“ Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ” — Kublai Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
Author’s Note: This is a semi-historical piece of speculative fiction, written from the point of view of Zhang Qian  , an explorer and envoy of the Han Dynasty  . Given how far back in history it attempts to reach, even the facts are unstable and often impenetrable. Language will inevitably struggle and find itself anachronistic. And so, like many (both faithful and unfaithful) accounts of history, this is an assemblage of dreams – Zhang Qian’s, the historians’, and my own.
We are setting out to meet the Yuezhi  . If all goes well, we should return in two to three years. With this alliance, victory against the Xiongnu  will become a possibility. There have also been rumours of a legendary breed of horses, which are reported to sweat blood when they run . Unlike our horses which are too weak to take even the weight of a soldier, blood-sweating horses are reported to be invincible, able to take the weight of ten men at once. No one seems to know where to find them. Perhaps this journey will also be a good chance to acquire information about them. Our army would be unstoppable with such superior horses.
Gan Fu  will be coming with our party of a hundred as our guide. Being one of the Xiongnu, his knowledge of the area will be useful. Enslavement seems to have tamed him, and he appears by all counts to be loyal to the Emperor. If he shows any sign of defecting, I shall kill him. The journey will be long, but I doubt it will be harder than the battles I’ve fought before. The difficulty will lie elsewhere, in the bargaining of our freedoms.
The journey will be long, but I doubt it will be harder than the battles I’ve fought before. The difficulty will lie elsewhere, in the bargaining of our freedoms.
We leave tomorrow. Goodbye for now, dear home. The Han Dynasty is a land of flowers, beautiful as the perched herons that await its full bloom. Our landscape will grow to fill the world.
The difficult terrain is becoming familiar and manageable. Our rations appear to be more than sufficient, and the mood of our party is cautious but exuberant. Many of our party are excited to explore beyond the confines of our kingdom. But then again, all will be our kingdom in time.
I am beginning to learn the names of these men, many of whom I suspect would be braver than myself when in battle. Men who will not back down against enemies. Meanwhile, Gan Fu ensures that every man has a share of dinner before he eats, and listens closely when I speak. He is a worthy guide, who is earning my trust.
It’s been some time since Gan Fu and I were captured by the Xiongnu. How much time, I do not know. Our hundred has been murdered down to two — a partnership instead of a party.
I finally convinced Wuwei Chanyu  to grant me access to my belongings, which, I argued, were primarily paper and coins. (The same can’t be said of Gan Fu, who was to protect us on this journey. Nonetheless, I am surprised the Xiongnu do not welcome him, one of their own.) Which is how I am writing, after also asking for a brush, ink, and some time alone. They trust me at least this much.
Wuwei Chanyu and his advisors did, however, laugh at my ban liang  . “Since you can’t use them here anyway, perhaps you can convince us to melt them down for you, to make knife money  ,” one advisor said. His grin looked sour. I kept my head bowed and asked to keep the ban liang in memory of my home. “You’d rather keep worthless memories than usable currency,” Wuwei Chanyu remarked. “Keep them. They’re yours.”
I have been struggling to sleep. The air here smells different, and my body can sense it, never relaxes enough to sleep soundly. Last night, after I had lain for perhaps an hour, something called me to my feet. I went over to my pouch of ban liang , and held it between my fingers. I walked over to the open window (yes, they’ve granted me this, too) and looked at the bright, white moon. Then, I turned the coin over in my palm, examining its ridges under the light.
After some time, I returned to bed, still holding the ban liang , still unable to fall asleep. My restlessness grew frustrated. It was in this state of thoughtless agitation that I slid the coin into my mouth. Having been warmed by my hands, it now grew hot on my tongue. Saliva began to collect around it. When I swallowed, there was a slight taste of rust. The metallic flavour became a feeling; the inside of my mouth felt like an entity separate from me — an attachment, an added appendage, a room I had just wandered into.
I slipped the tip of my tongue through the square centre hole. Then I stuck my tongue out of my mouth, but it was too short for me to see the ban liang clearly. It struck me, as I lay there, that it must look a little like a mountain with a ring of clouds near the peak.
When I woke this morning, with the coin still in my mouth, I felt perfectly rested. This is a sign, I believe, that I will find my way home.
I told Gan Fu what Wuwei Chanyu and his advisor had said about our coins. We were in my cramped quarters. It was dusk.
