Pei Ju, an Unsung Hero
Translated by Li Shasha Edited by Scott Bray The “Belt and Road” is China’s initiative. The historic Silk Road isn’t only an ancient commercial trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road between the East and West for economic, politic
When people speak of the Silk Road's golden age during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), few remember Pei Ju (AD 547– 627), who in his late years poured his heart and soul into restoring the Silk Road to its former glory.
The history of the Silk Road unfolds like a painted scroll, with its 2,000 years depicting prosperity and an endless stream of peoples travelling along its path. Most hard to realise was that many unsung heroes devoted themselves to establishing the bustling Silk Road. Today, that scroll unravelled to an imperial banquet during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), and
begins a tale of one such hero.
It was AD 626 when Li Shimin ascended the throne at age 28 and became second Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (reign: AD 626– 649), historically known as Emperor Taizong of Tang. Following his coronation, the emperor held a grand banquet in Chang’an (presentday Xi’an). Pei Ju (AD 547–627), the seasoned Minister of Finance, a man in his eighties, attended in his finest dress.
Old as he was, a tune from the Western Regions brought Pei back some 20 years, to when he had first headed for Zhangye, full of ambition, and spared no effort in compiling
Xi yu tu ji (“illustrated annuals of the Western Regions”). The sombre notes tugging at Pei’s old heartstrings that day put his thoughts on the year AD 609, when he organised a trade fair at the foot of Yanzhi Mountain for Emperor Yang of Sui (reign: AD 604–618).
The Future of the West
After the banquet, Pei Ju ascended a city tower and looked out west toward the sunset. Looking over the horizon, his eyes seemed to pass over the memories of a group of Hu merchants from the Western Regions, looking to enter Jinguang Gate and ride on toward Xishi Avenue. That had happened in AD 604, then the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581–618) and the ascension of Yang Guang (Emperor Yang of Sui), the dynasty’s second emperor.
The first day Emperor Yang of Sui took the throne, he began to implement his governance on expansion. To link the economic regions south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, the political regions in central Shaanxi Province, and the military regions of such provinces as Hebei and Liaoning, the emperor ordered a second capital to be built in Luoyang, lying to the east of Chang’an, and initiated the SuiDynasty Grand Canal project.
Within four years, the 2,000 kilometres long irrigation works were dug and completed, connecting major river systems and forming a transport network in China. Along the canal, many commercial cities emerged and flourished. One such example was Jiangdu (present-day Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province), which became the economic centre of the Sui Dynasty.
The emperor focused equal attention to development of the western economy, and cast his eye over the Silk Road in a bid to build an economic route to the West. Ever since Emperor Wu of Han (reign: 141–87 BC) had integrated the Hexi Corridor into Chinese territory, the corridor, throat of the Silk Road itself, had become an important commercial region. When Emperor Yang of Sui took the throne, the Central Plains underwent 20 years of rehabilitation and saw thriving business development. From those efforts emerged prosperous cities and wealthy traders who desired to do trade with Hu merchants.
Yet such trading exchanges between the Central Plains and the Western Regions had been cut off for hundreds of years due to warfare and chaos—many merchants from the Western Regions instead prudently took to the Hexi Corridor to transfer their goods. Faced with this situation, the emperor racked his mind on how to take the Sui Dynasty’s first step in trade with the Western Regions. But once he found his answer, he knew that the right person for the task was none other than Pei Ju.
Pei Ju was a prodigy in the classic works and was a skilful politician with a rich background in governance. After the founding of the Sui Dynasty, Pei Ju was put in an important position by Emperor Wen of Sui (reign: AD 581–604) and took part in establishing the national ceremonial system. In AD 588, Pei followed then Prince Yang Guang in the battle against the Southern Chen Dynasty (AD 557–589). For his outstanding performance pacifying the post-war region, Pei was awarded and promoted.
Afterwards, Pei, using sophisticated political strategy, disunited the Turkuts into the Eastern and Western Khaganates without bloodshed, and made the Eastern Turkic Khaganate submit to the Sui Dynasty. After Yang Guang became the emperor, Pei Ju was given a seat among the five primary high-ranking officials of the empire, along with the well-deserved praise from Emperor Yang of Sui for his outstanding diplomatic capability and familiarity with the ethnic issues of the northwest.
Emperor Yang of Sui summoned Pei
Ju to consult his opinion on the economic development in the west. Pei suggested unblocking the Silk Road to restore trade, and enhance the political and cultural exchange with the Western Regions. The opinion struck a chord with the emperor. In AD 605, Pei was dispatched to Zhangye to execute the task.
