Three pre-Han texts mention people who appear to be the Yuezhi, albeit under slightly different names.
The philosophical tract Guanzi is now generally believed to have been compiled around 26 BCE, based on older texts, including some from the Qi state era (11th to 3rd centuries BCE). (Most scholars no longer attribute its primary authorship to Guan Zhong, a Qi official in the 7th century BCE.) In the Guanzi (73, 78, 80 and 81), nomadic pastoralists known as the Yúzhī 禺氏 (Old Chinese: *ŋʷjo-kje) or Niúzhī 牛氏 (OC: *ŋʷjə-kje). They are described as supplying jade to the Chinese. The export of jade from the Tarim Basin, since at least the late 2nd Millennium BCE, is well-documented archaeologically. For example, hundreds of jade pieces found in the Tomb of Fu Hao (c. 1200 BCE) originated from the Khotan area, on the southern rim of the Tarim Basin. According to the Guanzi, the Yúzhī/Niúzhī, unlike the neighbouring Xiongnu, did not engage in conflict with nearby Chinese states.
In the early 4th Century BCE, the Tale of King Mu, Son of Heaven also mentions the Yúzhī 禺知 (OC: *ŋʷjo-kje). The Yi Zhou Shu (probably dating from the 4th to 1st Century BCE) makes separate references to the Yúzhī 禺氏 (OC: *ŋʷjo-kje) and Yuèdī 月氐 (OC: *ŋʷjat-tij), which may be a misspelling of Yuèzhī 月氏.
Sima Qian – who is widely regarded as the founder of Chinese historiography – describes how the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) bought jade and highly-valued military horses from a people that Sima Qian called the Wūzhī 烏氏 (OC: *ʔa-kje), led by a man named as Luo. Trading the jade and horses for Chinese silk, the Wūzhī were then selling these goods to other neighbours. This is probably the first reference to the Yuezhi as a lynchpin in trade on the Silk Road, which in the 3rd Century BCE began to link Chinese states to Central Asia and, eventually, the Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe.
The earliest detailed account of the Yuezhi is found in chapter 123 of the Records of the Great Historian by Sima Qian, describing a mission of Zhang Qian in the late 2nd century BCE. Essentially the same text appears in chapter 61 of the Book of Han, though Sima Qian has added occasional words and phrases to clarify the meaning. Both texts use the Chinese name "Yuezhi", written with the characters yuè (月) "moon" and shì (氏) "clan", with an Old Chinese pronunciation of *ŋʷjat-kje.
The account begins with the Yuezhi occupying the grasslands to the northwest of China at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE:
The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the western part of the modern Chinese province of Gansu, but no archaeological remains of the Yuezhi have yet been found in this area. Some scholars have argued that "Dunhuang" should be Dunhong, a mountain in the Tian Shan, and have placed the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 km further west (in the northern part of modern Xinjiang).
The Yuezhi were so powerful that the Xiongnu monarch Touman even sent his eldest son Modu as a hostage to the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi often attacked their neighbour the Wusun to acquire slaves and pasture lands. Wusun originally lived together with the Yuezhi in the region between Dunhuang and Qilian Mountain. The Yuezhi attacked the Wusuns, killed their monarch Nandoumi and took his territory. The son of Nandoumi, Kunmo fled to the Xiongnu and was brought up by the Xiongnu monarch.
Gradually the Xiongnu grew stronger and war broke out between them and the Yuezhi. There were at least four wars between the Yuezhi and Xiongnu according to the Chinese accounts. The first war broke out during the reign of the Xiongnu monarch Touman (who died in 209 B.C) who suddenly attacked the Yuezhi. The Yuezhi wanted to kill Modu, the son of the Xiongnu king Touman kept as a hostage to them, but Modu stole a good horse from them and managed to escape to his country. He subsequently killed his father and became ruler of the Xiongnu. It appears that the Xiongnu did not defeat the Yuezhi in this first war. The second war took place in the 7th year of Modu era (203 B.C.). From this war, a large area of the territory originally belonging to the Yuezhi was seized by the Xiongnu and the hegemony of the Yuezhi started to shake. The third war probably was at 176 BCE (or shortly earlier) and the Yuezhi were badly defeated.