“They weren’t wrong,” I said. “We don’t know how long we will be held here. Perhaps some knife money would be useful, especially since our robes are growing tattered.”
Gan Fu’s gaze made me attentive. Reaching into his silk bundle (after being returned empty to Gan Fu, its soft gold shine had been muted by rough use), he pulled out a bag of medicinal herbs.
“How many ban liang does a bag of herbs like this cost?” he asked.
“Where have you kept your ban liang ?”
I unlocked a small drawer. Taking a few coins out, I held them towards Gan Fu. He took two ban liang , his fingers grazing against my palm as he did so. Unlike his demeanour, they were soft and cool. The weight in my hands decreased precisely, and I curled my fingers around the remainder.
Tossing and catching my coins in one hand, Gan Fu placed the bag of herbs on my desk with the other.
“Thank you for your purchase, sir,” he said.
I looked back into the drawer at my stash of coins, then back at Gan Fu. His smile carried mischief, yet I found myself smiling back.
We’re persisting in this game, buying and selling between us, playing merchant and peasant in turns. Our goods are varied and nondescript: yesterday, they were potatoes and a small knife to peel them with; the day before, we exchanged a charred pot and a single, stale carrot. Once, we even made a joke of a knife money piece I’d found on the street, deciding that one was not even worth twenty ban liang .
“You’ll need to collect at least nineteen more,” Gan Fu said with a laugh.
I’ve noticed something. Ever since we started this game, I’ve experienced a strange, burning sensation in my chest, which starts faintly in the morning and builds through each day. My breath grows short as any expansion of my chest grows impossibly painful. If it goes on for too long, I start holding my breath for periods of time, wondering if I could carry on like this forever, airless but alive.
It’s when I meet Gan Fu, and when our hands exchange the ban liang and goods, that I feel the pain finally abate.
“Are you ill?” he asked, pressing a hand to my neck, then reaching for my wrist. Gan Fu had a close friend, a royal physician, who had taught him a few things. Frowning, he attempted to read my pulse. What did it say to him?
Perhaps it said: Zhang Qian has begun to sleep every night, rather than just occasionally, with ban liang in his mouth. Perhaps it told him that I had begun to feel this hunger even in the day, and it made me nervous whenever I was the buyer instead of the seller in our game. Perhaps it told him that it, my pulse, was racing because of his cold, calm fingers.
It’s been ten New Years spent in this place. This year, the festivities are particularly extravagant, and the new normal of the Xiongnu is drunkenness. Tonight, the final night of celebrations, we will make another attempt at escape. As always, Gan Fu will lead us. He has proven himself faithful.
It would be a miracle if Gan Fu, my wife, child, and myself all make it out. The route we’re taking is well-guarded, and our party is large. Still, despite our slim chances, I have the audacity of hope. For the sake of Emperor Wu  and our dead companions, we must survive.
Even the sky turns red above the Xiongnu. Now, more than ever, I find they resemble horses. Their faces long and muscular, their nostrils flaring when they grow agitated with drink. Their hair flows untied and their steps land like hooves. And one cannot forget the flash of their large, perfect teeth. Perhaps when we defeat them, we might ride them through the city. Perhaps they, too, will sweat blood.
Emperor Wu must be waiting. So am I. None of us will sleep tonight, in case an opportunity arises in the dark. The exit lies in the north. If they spot us, we’ll have to run faster than horses.
We had to leave my wife and child behind. There is no time to mourn, and perhaps there is nothing to be mourned at all. Despite our familial ties, they are descendants of the Xiongnu, at home where they are. Can I say that I loved her? I think so, at least briefly. But I am glad it is Gan Fu I have been left with.
Now, our journey toward the Yuezhi must resume. It will take Gan Fu some days to ascertain the direction we should take next. In the meantime, I should gather my wits and make the most of my grubby attire. Now, I am no longer a captive, and must once again become an envoy, an officer of the Han Dynasty.
Gan Fu was smart to steal supplies from the Xiongnu right before we left. The food rations will keep us fed for some time, even though we have little shelter from rain and wild animals. We mustn’t waste time. Tomorrow, we need to find more food, and move quickly through this desert.
First desert, now snow. Both ill. Delirious. My head burned through the night, and I thought I heard the sound of hooves at my door. I felt certain that Emperor Wu had arrived on a horse to free us from the Xiongnu.
