Back in the 1960s, Chinese archaeologists from several universities made trial excavations of some huge towering tombs on the grassland of Zhaosu County in Yining, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The tombs differ in size, a phenomenon which may indicate the degrees of wealth of the owner, or his or her social status.
Among the findings are decayed wooden coffins, bows and arrows, silk and woollen clothes, and bones of dogs and horses.
They also found lacquered wooden cups, pottery and iron ploughshares which are characteristic of central China craftsmanship.
These clearly show the exchanges between western and eastern Chinese people.
They were remains of the ancient Wusun State, which used to play a crucial role in bringing northwestern areas into Chinese territory.
Even today, people can still find the traces of the once-influential Wusun State in the form of scattered rock carvings and thousands of earthen tomb mounds in the Ili River Valley and Ili River Basin in western Xinjiang.
The "Wusun Route"
Many branch routes once existed during the heyday of the Silk Road - among them the so-called "Wusun Silk Route."
A major Eurasian trade route, with a history dating back to the second century BC, the Silk Road began in Chang'an (today's Xi'an, the capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province), and ran westward for about 7,000 kilometres, through the western regions and provinces of China into several central Asian countries before stretching down to Rome in the Mediterranean.
The Wusun trade route connects the Junggar Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south and links the areas on the northern and southern sides of the Tianshan Mountains and the Ili River Valley and Basin and the Kuche Oasis.
In 115 BC, Zhang Qian (?-114 BC), a Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) emissary, went through the Qiuci area (in today's Kuqa, Xinhe, Xayar and Bay) on the southern side of the Tianshan Mountains and reached Zhaosu and Tekes counties in Yining.
One proof of the existence of the route is the famous cliff inscription entitled "Ode to Border Guard Liuping Guo" which was erected in 158 AD and still exists today in the ruins of an ancient checkpoint, called guanting, or watchtower, in Bozhekelage Ravine in Baicheng County.
The Wusun route continued to function until the Tang Dynasty (AD618-907) as a shortened path westward for merchants on the Silk Road.
The route helped enhance material and cultural exchanges between central and northwest China from the Han Dynasty on.
Items sold include vegetables and fruit including grapes, pomegranates, broad beans, sesame, cucumbers, garlic, walnuts and carrots, quality breeds of horses and woollen carpets and blankets, rare musical instruments such as konghou, pipa, hudi.
Exotic music and dances were introduced from the Western Regions to central China while silk products, metal tools, iron casting, well digging and irrigation engineering techniques and political systems were introduced to the Western Regions.
Today, the ancient trade route, stretching from today's Yining to Kuqa, offers tourists an unrivalled vista of the Gobi desert, grassland, forest, snow-capped mountains and glaciers during a two-day tour.
Origins of Kazak
Wusun is now believed to be one of the major origins of the Kazak ethnicity in China today.
It was a small nomadic tribe famous for its horse breeding skills in the period around the early third century BC, roving in the western Hexi Corridor in what is today's northwestern Gansu Province but later driven westward to the area around Yining in Xinjiang.
It gradually evolved into a powerful state, from about 50 states of different sizes in the Western Regions, and was thriving in the Ili River Valley in Xinjiang around the second century BC, when the western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD) in central China was developing its power.
At that time, the state boasted a nomadic population of at least 630,000 and a cavalry troop of about 188,000 soldiers.
The Wusun state played a crucial role in bringing the northwestern areas into Chinese territory for the first time in 60 BC when the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) defeated the Huns and established the Xiyu Duhu, or general governor of the Western Regions.
The term "Western Regions," or xiyu, refers to the areas west of Yumenguan Pass, including Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia.
A closer look at the ups and downs of the ancient Wusun state reveals the time-honoured relations among northwest and eastern Chinese people in the process of building the Chinese nation.
Recorded events and names of people abound in Chinese historical classics such as "Records of Historian" by Sima Qian (?135-87 BC) and "Han Dynasty Chronicle" by Ban Gu (32-92 AD).
