[Picture story] China’s western frontier and beyond

Taiwanese historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao considers China's historical engagements with its western frontier and the lands beyond it, and takes note of what the Chinese have documented and popularised in their version of the history of cultural exchanges with civilisations across Asia and Europe. With photos and drawings by young artist Brian Hsu, he brings us through history for a peek at those times.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia, early 20th century. A Mongolian yurt stands amid the wide grasslands, as people gather in front of the yurt. A fire for cooking has gone out, and guests are getting on their horses to leave as the host family comes out to see them off. The men on horseback are wearing long robes with slits on the side, with black sheepskin hats. Nomadic men like wearing clothes that are convenient for riding and keeping warm.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia, early 20th century. A Mongolian yurt stands amid the wide grasslands, as people gather in front of the yurt. A fire for cooking has gone out, and guests are getting on their horses to leave as the host family comes out to see them off. The men on horseback are wearing long robes with slits on the side, with black sheepskin hats. Nomadic men like wearing clothes that are convenient for riding and keeping warm.

(Historical photo images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao; computer graphics are the works of Brian Hsu.)

“Westerns” or “cowboy films” have always been popular in the US, depicting tales of 19th century pioneers of the American Midwest — the toil of farming; the rise and prosperity of small towns; killing, plundering bandits and scoundrels; brave heroes, quick on the draw; fights between cavalry and native American Indian tribes; Chinese workers on the Pacific railway. All these yarns weave a grand tapestry of the American Midwest.

And while Americans constantly adjust the narrative of their history, the opening up of the Midwest was a crucial period in the expansion and growth of US strength. The pioneering spirit of risk-taking, bravery, toughness and chasing after dreams is ingrained in the American Dream, forming the core of the American spirit.

Likewise, the Chinese also have a deep affection for western China and its frontiers. Its history — complete with exchanges and struggles — goes back even further than the US, with richer civilisations and cultures.

Around 200 BC, the state of Qin in northwest China emerged as the ultimate victor in the fighting among seven feudal states, and established the first system of direct central government over a unified empire: the Qin dynasty.

China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang ruled with an iron fist. He was reportedly cruel and violent, but also the one that standardised writing and measurement systems as well as transportation standards during his rule, which made a huge impact on China’s long-term stability and unity.

Building a great wall

Another major project by Qin Shihuang was to build the Great Wall. At the time, China was a farming civilisation. There were many nomadic tribes in the north, and the largest group was the Huns. They lived in mobile tents, herding cows and goats wherever there was water and grass. The climate was harsh and the land infertile, but given the nomads’ sturdy constitution and skills at riding and archery, they were able to move quickly and were good fighters. Every so often, they moved south and raided the farming communities there, and resisting the nomads from the north was a major defence issue for China. And so, China built the Great Wall in the north.

After unifying China, Qin Shihuang connected the walls in the various states into a complete military defensive line running from east to west, through what is roughly today’s Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu provinces. There was the “inside” and “outside” of the wall, and to the Chinese of the time, whatever was “outside” was the unknown world, a mysterious place full of the strange and exotic. Subsequently, one of the main themes in China’s history was fighting, exchanges and integration between the people inside and outside the wall.

Two well-known emperors wrote new chapters in history: Emperor Wu of Han (Han Wudi, 汉武帝) and Emperor Taizong of Tang (Tang Taizong, 唐太宗). The Han dynasty inherited the unified China of the Qin dynasty, and likewise faced the threat of the Huns in the north. For Han Wudi, the peak of his reign came around 100 BC. While his predecessors made concessions to the Huns, Han Wudi took military action and fought back against them. He bought good horses from Central Asia, trained crack troops and built an elite cavalry that overwhelmed the Hun riders, so that the Huns lost their tactical and strategic advantage.