His face was flushed with speed, his eyes gleaming like obsidian. His hands were hard and icy as he gripped mine. He turned expectantly toward Gan Fu, whose hair had been freed of its bun, and seemed to be growing steadily longer.
“Are you ready?” Emperor Wu asked. A gurgling noise came from mouth as he spoke. His nostrils flared even though his breathing appeared even. Was he panting? A faint neighing could be heard. It seemed to come from somewhere further away.
The Emperor’s cold hands were beginning to affect me. My body shivered incessantly as Gan Fu and I climbed onto his horse, a tight fit that pressed us against one another to keep from falling. Gan Fu’s hair had grown so long that it covered my lap and mixed with the horse’s tail. Rather than functioning as four different individuals (horse and humans), we seemed to form a large animal. A monster.
As we rode out of the Xiongnu’s territory, the distant neighing grew louder. The Emperor’s horse merely grunted softly. It must have been a blood-sweating horse, since it could carry three men. But no blood appeared as it galloped forward. We seemed to be moving towards the neighing.
As we got closer, the Emperor’s horse lost its mind, or perhaps it simply lost patience. It began to resist its reigns, throwing us off balance on its back. The Emperor yelled for it to stop, but to no avail. The horse swung around in circles in an attempt to throw us off. As I lost my grip on Gan Fu and fell to the ground, everything before my eyes — earth, sky, and air — quaked.
I’ve come to, back in the cave with Gan Fu, lying on my back. My arms and legs feel badly bruised. Gan Fu thrashes next to me, unconscious, in the middle of what appeared to be a fit. His forehead burning hot. He mumbles softly, his hands clenching and unclenching by his ribcage.
His colourless complexion frightens me. If one must be stranded, it helps to have a companion. For now, you will keep me company while I attempt to save my friend.
I poured a little bit of water into his mouth, but I can’t tell if it makes a difference. I searched our belongings for other options and found our ban liang , which jangles in a small purse. I’m going to slip one of them into Gan Fu’s mouth. His lips have shut the coin in. And whether a result of medicine or coincidence, the fit seems to have ended. But I am no physician. Even if this were a sign of imminent death, I would not know better. I wonder if Qin Shi Huang  knew when he established the ban liang , that it’d be placed into the mouths of men?
Now, I must lay back down, for I am nauseous. There is little I can do for Gan Fu. I will sleep for a while, and hopefully, soon, find myself awake.
We made it to the Yuezhi with the help of a Dayuan  guide. It was pure luck that we arrived in Dayuan and received aid. The Kangju region  was also an easy passageway, thanks to the guide’s sharp knowledge. Still, Gan Fu seems a little wary of him. Perhaps it is jealousy.
The Yuezhi show no interest in our proposition. They are too far from danger to share our fear, too prosperous to be tempted by the wealth of the Xiongnu, too comfortable in peace to be drawn to war. They are, they’ve argued, also too far from the Han Dynasty for our alliance to prove valuable in opposing the Xiongnu. I will speak to their leader again in a few days, when we have become a more familiar presence. After we have completed our task which has now taken over a decade, Gan Fu and I will finally return home to the arms of our people.
Now, I must share something strange about the Yuezhi. Of course, they have been polite and respectful for the duration of our stay, and appear by all counts to be civil, lawful people. However, included within their standard currency money — which like ours is made of bronze, silver, and gold — is a kind of paper money.
I asked a local about this odd addition to their currency, and learned that it has only been recently introduced. But people are beginning to use them in the same way they use coins. Can one trust substitutes for real weight and value? Perhaps the peace and affluence of the Yuezhi makes them more trusting, more gullible.
No luck convincing the Yuezhi. Though frustrated, I will, however, be able to explore the surrounding lands. My description of silk also excited the Yuezhi leader and people, which we might be able to use to our advantage.
Gan Fu and I will need to leave soon. Much time has been wasted on this journey, and I would like to return to the Emperor. We continue to sleep with coins in our mouths. It is something we laugh about, an unsuccessful attempt to hide our longing to be home. I have not told Gan Fu that I now keep a ban liang in my mouth nearly all the time, except for meals and when he is with me.
The Yuezhi leader has proven to be less generous than we hoped. When we asked for supplies to make the journey home, he asked for payment in exchange. After the Xiongnu’s capture, Gan Fu and I have little to offer them, only what the Xiongnu decided had no value: our ban liang . The leader laughed, but I expressed that our coins could be melted down to make more of the Yuezhi’s own.