Shortly before 176 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 (174 BCE) 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, Laoshang Chanyu (ruled 174–166 BCE), subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123.)
After their resounding defeat by the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi split into two groups. The so-called Greater (or Great) Yuezhi (Da Yuezhi) began migrating north-west circa 165 BCE,
The Great Yuezhi first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they defeated the Sai (Scythians): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Book of Han 61 4B). This was "the first historically recorded movement of peoples originating in the high plateaus of Asia."
In 132 BCE the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, again managed to dislodge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south-west. The Yuezhi passed through the neighbouring urban civilization of Dayuan (in Ferghana) and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of northern Bactria, or Transoxiana (modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).
The Yuezhi were visited in Transoxiana by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 BCE, which sought an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian, who spent a year in Transoxiana and Bactria, wrote a detailed account in the Shiji, which gives considerable insight into the situation in Central Asia at the time. The request for an alliance was denied by the son of the slain Yuezhi king, who preferred to maintain peace in Transoxiana rather than seek revenge.
Zhang Qian also reported:
the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li [832–1,247 kilometers] west of Dayuan, north of the Gui [Oxus ] river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia [Bactria], on the west by Anxi [Parthia], and on the north by Kangju [beyond the middle Jaxartes/Syr Darya]. 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.
In a sweeping analysis of the physical types and cultures of Central Asia, Zhang Qian reports:
Although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), 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.
Two centuries earlier, Bactria had been conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great and since settled by the Hellenistic civilization of the Seleucids. The resulting Greco-Bactrian Kingdom lasted until the 2nd century BCE. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground around 145 BCE. The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. The kingdom was finally overthrown by a group of nomadic peoples in 140 or 130 BCE. The Greek geographer Strabo mentions this event in his account of the central Asian tribes he called "Scythians":
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 [Syr Darya], opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani.
The Roman historian Pompeius Trogus (1st century BCE) attributes it to the Scythian tribes of the Sacaraucae and the Asiani "kings of the Tochari". Pompeius Trogus and Justin (2nd century CE) record that the Parthian king Artabanus II was mortally wounded in a war against the Tokhari in 124 BCE. Several relationships between these tribes and those named in Chinese sources have been proposed, but remain contentious.
By the time Zhang Qian arrived, the political structure of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom had disappeared, leaving a number of autonomous city-states under Yuezhi suzerainty:
Daxia is located over 2,000 li 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.
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 Yuezhi produced their own coins, imitating those of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
The central Asian people who called themselves Kushana, who were among the conquerors of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom during the 2nd century BCE, are widely believed to have originated as a dynastic clan or tribe of the Yuezhi. Because some inhabitants of Bactria became known as Tukhāra (Sanskrit) or Tókharoi (Τοχάριοι; Greek), these names later became associated with the Yuezhi.
The Kushana were an Europoid people, as indicated by the portraits of their kings on the coins they struck in Bactria (2nd–1st century BCE), portraits from statues in Khalchayan, Bactria in the 1st century BCE, and especially the coins which they struck in India as Kushans (1st–3rd century CE). They spoke Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language.
The next mention of the Yuezhi in Chinese sources is found in chapter 96A of the Book of Han, relating to the early 1st century BCE. At this time, the Yuezhi are described as occupying the whole of Bactria, organized into five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief. These tribes were known to the Chinese as:Xiūmì (休密) in Western Wakhān and Zibak;
Guìshuāng (貴霜) in Badakhshan and adjoining territories north of the Oxus;
Shuāngmí (雙靡) in the region of Shughnan;
Xīdùn (肸頓) in the region of Balkh, and;
Dūmì (都密) in the region of Termez.
After they settled in Bactria, the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree – as shown 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 and the Yuezhi were known as Tókharoi by the Greeks.
