Emperor Yang Jian reunified China and established the Sui Dynasty.
Border trade was reopened, and the Hexi Corridor was given another chance.
35-year-old Yang Guang ascended the throne.
To link the economic areas south of the Yangtze River, the politically important Guanzhong Plain, and the military regions of Hebei and Liaodong, Yang Guang ordered a new capital to be built at Luoyang, east of Chang’an.
Yang Guang also ordered the Grand Canal to be built. The Grand Canal has a total length of about 2,000 km and took only four years to complete. It linked important waterways in mainland China and formed a transport network.
Commerce and cities prospered next to the canal. Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou) became the economic capital of the Sui Dynasty.
Emperor Yang Guang put a lot of emphasis on economic development. Besides the canal, he also thought about the Hexi Corridor.
By the time Emperor Yang Guang came to power, the economy of the Central Plain had gradually recovered.
Merchants wished to trade with their counterparts from the Western Regions, but large-scale trade between the Central Plain and the Western Regions had been suspended for hundreds of years due to war. Cautious merchants from the Western Regions chose the Hexi Corridor as a trading post and would not venture further into the Central Plain.
Emperor Yang Guang wanted to promote more trade with the Western Regions. He thought of Pei Ju.
Pei Ju was well-read in historical and classical texts, and was an experienced politician. Emperor Yang Jian appointed him to a key position, and he took part in establishing the etiquette system of the Sui Dynasty.
In the year 588 CE, Pei Ju followed the then crown prince Yang Guang in the battle to conquer the Chen Dynasty. His outstanding post-war work earned him reward and a promotion.
He also employed political tactics to split Xiongnu into Western Xiongnu and Eastern Xiongnu, the latter of which surrendered to the Sui Dynasty.
When Yang Guang became emperor, Pei Ju was one of the five most important court officials.
Emperor Yang Guang met Pei Ju and asked him for his thoughts on trade with the Western Regions.
Pei Ju suggested that they should boost trade by revitalising the Hexi Corridor, and by increasing cultural and political exchanges with the Western Regions.
Emperor Yang Guang agreed.
58-year-old Pei Ju arrived at Zhangye, a city in the middle of the Hexi Corridor.
The ancient Silk Road was cut off after the Wei and Jin Dynasties. Merchants from the Western Regions could only go as far as Zhangye. This was the first time Pei Ju visited the Hexi Corridor, but his ancestors lived here for a long time during the Wei and Jin Dynasties.
Pei Ju was impressed by the prosperity of the city. Merchants from the Western Regions were a common sight on the streets, distinguished by their appearances and attire.
They sold spices, objets d’art, carpets and other items not often seen in the Central Plain, while they bought silk, tea, and local produce to sell to West Asia and Europe.
Pei Ju proactively visited merchants, talked with them, and learnt the cultures and customs of the Western Regions.
He recorded everything he learnt in a book, Illustrated Records of the Western Regions. In it, he listed the 44 countries of the Western Regions and drew many maps.
The Silk Road
In the foreword of the book, he also introduced three important routes from the east coast of the Mediterranean to Dunhuang.
The North Route started from the Mediterranean, passed Istanbul, the Beiliu River, the Turkic Khaganate, the Tiele tribes, Lake Barkol in Xinjiang, Hami, and finally reached the Hexi Corridor via the north of the Tianshan Mountains.
The Middle Route started from the Persian Gulf, passed Iran, the Fergana Valley, the Pamir Mountains, Kashgar, Kuqa, Karasahr, Turpan, and reached Dunhuang.
The South Route started from the Indian Ocean, passed northern India, Afghanistan, the south of the Pamir Mountains, Tashkurgan, Kargilik, Hotan, Ruoqiang, and terminated in Dunhuang.
The description by Pei Ju, along with the route from Dunhuang to Chang’an, allowed us to recreate the complete map of the ancient Silk Road.
From the map, it’s obvious that the Hexi Corridor was the only way into the Central Plain.
From his talks with the merchants, Pei Ju also realised the challenges facing him.
Merchants from the Western Regions wished to be able to go into Luoyang and Chang’an to trade. But most of the trade at the Hexi Corridor was initiated by civilians. The local government had not yet established a system to organise and promote trade.
In addition, the trading posts and posthouses built since the Han Dynasty had fallen into disrepair, no longer able to provide lodging for the travelling merchants.
Pei Ju thought of Cang Ci, who faced similar challenges.
Cang Ci was an official in charge of Dunhuang during the Three Kingdoms period. Dunhuang, which used to be the central trading post for silk, was in a state of dilapidation near the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty. During the Three Kingdoms period, merchants who came to Dunhuang would face obstruction and exploitation by bandits.
Cang Ci implemented a series of measures. He let it be known that any merchants wishing to go to Luoyang for business would be given a travel allowance by the government. If they wished to stay at Dunhuang, they would receive fair price, as determined by the government. Merchant caravans would also receive protection from government officials.
Trade in the Hexi Corridor flourished under his policies.
Pei Ju learnt from Cang Ci. He travelled between Zhangye, Wuwei, Dunhuang, and other cities in the Hexi Corridor.
He set up new relay stations, cut tariffs, and in some cases, even offered tariff exemptions.
He encouraged merchants from the Western Regions to trade directly with the government, and expanded the range and types of products to be traded.
Merchants travelling in the Hexi Corridor would have food and lodging provided by and paid for by the local government.
The policies encouraged merchants.
