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Far East Kingdoms

Central Asia


Greater Yuezhi / Yeuh Chi (Indo-Iranians)
Incorporating the Asiani, Asini, Asioi, & Tokharoi

It took the ancient Chinese to bring the Tocharians into recorded history, albeit in the guise of the (Lesser) Yuezhi. For at least a millennium - from no later than the twelfth century BC - it seems that these Yuezhi occupied areas of Asia's Tarim Basin, generally as nomadic pastoralists, herding their cattle between various grazing spots according to the season. They also traded with the early Chinese kingdoms of East Asia, with the Shang collecting large amounts of jade from them.

During the Han period, the building of the Great Wall saw a gate placed at the eastern entrance to the Tarim Basin called Yumen Pass, or the Jade Gate, probably in recognition of the source of much of the kingdom's jade. This was also the point at which the nascent Silk Road left China to head west.

The Book of Han mentions the Yuezhi prior to their major migration of the second century BC. Populations continued to occupy the Tarim Basin (avoiding the great eastern-central Takla Makan Desert), and these remained commonly known to the Chinese as the Lesser Yuezhi (for which read 'Tocharians').

By the late 200s BC, however, they had also (apparently) spread into the sweeping grasslands closer to the border of the Chinese kingdom, somewhat to the south of the Eastern Steppe, and possibly encompassing at least part of the western section of the Yellow River. These were the Greater Yuezhi, although any relationship to the Tarim Basin Tocharians is now highly doubtful (see below).

The book states: 'The Great Yuezhi was a nomadic horde [which the Lesser Yuezhi clearly had never been]. They moved about following their cattle, and had the same customs as those of the Xiongnu. As their soldiers numbered more than a hundred thousand, they were strong and despised the Xiongnu. In the past, they lived in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian'.

Dunhuang is in the northernmost area of the modern Gansu province to the east of the Tarim Basin, while the Qilian Mountain range borders central Gansu on its western edge. Archaeology is yet to support the claim of Greater Yuezhi occupation around Dunhuag, although steppe nomads are notoriously hard to pin down archaeologically.

However, the hostile Xiongnu confederation already occupied at least part of these lands even though, during this period, the Greater Yuezhi were the most powerful nomadic group on the north-western Chinese plains. The Xiongnu ruler, Touman, even sent his eldest son, Modu (Maotun), as a hostage to them which is always a clear sign of dominance by the recipients.

The neighbouring Wusun had migrated with the Greater Yuezhi from the Dunhuang/Qilian region and now occupied lands to the north-west of them. They came under frequent Greater Yuezhi attack for their pasture lands and also for slaves. However, these attacks would sow the seeds of the Greater Yuezhi's own fall and exile from these rich lands.

FeatureIt is during their subsequent period of domination in Bactria from the middle of the first century BC that the Greater Yuezhi are noted as living alongside a people known as the Asioi (Strabo - possibly serving as the origins of the Wusun, but possibly also connected with the Alani), Asini (Pliny the Elder), or Asiani (Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, also possibly an Alani group). The '-oi' in Asioi is the Greek suffix, so it should be pronounced 'As', an ancient name which also links to Germanic origins (see feature link, right).

Confusingly, the Greater Yuezhi are labelled Tokharoi by ancient writers. Many of these writers were based in Europe, so their sources could be questionable, despite their reputations for accuracy. The original use of 'Tokharian' was to describe a Bactrian people, even though now it is used to describe the Lesser Yuezhi Tocharians of the Tarim Basin (see the Tocharian introduction for a more detailed examination of the reasons for this).

The Asioi were said to dominate the Tokharoi, and some modern scholars have equated the Asioi with the Sakas. As the Greater Yuezhi of this period were clearly dominating the Sakas, this claim can be dismissed. The most viable option seems to be that the Asioi provided a ruling division of the Greater Yuezhi.

The problem with the Greater Yuezhi is that there seems to be little reason to tie them in with the Lesser Yuezhi (Tocharians). The former were (later) noted as being satem speakers rather than centum speakers like the Tocharians of the Tarim Basin (East Indo-Europeans and West Indo-Europeans respectively).