Spoils of the battle with the Huns

Within ten years, Han Wudi’s army routed the Huns, removing the northern threat and expanding China’s map to include for the first time the western regions — today’s Xinjiang. There are two legendary stories of cultural exchanges during this period. First, there is the story of Zhang Qian, who was sent by Han Wudi as special envoy to the Huns, only for Zhang to be imprisoned and detained for ten years in the western regions; he escaped and eventually made it back to the Han dynasty capital of Chang’an, bringing with him plenty of information on the customs and practices of the lands in the western regions, of which he left extensive records.

Urumqi, Xinjiang, 1930s. A man drives a horse cart on a muddy road in Nanmen (Akkowuk) district; some people are wearing light shirts, while others are wearing thick woollen jackets. The buildings on either side are flat-roofed, an architectural feature in desert regions. Urumqi was a way station on the way to Central Asia, where merchants and various groups on the Silk Road rested and exchanged information, a gathering point for various cultures.
Moscow, Russia, 1890s. On the broad Red Square, one sees many famous structures. From left to right, there is St Basil's Cathedral, the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky, and the Kremlin. Russia used to be part of the Mongol Empire, and after it crumbled, Russia practically inherited the empire’s vast lands in Eurasia.
Moscow, Russia, 1890s. On the bank of the Moskva River is the Kremlin, before which are seen huge churches, surrounded by tall steeples and red brick walls.

Another Han dynasty envoy who was detained was Su Wu. He was exiled to the frigid lands to the north of China to herd sheep, but refused to surrender and stayed there for 18 years, before he was released and returned to Chang’an. Su’s loyalty to the Han emperor has been lauded and passed down through literature and opera, while the place of his exile — said to be around Lake Baikal in southern Siberia today — shows the extent of the Hun regions.

Han Wudi’s conquest of the western regions forced some Hun tribes to move further west, which also had an enormous geopolitical impact on Asia and Europe. It is a fact that the Huns who moved west gradually rebuilt their strength, and one of them threatened the very existence of the Roman empire — Attila the Hun, whom the Europeans called Flagellum Dei, or the “scourge of God”.

The next emperor of China to manage the west was Tang Taizong in the early 7th century, over 700 years after Han Wudi. In that time, the once unified China had again gone through several major splits, reorganisations and mergers, while its territory had receded back within the Great Wall — only in the Tang dynasty did its power peak again.

Nomadic groups making their way ‘inside’

Over centuries of conflict and reconciliation, many nomadic groups from the “outside” had made their way “inside” and settled on the south side of the Great Wall, learning the ways and customs of the Han people there, and even considering themselves subjects of the Chinese emperor. This was similar to what had happened in Europe, where some “barbarian” groups had moved into the Roman Empire and assimilated into Roman religion and culture, and considered themselves subjects of the Roman emperor.

A Tajik family sits cross-legged on a carpet, early 20th century. Pots of tea are laid out in front of the male host to welcome guests.
Tajikistan, early 20th century. Two women sit on horses, wearing long robes that cover their entire body, with light-coloured yet vibrant headscarves. Homes are built with thatched roofs, with walls built out of stone and mud.
The Crimean peninsula, 1890s. A carpet lies outside a home, with a few Tatar womenfolk sitting cross-legged. They are wearing blouses and long skirts, with their heads wrapped in decorative headdresses. The Crimea was once home to the Mongolian Golden Horde (Ulug Ulus, “Great State” in Turkic), so the Tartars of Eastern origin are one of the major ethnic groups today.

The Tang dynasty was a period of intermixing between ethnic Han people and Central Asians, possessing the stability of the agricultural civilisation, as well as the nomadic traits of military ability and cultural diversity. And Tang Taizong was not just a wise and capable ruler, but also a courageous military general. And he faced the external threat of the mighty Turkish empire.

Unlike Han Wudi, Tang Taizong was descended from nomads and knew well how to ride and fight in the desert, so much so that his army’s battles with the Turks seemed to be more like power tussles between various nomad leaders, because he had ample supplies from agriculture, as well as the nomadic advantage of combat mobility on horseback.