“We have no need for more,” he said. “Perhaps they can be used as a kind of promise instead. But we will need something else from you, something that actually costs you.”
I asked him what he had in mind.
“Your hair,” he said. “You will give us your coins, and each a lock of your hair. One of my men will do the cutting. In exchange, you will come back with silk for us.”
What a confusing proposal! I told him, politely, as much.
“We will give you something valuable too,” he said. “Some of our own money, the paper that you’ve asked so much about. If you bring it back to us along with your silk, we will reward you greatly.”
I looked at Gan Fu, who looked, as always, uncommonly calm. He turned his eyes to the leader, and then back to me.
“It appears,” he whispered, “to be an empty exchange for both parties. What is of value to one is of none to the other, except the supplies that he promises to give us.”
“Yes,” I replied. “But he also asks for our hair!”
Gan Fu smiled. “It may feel humiliating, but unlike our lives, hair can grow back.”
This was a convincing argument. I told the Yuezhi leader that we would accept his proposal.
Emperor Wu was confused by the Yuezhi’s paper money, but he welcomed us back with no little joy. Although we failed in our mission, our observations will guide our next step. For one, the possibility of using silk to our advantage pleases him. Gan Fu and I have also managed to keep the gaps in our hair hidden from view.
We are now considering an alliance with the Wusun , who might prove more agreeable than the Yuezhi.
San zhu  doesn’t feel right on the tongue; it is far too light compared to ban liang . Now that the latter is becoming disused, it seems I must store some away for good. These coins will soon be useless for anything other than my private pleasure. I spoke to a friend of mine, a blacksmith, under the pretext of making a special coin for Emperor Wu. It is a gift that will memorialise his reign and commemorate the progress we have made in our economy. I requested a ban liang coin. Specifically, I asked for him to make it in silver rather than bronze, and for it to be double in diameter . He was rather confused, since it would be, as he repeated, “very valuable but of no use.” Eventually, he gave in, and asked no more questions. I was, after all, paying him a large amount for it.
It arrived at noon yesterday, in a silk bundle. I waited until night. When all that could be heard was silence, I retrieved the bundle and set it down on my desk. I recall the moonlight being strangely bright at that moment. It gave everything a colourlessness. Even my untied hair looked silvery, rather than black.
As I peeled back the silk, alone in my quarters, I could not help it: I reached for the perfectly-made coin, pinched it between two fingers, and raised it to my mouth, where my tongue was outstretched, waiting.
The epigraph of “Kubla Khan,” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan
Ulrich Theobald, “Zhang Qian 張騫,” ChinaKnowledge.de, December 1, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personszhangqian.html If you able to read Chinese (Simplified), see also “张骞出使西域的意义有哪些？张骞出使西域的影响”, 趣历史, October 27, 2015. http://www.qulishi.com/news/201510/49198.html
“The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was one of the longest of China’s major dynasties. In terms of power and prestige, the Han Dynasty in the East rivalled its almost contemporary Roman Empire in the West.” Cristian Violatti, “Han Dynasty,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, May 27, 2013. https://www.ancient.eu/Han_Dynasty/
A nomadic people of Central Asia who are believed to have been Indo-Europeans. The first detailed account of the Yuezhi is in Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji (史記) by Sima Qian, which describes Zhang Qian’s visit circa 129 BCE. See “The Han Histories”, Silk Road Seattle, September 24, 2003. https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html#sec13 Also Ulrich Theobald, “Yuezhi 月氏, Tokharians,” ChinaKnowledge.de, November 28, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Altera/yuezhi.html
The Xiongnu were a nomadic people whose military conquests antagonized the Han Dynasty. Their very name, given by the Han, reflects this: it translates roughly as “fierce slave”(匈奴). It has been proposed that the Xiongnu linked to the Huns due to similarities in the etymology of their names, but this is disputed. “Virtual Art Exhibition - Xiongnu,” Silk Road Seattle, March 8, 2002.