This is peculiar if they are one and the same people. If there was a switch from one language to the other then it could have been due to the great numbers of other satem-speakers in Bactria, all of which were Indo-Iranian groups, thereby influencing the newer arrivals.

FeatureHowever, linguistics experts can see that there is no basis for such a conclusion. The Greater Yuezhi were speakers of Indo-Iranian Bactrian. They were not former Tocharians who had adopted the language. Tell-tale traces would have been left otherwise. The Lesser Yuezhi (Tocharians) have left written records that prove their centum-speaking credentials (along with hybridised East/West Indo-European DNA results - see the feature link, right).

Another argument in favour of there being no ties between the two groups is the fact that, when defeated by the Xiongnu, the Greater Yuezhi headed back towards Central Asia, along a path they knew. They didn't attempt to join (rejoin) the Lesser Yuezhi in the Tarim Basin because they did not originate there and had no particular idea about or links to the Lesser Yuezhi.

The Greater Yuezhi were satem-speakers all along, migrating into the Gansu pasturelands from the Kazakh steppe rather than outwards from the Tarim Basin. Chinese records were wrong in referring to them as Yuezhi at all.

In later years, after the Greater Yuezhi had left the region, a group of Lesser Yuezhi drifted south from their open pasturelands to join the Qiang nomads. Chinese sources also claim the Jie people of the fourth century AD as originating amongst the (non-specific) Yuezhi, but Chinese sources also claim that they were Xiongnu, or Indo-Iranians (like the Greater Yuezhi), or Lesser Yuezhi (Tocharians) of the Tarim Basin.

The Jie were largely destroyed by the Wei during a war of AD 350, but again elements appear to have survived the destruction. In addition the small city state of Cumuḍa (alternatively shown as Cimuda or Cunuda, later Kumul, and modern Hami) in Xinjiang is attributed to the Lesser Yuezhi in the first millennium AD.

As for the meaning behind the name, various detailed, overly-complicated breakdowns have been provided online in order to try and provide an explanation for 'Yuezhi or 'Yueh Chi' (or even Yiieh Chih in some twentieth century transcriptions of the name).

The literal translation from Chinese is 'Moon People', which is often dismissed as being meaningless. This may not be the case, though. No one pooh-poohs the Native American use of 'palefaces' to describe white-skinned Europeans in North America. It is a reasonably direct description of a white-faced people by a people who have a naturally darker complexion.

The Chinese applied the Yuezhi label both to Tocharians and Indo-Iranians (Lesser Yuezhi and Greater Yuezhi respectively), so it is reasonable to assume that they found the description to be apt. Bearing in mind the fact that the simplest explanation is often the correct one, it seems that the Chinese were talking about people with faces which were the colour of the moon. The Yuezhi literally were 'Moon People', otherwise known as 'palefaces'.

Tocharian sculpture

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus: Books 11-12, Volume 1, Marcus Junianus Justinus, John Yardley, & Waldemar Heckel, from Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan. Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies, Xinru Liu (Journal of World History 12, 2001), from The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, J P Mallory & Victor H Mair (2000), from The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, René Grousset (1970), and from External Links: Peering at the Tocharians through Language, and The United Sites of Indo-Europeans, and Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, and Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary (J Pokorny), and the Ancient History Encyclopaedia (dead link), and Tocharian Online: Series Introduction, Todd B Krause & Jonathan Slocum (University of Texas at Austin), and Silk Road Seattle, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.)

late 200s BC

Towards the end of China's 'Warring States' period, by the third century BC, the Xiongnu become a real threat to the north-western Chinese border. By this time the Yuezhi (Tocharians), formerly reliable jade traders to the Chinese, are better known as reliable horse traders. Jade is still included in trade, however.

