節度使) of Guiyi 歸義 in the prefecture of Shazhou 沙州 (modern Dunhuang 敦煌, Gansu) was the virtual representative of the Tang empire.

In 912, a new dynasty took over reign in Yutian, with Visasambhava as king (Chinese name Li Shengtian 李聖天. He had graciously been allowed to bear the family name of the Tang dynasty, Li 李). Li married the daughter of military commissioner Cao Yijin 曹議金 and established good relationships with one of the successor states of the Tang, the Later Jin empire 後晉 (936-946). Many people from Yutian lived in Dunhuang and contributed to the richness of the Buddhist grottoes in Mogao 莫高窟.

Li Shengtian's son Li Congde 李從德 (original name Tcum-ttehi, royal name Visasura) personally traveled to the court of the Song empire 宋 (960-1279) in Kaifeng 開封 (modern Kaifeng, Henan) to bring the tributes from Yutian.

Around the year 970 Muslim invaders began to bring turmoil into the region of Yutian.

At the beginning of the 11th century the Khanate of the Karakhans 黑汗 from Shule (Kašgar) occupied Yutian and destroyed the Buddhist culture of that ancient kingdom. A lot of inhabitants fled to Dunhuang or even further east. The political status of Yutian (now called Khotan) remained unchanged, and tribute envoys continued to be sent to the court of the Song dynasty. Yutian also continued being an important trade spot on the Silk Road under the rule of the Western Liao 西遼 (Karakhitans), the Mongols 蒙古, the Dzungars 準噶爾, and finally the Manchus 滿洲. The population gradually adopted the Türkish-Islamic culture.

Yutian had a prospering economy during the Later Han period that enabled it to take control of the neighbouring states. Yutian even cast its own coins that were modeled both after Chinese coins (like the heavy 24-zhu 銖 coins) and coins of the empire of Kushana (by the Chinese called Guishuang 貴霜; located in modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) imitating the inscriptions in Kharoṣṭhī or Gandhari script (Chinese: Quluwen 佉盧文). Yutian was also the first state in the Western Territories that learned to breed silkworms and to spin silk yarns. Yet the main export article of Yutian was jade (nephrite). From the 3rd century time on, religion played an important role in the region, and Yutian was one of the most famous locations where Buddhism flourished along the Silk Road. The monasteries in Yutian so were the main source for Buddhist writings brought to China, like the Garland Sutra (Huayanjing 華嚴經) that was translated by the Khotanese monks Devaprajna and Siksananda.

In the 20th century, scholars discovered some Buddhist writings in Sanskrit as well as in the local language of Yutian, like a kind of popular biography of the Buddha, the Fo bensheng zan 佛本生贊 (Chinese title). The people of Yutian were famous for their music and painting that was enjoyed at the Tang court. The painter Weichi Yiseng 尉遲乙僧, hailing from Yutian, lived for a long time in the Tang capital Chang'an.

Chen Guocan 陳國燦 (1992). "Anxi sizhen 安西四鎮", 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. 1, 7.
Li Kai 李愷 (1994). "Yutian 于闐", 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), 23.
Rong Xinjiang 榮新江 (1992). "Yutian 于闐", 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. 3, 1416.