Kushan History Kushan History

The Chinese and the Yu-chi

The origin and early history of the Yu-chi are lost in the mists of prehistory. Prior to the second century BC the area known as the 'western regions' to the Chinese and including the states known to the Greeks as Sogdia and Bactria were certainly inhabited by nomadic peoples1. Distinguishing the Yu-chi from amongst this complex group is impossible. Nomadic peoples live very similar lifestyles and are rarely if ever discernible by the archaeological remains they leave behind. When the Yu-chi enter written records it would seem from their apparently powerful and established position that a great deal of their own history has already passed.
Though it is not quite certain where the Yu-chi migrations began similar cultures were present in the Xinjiang region. Excavations of graves in those areas have given a fascinating insight into local crafts. Pots with simple patterns have been found, and cloths of a variety of colors. It seems light blue, light red and black were combined in stripes, criss-cross and triangular patterns.

According to the early Chinese records the Yu-chi, who had been a powerful force in the western regions, were attacked and defeated by the Hsiung-nu some time prior to 177BCYu-chi were driven to the west, into K'ang-chu (or Sogdia), from where they were to invade Ta-hsia (Bactria). During this period of movement we are dependent on the Chinese sources for our knowledge of the Yu-chi, most prominently on the reports compiled on the western regions for the Chinese courts at the end of the second century BC and after the movements had been complete. It is not until the Yu-chi cross the Oxus river that we have a western perspective.

The Yu-chi were courted by the Chinese for aid against the Hsiung-nu as early as 220 BC in the Ch'in dynasty 3 . They were clearly deeply involved in the local politics for the Yu-chi were given Mao-tun as a hostage by his father T'ou-man. T'ou-man then led the Hsiung-nu in an attack upon the Yu-chi, clearly hoping that Mao-tun would be killed by the Yu-chi. However, Mao-tun escaped and in 209 BC killed his father. After his fathers death Mao-tun conducted campaigns against many of the other nomadic states. Upon returning from a campaign against the eastern Hu he 'went to the west and smote and chased the Yu-chi ...' 4 quite possibly making the Yu-chi subject to the great confederacy he was to forge, though this cant have lasted long. Sometime after that and before his writing a letter to the Han emporer in 176BC he sent the Wu-Sun to kill the king of the Yu-chi and in the words of Ssu-ma Chien 'had made a drinking vessel from his skull' 5

The Yu-chi fled to the west to avoid the Hsiung-nu and according to the Chinese sources conquered a people known as the Sai 6 who they in turn drove to the south. This journey appears to have halted in the country of the Sai for some time. In the 130's the Hsiung-nu fell upon the Yu-chi again and drove them on7. The trip was almost certainly intermittent, the Yu-chi confederacy stopping and starting in its westwards trek before reaching Bactria. At various times the Hsiung-nu appear to claim them as subject peoples, but we have at least three recorded attacks upon them. It seems the Yu-chi were too proud or strong for the Hsiung-nu to control but to weak to retain their original home. In addition to which a group of Yu-chi were left behind, possibly conquered by the Wu-sun or Hiung-nu. This group is called the little Yu-chi and the larger group which continued on the Ta Yu-chi (or great Yu-chi) to distinguish them. Not long before 129 BC8 the Yu-chi crossed the Jaxartes and overran Ta-hsia (Bactria), and their history passes from China into the west.