Xuanquan, Dunhuang

Signs of grave-robbing were discovered at Xuanquan, a place in Gansu Province.

A team of archaeologists in Gansu Province excavated the site, and discovered an ancient posthouse dating back to the Han Empire.


It was a square-shaped fortress, with areas for administration, living quarters, horse stable, and watchtowers.




Archaeologists found 17,650 artefacts, including 15,000 sets of bamboo slips.

A total of 80, 000 sets of Han bamboo slips have been discovered in China since the 19th century.

60, 000 of those were found in the Hexi Corridor.


Historians developed a much better understanding of the events of the Han Dynasty by reading these bamboo slips.


After the Hexi Corridor was incorporated into the Han Empire, four administrative regions were established in the Hexi Corridor: Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, and Dunhuang.

The Great Wall, including beacon towers, were built.

Postal routes were extended to the west.

China is one of the earliest countries in the world to develop a systematic way of relaying messages.

Postal routes were considered “the arteries of a nation”.


A commemorative stamp introduced in 1982.


The picture on the stamp is from the mural of Dingjiaxia tomb in Jiuquan, depicting the posthouse 300 km to the east of Xuanquan.

A messenger on horseback cracks the whip, urging his horse to go faster.

This perfectly re-enacts the way ancient messengers worked.


Since the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, national posthouses were designated “zhi”.

Zhi of the Han Empire were not just relay stations for official communications, but also distribution centres for goods and inns for receiving government officials.

Xuanquanzhi—the posthouse of Xuanquan, was under the jurisdiction of Dunhuang County, one of the most important counties in the Hexi Corridor.


Sefu was the title given to officials ranked below the county level in Qin and Han Dynasties.

Zhisefu was a title given to the administrative officer of the posthouse.


The magistrate of Dunhuang sent staff to supervise activities at the posthouse, while Zhisefu managed the day-to-day operations.

There were a total of 37 members of staff, 15 carriages, 40 horses, and several oxen and ox-carts.


There were 9 such zhi at Dunhuang, laying along a straight line and reaching all the way to Xinjiang.


The Han Empire inherited the postal system of the Qin Dynasty. There was a post kiosk every five miles, a post office every ten miles, and a posthouse every thirty miles.

All the kiosks, offices, and posthouses combined to form a vast information network covering the entire country.


Studies of the Han bamboo slips excavated from Xuanquanzhi revealed the most common visitors to the posthouse: envoys and guests from countries in the Western Regions, government officials from central and local governments, the Qiang people who had surrendered to the Han Empire, servants of officials, refugees being resettled by government, and prisoners.


Experts are particularly interested in one of the bamboo slips, entitled Expenses of the Marquis of Changluo.


Western Han

In the year 61 BC, Emperor Liu Che had been dead for 26 years. Large-scale warfare had died down in the west. The Han Empire was stronger than ever.


Armies and migrants came to the Hexi Corridor, turning wasteland into farmland. Merchant caravans travelled through the desert.

The posthouses delivered letters for these soldiers, farmers, and merchants to and from the Hexi Corridor.


The Marquis of Changluo was a government official named Chang Hui.


In the year 100 BC, Chang Hui volunteered to go on a diplomatic mission with Su Wu to visit Xiongnu, trying to defuse the tension between Han and Xiongnu. He was detained in Xiongnu for 19 years.

Both Chang Hui and Su Wu refused to surrender.

They were finally released and returned to the Han Empire.

Chang Hui became a government consultant for affairs of the Western Regions.


Wusun was an ancient tribe who used to live in the Hexi Corridor in the second century BC.

After being defeated by the Rouzhi people, the Wusun tribe migrated to the Western Regions, finally settled down at the Ili River Valley to the west of Tianshan Mountains, and established the country of Wusun.


Numerous small countries were located to the west of the Hexi Corridor.

They were recorded by Zhang Qian. Collectively, they were called the “36 Countries of the Western Regions”.


Numerous small countries were located to the west of the Hexi Corridor.

They were recorded by Zhang Qian. Collectively, they were called the “36 Countries of the Western Regions”.

Wusun was one of the bigger city states.


The people of Wusun had fertile farmland and grasslands.


They controlled the Dzungarian Gate and the Ili River Valley, both important passes leading to Central Asia and Europe.


After Xiongnu was forced to retreat from the Hexi Corridor, the country urgently needed the resources of the Western Regions.

By forming an alliance with Wusun, Xiongnu had indirectly controlled the routes leading from the Ili River to the Iranian Plateau.