The Ferghana or Akhal-Teke horse, which was literally called “sweats blood” horse (汗血马) in Chinese. Yuko Tanaka, Sonoko Sato, and Makiko Onishi, “The Horses of the Steppe: The Mongolian Horse and the Blood-Sweating Stallions,” Digital Silk Road – Digital Archives of Cultural Heritage, March 16, 2010. Trans. Suijin Ra and adapted by Leanne Ogasawara. http://dsr.nii.ac.jp/rarebook/02/index.html.en Also “Heavenly horses – legend of the origin,” Advantour. https://www.advantour.com/uzbekistan/legends/heavenly-horses.htm
Gan Fu was a Xiongnu who had been captured in a war, who served as Zhang Qian’s guide. Dale A. Johnson, Lost Churches on the Silk Road (United States: New Sinai Press, 2013), 21. Also John Man, “War Over the Wall,” The Great Wall: The Extraordinary Story of China’s Wonder of the World (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2009), page numbers unavailable.
Wuwei was the chanyu or ruler of the Xiongnu Empire circa 114-105 BCE. There are little to no English language sources that detail his life. If you are able to read Chinese (Simplified), please see 杨献平, “第二十二章 武力巡边与西域之争，”《匈奴帝国》(Beijing: Beijing Book Co. Inc., 2009), page numbers unavailable. Also 水木森, 《一本書讀懂匈奴》(Taipei: 海鴿文化出版圖書有限公司, 2018), 275.
Ban liang (半两) is a type of coin currency first introduced by Emperor Qin Shi Huang. It was “a round coin with square hole in the middle”, which made it easy to string together and carry around. It occurred primarily in bronze. Marilyn Shea, “Ban Liang Coins Warring States Period 战国Shaanxi History Museum 陕西历史博物馆,” China Experience, March 2010. http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/Xian/Shaanxi_History/pages/124_History_Museum.html Also “Chin Ban-liang (bronze currency of the Chin Dynasty),” Digital Taiwan. http://culture.teldap.tw/culture/index.php?option=com_content&id=475
A knife-shaped currency which was introduced in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046-356 BC). Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Coins and Currency: An Historical Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (North Carolina: McFarland, 2019), 54 and 355. Also “coin; knife-money,” British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/C_1996-0217-239
Emperor Wu was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty, who ruled China for half a century. Urich Theobald, “Emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 Liu Che 劉徹,” ChinaKnowledge.de, March 8, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personshanwudi.html Also “Wudi Emperor of the Han Dynasty (156- 87 BC), Story of Han Dynasty EmperorWudi Emperor of the Han Dynasty (156- 87 BC), Story of Han Dynasty Emperor,” China Highlights. https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/china-history/wudi-emperor.htm
Qin Shi Huang was emperor of the Qin Dynasty, and “creator of the first unified Chinese empire”. Claudius Cornelius Müller, “Qin Shi Huang,” Encyclopædia Britannica, November 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Qin-Shi-Huang
Dayuan was a part of the Ferghana Basin or Valley, which is now spread across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in Central Asia. It was home of the aforementioned Ferghana or Akhal-Teke horse. Huping Shang, The Belt and Road Initiative: Key Concepts (New York: Springer, 2019), 71. Also Ulrich Theobald, “Dayuan 大宛,” ChinaKnowledge.de, November 26, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Altera/dayuan.html
The Kangju were “a federation of various tribes whose ruler resided in the city of Beitian”. They lived “in the area of modern Kazakhstan along the banks of River Syr Darya.” Ulrich Theobald, “Kangju 康居,” ChinaKnowledge.de, November 25, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Altera/kangju.html Also “China Focus: Archaeological cooperation along ancient Silk Road yields encouraging results,” Xinhua, May 20, 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-05/20/c_139072136.htm
The Wusun “were a nomad people living in the region of the Dzunghar Basin in the northwest of modern Xinjiang.” Ulrich Theobald, “Wusun 烏孫,” ChinaKnowledge.de, December 8, 2011. http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Altera/wusun.html Also “Kingdom of the Far East – Wusun,” The History Files. https://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsFarEast/AsiaWusun.htm
A type of coinage which replaced the ban liang. “A reference list of 5000 years of Chinese coinage,” Numista, June 13, 2013. https://en.numista.com/numisdoc/a-reference-list-of-5000-years-of-chinese-coinage-97.html
In the 1950s, a number of ban liang were found near Xi’an, one of which was unusually large, heavy, and made of silver. See Gary Ashkenazy, “State of Qin Silver Banliang Coin,” Primal Trek, April 29, 2015. http://primaltrek.com/blog/2015/04/29/state-of-qin-silver-banliang-coin/ The auction notice for the silver ban liang is also available in Chinese (Simplified): “秦 银质半两大钱,” 雅昌艺术品雅昌拍卖网. https://auction.artron.net/paimai-art5093530920/