There are numerous theories about the derivation of the name Yuezhi and none has yet found general acceptance. According to Zhang Guang-da the name Yuezhi is a transliteration of their own name for themselves, the Visha , being called the Vijaya in .. They are believed by most scholars to have been an Indo-European people, and may have been the same as or closely related to the Tocharians of Classical sources. They were originally settled in the arid grasslands of the eastern Tarim Basin area, in what is today Xinjiang and western Gansu, in China, before they migrated to Transoxiana, Bactria and then northern South Asia, where they formed the Kushan Empire.
The first known reference to the Yuezhi was made in 645 BCE by the Chinese Guan Zhong in his 管子. The dates of this book are disputed however, and it may date to as late as 1st century BCE. The book described the Yuzhi 禺氏, or Niuzhi 牛氏, as a people from the north-west who supplied jade to the Chinese from the nearby mountains of Yuzhi 禺氏 at Gansu. The supply of jade from the Tarim Basin from ancient times is indeed well documented archaeologically: "It is well known that ancient Chinese rulers had a strong attachment to jade. All of the jade items excavated from the tomb of Fuhao 妇好 of the Shang dynasty, more than 750 pieces, were from Khotan in modern Xinjiang. As early as the mid-first millennium BCE the Yuezhi engaged in the jade trade, of which the major consumers were the rulers of agricultural China." . The suffix "Di" or "Zhi" was generally used to describe the , "Western barbarians", in Chinese annals.
According to former USSR scholar Zuev, there was a Queen among the large Yuezhi confederation who added to her possessions the lands of the on the headwaters of the Huanghe circa 3rd century BCE. According him, the Chinese chronicles began referring to the queen's tribe as the Great Yuezhi , and to call the Daxia/Tochars the Lesser Yuezhi . Together, they were simply called Yuezhi. In the 5th century CE, a scholar and translator monk Kumarajiva, while translating texts into Chinese, used the name "Yuezhi" to translate "Tochar". In the middle of the 2nd century BCE the Yuezhi conquered Bactria, and the Ancient Greek authors inform us that the conquerors of Bactria were the Asii and Tochari tribes. Bactria then in the Chinese chronicles began to be called the country of Daxia, i.e. Tocharistan and the language of Bactria/Tocharistan began to be called "Tocharian"."
The Yuezhi are also documented in detail in Chinese historical accounts, in particular the 2nd-1st century BCE "Records of the Great Historian", or ''Shiji'', by Sima Qian. According to these accounts:
:"The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Qiang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yuezhi.",
The Qilian and Dunhuang original homeland of the Yuezhi have recently been argued not to refer to the current locations in Gansu, but to the Tian Shan range and the Turfan region, 1,000 km to the west, Dunhuang identified with a mountain named Dunhong listed in the ''Shanhaijing''.
The Yuezhi may have been a Caucasoid people, as indicated by the portraits of their kings on the coins they struck following their exodus to Transoxiana , and especially the coins they struck in India as Kushans . However, no direct records for the name of Yuezhi rulers are known to exist , and some doubt on the accuracy of their first coins.
Ancient Chinese sources do describe the existence of "white people with long hair" beyond their northwestern border, and the very well preserved Tarim mummies with Caucasian features found at the ancient oasis on the Silk Road, , often with reddish or blond hair, today displayed at the & Museum and dated to the 3rd century BCE, have been found in precisely the same area of the Tarim Basin.
The Tocharian languages also have been attested in the same geographical area, and although the first known epigraphic evidence dates to the 6th century CE, the degree of differentiation between Tocharian A and Tocharian B, and the absence of Tocharian language remains beyond that area, tends to indicate that a common Tocharian language existed in the same area of Yuezhi settlement during the second half of the 1st millennium BCE.
According to one theory, the Yuezhi were probably part of the large migration of Indo-European speaking peoples who were settled in eastern Central Asia at that time. The nomadic Ordos culture, who lived in northern China east of the Yuezhi, are another example. Also the Caucasian mummies of Pazyryk, probably Scythian in origin, are located around 1,500 kilometers north-west of the Yuezhi, and dated also to around the 3rd century BCE.
According to Han accounts, the Yuezhi "were flourishing" during the time of the first great Chinese , but were regularly in conflict with the neighbouring tribe of the Xiongnu to the northeast.
The Yuezhi exodus
The Yuezhi sometimes practiced the exchange of hostages with the Xiongnu, and at one time were hosts to Modu Shanyu , son of the Xiongnu leader. Modu stole a horse and escaped when the Yuezhi tried to kill him in retaliation for an attack by his father. Modu subsequently became ruler of the Xiongnu after killing his father.
Around 177 BCE, led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe". The son of Modu, Jizhu, subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a out of his skull.".
Following Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested in the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang, and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Small Yuezhi". According to the ''Hanshu'', they only numbered around 150 families.
Finally, a large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin / Gansu area towards the northwest, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Sai : "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" . The Sai undetook their own migration, which was to lead them as far as Kashmir, after travelling through a "Suspended Crossing" . The Sakas ultimately established an Indo-Scythian kingdom in northern India.
After 155 BCE, the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, managed to disloge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Dayuan in Ferghana, and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxiana, in modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 BCE.
Settlement in Transoxiana
The Yuezhi were visited by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 BCE , that was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. Although the request for an alliance was denied by the son of the slain Yuezhi king, who preferred to maintain peace in Transoxiana rather than to seek revenge, Zhang Qian made a detailed account, reported in the ''Shiji'', that gives considerable insight into the situation in Central Asia at that time.
Zhang Qian, who spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria, relates that "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 ''li'' west of Dayuan , north of the Gui river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia , on the west by Anxi , and on the north by Kangju . They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors."
Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes, each led by a ''yabgu'', or tribal chief, and known to the Chinese as ''Xiūmì'' in Western Wakhān and Zibak, ''Guishuang'' in Badakhshan and the adjoining territories north of the Oxus, ''Shuangmi'' in the region of Shughnan, ''Xidun'' in the region of Balk, and ''Dūmì'' in the region of Termez
A description of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom was made by Zhang Qian after the conquest by Yuezhi:
:"Daxia is located over 2,000 southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold."
In a sweeping analysis of the physical types and cultures of Central Asia that he visited in 126 BCE, Zhang Qian reports that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi , speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women."
Invasion of Bactria
In 124 BCE the Yuezhi were apparently involved in a war against the Parthians, in which the Parthian king Artabanus I of Parthia was wounded and died:
:"During the war against the Tokharians, he was wounded in the arm and died immediately" .
Some time after 124 BCE, possibly disturbed by further incursions of rivals from the north, and apparently vanquished by the Parthian king , successor to Artabanus, the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria. Bactria had been conquered by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, and since settled by the Hellenistic civilization of the Seleucids and the Greco-Bactrians for two centuries.
This event is recorded in Classical Greek sources, when Strabo presented them as a Scythian tribe, and explained that the Tokharians -- together with the Assianis, Passianis and Sakaraulis -- took part in the destruction of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the second half of the 2nd century BCE:
:"Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and ; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes, opposite the Sacae and ."
The last Greco-Bactrian king Heliocles I retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. The eastern part of Bactria was occupied by Pashtun people.
As they settled in Bactria from around 125 BCE, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan, since the Yuezhi were called "Tocharians" by the Greeks.
Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century BCE: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." .
The ''Hou Hanshu'' also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 BCE, who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century BCE .
A later Chinese annotation in ''Shiji'' made by Zhang Shoujie during the early 8th century quoted Wan Zhen's ''Strange Things from the Southern Region'' describes the as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. The quote are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might had gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south.
Expansion into the Hindu-Kush
The area of the Hindu-Kush was ruled by the western Indo-Greek king until the reign of . After that date, no Indo-Greek kings are known in the area, which was probably overtaken by the neighbouring Yuezhi, who had been in relation with the Greeks for a long time. According to Bopearachchi, no trace of Indo-Scythians occupation have been found in the Paropamisadae and western Gandhara.
As they had done in Bactria with their copying of Greco-Bactrian coinage, the Yuezhi copied the coinage of on a vast scale, up to around , when the design blends into the coinage of the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises.
The first presumed, and documented, Yuezhi prince is Sapadbizes , who ruled around 20 BCE, and minted in Greek and in the same style as the western Indo-Greek kings.
Foundation of the Kushan empire
By the end of the 1st century BCE, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang , managed to take control of the Yuezhi confederation. According to some theories, the Guishuang may have been distinct from the Yuezhi, possibly of Saka origins. From that point, the Yuezhi extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. The Yuezhi came to be known as ''Kushan'' among Western civilizations, however the Chinese kept calling them Yuezhi throughout their historical records over a period of several centuries.
The Yuezhi/ Kushans expanded to the east during the 1st century CE, to found the Kushan Empire. The first Kushan emperor Kujula Kadphises ostensibly associated himself with on his coins, suggesting that he may have been one of his descendants by alliance, or at least wanted to claim his legacy.
The unification of the Yuezhi tribes and the rise of the Kushan is documented in the Chinese Historical chronicle Hou Hanshu:
:"More than a hundred years later, the ''xihou'' of Guishuang , named Qiujiu Que attacked and exterminated the four other xihou . He set himself up as king of a kingdom called Guishuang . He invaded Anxi and took the Gaofu region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda and Jibin . Qiujiu Que was more than eighty years old when he died.
:His son, ''Yan Gaozhen'' , became king in his place. He returned and defeated Tianzhu and installed a General to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call the Guishuang king, but the call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi." .
The Yuezhi/Kushan integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities, became great promoters of Mahayana Buddhism, and their interactions with Greek civilization helped the Gandharan culture and Greco-Buddhism flourish.
During the 1st and 2nd century, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, their original grounds, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. When the Han Dynasty desired to advance north, Emperor Wu sent the explorer Zhang Qian to see the kingdoms to the west and to ally with the Yuezhi people, in order to fight the Xiongnu Mongol tribe. The Yuezhi continued to collaborate militarily with the Chinese against nomadic incursion, particularly with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in , when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. Around , they also assisted the Chinese general in an attack on Turfan, east of the Tarim Basin.
In recognition for their support to the Chinese, the Kushans requested, but were denied, a princess, even after they had sent presents to the Chinese court. In retaliation, they marched on Ban Chao in with a force of 70,000, but, exhausted by the expedition, were finally defeated by the smaller Chinese force. The Kushans retreated and paid tribute to the Chinese Empire during the reign of the Chinese emperor .
Circa Kushan troops installed Chenpan - a prince who had been sent as a hostage to them, and had become a favorite of the Kushan Emperor - on the throne of Kashgar, thus expanding their power and influence in the Tarim Basin, and introduced the script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art which developed into Serindian art.
Benefiting from this territorial expansion, the Yuezhi/Kushans were among the first to introduce Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by direct missionary efforts and the translation of scriptures into Chinese. Major Yuezhi missionary and translators included Lokaksema and Dharmaraksa, who went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
The Chinese kept referring to the Kushans as Da Yuezhi throughout the centuries. In the Sanguozhi , it is recorded that in "The king of the Da Yuezhi, Bodiao 波調 , sent his envoy to present tribute, and His Majesty granted him the title of "King of the Da Yuezhi Intimate with the ."
Presumed Yuezhi rulers