If they were allowed to have complete control over the area, they could surround the Han Empire from the northwest and pose a significant threat.

But after taking over the Hexi Corridor, the Han Empire could now also access the Western Regions.


119 BC

Zhang Qian went on his second expedition to the Western Regions.

Emperor Liu Che had established the strategic objective for the Western Regions: either form an alliance, or at the minimum establish diplomatic relations with the countries there.


Zhang Qian visited the country of Wusun, and persuaded the leader of Wusun, Liejiaomi, to send envoys to Han.


After seeing the prosperity of Han, the Wusun envoys proposed marriage alliance.

Emperor Liu Che selected Princess Xijun and married her to Liejiaomi.

An alliance was thus formed between Wusun and Han.

After Liejiaomi passed away, Junxumi came to power.


After Princess Xijun passed away, to continue the marriage alliance with Wusun, Emperor Liu Che sent Princess Jieyou, who had a fiery temper, to marry Junxumi.


After the death of Junxumi, his younger brother Wengguimi ascended the throne, and married Princess Jieyou according to the customs of Wusun.

Princess Jieyou gave birth to five children: three princes and two princesses.

She had spent over two decades at Wusun.

Emperor Liu Che had passed away.

But the diplomatic mission bearing gifts would continue to visit Wusun every year.

But Wusun did not take any real actions in allying with Han and fighting against Xiongnu.

While Wusun welcomed the princess from Han, they also accepted a Xiongnu woman and gave her a higher rank than Princess Jieyou.


Wusun vacillated d between Han and Xiongnu.

Even so, Xiongnu was annoyed by the closeness between Wusun and Han.

74 BC

Wusun was attacked by Xiongnu and Jushi, a small country in the Western Regions.

Faced with the threat of Xiongnu’s armies, Princess Jieyou wrote a letter to Han, imploring the emperor to send troops to rescue Wusun.


The urgent letter was sent to Xuanquanzhi, then delivered to Chang’an by messengers on fast horses.


Unfortunately, when the letter arrived at Chang’an, Emperor Liu Fuling had just passed away.

The Han Empire was preoccupied.


After Emperor Liu Xun ascended the throne, he was cautious, and chose not to send troops immediately.

He sent a diplomatic mission to Wusun to gather more information.

He selected Chang Hui as the envoy.

Chang Hui was familiar with the situations in the Western Regions.

And he was a good friend of Princess Jieyou before she left Chang’an.


72 BC

Chang Hui went on his first expedition to the Western Regions.

He was about fifty years old.


But he still had a sharp mind and a regal bearing.

He arrived at Xuanquanzhi.


That was the first time Zhisefu met the legendary Chang Hui.


Princess Jieyou welcomed the arrival of the diplomatic mission.


Both the princess and Chang Hui shouldered heavy responsibilities.


Princess Jieyou, Chang Hui, and the leader of Wusun discussed the strategies to deal with Xiongnu.

The leader of Wusun finally expressed his wish to join forces with Han and fight against Xiongnu.


Chang Hui returned to Han with an envoy sent by Wusun.


71 BC

Emperor Liu Xun sent five armies and a total of 150, 000 troops in the battle against Xiongnu.


Xiongnu troops escaped, and Han troops returned without victory.


However, shortly before this, Chang Hui passed Xuanquanzhi and informed the leader of Wusun about the Han emperor’s plan.

Wusun sent 50, 000 troops, with Chang Hui as a military advisor, and won the battle against Xiongnu.


70 BC

Chang Hui was commended and given the title of Marquis of Changluo.

Emperor Liu Xuan wanted Chang Hui to pay Wusun another visit, to thank the leader of Wusun for defeating Xiongnu.

Chang Hui had a request to make.


In the year 78 BC, during the reign of Emperor Liu Fuling, the leader of Kucha sent troops to ambush and kill a Han captain named Lai Dan, who’d been sent to Luntai (in modern-day Xinjiang) to cultivate agricultural land and defend the border. The Kucha troops also drove away Han soldiers.

Cultivating agricultural land and defending the border was an important strategy in the Han Empire’s management of the Hexi Corridor. The practice started after Huo Qubing conquered the Hexi Corridor.


180, 000 troops were sent to Hexi Corridor for this purpose.

They picked up their weapons during wartime, and worked in the farm fields during peacetime.

They reclaimed wasteland, built dams, and harvested crops.


Eventually, villages were established near oases in the Hexi Corridor. Irrigation systems were introduced.


In a tomb in Jiuquan, archaeologists discovered murals depicting these frontier soldiers.


