The Terracotta Army of China’s first emperor (credit: Wikimedia commons).


By Periklis Deligiannis




The Achaemenid Persian kings were the first to settle Greek runaways, prisoners of war and mercenaries in Ferghana (W.W. Tarn and others). In 329 BCE, Alexander founded in the same valley his fortress-colony Alexandria the Furthest settling there some of his veterans and other soldiers. In the years to come, there were additional Hellenic settlements in the valley and its surrounding areas (in modern Tajikistan and Eastern Uzbekistan). In 238 BCE, the Greek provincial ruler of Bactria, Sogdiane and Ferghana declared his independence from the Seleucid dynasty. The Greeks of Bactria and Ferghana started to extend their territory to all directions. Their expansion to India resulted in the founding of the Indo-Greek kingdom – independent from the Greco-Bactrian one – which reached the peak of its power under the warrior-king Menandros.

However the ancient geographer Strabo informs us that the Bactro-Greeks marched even beyond Alexandria the Furthest, that is in the Tarim Basin and “extended their kingdom as far as the Seres and the Phryni” (Strabo 11.XI.I). The Greeks were calling “Seres and Phryni” the Chinese and the Proto-Turks or the Tibetans.  There is some evidence that the Bactro-Greeks may have sent expeditions as far as Kashgar in the Tarim Basin in the end of the 3rd century BCE, that is around the reign of the First Emperor in China (221-210 BCE). In any case, the Hellenistic art was diffused in the Tarim Basin in this era and also during the 2nd century BCE. The aforementioned Hellenistic archaeological findings in the Urumqi Museum came from this diffusion. (As I have watched in a TV reportage on the issue, there are also strong indications for the settlement of some Greek craftsmen and artists in a city of the Tarim Basin and some of them may had moved to the east, to China proper).

In any case, the settlement of some Ta-Yuan Greek craftsmen and traders in the Tarim basin is probable enough, due to the adequate presence of Hellenistic items and styles in the area. If one or more Hellenic sculptors were involved in the building of the Chinese emperor’s Terracotta Army, they must have come from the rather peaceful expansion of the Bactrian and Ferghanian Greeks.

It is noteworthy that the certain Chinese geo-ethnic name ‘Yuan’  must have derived from the ancient Iranian term ‘Yauna’ (‘Ionian’) meaning the Greek (‘Yavana’ in Sanskrit of India). Thereby I believe that ‘Ta-Yuan’ means the ‘Upper Greeks’ because the Hellenes of Ferghana were the northernmost compared to the Bactrian and Seleucid Greeks. Even today, most Asian and Moslem peoples call the Greeks as ‘Ionians’ (Yunan, Yavan etc.).

Considering the arguments of the supporters of the Greek traveller’s theory, I am sceptical only for the argument of the mitochondrial DNA taken from skeletons at the site of Emperor Ch’in Shi Huang’s mausoleum and from Xinjiang province. It is quoted that the DNA samples denote the genetic presence of “Europeans” but I did not manage to find what is meant in the documentary with the term “Europeans”, that is if this term denotes the geographic-ethnic Europeans like the Greeks in Asia, or if it includes the Asians of Europoid physical type. I mention this because the indigenous population of the Tarim basin before the arrival of the Turks and the Chinese, were the Tocharians.

The Tocharians were an Indoeuropean people (ethnic group) of Central Asia who are described by the ancient Chinese historians to have Caucasoid features and very often blonde or red hair and blue or green eyes. The mummies of this people found in the Tarim basin look like Northern Europeans and thereby earlier in the 20th century some researchers thought that they belonged to a Celtic branch that had migrated to Asia, but this was an unscientific view: the mummies belong to Tocharians. (But even their textiles look like Celtic leading to this misunderstanding.) May be this is the reason why according to the documentary: “Mitochondrial DNA evidence suggests that not only were Europeans present in Xinjiang autonomous 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.”

Additionally the Tocharians were a part of the populace of the Valley of Wei River where the First emperor’s mausoleum was built. For these reasons it must be clarified if the European genetic presence which was found in those regions (Xinjiang and Wei River valley) belongs to Europeans proper that is the Greeks in our case, or if it belongs to Tocharians.

The most potent argument of the supporters of the Greek traveller’s theory is the artistic style of the Terracotta statues. I would add another argument to support this by reminding the posterior Indo-Greek Sculpture ‘School’ of Gandhara (Gandaris) which was certainly born from ancient Hellenic artistic influence on the locals and has given us unique artefacts of sculpture. However, the Indians were building much earlier life-sized and lifelike statues of Buddha and the Hindu gods. On the contrary, the Chinese craftsmen had no tradition of building statues that were life-sized, or lifelike before the building of the Terracotta Army, as the supporters of the “Greek traveller” theory observe. And indeed, this was not something the Greeks learned overnight, but took centuries to develop. The presence of Hellenic colonists and artists in Ferghana and the mentioned by Strabo expansion of these Greeks in the Tarim basin – a quotation which has been supported archaeologically as well – close enough to First emperor’s China, amplifies this argument.

If the Hellenic involvement in the building of China’s Terracotta Army will be accepted as a fact by the international scientific community, this historical discovery will be very important because it will actually refer to the first Europeans who managed to reach China. Around a century ago, it was believed that Marco Polo and his companions were the first Europeans who certainly reached China in the 13th century. Some years later, it was considered probable if not certain, that some merchants/citizens of the Roman Empire reached China around 1 BCE/1 CE. This discovery is supported by the accounts of Chinese chroniclers that some Roman Empire merchants managed to reach their county, but the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean world and China was already operational (the theory of the settlement in China of Roman prisoners of war of the Parthians, is no longer considered to be credible).

If the ancient Greeks were the first Europeans to reach China in the late 3rd century BCE, this discovery will have an analogous historical importance with the relatively recent discovery (some decades ago) that the Vikings were the first Europeans who certainly reached America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.


Periklis Deligiannis