Once, Zhangye had been an important town for trades along the Silk Road, the only route through which merchants from the Western Regions could trade with their Central Plains counterparts due to the turmoil that followed the Wei Kingdom (AD 220–265) and Jin Dynasty (AD 265–420). Pei Ju chose Zhangye as the empire’s base to conduct frontier trades in the west, and explored approaches to develop Western economy.
Upon his arrival, Pei Ju was delighted to see that trade was booming there. Hu merchants were often found in droves in the market, whose clothes and appearance were in stark contrast from their fellow merchants of the Central Plains. They marketed spices, handcrafts and carpets—rare commodities in the Central Plains—and in turn purchased local silks, tea and produce to sell across West Asia and the Europe.
Pei Ju carefully recorded the information he gathered, and verified it against historical books and documents. He later compiled the three volumes Xi yu tu ji. In his compilation, Pei detailed the development conditions of 44 countries within the Western Regions alongside many maps drawn by his own hand.
Undying Devotion to Restoring Trade
Garnering a deeper understanding of the Hexi Corridor, Pei Ju realised the barriers to local trade. Merchants from the Western Regions had their eyes on trading within the markets in Chang’an and Luoyang. Instead the trades were done ad hoc without oversight along the Hexi Corridor, rather than stemming from a perfect mechanism to promote and administrate such trades from the government.
The outposts bequeathed from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) along the Hexi Corridor had been in disrepair for many years and were unable to provide passing merchants with food or accommodation.
Without that support system, foreign merchants could go no further. The once bustling Silk Road was blocked.
Pei Ju’s thoughts turned to Cang Ci who had faced the same problem in his time. Cang Ci came from Dunhuang Prefecture during the Wei Kingdom. Located on the western end of the Hexi Corridor, Dunhuang Prefecture had once been a trading area on the Silk Road beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), yet by the end of the East Han Dynasty (AD 25–220) had become dilapidated, and later isolated from the Central Plains due to the warfare that raged during the Three Kingdoms (AD 220–280).
Although there were merchants who made the trek from the Western Regions, they were often obstructed and exploited by local despotic forces. Cang Ci issued a notice that any merchants travelling from the Western Regions to Luoyang for trade would be granted with travel allowances by the state, those that did business in Dunhuang would be supported to trade at state-set price, and that trade caravans would be protected by the government for their safety. Hexi Corridor was ushered into another heyday.
Cang Ci’s measures inspired Pei Ju. He began to travel along the Hexi Corridor across cities like Zhangye, Wuwei and Dunhuang, built new outposts, ordered officials to lower or exempt merchants from tariffs, granting merchants from the Western Regions as much commercial profits as possible. He also encouraged merchants to trade directly with the government, increasing both the scope and volume of trade.
The series of incentive measures spurred on more merchants from the Western Regions to the Sui Dynasty. Merchants bringing their caravans from the Western Regions were granted protection by the governments along the Hexi Corridor, and provided food and accommodation as well. For the Hu Merchants, it was nearly a dream come true.
Among merchants from the Western Regions, the Sogdians were the most numerous. Research has shown that Sogdian ancestors most likely came from Zhaowu City at the foot of the Qilian Mountain. Most living in Zhaowu were surnamed Kang, Shi, An, Cao, Shi, Mi, He, Huoxun and Wudi, dubbed the “nine surnames of Zhaowu” by the people of the Central Plains.
They lived around present-day Uzbekistan, belonging to a purely commercial nation; yet without its own kingdom. From Middle Asia to Chang’an, they left their tracks in many key towns at the eastern section of the Silk Road, and were also known to some as the “Jews of the Orient.”
Today, the Sogdians have become a mysterious tribe lost to history. However, at the time pottery, silverware, silk, and armour were highly sought after. The Sogdians were skilled at turning commodities into coins.
According to Tang huiyao (“institutional history of the Tang Dynasty”), a Sogdian would begin learning business from at childhood. Sogdian boys, for example, would start to read at the age of five, and study business as soon as he could read. More than merely selling their products, they nearly monopolised all international trade along the Hexi Corridor.
It was the call of bountiful trade that the Sogdians travelled thousands of miles to reach China, yet there were risks on the road to the East. The Turkic and Tuyühu tribes, both entrenched along the Hexi Corridor, were particularly feared for exploiting and plundering passing merchants. These raids most concerned Pei Ju, who was to report this back to the emperor.
