CH’IEN HAN SHU (Qian Han shu) “History of the Former Han Dynasty,” a historical work which includes information on Iran. It was originally simply called the Han shu and is often still referred to by that name. It is the second of the series of Twenty-four Standard Histories. Its author, Pan Ku (Ban Gu), revised and continued a work begun by his father Pan Piao (Ban Biao; d. a.d. 54), and his own work was completed by his sister, Pan Chao (Ban Zhao), after his death in 92. It covers the period from the founding of the dynasty in 206 b.c. to the death of the usurper, Wang Mang, in a.d. 23. The most important part for providing information on Iran is the “Monograph on the Western Regions” (chap. 96). Other material is found in the “Monograph on the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu)” (chap. 94) and in the biographies of envoys and generals who were involved in Han relations with the west.

In the early part of the work, down to about the beginning of the first century b.c., Pan Piao and his son mostly based themselves on the Shih-chi (Shiji) of Ssuma Ch’ien (Sima Qian), making only minor changes of wording for stylistic reasons. The matter is complicated, however, by the claim that has been made that certain parts of the Shih-chi were lost and later restored from the Ch’ien Han shu, including the “Monograph on Ta­yüan (Dayuan)” in the Shih-chi, which corresponds to the “Biographies of Chang Ch’ien (Jung Qian) and Li Kuang-li (Li Guangli)” (chap. 61) and substantial parts of the “Monograph on the Western Regions” (Hulsewe, 1975, 1979). For arguments supporting the contrary opinion, that the present text of the Shih-chi is the primary source for the corresponding parts in the Ch’ien Han shu, see Pulleyblank (1970, 1981).

The first Chinese contacts with the Iranian world that are recorded in the Ch’ien Han shu came about through the famous mission of Chang Ch’ien (Zhang Qian) in search of the Yüeh-chih (Yuezhi), who had migrated westward after being defeated by the Hsiung-nu and whom the Chinese hoped to enlist as allies against their nomadic enemies. In about 126 b.c.e., on the banks of the Oxus, Chang Ch’ien found the Yüeh-Chih, who had conquered the Greek kingdom of Bactria. His return to China was followed by a period of intense Chinese diplomatic and military activity in the west; the Silk Road across Central Asia was opened, and in 104-101 b.c.e. expeditions were led by Li Kuang-li against Ta-yüan (probably located in Sogdia proper, rather than Ferghana, as is usually said) to obtain “blood-sweating heavenly horses.” A protector-general of the Western Regions was appointed in 59 b.c.e. to bring under control the states of the Tarim basin, which had previously been subject to the Hsiung-nu. Much of the material in the “Monograph on the Western Regions” probably comes from information gathered at his headquarters. In 38 b.c.e. there was a second Chinese military expedition to the far west, de­scribed in the “Biographies of Ch’en Tang (Chen Tang) and Kan Yen-shou (Gan Yenshou)” (chap. 70), this time to K’ang-chü (Kangju; Tashkent), against the dissident Hsiung-nu chieftain Chih-chih (Zhizhi), who had estab­lished himself as overlord in that region. There is reason to believe that some information about Afghanistan and Sogdia was added from a report by Pan Ku’s brother, Pan Ch’ao (Ban Chao), on his return from a military expedi­tion to Khotan and Kashgar in 74-75 c.e. (Pulleyblank, 1968, p. 251).

After an introduction summarizing Chinese relations with the west during the Former Han period, “The Mono­graph on the Western Regions” outlines an itinerary along the southern route through the Tarim basin from Lou-lan to Khotan, across the Hanging Pass to Chi-pin (Jibin; Kashmir), and beyond to Wu-i-shan-li (Alexandria = Kandahar or Herat?) and An-hsi (Anxi; Parthia). More distant countries that are mentioned include T’iao­chih (Tiaochi; Seleukia; see Wu, 1977) and Li-chien (Lijian; probably originally Hyrcania, later confused with Ta-ch’in/Daqin, the Roman Orient). The route then turns north and east via Great Yüeh-chih (Bactria), K’ang-chü, and Ta-yüan (Sogdia; the locations and relative strengths of these countries were not constant throughout the period). Re-entering the Tarim basin via the Pamirs, the route passes through Shu-le (Kashgar) and, after an account of the nomadic Wu-sun at the western end of the T’ien-shan (Tienshan), proceeds eastward back to China along the northern side of the Tarim basin.

In addition to brief descriptions of the Iranian inhabitants of Parthia, Bactria, Transoxania, and the city­ states at the western end of the Tarim basin (Kashgar and Khotan), the Ch’ien Han shu has references to the Iranian Sai (Sakas) both as invaders of Chi-pin, when they moved south under pressure from the Yüeh-chih, and as inhabit­ants of small states in the Pamirs. It has also sometimes been claimed that the Yüeh-chih, who had originally migrated from Kansu (Gansu), were Iranians; in the opinion of the present author, however, they were most probably Tocharian speakers, as were the Wu-sun and also the K’ang-chü, who first occupied the region around Tashkent and then moved south into Sogdia (Pulleyblank, 1966). Recently H. W. Bailey (1981) has claimed that the Hsiung-nu may have spoken an Iranian language, but his argument, which is based on possible Iranian etymologies for some Hsiung-nu words transcribed in Chinese, is not very convincing. The cultural affinities between the Hsiung-nu as described by Ssu-ma Ch’ien and the Scythians as described by Herodotus are probably to be explained by the rapid spread of full-scale nomadism and the associated technique of cavalry warfare from west to east across the Eurasian steppes during the first millen­nium b.c.e. The language of the Hsiung-nu is not known with certainty, but there are some grounds for thinking it may have been related to that of the present day Ket in Siberia (Ligeti, 1950; Pulleyblank, 1962).



H. W. Bailey, “Iranian in Hsiung-nu,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne I, Acta Iranica 21, 1981, pp. 22-26.

H. H. Dubs, History of the Former Han Dynasty, 3 vols., Baltimore, 1938-55.

A. F. P. Hulsewé, “Notes on the Historiography of the Han Period,” in W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank, eds., Historians of China and Japan, London, 1961, pp. 31-­43.

Idem, “The Problem of the Authenticity of Shih-chi ch. 123, the Memoir on TaYüan,” T’oung Pao 61, 1975, pp. 83-147.

Idem, China in Central Asia. The Early Stage, 125 B.C.-A.D. 23, Leiden, 1979.

L. Ligeti, “Mots de civilisation de Haute Asie en transcription chinoise,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica 1, 1950, pp. 141-88.

E. G. Pulleyblank, “The Language of the Hsiung-nu,” Asia Major, N.S. 9, 1962, pp. 239-65 (appendix to “The Consonantal System of Old Chinese”).

Idem, “Chinese and Indo-Europeans,” JRAS, 1966, pp. 9-39.

Idem, “Chinese Evidence for the Date of Kanishka,” in A. L. Basham, ed., Papers on the Date of Kaniṣka, Leiden, 1968, pp. 247-58.

Idem, “The Wu-sun and Sakas and the Yüeh-chih Migration,” BSOAS 33, 1970, pp. 154-160.

Idem, “Han China in Central Asia,” International His­tory Review 3, 1981, pp. 278-286 (review article on Hulsewé, 1979).

Wu Chi-yu, “€ propos du nom géographique T’iao-tche sous les Han,” in Actes du XXIXe Congrès International des Orientalistes (1973). Chine ancienne, Paris, 1977, pp. 347-52.

(Edwin G. Pulleyblank)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: December 15, 1991