Map of Bactria and India 200 BC
The kingdom of Bactria (shown in white) was at the height of its power around 200-180 BC, with fresh conquests being made in the south-east, encroaching into India just as the Mauryan empire was on the verge of collapse, while around the northern and eastern borders dwelt various tribes which would eventually contribute to the downfall of the Greeks - the Sakas and Greater Yuezhi (click or tap on map to view full sized)

220s BC

Seemingly within the last century, during China's 'Warring States' period, the Greater Yuezhi have appeared on the sweeping grasslands closer to the border of the Qin kingdom, somewhat to the south of the Eastern Steppe, and possibly encompassing at least part of the western section of the Yellow River.

The 'other' Yeuzhi, those who remain in the Tarim Basin and who have acted as jade traders for at least a millennium, are termed Lesser Yuezhi. It is they who are the descendants of the original Tocharians of the Afanasevo culture.

The hostile Xiongnu have already occupied at least part of these lands even though, during this period, the Greater Yuezhi are the most powerful nomadic group on the north-western Chinese plains. The Xiongnu ruler, Touman, has even sent his eldest son, Modu (Maotun), to them as a hostage.

The neighbouring Wusun have migrated with the Greater Yuezhi from the Dunhuang/Qilian region and now occupy lands to the north-west of them. The Wusun are clearly occupying secondary status to the Greater Yuezhi, being subject to raids for pasture and slaves.

Map of Early Han (Western) China c.200 BC
The Han conquest of Qin China had to wait until the great Qin emperor himself was dead and it still took a year of fighting to destroy the Qin armies. Then the victors spent four more years and a civil war deciding that the Han would command the succeeding dynasty and reunite the fractured state (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Wusun ruler, Nanteou-mi (Nandoumi), is killed during one such Greater Yuezhi raid and his territory is seized. Nanteou-mi's son, Kwen-mo (Kunmo), flees to the Xiongnu to be raised by the Xiongnu ruler.

The Xiongnu themselves, perhaps initially taken off guard by the Greater Yuezhi arrival in the region, gradually build up their strength until they are in a position to strike back against their dominant opponents.

210s BC

Chinese records detail four waves of violence between the Greater Yuezhi and the Xiongnu around this period in time. Generally referred to as wars, they are typical struggles for dominance by competing tribal groups.

Now in a position to right some of their perceived wrongs, the Xiongnu launch an unexpected attack on the Greater Yuezhi under the leadership of Touman. While his date of death is 209 BC, it is not clear how long before that event that this attack takes place.

The outcome of the attack is not recorded but it seems to result in little more than some dented pride. The Greater Yuezhi decide to kill their Xiongnu royal hostage, Modu, son Touman, but he escapes on a stolen horse. Perhaps with a score of his own to settle, he soon kills his father and assumes leadership of the Xiongnu.

The Qin Dynasty terracotta army
Emperor Qin Shihuang of China created the 'Terracotta Army' to accompany him on his trip onto the afterlife, but the possibility exists that Indo-Greek craftsmen were responsible for at least some of the work, having used the Silk Road in its early form to reach the Chinese state

203 BC

It takes Modu another seven years before he feels that his warriors are strong enough and numerous enough to launch a fresh attack on the Greater Yuezhi. Having lived with them for an indeterminate period (possibly a year or two, at least) he has a much better idea of what will be needed to defeat them.

This attack is a success. A large swathe of Greater Yuezhi territory is seized by the Xiongnu, meaning that the Greater Yuezhi lose the fight and are chased off their pasturelands - possibly without large numbers of their cattle. Suddenly the tables are being turned and the Xiongnu are beginning to assume tribal dominance in the region.

c.176 BC

The situation has stabilised for approximately a quarter of a century, which suggests that the Greater Yuezhi defeat had not been quite as bad as had been perceived and that the Xiongnu have not felt the need - or do not possess the capability - to follow up on their previous victory.

Now, though, for reasons unknown, the Xiongnu launch a fresh attack, either in or shortly before 176 BC. This time the Greater Yuezhi are dealt a crushing defeat when one of Modu's tribal chiefs invades their domains in the Gansu region - the Greater Yuezhi heartland.

