Yuezhi and Asii – pt 1 – Merchants and Buddhist prophets

The Yuezhi were an Indo-European tribe of nomadic pastorals. Around the 1st millennium BC, they lived in the western parts of the modern Chinese province of Gansu. In 176 BC the Yuezhi were defeated by Xiongnu and left their homeland. The “Greater Yuezhi” traveled through Kazakhstan, and from there to southern Sogdia and Bactria. Scholars assume that they relate to the Tókharioi and Asii (Asioi) who overrun the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.

The Kushans, one of the five major Yuezhi tribes, founded the great Kushan empire between the 1-3 centuries AD. This empire stretched from the Tarim Basin to the Gangetic plain of India. They had a crucial role in both, development of the Silk Road, as well as the spread of Buddhism to China.

The migrations of the Yuezhi through Central Asia, from around 176 BC to 30 AD, Wikipedia commons

Asii – the “true” Asians

The identification between Asii and Yuezhi is interesting but probably untrue. The Asii were also known as Osii, Ossii, Asoi, Asioi, Asini, Aseni and Asiani in ancient texts. One of the most plausible theories connects them to modern-day Ossetians. It seems pretty logical. But the only reason that historians are doubting this connection is that this would require Alans to be present on a vast Asian territory, stretching for thousands of kilometers.

But the name of the whole continent that we today know as Asia probably comes from this Asiani tribe. This may be a hard one to swallow, but the term “Asian” originally referred to the Caucasian people living east of the Sea of Azov. Not only that the Sea of Azov even nowadays marks the border with Asia, but even its name probably comes from these same Asii. Besides the fact that they were the first nation that a western traveler would encounter while entering the Asian continent, it seems that their original homeland was much deeper in Asia.

In antiquity, the Sea of Azov was known as Maeotis. The change to “Azov” came shortly after the Asii migrated there from the east. Before that, we see Asii in Bactria, together with Yuezhi and Tocharians.

But the Iranian-speaking Asii simply cannot be the same as Yuezhi. Namely, another plausible mainstream theory identifies them with the Wusun of Chinese sources. The Iranian-speaking Wusun were indeed the neighbors of Yuezhi, even in their “Chinese” homeland. Both tribes then migrated towards Sogdia and Bactria, pushed by the Xiongnu – the Huns. But their relationships were not amicable. In fact, most of the ancient accounts mention wars between these nations.

The Kushan empire of Yuezhi

The 2nd century BC Chinese account, Book of Han, 61, states that Yuezhi was a nomadic horde who followed their cattle. They had more than 100,000 soldiers. A later account from 126 BC defines their new territory around the Oxus river, between Bactria and Parthia. This time they have 100-200,000 archers in their ranks.

Chinese accounts from the 1st century AD claim that during the 1st century BC the whole of Bactria was under the control of a confederation of five Yuezhi tribes. One of these tribal leaders overpowered the other four and thus created the great Kushan empire.

During the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Kushan Empire expanded militarily to the north and occupied parts of the Tarim Basin, putting them at the center of the lucrative Central Asian commerce with the Roman Empire. The Kushanas also collaborated militarily with the Chinese. According to Alain Daniélou, their empire was the central point of the major civilizations. Kushans had highly developed art, science, and philosophy, but unfortunately, nowadays we can only rely on Chinese sources.

Yuezhi – the Buddhist prophets

It was the Kushans who brought Buddhism to the north and northeast Asia. Their scholars had translated many texts, opened many temples, and the ideas spread on the Silk Road which they controlled. The Kushan king Kanishka is regarded as one of the biggest benefactors of Buddhism of all time. According to the Book of Later Han, Buddhist Yuezhi prophets were in China already in the 2nd century BC.

Yuezhi in northern Vietnam?

It is quite possible that there was a strong Yuezhi presence in northern Vietnam, completely forgotten to history. Namely, there were numerous provinces and prefectures in North Vietnam that had the name Jiaozhi. Giao Chỉ (Jiaozhi) was the earliest name of the state of Văn Lang, north of Hanoi. The Qin general Zhao Tuo conquered the region in 204 BC and divided the province into two commanderies – Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen.