Tang Taizong’s battle victories reshaped land boundaries

Tang Taizong’s army charged into the western regions and defeated the Turks, and China’s land expanded beyond what it was during the Han dynasty. Tang Taizong’s military victories also influenced geopolitics in Central Asia, making a greater impact than Han Wudi.

Some defeated Turks moved westwards, and after facing issues of survival over the centuries, they gradually grew strong and conquered various nomadic states, eventually settling in Anatolia (a peninsula in west Asia that forms most of modern-day Turkey), conquering Constantinople and eradicating the Byzantine empire. Subsequently, they built the Ottoman empire spanning Asia, Europe and Africa, an Islamic empire in direct opposition with the Christian world.

A battle between the Tang army and the Turkish Khan. Both sides fought for decades, ending with victory for the Tang dynasty. The Tang royal family was also an ethnic minority descended from Xianbei people in Central Asia.
A crowded street in Damascus, 1880s. The men are wearing a cylindrical felt hat called a fez or tarboosh. In 1829, the Ottoman Empire began its reform and modernisation, and the fez took the place of traditional headcloths. On both sides of the street, vendors ply their wares. From ancient times, Damascus was a major transport channel, and a trading hub on the Silk Road.
Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, 1890s. The Galata Bridge, teeming with people, spans the Golden Horn, full of merchant vessels, with boats of various sizes moored along the banks. This is where Asian and Western cultures mixed, and where raw materials and exotic items from all over were traded. The Ottoman Empire was a way station for Chinese goods on the way to Europe; it captured trade between China and the West, and prompted Europeans to come to Asia directly to seek trading opportunities, opening up the maritime era of the 17th century.
Turkey, 1880s. A high-born woman reclines on a sofa holding a nargile (also known as shisha/hookah) pipe, with its rubber tubing connecting the vessel and the mouthpiece. A thin veil covers her face and hat.

The old Silk Road 

However, as Tang Taizong created the glorious Tang dynasty within China, it was not only military strength that the Chinese wanted, but vibrant and inclusive culture. Japan sent missions to the Tang dynasty capital Chang’an to learn Chinese culture, and reproduced Chang’an’s urban layout and architectural style in Nara and Kyoto.

Chang’an also had a community of tens of thousands of Central Asian, Indian, Persian and Jewish merchants. Each year, many camel caravans from Central Asia traversed the vast deserts and plains to China to purchase silk, tea and porcelain, which they resold to the Middle East and Europe. Along the lengthy route, various stops and bazaars sprang up, providing rest, supplies and trading spots for these merchants. This Silk Road became a celebrated scene in the history of human civilisation and exchange — a symbol of the romantic pursuit of dreams, overcoming difficulty and danger, wealth creation, innovation and discovery of a new world.

A camel caravan passes through Beijing’s city gates, 1900s. The camels are all double-humped, and the merchants are wearing robes and capes to shield against the desert sand and sun. Double-humped camels are found in Mongolia, Central Asia and Turkey, while single-humped camels are found in Africa. As they are tough enough to withstand drought and cold, camels were long favoured by merchants as the main mode of transportation to and from China.
Central Asia, 1930s. Four camel riders traverse the vast desert, members of the Sino-Swedish Expedition (1927-1935) consisting of academics from China and Sweden, led by Sven Hedin. The deserts of Central Asia were on the land Silk Road.
A small market along the Silk Road. Many little markets sprang up in oasis cities on the way from China to the Middle East, where camel caravans did their trading. 

At this time, Buddhism and Christianity also came into China, with many temples and churches built in Chang’an. The city was said to be a rich, prosperous, harmonious metropolis that was not morally corrupt; for the Chinese, it was also a symbol of world peace.

Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s adventures

During this period, perhaps the most legendary and influential story of a Chinese going deep into the western regions was that of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who travelled westward to India in search of Buddhist texts.

In 629 AD during the Tang dynasty, the monk Xuanzang went against travel restrictions and left Chang’an on a journey to India to seek the Buddhist scriptures, leaving a legendary tale of the western regions. His story was written as the novel Journey to the West

Xuanzang was born Chen Yi in Henan province. From his youth, he was intelligent and well read, and was set on getting hold of original Buddhist texts for a deeper understanding of Buddhist teachings. He got past the border controls of the Tang dynasty and embarked on a solo journey to India, on a quest for these texts.