Xiongnu on the move
According to recent studies, Xiongnu herders in what is now Mongolia, as portrayed in this oil on canvas, followed their own rules in building a multi-ethnic empire and the task of advancing iron-making technology, starting around 200 BC

In a letter which is received by the Han emperor in 174 BC, Modu boasts that, thanks to 'the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing into submission every number of the tribe'. The boast is untrue of course, but the scale of the Greater Yuezhi defeat seems to be large.

? - c.166 BC


Unnamed 'king of the Yuezhi'. Defeated and killed.

c.166 BC

Laoshang Chanyu is Modu's son and successor amongst the Xiongnu. In a fresh attack he kills the so-called king of the Greater Yuezhi (if they indeed have only one supreme leader) and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, has 'made a drinking cup out of his skull'.

This defeat may only be the latest in a series of more minor encounters over the last decade in which Greater Yuezhi territory is gradually whittled away by the Xiongnu. It is the deciding defeat, though. The Greater Yuezhi begin to desert the north-western plains and the Gansu region.

Rather than backtrack towards the Tarim Basin though, which would be a natural target if the Greater Yuezhi had originated here, they head to the north of it, seemingly towards the pasture lands of the Dzungarian Basin (in the north of modern Xinjiang), and the passes between the Altai Mountains to the north and the Tian Shan mountain range which provides the northern border to the Tarim Basin.

Map of the Yuezhi lands and exodus route
The Greater Yuezhi were defeated and forced out of the Gansu region by the Xiongnu, and their migratory route into Central Asia is pretty easy to deduct from the fact that they chose to try and settle in the Ili river valley below Lake Balkhash (click or tap on map to view full sized)

If the Greater Yuezhi actually are Tocharians then it would seem to be a strange decision to head into the unknown like this - unless the Xiongnu have completely seized the Gansu region, cutting off the Greater Yuezhi from access to their Lesser Yuezhi 'cousins' in the Tarim Basin.

If that is the case then the Greater Yuezhi have no other choice left to them. The other option is the one mentioned in the introduction - that the Greater Yuezhi are not related to the Tarim Basin Tocharians and are merely returning back towards Central Asia along the route which had brought them to Gansu in the first place.

c.166 - ? BC


Unnamed son of the 'king of the Yuezhi'. Led them into Bactria.

c.165 - 160 BC

The Greater Yuezhi evacuation of their lands on the borders of the Chinese kingdom continues, turning from a trickle into a flood. Their westwards migration triggers a slow domino effect of barbarian movement in Central Asia as they probably follow the route through the Dzungarian Basin and the Dzungarian Gate to penetrate the Kazakh Steppe beyond.

This will see them enter the Saka-controlled plains to the north-east of Ferghana. Along the way the Greater Yuezhi bump up against their former neighbours, the Wusun, and a successful attack is launched against them.

Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains on Ferghana's eastern border (now in the east of modern Tajikistan) became the final home of the Wusun as they turned to a permanent settled status and farming to replace pastoral nomadism

The westwards migration continues however, possibly with the Wusun still tagging along. By about 160 BC the Yuezhi have encountered outlying Saka groups on the eastern Kazakh steppe, primarily in the Ili river valley immediately to the south of Lake Balkhash, which they now occupy.

Seemingly, these Saka groups are easily dominated by the Greater Yuezhi, probably due to the sheer weight of numbers on the latter's side, while the Saka are at the eastern edge of their vast swathe of tribal territories which stretch all the way back to the shoreline of the Caspian Sea.

c.150 - 130 BC

Another defeat is inflicted upon the Greater Yuezhi, this time by an alliance of the Wusun and the Xiongnu. The Wusun chief would appear to be the driving force in this alliance. This probably serves to hurry them along in their westwards migration, pushing them off the Saka plains which they have only just seized.

Instead they are forced to enter Transoxiana from the direction of Da Yuan (the Chinese term for Ferghana). They penetrate Sogdiana from its northern reaches, initially dominating the Sakas who are already there.

