The influence of the Eastern Han Dynasty spread deep into central Asia. The success of this expansion was due in large part to the effective leadership of Ban Chao. This military leader, explorer and diplomat was born around 32 CE in the region known today as Xianyang, inside the Shaanxi province of China. We do not know much about his early career, but Ban Chao’s heyday began when he was in his early forties.
Ban Chao’s fame, as we know it, began in the year 73, when he was directed by Emperor Ming (Mingdi, r. 58-75) to take a leadership role in a campaign against the Xiongnu, often associated with the notorious Huns. After fighting for about three years, Ban Chao was withdrawn from the front around the time that Emperor Zhang (r. 76-88) became the new ruler of China. The general, however, was eventually sent back to the empire’s frontiers, corresponding to the modern region of Xinjiang, to secure the Tarim Basin and the Silk Road trade route that threaded through the area.
In 84, Ban Chao worked in concert with the Yuezhi Kushan Empire to defeat the Sogdian threat to Han interests in central Asia. The partnership, however, also created an awkward situation for the Chinese—the Kushan leader sent a message to Emperor Zhang, suggesting that they form an official alliance through marriage. Emperor Zhang balked at the idea of a Kushan ruler marrying a Han princess and refused the proposal, even though such marriage agreements had been negotiated between earlier Han emperors and foreign leaders.
The Kushan Empire, understandably, was irritated by the response that they received. Eventually, around the year 86, Kushan forces attacked Ban Chao’s garrison in the Tarim Basin. General Ban Chao, however, quickly turned the tide of the war heavily in favor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. By the time Emperor He (Hedi, r. 89-105) became the new ruler of the Han Empire, the Kushan forces were thoroughly put in their place by Ban Chao, and were sending tribute payments to the Han.
Ban Chao’s next great promotion came in 91, when he was named Protector of the Western Regions. He carried out his duties from a headquarters in the location known today as Kucha, in the Xinjiang region of China. From there, the general continued to protect and expand the Han’s interests in central Asia through diplomatic and military means. He even tried to send a man named Gan Ying to make official contact with the Roman Empire in the year 97, but Gan Ying only made it to the Persian Gulf before he lost his nerve or was blocked by unhelpful forces, causing him to abandon the mission. Ban Chao remained at his post as the Protector of the Western Regions until the year 102, when his sister successfully petitioned for the general to be allowed to return to eastern China. Within the year, Ban Chao died in the city of Louyang.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Two gentlemen engrossed in conversation while two others look on, a Chinese painting on paper near Luoyang, Henan province, dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD). [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.