The recorded history of Xinjiang dates to the 2000 BC. There have been many empires, primarily Han, Turkic, and Mongolic, that have ruled over the region. Xinjiang was previously known as "Xiyu", under the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD), which drove the Xiongnu empire out of the region in 60BC in an effort to secure the profitable Silk Road, but was renamed Xinjiang when the region was conquered by the Qing Dynasty in 1759. Xinjiang is now a part of the People's Republic of China, having been so since its founding year of 1949.
To grasp Xinjiang, begin with the region’s two principal groups: the pastoral nomads, north of the Tian Shan range, and the sedentary oasis dwellers, skirting the Tarim Basin. The original nomads were the Xiongnu, while the earliest known oasis dwellers were an Indo-European group generally referred to as the Tocharians. Over millennia, the ethnicities comprising these two groups have changed; however the groups themselves remained the basis of human civilization in Xinjiang.
Although evidence of Hotan jade in China indicates that trade must have existed as far back as 7000 years ago, significant mention of the western regions doesn’t appear in the Chinese annals until the Han dynasty.
In the 2nd century BC, in the hope of ending the devastating Xiongnu raids along their borders, the Chinese sought an alliance with the far off Yuezhi. Zhang Qian, the Chinese envoy charged with completing the mission, set out in 138BC into the hitherto unexplored west. He was immediately taken prisoner and held for 10 years by the Xiongnu, but he did succeed in discovering the northern and southern routes around the Taklamakan Desert and into Central Asia, as well as the exceptional Ferghana horses.
While other goods were imported into China during this time, none took on the importance of the superior Central Asian steeds. By the end of the 2nd century BC, the Han had pushed their borders further west, military garrisons were established along the trade routes and silk flowed out of the empire in return for the ‘Heavenly Horse’.
Along with goods from the west came ideas and languages, and by the 300AD Buddhism had taken root throughout the Tarim Basin. A number of powerful Buddhist city-states arose, chiefly in Hotan, Kuqa and Turpan, leaving behind beautiful artwork that blended Kashmiri, Persian, Indian and even Greek styles
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