In the western regions, Xuanzang was received by Qu Wentai, the ruler of Gaochang (a city in present-day Xinjiang), who also provided him with funding. Xuanzang then continued his perilous journey, during which he nearly lost his life.

The state of Gaochang in the western regions was located in today’s Xinjiang. Qu Wentai, the king of Gaochang, was a devout Buddhist. When Xuanzang passed through, he was treated with much hospitality by the king, who helped Xuanzang’s journey to India. Before Islam spread to Xinjiang, there were many Buddhists. (Computer graphic by Brian Hsu)

He passed through the Tian Shan mountain range bordering Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, through Samarkand in Uzbekistan, then southward through Afghanistan, arriving in the north of India, eventually reaching Nalanda in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar), the legendary monastery and centre of Buddhist learning.

While in India, Xuanzang collected Buddhist texts and gave lectures, and also discussed Buddhism with the monks there. He travelled all over India, and returned to China bringing many Buddhist texts with him, 17 years after leaving Chang’an.

By this time, Xuanzang was known in China, India, and various states in the western regions. Tang Taizong did not blame him for leaving his monastery against regulations, but gave him a grand reception and provided him with a monastery where he could translate Buddhist texts, and all necessary support. Xuanzang translated texts and wrote his own books, making a significant impact on the deep-rooted influence of Buddhist principles in Chinese philosophy and everyday culture.

After over a decade, Xuanzang returned to Chang’an, where he was warmly welcomed by the emperor and the people. The emperor also provided a temple where Xuanzang could translate the scriptures he brought back. Xuanzang became the most important person in China-India exchanges. 

Xuanzang also authored the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions or Records of Western Regions (《大唐西域记》), dictating to his disciples from his memory the history, geography, political systems and local cultures of the 140 lands he had visited in the western regions, Central Asia and India, which became a valuable historical record.

Xuanzang is revered in China’s history, and a holy figure for China’s Buddhists. His exploits were even written into a fantasy-type novel involving gods and deities and spirits; about a thousand years later, the Ming dynasty novelist Wu Cheng’en took Xuanzang’s journey and wrote what would become one of China’s greatest novels: Journey to the West, which was widely read all over China and has been passed down through generations, so much so that even other places that use the Chinese writing system such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam are familiar with the story.

To sum up, from northeast China, through Mongolia, Siberia, Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, all the way to Turkey, mighty empires once spanned the plains of this vast land connecting Asia and Europe — civilisations that were closely linked to China at various times, and at some points, were considered one with China, becoming a source of genetic and cultural links for the Chinese.

Afghanistan, 1890. Three Afghan men are wearing long pants and shirts that used to be white but are now sandblown and weathered. Over their shirts are blue jackets, and on their heads black sheepskin hats, the style favoured by Central Asian men. They are all clasping weapons for self-defence, as they stand guard over their wares.
Darjeeling, India, 1870s. A view from a hilltop southward overlooking Darjeeling, where tea-planting began in the 19th century when the British imported tea from China. The region is known for red tea.
An all-male group chats under the shade of a tree, Tajikistan, early 20th century. Their clothing style is not identical; the men in the foreground are wearing loose white robes, with long cloths wrapped around their heads, while those behind the tree are wearing black sheepskin hats, and might be from a different tribe.
Uzbekistan, early 20th century. Two elderly women sit cross-legged on a carpet, preparing materials for weaving, as younger womenfolk stand to one side watching and learning about the weaving process from their elders.
mongolia yurt
Mongolian yurts, home to nomadic tribes, stand in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, 1930s. Beside the yurts, womenfolk in formal wear welcome guests.

* Brian Hsu is a young Taiwanese artist who specialises in digital painting and art design. He has created a series of digital art works on historical subjects which have gained international recognition.

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