It had been more than 200 years since the Ming Dynasty replaced the Yuan Dynasty.
The president of the Society of Jesus received a letter from China.
It was written by an Italian missionary, Matteo Ricci, who wrote that based on his observations, China was very likely the mysterious kingdom of Cathay described in The Travels of Marco Polo.
Marco Polo was likely one of the first batches of Europeans to visit China. For a long time, Europeans thought that China and Cathay were two different countries. Matteo’s letter roused the curiosity of the Roman Curia and the king of Portugal.
They decided to send Bento de Góis, a Portuguese Jesuit Brother, to find out the truth.
Bento had been to Portuguese India as a soldier in his youth. He was fluent in Indian and Persian languages, familiar with the history, geography and cultures of Central Asia.
Bento disguised himself as an Armenian merchant and took on the name of Abdullah Isái.
He had another mission: find an overland route to help other missionaries to travel to China.
In the early 13th century, the three military expeditions by the Mongols had led to the improvements of land transport between China and Europe.
But after the Ming Dynasty was founded, the Ming government gradually drew back in western China and tightened border control. Many countries in Central Asia were engaged in war with each other.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire also blocked the passage from Europe to Asia.
This led to the new age of seafaring, while travelling by land became more difficult.
In the early 15th century, Zheng He was sent by the Ming Empire on seven expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond.
90 years later, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, opened up an ocean route from Europe to the Indian Ocean.
Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, arrived in China via the sea route.
Bento de Góis set out from India. He joined a merchant caravan with 500 members.
Many of his servants escaped. Only one Armenian servant called Isaac remained.
The caravan passed through modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Pamir Mountains.
The treacherous journey was filled with capricious weathers and ferocious bandits.
The caravan finally entered the Hexi Corridor.
Bento arrived at a city called Cialis in the Tarim Basin.
He met some Muslim merchants who told him that they’d been to the capital of Cathay—Beijing.
They also met some Jesuit priests there. One of them might be the Matteo Ricci.
Bento was excited.
Bento crossed the Taklamakan Desert and arrived at the Jiayu Pass.
The Ming Empire had moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing.
The Ming Empire faced the threat of Mongolian tribes from the north.
During the reign of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, a general named Feng Sheng was sent to conquer the Hexi Corridor.
In 1372, he set up a military fortress at the Shiguan Gorge, the same place where the Han Empire set up the Yumen Pass.
In 1539, the wall at Jiayu Pass was joined with the Great Wall, forming a 15 km defensive wall with beacon towers and forts.
In the last years of the Ming Dynasty, the empire’s military strategy for the northwest was to rely on the walls to defend against the attacks by the Mongols. The walls stretched for 6,000 km, ending at the Jiayu Pass.
Seven garrisons were built outside the Jiayu Pass, which became the only legal entry point for envoys from Central Asia to enter China.
Bento de Góis saw the rigorous checks foreigners had to go through before being allowed into Jiayu.
He passed through Jiayu and travelled to the garrison at Suzhou (modern-day Jiuquan).
3 years after setting out from India, Bento finally confirmed that Cathay and China were one and the same.
However, Bento was stuck in the Hexi Corridor.
During that period, the only legal way for a country in the west to trade with China was to dispatch envoys who would sell their goods in the form of “tributes”, which would then be paid for by the Ming government.
Bento had to obtain one of the few quotas for foreign envoys before he was allowed to travel to Beijing.
Based on old agreements, about 7 or 8 countries in the Western Regions were allowed to send 72 merchants into China every six years. Merchants who wanted a spot in the envoy team often had to give “presents” to the leader of the team.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, set down two major rules for foreign policies. One was the “tribute system”, and the other was banning maritime activities.
By the time Bento arrived in China, the tribute system had lasted for over two hundred years.
Stuck in Jiuquan, Bento thought of asking for help from his Jesuit brothers in Beijing.
He’d heard that Matteo Ricci knew some high-level government officials. Maybe he could help.
Bento wrote a letter to Matteo.
Meanwhile, he recorded his observations of life in the Hexi Corridor in his journal.
Unfortunately, the messenger Bento sent got lost on the way.
A year later, Bento wrote another letter and entrusted it to a merchant heading into Beijing.
In November, Matteo finally received Bento’s letter.
He sent a Jesuit lay brother, Zhong Mingli, to fetch Bento.
In March, Zhong Mingli arrived at Jiuquan.
By then, Bento had been selected as one of the merchant envoys to Beijing, but not before spending all his money.
He was also very sick.
11 days after Zhong Mingli arrived, Bento passed away.
Zhong Mingli buried Bento.
Matteo compiled Bento’s papers and included them in his book, Matteo Ricci’s Notes on China.
Bento was the first European to arrive in China by land after the Yuan Dynasty.
A high-ranking official of the Qing Empire was sent into exile.
He arrived at the Jiayu Pass.
His name was Lin Zexu, the official sent to Guangdong to destroy the opium trade.
The Qing Empire continued the Ming policy of isolationism.
Local residents were forbidden from travelling abroad.
Foreign merchant ships were severely restricted.
There were no more merchant caravans traversing the Hexi Corridor.
Lin Zexu was more than 50 years old when he went into exile in Xinjiang.
He realised that the next target of invasion by the Russians would likely be the northwest of China.
The strategic importance of the Hexi Corridor could not be overstated.
Five years later, Lin Zexu ended his exile.
He stopped over at Changsha, Hunan Province, and met a 37-year-old man called Zuo Zongtang.
Lin Zexu shared his thoughts on the northwest region, the notes he’d compiled, and the maps he’d collected, with Zuo Zongtang.
He hoped Zuo Zongtang would be able to protect Xinjiang.
Less than a year later, Lin Zexu passed away.
Zuo Zongtang became an important member of the Self-Strengthening Movement.
Yaqub Beg, a born in the Khanate of Kokand in Central Asia, invaded Kashgar with Russia’s support, while the Qing Empire was preoccupied with quashing the Taiping Rebellion.
In just a few years, almost the entire Xinjiang was captured.
Meanwhile, Russia sent troops and occupied Ili.
The connection between the Hexi Corridor and Xinjiang was cut off.
The Qing Empire also faced attacks from the southeast coast.
Japan sent troops to invade Taiwan.
Court officials were summoned to discuss military strategies.
An intense debate took place over the allocation of defence budget.
Li Hongzhang pointed out that the armies to defend Xinjiang cost a lot of money, they might as well just give it up and focus on the coastal areas.
Zuo Zongtang argued that peace in the west was peace in half of China, and that giving up the west meant giving up China. Only by defending Xinjiang would they be able to keep the rest of the western China, including the Hexi Corridor, safe.
Zuo Zongtang advocated sending troops to reclaim Xinjiang.
He garnered the support of military officers and Empress Dowager Cixi.
He stationed troops at Lanzhou in the Hexi Corridor, set up a factory to manufacture guns and cannons, repaired the roads linking Xinjiang and the Hexi Corridor, and planted trees.
Some of these trees still exist today.
The 68-year-old Zuo Zongtang led his troops to Hami.
He ordered his coffin to be brought along as a sign of his determination.
In the previous 3 years, he’d reclaimed all the lost territory in Xinjiang, with the exception of Ili.
The Russians returned Ili to China, and signed the Treaty of Ili.
The Jiayu Pass was officially opened for trade.
These photos were taken by Morrison, a British correspondent stationed in Beijing, and the last foreigner to enter the Hexi Corridor before the end of the Qing Dynasty.
The Jiayu Pass