During the early period of the Wusun, historical figures who exerted strong influence up the ancient tribe-turned state include Wusun emperors Liejiaomi and Wongguimi. They also include Han Dynasty princesses Jiangdu and Jieyou, first woman emissary Feng Liao of ancient China and Han emissaries Duan Huizong (83-9 BC) and Zhang Qian (?-114 BC).
Duan was twice designated as the general governor of the Western Regions and paid four missions to Wusun to help mend the rift in Wusun-Han relations.
Aiming to find allies for the Han Dynasty against the Huns, Zhang launched two missions to the Western Regions from 138-115 BC. He was imprisoned by the Huns for 19 years.
The three Han women deserve mention as they were heavily involved in the social and political life of Wusun after arriving there under the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi's policy of pacification through marriage with leaders of other ethnic groups.
In 107 BC, Princess Jiangdu, whose name is Liu Xijun, was married to Liejiaomi, king of the Wusun state.
In the years that followed, the princess, overcoming the difficulties caused by differences in language, local customs and way of life, stayed in Wusun. After the king's death, she married Cenzou Junxumi, the new king and Liejiaomi's grandson and gave birth to a daughter, according to local royal customs.
The marriage helped strengthen the relations between Wusun and Han court.
But the princess did not enjoy her life in Wusun.
A folk song entitled "My Swan Song (huanghuge)," widely known to Chinese readers today, is believed to have written by the melancholy princess.
It reads like:
In a place far, far away from my home,
I was married to the King of Wusun.
The sky is my house,
Felt tent my bedroom.
So much I miss my early years in Chang'an,
I wish I could fly back like a swan.
After Princess Jiangdu died, Emperor Wudi ordered Princess Jieyou to be married to the same Wusun king in the period around 102 BC, according to historical records.
Jieyou spent nearly 50 years in Wusun. After Junxumi died, she married Wongguimi and gave birth to three sons and two daughters.
Knowing more about Wusun than Jiangdu, she played an important role in the politics of the Wusun state.
In the 70s of the first century BC, Jieyou and King Wongguimi organized a battle against invading Huns.
With the help of a contingent troop of about 150,000 soldiers sent by Emperor Xuandi of the Han Dynasty, the Wusun army scored a decisive success with its cavalry army of about 50,000 soldiers. It captured 40,000 Hun soldiers and generals and some royal family members, and at least 700,000 bulls, sheep and camels.
About 10 years later, the General Governor of the Western Regions was formally instituted in Wusun, ruling over the vast areas of Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia.
But Princess Jieyou, King of Wusun, and their descendants, still controlled Wusun and many neighbouring states such as Shache and Qiuci.
Influenced by the marriage between Wusun and the Han Dynasty, other ethnic states such as Qiuci also sought marriage with Han princesses.
Around 65 BC, Jiangbin, King of Qiuci state, married the Han Princess, Dishi. She was Jieyou's daughter and raised in Chang'an, capital of western Han Dynasty.
The Qiuci king paid several visits to the Han capital of Chang'an and was impressed by the culture and political system of the Han Dynasty.
He then carried out comprehensive social and political reforms in his state.
Accompanying Princess Jieyou for 50 years in Wusun, Feng Liao worked as a Han emissary to the states. She collected information for Han Dynasty rulers in the Western Regions and often acted as a moderator solving disputes between these states.
An outstanding woman diplomat, Feng successfully defused an internal crisis in the Wusun state at the time when king Wongguimi died and the two of his sons, Yuanguimi and Wujiutu, competed for the throne.
She enjoyed high prestige among states in the Western Regions and was addressed as "Madame Feng" by the kings, according to the Han Dynasty Chronicle.
(The article first appeared on the 3rd issue of the Silk Road Tour magazine in 2001)
(China Daily April 28, 2003)