The Book of the Later Han 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 (Baldev Kumar (1973)).
A later Chinese annotation in Zhang Shoujie's Shiji (quoting Wan Zhen 萬震 in Nánzhōuzhì 南州志 ["Strange Things from the Southern Region"], a now-lost 3rd-century text from the Wu kingdom), describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. Chinese sources continued to use the name Yuezhi and seldom used the Kushan (or Guishuang) as a generic term:
The Great Yuezhi are located about seven thousand li [2,910 km] north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin [the Roman Empire]. The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it.
The area of the Hindu Kush (Paropamisadae) was ruled by the western Indo-Greek king until the reign of Hermaeus (reigned c. 90 BCE–70 BCE). After that date, no Indo-Greek kings are known in the area. According to Bopearachchi, no trace of Indo-Scythian occupation (nor coins of major Indo-Scythian rulers such as Maues or Azes I) have been found in the Paropamisade and western Gandhara. The Hindu Kush may have been subsumed by the Yuezhi, who by then had been dominated by Greco-Bactria for almost two centuries.
As they had done in Bactria with their copying of Greco-Bactrian coinage, the Yuezhi copied the coinage of Hermeaus on a vast scale, up to around 40 CE, when the design blends into the coinage of the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Such coins may provide the earliest known names of Yuezhi yabgu (a minor royal title, similar to prince, namely Sapadbizes and/or Agesiles, who both lived in or about 20 BCE.
Chapter 88 of the Book of the Later Han relies on a report of Ban Yong, based on the campaigns of his father Ban Chao in the late 1st century CE. It reports that one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi, the Kushanas (known in Chinese sources as Guishuang), had managed to take control of the tribal confederation:
More than a hundred years later, the xihou
(Ch:翖侯, "Allied Prince") of Guishuang, named Qiujiu Que (Ch: 丘就卻, Kujula Kadphises) attacked and exterminated the four other xihou ("Allied Princes"). He set himself up as king of a kingdom called Guishuang (Kushan). He invaded Anxi (Parthia) and took the Gaofu (Ch:高附, Kabul) region. He also defeated the whole of the kingdoms of Puda (Ch: 濮達) and Jibin (Ch: 罽賓, Kapiśa-Gandhāra). Qiujiu Que (Kujula Kadphises) was more than eighty years old when he died.
His son, Yan Gaozhen
(Ch:閻高珍) (Vima Takto), became king in his place. He returned and defeated Tianzhu (Northwestern India) and installed a General to supervise and lead it. The Yuezhi then became extremely rich. All the kingdoms call [their king] the Guishuang (Kushan) king, but the Han call them by their original name, Da Yuezhi. (Book of the Later Han
, trans. John Hill,).
After that point, they extended their control over the northwestern area of the Indian subcontinent, founding the Kushan Empire, which was to rule the region for several centuries. Despite their change of name, most Chinese authors continued to refer to the Kushanas as the Yuezhi.
The Kushanas expanded to the east during the 1st century CE. The first Kushan emperor, Kujula Kadphises, ostensibly associated himself with King Hermaeus on his coins, suggesting that he may have been one of the king's descendants by alliance, or at least wanted to claim his legacy.
The Kushanas integrated Buddhism into a pantheon of many deities and 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 centuries, 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. The Kushanas collaborated militarily with the Chinese against their mutual enemies. This included a campaign with the Chinese general Ban Chao against the Sogdians in 84 CE, when the latter were trying to support a revolt by the king of Kashgar. In around 85 CE, the Kushanas also assisted the Chinese in an attack on Turpan, east of the Tarim Basin.
Following the military support provided to the Han, the Kushan emperor requested a marriage alliance with a Han princess and sent gifts to the Chinese court in expectation that this would occur. After the Han court refused, a Kushan army 70,000 strong marched on Ban Chao in 86 CE. The army was apparently exhausted by the time it reached its objective and was defeated by the Chinese force. The Kushanas retreated and later paid tribute to the Chinese emperor Han He (89–106).