The Sogdian people
Majority of the merchants engaged in trade with the Western Regions were from the Sogdian people. Their ancestors had likely come from Zhaowu, Zhangye. Most of them had the surnames of Kang, Shi, An, Cao, Shi, Mi, He, Huoxun, and Wudi. So they were also collectively known as the Nine Surnames of Zhaowu.
They lived in the area that’s modern-day Uzbekistan. They did not have their own country, and were a people who survived purely on trade.
They were good at craftwork, making pottery, silverware, silk and even armours that became best sellers at the time.
They were also good at turning their merchandise into money. Boys started learning how to read and write at the age of five, and soon after, they learned how to do business. They were taught how to sweet-talk to the customers, how to handle money, and how to maximise profit.
They didn’t just sell their own merchandise. They also held a near monopoly status over all international trade in the Hexi Corridor.
The Sogdian people were attracted to the Hexi Corridor for the prospect of huge profits, but they also ran the risk of being robbed by the Xiongnu and Tuyuhun forces near the Corridor.
Pei Ju returned to Luoyang. He brought back his book, Illustrated Records of the Western Regions, and reported his work in the Hexi Corridor.
Emperor Yang Guang asked him what his next step was.
Pei Ju said that the nomadic tribe of Tuyuhun often harassed merchants in the Hexi Corridor. It was necessary to defeat Tuyuhun to ensure the safety of the merchants.
Emperor Yang Guang was pleased. He sent Pei Ju back to Zhangye on his new mission.
Once Pei Ju arrived at Zhangye, he sent out invitations to officials and merchants, asking them to visit Chang’an and Luoyang. He also laid out the generous terms for foreign diplomatic missions and trade delegations.
The following year, Pei Ju invited members of the noble families from Gaochang, Yiwu, and several other countries in the Western Regions to attend a ceremony with Emperor Yang Guang in Luoyang.
He also persuaded the Tiele tribe to launch an attack against the Tuyuhun.
The king of Tuyuhun escaped to modern-day Xining. His country suffered a huge defeat.
Emperor Yang Guang announced that he was going to inspect the Hexi Corridor. He invited leaders of the countries in the Western Regions to a grand gathering there. He also wanted to personally lead troops to annihilate the threat posed by Tuyuhun.
Such an inspection tour would be immensely costly, not to mention dangerous.
Emperor Yang Guang ignored the advice from his officials, and the planning went ahead.
In March that year, Emperor Yang Guang led 100,000 troops, various court officials, servants, and a few of his concubines on the inspection tour.
Two months later, they arrived at the county of Ledu in Qinghai. Emperor Yang Guang launched an attack against Tuyuhun. 100,000 people from Tuyuhun surrendered. Dozens of people followed the king of Tuyuhun and escaped to Qinghai Lake.
After the battle, Emperor Yang Guang set up four administrative divisions: Xihai, Heyuan, Shangshan, and Qiemo. They covered the area from the east bank of the Qinghai Lake, to the Tarim Basin, to the Kuruktag Range, and to the Kunlun Mountains.
Emperor Yang Guang and his entourage then headed for Zhangye.
They entered Biandukou, the same place where Zhang Qian entered the Hexi Corridor hundreds of years ago.
It was June, but the weather in the Qilian Mountains was cold and unpredictable. The Emperors’ followers were severely unprepared for the harsh weather.
Almost half of the emperor’s entourage died after an unexpected snowstorm. The victims included the older sister of Emperor Yang Guang.
Three days later, the survivors finally passed Biandukou.
Leaders and representatives from 27 countries in the Western Regions met the emperor. Visitors brought exotic gifts from their countries.
Emperor Yang Guang hosted a banquet for the visitors.
The Sogdian merchants also seized the opportunity of this “world expo” by bringing their merchandise into Zhangye and showcasing them to visitors from various countries.
The festivities lasted for a month.
In the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Buddha statues from the Dunhuang Mogao caves were displayed alongside a painting depicting this “world expo” 1,400 years ago.
Emperor Yang Guang climbed to the top of the Yanzhi Mountain for a ceremony honouring heaven and earth.
More than 700 years ago, Huo Qubing defeated Xiongnu and conquered the Hexi Corridor, taking over the Yanzhi Mountain.
The tour by Emperor Yang Guang restored political, cultural and economic exchanges between the Central Plain and the Western Regions.
The ancient Silk Road was once again open for business.
Emperor Yang Guang approved the opening of trade routes from Zhangye to Luoyang, Chang’an, and other inland cities.
However, the grand inspection tour also marked the start of the Sui Empire’s decline.
The country’s budget was severely stretched: the Grand Canal, the war against Tuyuhun, and the inspection tour. Heavy taxes and draconian conscription laws led to resentment against the ruler.
In the year 618, Emperor Yang Guang, who was on the throne for 14 years, was killed by the rebel army.
The short-lived Sui Dynasty was replaced by the Tang Dynasty, established by Yang Guang’s cousin, Li Yuan.
Yang Guang was one of the most controversial emperors in Chinese history.
His accomplishments were plenty: digging the Grand Canal, expanding the country’s territory, managing the Western Regions, and reopening of the Silk Road.
He also had many faults: eagerness for “great achievements”, disregard for the common folks’ pain, and depletion of the country’s resources.
What he did was bad for his subjects living in that era, but immensely beneficial for subsequent generations.
28-year-old Li Shimin ascended the throne.
Pei Ju was over 80 years old. He was invited to a banquet at the imperial palace.
A year later, Pei Ju passed away.
Unfortunately, his book, Illustrated Records of the Western Regions, was lost.
But his strategies for the Hexi Corridor contributed to laying the economic foundation for a strong Tang Dynasty.