The History of Shanshan

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<u>The History of Shanshan </u>

The history of Shanshan, a kingdom that emerged in the 1st century BCE, is of great importance to East Asian history. It was founded on the eastern and southern margins of the Tarim basin and encompassed, at the height of its power, Lop Nur Lake.  

Lop Nur Lake was a highly strategic location on the Silk Roads, as this was the junction where merchants and travellers could chose to take either the northern or southern routes around the Taklamakan Desert.

The first mention of Shanshan in literary sources comes from the Shi Ji and the Han Shu, who describes the walled cities in the area where Shanshan was located. The Han Shu describes the state of Loulan, which was renamed as Shanshan, as “comprising 1570 households with 14,100 people located 1600 li (c.400 km, or 250 miles) from the Jade Gate, the official western border of the Han empire” (Higham, p.584).

Shanshan was a kingdom in its own right, but at times of strong central power in China, Shanshan was a client state. In 222 CE, the king of Shanshan sent tribute to the Chinese court (Higham, p.584). However, when the central government in China was weak, Shanshan became independent once more.

One of the reasons why Shanshan is an important aspect in the history of the Silk Road is due to the languages unearthed by archaeologists. A large amount of documents were found. Whilst the majority of these were written in Chinese, a mass were found in the Kharoshthi script (although these were found at Niya and Endere, two cities encompassed by the Shanshan kingdom).

The Kharosthi script was extensively used in Khotan, Kuci, Shanshan, Tunhuang, Luoyang, and other ancient Chinese cities along the Silk Road. So here we can see the interaction between different cultures, and the adoption of certain cultural traits.

One wooden tablet found in recent years records an agreement of divorce between a man by the name of Campira and his wife, Pamcapriyaka. It is the only tablet we have in the Kharosthi documents that concerns an agreement of divorce, providing new material for studying the social life and customs of the Shanshan people (Meicun, p.283).

All documents of the Shanshan kingdom numbered the years in accordance with the reign of its rulers. Only five kings are recorded in other Kharosthi documents.

The history of Shanshan is detrimental in Chinese history; continual research and archaeological excavations will help us to understand more about the part Shanshan played in the history ofg China.


Higham, Charles (2005) The Human Past – Complex Societies of East and Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, London.

Meicun, Lin (1990) A New Kharoṣṭhī Wooden Tablet from China, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies


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