The etymology of this toponym had puzzled scholars for a long time. The Wikipedia article offers many theories, with a remark that they are uncertain. This is a region with a turbulent history, marking the very border between China and Vietnam.

Kang Senghui – the Sogdian Buddhist monk of North Vietnam

So, are there any connections between Yuezhi and Jiaozhi, other than similar-sounding names? Perhaps there are. The Wikipedia article on Jiaozhi province gives us another interesting clue. In the 3rd century Jiaozhi, there lived a famous Sogdian Buddhist monk. His name was Kang Senghui. (the Vietnamese name is Khương Tăng Hội)

Now, this is really interesting, as a Sogdian monk must be literally of the same stock as the Yuezhi. Also, his name Kang gives us a precise location of his origin. Wikipedia article on Sogdians states that the name “Kang” (康) designates a person from Samarkand.

In short, this Buddhist monk who lived in Jiaozhi, North Vietnam during the 3rd century AD was a Sogdian man from Samarkand. But this was not just any monk, buts the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in Vietnam. Kang Senghui was a well-educated man, familiar with Confucian classics as well as the Sanskrit Buddhist cannons. He also gets the credit of bringing the first Buddha relic in China, in the year 248 AD.

Jiaozhi, north Vietnam and the ancient roman empire

Besides being the birthplace of a person largely responsible for the spread of Buddhism in this part of Asia, Jiaozhi is interesting for one more reason. It was an important commercial hub for trade with the ancient Romans. And at this precise point in time, this role of a mediator between Rome and China belonged to Yuezhi – Kushans. Moreover, the name of this Vietnamese province in the Malays tongue was Kuchi. It became Cochin-China for the Portuguese traders of c. 1516. (!)

The Chinese Book of Liang states that Roman merchants (Da Qin in Chinese) often visit Funan (Mekong Delta), Rinan (Annam) and Jiaozhi (North Vietnam). In 226 AD, the Wu emperor Sun Quan brought one of this merchants from Jiaozhi to his court, to learn more about the Roman empire. The Chinese record of the name of this Roman merchant was “Qin Lun”.

But the Roman presence in Asia dates at least to the 1st century BC. This is how old is the Republican-era glassware, found in a tomb in Guangzhou, China. In Vietnam, the findings at Óc Eo (Mekong Delta) include the golden medallions of Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Óc Eo was probably the port Katiigara, from the maps of Ptolemy.

Conclusions

The original homeland of the Caucasian Yuezhi was on the western border with China. Pushed by the Huns, they migrated to Sogdia and Bactria. There, they may have adopted Buddhism from the Scythians, who were already present in the region. The relationship between Yuezhi and Scythians is not clear. But in essence, Buddhism was probably a Scythian religion, as Buddha was referred to as a blue-eyed and white-skinned Sakyamuni – the sage of the Sakha clan.

Kushan empire took over most of northern India as well as the control over the silk road. Their good relationship with China allowed them to focus on commerce and prosper. At the same time, Bactria and Sogdiana were trading with Rome.

Kushans were one of the main factors for the spread of Buddhism in Asia. And as we just saw, a man from Samarkand was one of the most important prophets in Northern Vietnam. The province of Yioazhi is his birthplace, and at the same time, it was an important trade hub with Rome.

Could we, therefore, assume that Jiaozhi – Kuchi was originally a settlement of Yuzehi – Kushans?

Perhaps the Yuezhi were allowed to settle here not only because of the trade connections and easier communication with Romans, but also to be a sort of a buffer between the warring nations of China and Vietnam? This is just my assumption, as there are no Chinese records that mention such an event. But in any case, an image of a Caucasian Buddhist prophet and ancient Roman traders in the small town of a 2-3 century AD northern Vietnam is incredible and mind-boggling for itself.

And these are simply the facts.

On the following image I compared the original Yuezehi homeland, with the Jiaozhi of North Vietnam.

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