Ancient Bactra/Balkh city walls
The landscape around the walls of the ancient city of Bactra, capital of Bactria (shown here - now known as Balkh in northern Afghanistan, close to the border along the Amu Darya), was and still is very diverse, offering both challenges and rewards to any settlers there, including the newly arrived Greater Yuezhi

Soon afterwards they follow the Sakas in invading the former Greek empire region of Bactria (Ta-hia or Ta-Hsia in Chinese records), by around 140 BC. This is where Chinese and western Classical records converge, and allow the Greater Yuezhi to be identified with the migrant arrivals in Bactria who are mistakenly referred to as Tocharians.

At about the time of the death of the Indo-Greek King Menander around 130 BC they manage to terminate Greek rule in Bactria. Hellenic cities there appear to survive for some time, as does the well-organised agricultural system. The general area of Bactria soon comes to be called Tokharistan.

126 BC

The Chinese envoy, Chang-kien or Zhang Qian, visits the newly-established Greater Yuezhi capital of Kian-she in Ta-Hsia (otherwise shown as Daxia to the Chinese, and Bactria-Tokharistan to western writers) and the rich and fertile country of the Bukhara region of Sogdiana.

His mission is to obtain help for the Chinese emperor against the Xiongnu, but the Greater Yuezhi leader - the son of the dead leader of about 166 BC - understandably refuses the request.

The Iron Gates of the Baba-tag Mountains in Sogdiana
The Iron Gates (shown here), are part of a narrow but popular linking route between Sogdiana and Bactria in the Baba-tag Mountains (close to modern Derbent) (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Kian-she can reasonably be equated with Lan-shih or Lanshi, but the question of whether this is the Bactrian capital of Bactra (modern Balkh) seems to be much more controversial. It does seem to be likely though, despite scholarly objections.

However, although some modern scholars label the Bactra of this period as the Greater Yuezhi 'capital', Zhang Qian's own contemporary account makes it quite clear that the country is not ruled by a single king who is based in Bactra. Nor does the city contain a central administration.

He carefully notes that: 'It [Bactria] has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities'. The Chinese word used to describe the status of Lanshi can refer either to the capital (of a country) or, preferably here, a large town, city, or metropolis. The sense in which it is used clearly edges towards the latter option.

Instead the Greater Yuezhi territory has been divided into five principalities, one for each of the main five tribes (although there is the possibility that one or more may instead be formed of Sakas who had been there before the Yuezhi and have now been absorbed into their ranks).

Zhang Qian, ambassador and explorer
Zhang Qian was a Chinese ambassador and explorer who, between 138-126 BC, met and documented many of the steppe tribes, and visited the Greater Yuezhi capital at Kian-she

These tribes are the Xiūmž (Hieu-mi), Guishuang (Kuei-shung or Kushan), Shuangmi (Shuang-mi), Xidun (Hi-tun), and Dūmž (Tumi). Although they are independently governed by their own allied prince or xihou, they act together as a confederation.

Opinion is divided on whether these divisions exist prior to the Greater Yuezhi settlement in Bactria, with the likelihood being that they are created specifically to administer the new Greater Yuezhi home. It is also during this period that the Greater Yuezhi become literate, quickly progressing to become able administrators, traders, and scholars.

c.126 - 124 BC

Having already caused the death of Artabanus' predecessor, Phraates II, the Sakas (partially displaced by the Greater Yuezhi) continue to press Parthian borders for territory. King Artabanus II is killed in one such encounter.

The modern writer, René Grousset, instead attributes this act to the Greater Yuezhi who are now settled in Bactria-Tokharistan.

The answer could lie in the fact that Saka groups have been dominated by the Greater Yuezhi since the latter's arrival thirty or forty years beforehand, so the Greater Yuezhi could be the driving force behind the fighting against the Parthians while a Saka could still be responsible for the wound which kills Artabanus II.