In about 120 CE, 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. There they introduced the Brahmi script, the Indian Prakrit language for administration, and Greco-Buddhist art, which developed into Serindian art.
Following this territorial expansion, the Kushanas introduce Buddhism to northern and northeastern Asia, by both direct missionary efforts and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Major Kushan missionaries and translators included Lokaksema (born c. 147 CE) and Dharmaraksa (c. 233 – c. 311), both of whom were influential translators of the Mahayana sutras into Chinese. They who went to China and established translation bureaus, thereby being at the center of the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
In the Records of the Three Kingdoms (chap. 3), it was recorded that in 229 CE, "The king of the Da Yuezhi [Kushanas], Bodiao 波調 (Vasudeva I), sent his envoy to present tribute, and His Majesty (Emperor Cao Rui) granted him the title of King of the Da Yuezhi Intimate with the Wei (Ch: 親魏大月氏王, Qīn Wèi Dà Yuèzhī Wáng)."
Soon afterwards, the military power of the Kushanas began to decline. The rival Sasanian Empire of Persia extended its dominion into Bactria during the reign of Ardashir I around 230 CE. The Sasanians also occupied neighboring Sogdia by 260 CE and made it into a satrapy.
During the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the Kushan Empire was divided and conquered by the Sasanians, the [[[Hephthalite]] tribes from the north, the Gupta and Yaudheya empires from India.
The relationship between the Yuezhi and other Central Asian peoples is unclear. Based on claimed similarities of names, different scholars have linked them to several groups, but none of these identifications is widely accepted.
There has been only limited scholarly support for a theory developed by W. B. Henning, who proposed that the Yuezhi were descended from the Guti (or Gutians) and an associated, but little known tribe known as the Tukri, who were native to the Zagros Mountains (modern Iran/Iraq), during the mid-3rd millennium BCE. In addition to phonological similarities between these names and *ŋʷjat-kje and Tukhāra , Henning pointed out that the Guti could have migrated from the Zagros to Gansu, by the time that the Yuezhi entered the historical record in China, during the 1st millenium BCE. However, the only material evidence presented by Henning, namely similar ceramic ware, is generally considered to be far from conclusive.
Another possible endonym of the Yuezhi was put forward by H. W. Bailey, who claimed that they were referred to, in 9th and 10th century Khotan Saka Iranian texts, as the Gara. According to Bailey, the Tu Gara ("Great Gara") were the Great Yuezhi. This is consistent with the Ancient Greek Τόχαροι Tokharoi (Latinised Tochari) in reference to the faction of the Kushans that conquered Bactria, as well as the Tibetan language name Gar (or mGar), for the members of the Lesser Yuezhi who settled in the Tibetan Empire.
When manuscripts dating from the 6th to 8th centuries CE written in two hitherto-unknown languages were discovered in the northern Tarim Basin, the early 20th-century linguist Friedrich W. K. Müller assumed that the authors were Tókharoi and referred to the newly discovered languages as "Tocharian". This became the common name for both the languages of the Tarim manuscripts and the people who produced them. Most historians now reject the identification of the Tocharians of the Tarim with the Tókharoi of Bactria, who are not known to have spoken any languages other than Bactrian. Other scholars suggest that the Kushanas may previously have spoken Tocharian before shifting to Bactrian on their arrival in Bactria, an example of an invading or colonising elite adopting a local language. However, while Tocharian contains some loanwords from Bactrian, there are no traces of Tocharian in Bactrian.
Scholars such as Edwin Pulleyblank, Josef Markwart (a.k.a. Joseph Marquart) and László Torday, suggest that Iatioi may be an attempt to render Yuezhi.
Proposed links with the Aorsi, Asii, Getae, Goths, Gushi, Massagetae, and other groups have also gathered little support.
Mallory and Mair suggest that the Yuezhi and Wusun were among the nomadic peoples, at least some of whom spoke Iranian languages, who moved into northern Xinjiang from the Central Asian steppe in the 2nd millennium BCE.