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Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies

From: Journal of World History
Volume 12, Number 2, Fall 2001
pp. 261-292 | 10.1353/jwh.2001.0034

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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 261-292

Our general image of ancient civilizations is formed by the great agricultural empires of Eurasia. Nomadic pastoralists are most often regarded as predators to the sedentary-agricultural societies. Histories of many modern countries, however, not only retain signs of conflicts with the encroaching nomads, but also of "barbarian" impact on their culture. The interactions and interdependence between nomads and agriculturalists is an important topic of world history. Our knowledge of the phenomenon, though, is very much hindered by the dearth of information on nomads, especially those in early history, who left few literary sources and often very shallow archaeological remains for historians to explore. Luckily, neighboring sedentary societies did provide information about them, as those agricultural empires or states constantly engaged in military conflicts as well as diplomatic, commercial, marital, and other interactions with them. The Yuezhi people, who early resided near the border of the agricultural part of China and later migrated on the Eurasian steppe all the way to north India, eventually becoming the rulers of the vast agricultural-trading Kushan empire, comprised one of the nomadic groups better known by the sedentary societies of that time. Thus, to trace the migration and settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan people may be productive in understanding the contributions of nomadic people to world civilizations, or more specifically, the civilizations of China, India, the Eurasian steppe, and to a certain extent, that of West Asia and Europe.

An easy approach to studying the phenomenon of interdependence of nomads and sedentary societies is to examine the modern societies that emerged from ancient civilizations. Nowadays, the first stop of many tourists to China after their arrival at Beijing is often the Great Wall, so close to the capital of modern and medieval China; it is only a short drive to the ancient demarcation of agricultural lands from those of nomads. As a matter of fact, the very location of the capital was determined by the two different ecological zones. Similarly, in South Asia, in particular in Islamic Pakistan, one can easily perceive the extent of Turkish impact on architecture and clothing, for example. Even in Hindu-dominated India, the first tourist attraction is often the Taj Mahal, which is definitely non-Hindu but also definitely Indian, culturally. One might claim that both Chinese culture and Indian culture were created by the interactions of nomadic and sedentary cultures. This is also true for Iran, Turkey, and many parts of Europe.

Most visible influences of nomads on modern Indian and Chinese societies have been dated to the middle ages. But the story started long before then. At least on the Eurasian landscape, north of the ecological zone of agriculture, between mountains and deserts, the vast steppe was probably the earliest highway of communications. Nomads, or pastoralists who lived on stock raising, had better means of transportation than did agriculturalists. The dynamics of communication and transportation, however, was derived from the need and urge to exchange goods and ideas. In studying cultural and material exchanges in pre-modern Eurasia, the emphasis is often on east-west communications, whereas the centers of communications were major agricultural empires. Even when nomads entered the scene, they played the role of facilitating communications between east and west. While moving along the east-west routes in the region north of the agricultural zone, however, nomadic pastoralists frequently interacted with neighboring sedentary societies to the south. To a certain extent, the north-south dimension of the exchanges provided the dynamics for the movements of goods and ideas along the east-west routes; therefore it also must be introduced into the picture of the encounters of the old world.

From antiquity, on the vast grassland of Central Asia, many nomadic peoples migrated and conflicted. Those tribes that gained strength after absorbing other tribes through conquest or alliance rose to great confederacies or empires, and some of the defeated were forced to migrate away. Both conquerors and defeated might impose themselves on more vulnerable agricultural neighbors. While incursions into agricultural areas were a constant phenomenon along the borders of the two ecological zones, exploding nomadic empires occasionally flooded into agricultural lands and caused great damage...



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