An Ancient ‘World Expo’
In AD 606, Pei Ju returned to Luoyang with his Xi yu tu ji. After reporting what
he had accomplished thus far in Zhangye, Emperor Yang of Sui asked Pei what plans should follow in the area. Pei suggested defeating the Tuyühu, who often harassed countries in the Western Regions and cut off roads for traders entering the Central Plains. In doing so, the emperor could restore normal political and economic exchange between the Western Regions and the Sui Dynasty.
Pei’s suggestions delighted the emperor. Immediately following their discussion Pei Ju was appointed as imperial assistant minister to host the work in Zhangye. Upon returning to Zhangye, Pei Ju redoubled his efforts, acting on the emperor’s behalf. He first gathered officials and merchants from the Western Regions, inviting them to Chang’an and Luoyang and further proclaiming that diplomatic and trading corps would enjoy preferential treatment. Pei then entreated the princes of Gaochang and Yiwu to travel to Luoyang to offer sacrifices at Hengshan Mountain with the emperor. Once everything was prepared, Emperor Yang of Sui had a great national plan in mind. In early AD 609, Emperor Yang of Sui declared that he would tour westward along the Silk Road and invite national leaders in the Western Regions to attend a grand gathering. The emperor would also lead his troops in wiping out the remaining Tuyühu forces.
In AD 609, Emperor Yang of Sui set out from Chang’an with civil and military officials, concubines, attendants and a 100,000 soldier army. Two months later, they arrived at Ledu County in Qinghai, and launched an all-out attack on the Tuyühu. With their overwhelming force, the Sui Dynasty won a complete victory. Some 100,000 Tuyühu soldiers surrendered; only their khan and a few dozen followers had been left fleeing around Qinghai Lake. After the battle, the Tuyühu were no longer a threat to the Silk Road.
While the Sui army waged war with the Tuyühu, Pei Ju along with the nobility and envoys of the Western Regions were preparing to welcome Emperor Yang of Sui in Zhangye. An unprecedented gathering awaited the emperor. It was when Emperor Yang of Sui led his massive host at the foot of the Yanzhi Mountains outside Zhangye that the trade fair, an amalgamation of leaders and representatives from 27 countries in the Western Regions, officially opened.
Chaired by the emperor himself, national leaders and envoys, businessmen and civilians alike swarmed into Zhangye’s trade fair to see Emperor Yang of Sui. The nobility of Gaochang and Yiwu in particular expressed their willingness to seek alliance with the Sui Dynasty.
Although he had just returned from a fierce battle, the emperor was dignified in his meetings with the princes of Gaochang and envoys from the Western Regions. He ordered maidens of local officials in Wuwei and Zhangye to attend the fair in their finest, representing the peace and prosperity of the Sui Dynasty.
Imperial musicians from the Central Plains alongside folk singers and dancers from the Western Regions gave the fair a joyous atmosphere. Handcrafts of all kinds from the Central Plains were displayed in the palace set in the fair, impressing all attendants from the Western Regions.
Sogdian merchants in particular weren’t about to miss this golden opportunity. They came to the fair, unloaded various commodities from their camels and sold them in Zhangye’s markets to buyers from various countries. The whole of Zhangye became a sea of people, and the bustling scenes lasted a month.
No trace of the grand event along the Hexi Corridor still stands today, but the magnificent “world expo” exerted a far-reaching impact on Chinese history.
Today, more than a thousand years later, a variety of expositions have come into vogue all over the world. The Expo 2010 Shanghai China was held on April 30, 2010, where the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang and the “world expo” 1,400 years ago were “moved” to Shanghai’s Gansu Pavilion. This modern World Expo may owe its beginnings to that day at the foot of the Yanzhi Mountain along the Silk Road.
In AD 610, Emperor Yang of Sui approved to open the routes from Zhangye to Chang’an, Luoyang and to other cities in the Central Plains as Pei Ju had proposed. Merchants, aristocrats, even kings and princes from the Western Regions entered the Central Plains, travelling along the Hexi Corridor.
The stable Silk Road facilitated the business trip for merchants, while lower tariffs made trade in the Central Plains more attractive to foreign merchants. The Silk Road again became one of the most important channels for economic and cultural exchange in the world.
Amid stable politics and open policies set during the Tang Dynasty, exchange along the Silk Road flourished as it never had before, diversifying the cultures within the Central Plains. As it continued to integrate with surrounding nations, China stepped into a global cultural spotlight, demonstrating unprecedented vigour. It was then during the Tang Dynasty that the Silk Road entered its golden age.
Today, when people speak of the golden age of the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty, few remember Pei Ju, who in his late years had continued to pour his heart and soul into restoring the Silk Road to its glory. Even if his name is rarely mentioned in historical records, the name Pei Ju deserves its place among the annals of the Silk Road.