The soldiers used farming tools to raise the grains, and used draft animals to till the land.


During the reign of Emperor Liu Xuan, the Hexi Corridor had already become the economic centre of the west.


About 90 km northwest of Dunhuang is the historical site of a Han granary—a military supply depot.

The length of the building is roughly that of a football field.


It was close to the Shule River, hence the name—the River Granary.

Harvested grains from Dunhuang and Jiuquan were transported here by boat, and were used to supply soldiers and horses stationed at Yang Pass and Yumen Pass.


In the year 78 BC, the area of frontier land cultivation was extended to Jushi.

Xiongnu, feeling threatened, incited the leaders of Kucha and Jushi to kill Lai Dan, trying to terminate the frontier land cultivation project.


Chang Hui suggested to Emperor Liu Xuan that they could leverage their relationship with Wusun and finally seek revenge against Kucha.

Emperor Liu Xuan refused.


Chang Hui set out on his third expedition to the Western Regions.

Zhisefu noticed that the size of the mission this time had increased from a few dozen to 500, and the members of the mission were all soldiers.

After arriving at Wusun, Chang Hui held a secret meeting with Princess Jieyou.


Even though Emperor Liu Xun had refused his request to seek revenge against Kucha, Chang Hui managed to secure the support of Han military.

He planned to attack Kucha. He would take all responsibilities of acting without authorisation.

Princess Jieyou was moved by his determination. She managed to persuade the leader of Wusun to send troops on the mission, and sent out her deputies to other countries in the Western Regions to borrow their troops.


Chang Hui led tens of thousands of Wusun troops, along with troops from other countries, and surrounded Kucha.

The leader of Kucha issued a formal apology, and executed the ones who killed Lai Dan.


64 BC

The mission was a success.

Emperor Liu Xun didn’t punish Chang Hui. Instead, he sent Chang Hui on his fourth expedition to the Western Regions.


He led troops and rescued a Han official, Zheng Ji, and over a thousand soldiers, who were trapped by Xiongnu.

He also brought back a letter from the leader of Wusun.

In the letter, the leader of Wusun said he planned to make the son of Princess Jieyou, Yuanguimi, the crown prince.

He also wanted to send a thousand horses and a thousand mules as bridal price to arrange another marriage alliance between a Han Princess and Yuanguimi.


61 BC

In the early morning, the sound of hoofs roused Zhisefu out of his sleep.


The post man had ridden all the way from Chang’an. He delivered a sealed letter in a wooden box.

The letter was an official document from the highest level of government in the Han Empire. The letter informed him the diplomatic mission led by Chang Hui, the Marquis of Changluo, would be arriving at the posthouse soon. They would be spending the night here.


After sending away the messenger, Zhisefu also got down to work.


The Expenses of the Marquis of Changluo bamboo slips recorded the number of guests and the food served to the diplomatic missions led by Chang Hui. This would be his fifth time passing through Xuanquanzhi.


Historian are able to recreate the route to the Western Regions by studying the Han bamboo slips unearthed in the Hexi Corridor.


In the autumn that year, Chang Hui returned from Wusun, along with a 300-strong team from Wusun to welcome the Han princess.


60 BC

The Protectorate of the Western Regions was established in Luntai, in modern-day Xinjiang.

Zheng Ji became the first Protector-General.


Gradually, the number of vassal states under Han protection increased from 36 to 48.


52 BC

Yuanguimi became the leader of Wusun.

Wusun became a vassal state of the Han Empire.


Chang Hui was on a visit to Wusun when he was suddenly recalled.

One of his long-time colleagues, General Zhao Chongguo, had passed away.


General Zhao advocated for the practice of frontier land reclamation and defence.

In the year 61 BC, the 76-year-old General Zhao volunteered to lead an army to the Hexi Corridor.


Chang Hui was to succeed General Zhao.


On his way back to Chang’an, Chang Hui passed through Xuanquanzhi for the last time.


51 BC

Yuanguimi passed away after an illness.

Princess Jieyou was 70 years old.

She wrote a letter to Chang’an, hoping to return to her homeland.

49 BC

The princess passed away in Chang’an.


47 BC

Chang Hui passed away.

Historical records didn’t show when Zhisefu had left Xuanquanzhi, or where he was buried.


Zhisefu was a title. Historical records do not have the name of the officer, but his role in the numerous diplomatic missions by the Han Empire would not be forgotten.

The posthouse at Xuanquanzhi continued to be used throughout Han, Wei and Jin Dynasties, until Tang Dynasty.


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One out of 1.4 billion voices.

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