Saka coin of AD 15
Just as they caused the preceding Achaemenid Persians severe problems in the east, so the Sakas also provided the Parthians with some extensive trouble - albeit poorly documented trouble - and this coin was issued by them about AD 15

115 - 100 BC

With Parthian territory having been harried for years by the Sakas, King Mithridates II is finally able to take control of the situation. First he defeats the Greater Yuezhi in Sogdiana in 115 BC, and then he defeats the Sakas in Parthia and around Seistan (in Drangiana) around 100 BC.

After their defeat, the Greater Yuezhi tribes concentrate on consolidation in Bactria-Tokharistan while the Sakas are diverted into Indo-Greek Gandhara. The western territories of Aria, Drangiana, and Margiana would appear to remain Parthian dependencies.

c.90 - 80 BC

The Greater Yuezhi continue to drive the Sakas southwards from Central Asia, forcing them further into Indo-Greek territory. One Maues of the Sakas takes control around Gandhara, creating a capital at Taxila in Punjab.

He is known in Chinese records as Yinmofu of Jibin, suggesting that the Sakas have been driven from there during the leadership of Maues and that therefore he is already king well before the arrival of the Sakas in Gandhara.

Once there, he issues some coins jointly with a Queen Machene, who may be an Indo-Greek ruler. The Indo-Greek king, Artemidoros (circa 90-85 BC), describes himself as 'son of Maues'.

Map of Central Asia & India c.50 BC
By the period between 100-50 BC the Greek kingdom of Bactria had fallen and the remaining Indo-Greek territories (shown in white) had been squeezed towards Eastern Punjab. India was partially fragmented, and the once tribal Sakas were coming to the end of a period of domination of a large swathe of territory in modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and north-western India. The dates within their lands (shown in yellow) show their defeats of the Greeks which had gained them those lands, but they were very soon to be overthrown in the north by the Kushans while still battling for survival against the Satvahanas of India (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Curiously, the contemporary of Artemidoros in Indo-Greek Paropamisadae (western Indo-Greek territory) is Hermaeus Soter. The name is surprisingly close to that of Maues, and Hermaeus holds a level of importance with nomad rulers during and after his reign, with his coins being copied far and wide, especially by the Greater Yuezhi, Sakas, and the emerging Kushans.

c.50? BC

The Kushan tribe of Greater Yuezhi capture the territory of the Sakas in what will one day become Afghanistan, and have probably already caused the downfall of the Indo-Greek King Hermaeus, conquering Paropamisadae and entering Gandhara in the process.

The Kushans now become the most prominent of Greater Yuezhi tribes, gradually uniting all of the tribes into one kingdom and creating a brief but powerful empire by the end of the century. By around AD 100 they have extended their domination to the Tarim Basin and the Tocharian populations there.

Tarim Basin mummies
This example of the Tarim Basin mummies had the usual distinctive European features, along with a full head of red hair which had been braided into pony tails, and items of woven material which match similar Celtic items

The original form of 'kushan' could be 'kuśiññe', meaning 'kuchean' in Tocharian B. Examining more speculatively, could 'kuśiññe' have on the end of it the Celtic and Germanic plural suffix in yet another form, '-iññe'? In British (Belgic?) this is '-aun', in ancient German and common Celtic it is '-on', in modern German it is '-en', and in modern Welsh is it '-ion'.

AD 230 - 250

The beginning of the third century AD apparently coincides with the beginning of the Sassanid invasion of north-western India. The Kushans are toppled in former Arachosia, Aria, and Bactria (more recently better known as Tokharistan) and are forced to accept Sassanid suzerainty.

There is a split in Kushan rule, so that a separate, eastern section rules independent of the Sassanids, while some of the nobility remain in the west as Sassanid vassals. Even so, Kushan power still gradually wanes in India and the Greater Yuezhi identity gradually becomes extinct.

Coin issued by Vasudeva II
Two sides of a coin issued by the Kushan ruler, Vasudeva II, a gold stater showing the king standing at the altar (on the left), while honouring the Central Asian (Indo-Iranian) goddess, Ardoksho who is seated facing outwards (on the right)

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