A warrior of Hellenistic style along with a depiction of a centaur, woollen wall hanging, Sampul tapestry, 3rd or 2nd century BCE, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum. It is one of the most known items of Greek style in Tarim Basin in the era that the Terracota army was manufactured (credit: Wikimedia commons).


By Periklis Deligiannis


The main recent event concerning Archaeology and Ancient History is the estimation in a documentary jointly made by the BBC and National Geographic, of a group of archaeologists who continue the excavations at Emperor Ch’in Shi Huang’s Mausoleum with Dr. Li Xiuzhen being the Senior Archeologist, that there was a Hellenic involvement in the construction of the renowned “Terracotta Army” of the Emperor. “We now have evidence that close contact existed between the first emperor’s China and the west before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought,” said Li Xiuzhen. “We now think the Terracotta Army, the acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site, have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art.”

Professor Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian art history at Vienna University, and one of the group working on the history of the statues, supports the “Greek traveller’s theory”. Prof. Nickel recently translated an ancient Chinese text telling of certain lifelike, statues of humans appearing in western China during the reign of Emperor Ch’in. As he said in his own words: “I imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.”

As the Chinese and European supporters of the ‘Greek traveller’s theory’ concerning the building of the Terracotta Army, say: “Before this, Chinese craftsmen had no experience or tradition of building statues that were life-sized, or lifelike. This was not something the Greeks learned overnight, but took centuries to develop.” And they believe that Hellenic statuary may have made it to China in the 4th century BCE, sometime after Alexander the Great’s campaign in Ferghana.

As I could find after a research in American and British newspapers and official certified sites on the Internet (I did not manage to watch the BBC documentary), there is also the genetic evidence of “mitochondrial DNA taken from skeletons at the site of Emperor Ch’in Shi Huang’s mausoleum which puts Europeans in close contact with the Chinese far earlier than previously thought. These Europeans interbred with the local inhabitants at the time when the Terracotta army was created”. And additionally mitochondrial DNA evidence “suggests that not only were Europeans present in Xinjiang autonomous province (China’s westernmost province) earlier than it was believed, European settlements may predate Chinese ones in the area. Europeans may have even lived there during the emperor’s reign.”

Finally as it is mentioned in American and British newspapers and official certified sites on the Internet, researchers are already asking for more evidence, as these new theories could soon become controversial.



Top: Map of Asia in the 2nd century BCE. China, Tarim Basin, TaYuan and the Greco-Bactrian cradle are noted (credit: Wikimedia commons).


Bottom: map of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, Ferghana (Ta-Yuan) and the western part of Tarim Basin (unknown creator).




The readers are well aware of the history of Ch’in Shi Huang Ti, the first emperor of a unified China (reigned 221-210 BCE) and his Terracotta Army, and Alexander the Great’s campaign in Asia. Thereby I will go on without delay with a short discussion on the evidence for the Greek traveller’s theory, and I will deal with the origin of the Hellenic artists who were possibly involved in the building of the Terracotta Army.

Actually, it is almost a certainty long ago before the appearance of the present Greek traveller’s theory, that there was Hellenic presence inside the borders of modern P.R. of China, not so far away from the capital and the tomb of the first emperor near the modern city Xian (Shaanxi province), taking into account not so much the really large distances but the fact that the Chinese had stable relations with the Tarim Basin and its cities and populations. Xian was connected with the Tarim Basin through the geophysical and geostrategic “corridor” of the Gansu province, even if it wasn’t still totally controlled by the Chinese but everyone in the region was interested in trade. And the Greek presence in the Tarim basin, even if it was limited and short-lived, is almost a certainty for the international scientific community. Today in the archaeological museum of Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region which includes the Tarim basin, there are certain 3rd and 2nd century BC statuettes and ancient depictions of fighting men and other figures of Hellenic style (Boardman J.: “The diffusion of Classical art in Antiquity”, Princeton University Press, 1993).

But who were these Greeks in the region of modern Chinese Xinjiang, that may had provided the ‘traveler’ sculptor or sculptors who supposedly trained the Chinese for the building of the Terracotta Army? Where did they come from? In my opinion they came from the Hellenic settlements in the Ferghana valley of central Asia, immediately in the west of Xinjiang, bordering the Tarim basin. These were the Greeks of Ta-Yuan as the Chinese historians used to call their land in their chronicles “Records of the Grand Historian” and the “Book of Han”. The renowned Chinese explorer Zhang Chian also mentions Ta-Yuan in his accounts (130 BC) and the same goes for the numerous Chinese expeditions that followed him trying to establish an operational Silk Road.

The Chinese describe the people of Ta-Yuan (which land is generally accepted as relating to the Ferghana valley) as urbanized populations with Europoid morphological features. But these two accounts are not of much significance because the Tocharian and Iranian local population of this region were also urban dwellers and Europoids. The actually significant Chinese accounts for the Ta-Yuan people was that they lived in organized cities and had “customs identical to those of the Greco-Bactrians” that is the Hellenic settlers who lived further in the south, in Bactria. Additionally the Chinese explorers describe the Ta-Yuan as competent craftsmen and traders, and adorers of wine. The women had an important role and were much respected in the Ta-Yuan families and society.

Due to these Chinese accounts, the Ta-Yuan have been considered as the offspring of the Hellenic colonists that the Persian kings of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE and then Alexander the Great settled in Ferghana. These Greeks lived and flourished there during the period that interests us, first under the rule of Alexander and his Seleucid successors, and then under the rule of the Bactro-Greek kings.




Periklis Deligiannis