Among all kinds of travelers, diplomatic envoys, entrusted with the mission of establishing or furthering ties with distant lands, often played a more constructive role in the history and development of the Silk Road.
Zhang Qian is indisputably the must-mention personality in Silk Road history. Remembered for his two historic journeys to the Western Regions, he is credited to have officially initiated the development of the Oasis Silk Road. In 138 BC, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty delegated a commission headed by Zhang Qian to get into contact with the states in the Western Regions. This was Zhang Qian’s first mission, the objective of which was to seek alliance with the Yuezhi (today’s Tajikistan) against the hostile Huns. Zhang Qian endured numerous hardships, including being captured and enslaved twice by the Huns on the way, and finally made his way to the states of Dayuan (today’s Fergana Basin, Uzbekistan) and Yuezhi (Transoxiana). However, Yuezhi was too content with their now-settled life to join the Han against the Huns, and Zhang Qian left one year later. It was not until 125 BC that he finally returned to Chang’an, where he reported to Emperor Wudi details about the Western Regions. The Emperor listened to his account of such states as Dayuan, Daxia (Afghanistan), Anxi (Arsacid territories, Iran), Wusun (south of the Balkhash), etc. which, militarily weak while rich in unusual products, were under consistent threat by the Huns, and became more determined to develop ties with them.
Zhang Qian’s second mission to the Western Regions began in 119 BC. He led a bigger delegation of 300 and headed west and reached Wusun (today’s Ili River valley areas) where he was warmly received the king and sent deputy envoys to the neighboring states of Dayuan, Kangju (northwest of the Sogdiana), Yuezhi, Daxia, etc. These states soon sent diplomatic envoys to repay their state visits to the Han Empire.
Zhang Qian’s missions, coupled with the Han Empire’s military victories which greatly diminished the Huns’ threat, expanded the Han Empire’s influence to as far as the Pamir Mountains, and initiated the development of ties between today’s Xinjiang regions to inland China. The Oasis Silk Road, a long-standing, influential international trade route for ancient China, mainly followed the routes Zhang Qian had trodden.
It is worth noting that Zhang Qian is also associated with the Southern Silk Road. During his first mission to the Western Regions, he learned from Afghan merchants about the existence of another civilization in the south which is India. And Emperor Wudi commissioned him again to explore the southwest regions in the hope of getting into contact with India. Though he failed to make it to India finally, the exploration acquainted the ethnic tribes in the area to inland China, and the Han Empire started to strengthen its contact with the ethnic peoples in Yunnan regions.
Another Han Dynasty envoy, Gan Ying, was remembered for his probe into the regions in the further west. In 97 CE, Ban Chao, then Protector General of the Western Regions Command Office, dispatched Gan Ying, his senior assistant, to visit Roman Empire. Gan and his entourage departed from the kingdom of Qiuci (present-day Kuche, Xinjiang), passing through Tiaozhi (Characene and Susiana, present-day Iraq) and crossing Anxi (Parthia, present-day Iran) to its western border, the shores of the Persian Gulf. He did not make it to the Roman Empire, because the locals considered it a threat to their control of silk trade with the West if the Han Empire was allowed direct access to Rome, and exaggerated the difficulty of crossing the sea. Gan’s expedition greatly enriched Chinese knowledge of the countries of Central Asia.
It is worth mentioning that seventy decades after Gan Ying’s trip, the Romans got into contact with the Han Empire. In 166 CE, the diplomatic mission sent by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) finally made it to the Chinese capital Luoyang and was received by Han Emperor Huandi. This successful mission marked the acquaintance between the then two greatest superpowers of the world.
Perhaps, in the Chinese eye, Zheng He’s great voyages to the Indian Ocean represent the most impressive diplomatic trip of ancient China. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming Dynasty government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions, and Zheng He was named the admiral of an unprecedented, huge fleet with a crew of almost 28,000, which sailed into the South China Sea, and explored into the Indian Ocean across the Malacca. Zheng He's fleets visited Arabia, Brunei, East Africa, India, Malay Archipelago and Thailand, dispensing and receiving goods along the way. Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk; in return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and giraffes. Zheng’s missions established a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean areas, and greatly impressed the various peoples in the Indian Ocean basin, while developing ties and exchanges with them
Beside the Chinese envoys to foreign states, the Chinese dynasties received visiting diplomatic envoys from foreign countries, too. The imperial tributary system ruled that the tributary states pay tribute to the suzerain state on a regular basis. Ancient Chinese capitals like Chang’an, Luoyang, and Beijing housed a number of “state guesthouses” for the visiting delegations. And in the imperial bureaucratic system, there were competent authorities like Honglusi (鸿胪寺)to administer such diplomatic affairs.
Among the visiting foreign envoys via the Maritime Silk Road was George Macartney, who became the first British envoy to China. He led the Macartney Embassy to Beijing in 1792, with a large British delegation. The embassy was not successful. The Chinese seemed too confident about their own culture to grant such British requests as opening more overseas trade ports. The Macartney Embassy is often viewed as a missed opportunity for the Chinese to catch up with the West which were well on the way to Industrialization.