Loulan Kingdom

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Loulan 樓蘭
A carved wooden beam from Loulan, 3rd-4th century. The patterns show influences from ancient western civilizations.
Loulan Kingdom is located in Xinjiang
Loulan Kingdom
Shown within Xinjiang
Location Xinjiang, China
Coordinates 40°31′39.48″N 89°50′26.32″E / 40.5276333°N 89.8406444°E / 40.5276333; 89.8406444Coordinates: 40°31′39.48″N 89°50′26.32″E / 40.5276333°N 89.8406444°E / 40.5276333; 89.8406444
Type Settlement
Site notes
Condition In ruins

Loulan, also called Krorän or Kroraina (simplified Chinese: 楼兰; traditional Chinese: 樓蘭; pinyin: Lóulán; Uyghur: كروران‎, ULY: Kroran ), and known to Russian archaeologists as Krorayina, was an ancient kingdom based around an important oasis city along the Silk Road already known in the 2nd century BCE on the north-eastern edge of the Lop Desert.[1] The term Loulan is the Chinese transcription of the native name Krorän, and is used to refer to the city located near Lop Nur as well as the kingdom.

The kingdom was renamed Shanshan (鄯善) after its king was assassinated by an envoy of Han Dynasty in 77 BCE;[2] however, the town at the northwestern corner of the brackish desert lake Lop Nur retained the name of Loulan. The kingdom included at various times settlements such as Niya, Charklik, Miran, and Qiemo. It was intermittently under Chinese control from the early Han Dynasty until its abandonment centuries later. The ruins of Loulan are near the now desiccated Lop Nur in the Bayin'gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, and are now completely surrounded by desert.[3]


Loulan silk fragment

A 3,800-year-old female mummy (c. 1800 BCE), the first of a series of mummies now known as the Tarim mummies, was discovered in Loulan in 1980, indicating very early settlement of the region.

Loulan was on the main route from Dunhuang to Korla, where it joined the so-called "northern route," and was also connected by a route southwest to the kingdom’s seat of government in the town of Wuni in the Charkhlik/Ruoqiang oasis, and from thence to Khotan and Yarkand.[4]

Early Han Dynasty[edit]

The first historical mention of Loulan was in a letter from the Chanyu of the Xiongnu to the Chinese Emperor in 126 BCE in which he boasted of conquering the Yuezhi, the Wusun, Loulan, and Hujie (呼揭), "as well as the twenty-six states nearby." In 126 BCE, the Chinese envoy Zhang Qian described Loulan as a fortified city near Lop Nur.[5]

Because of its strategic position on what became the main route from China to the West, during the Han Dynasty, control of it was regularly contested between the Chinese and the Xiongnu until well into the 2nd century CE.[6] In Hanshu, the early interactions of Loulan with the Han court were described in some detail.[7]

In the 2nd century BCE, the Emperor Wu of Han was interested in extending contact with Dayuan (Fergana) after receiving reports of the country from Zhang Qian. However, according to Chinese sources, Han envoys to Fergana were harassed by Loulan and Gushi. In 108 BCE, Loulan was attacked and its king captured, after which Loulan agreed to pay a tribute to Han China. The Xiongnu, on hearing of these events, also attacked Loulan. The king of Loulan therefore elected to send one of his sons as a hostage to the Xiongnu, and another to the Han court.

The king of Loulan was then taken to the Han court and interrogated about his association with the Xiongnu. The Hanshu records that:

The Han emperor was satisfied with the statement and released the king.

Oxhide boots from Loulan. Former Han dynasty 220 BCE - 8 CE.

In 92 BCE, the king of Loulan died, and his countrymen requested that the king's son be returned to Loulan. However, the Han court had castrated his son for infringement of Han laws and so it refused the request, claiming that the Han Emperor had grown too fond of him to let him go. Another king was installed in Loulan, and again a son was sent as hostage when demanded by the Han court. After the death of this king, the Xiongnu returned the hostage son sent to them, named Chang Gui or An Gui (嘗歸 or 安歸), to Loulan to rule as king. The Han, on hearing this, demanded that the new king present himself to the Han court. This, on his wife's advice, the king refused, on account of the fact that neither of the hostage sons sent to the Han court had been returned.

In 77 BCE, the Chinese envoy Fu Jiezi was sent to kill the Loulan king after several Han envoys were killed. He arrived on the pretext of carrying gold and valuables to the outer states and intending to present the king with gifts, but stabbed the Loulan king to death while he was drunk, and had severed head of the king hung from the northern gate tower.[9] The king's younger brother Wei-tu-qi (尉屠耆) was then installed as the king of Loulan by the Han court, and the kingdom was renamed Shanshan.[10]


Main article: Shanshan
Fragment of carpet discovered by Aurel Stein in a refuse pit at Loulan. 3rd–4th century.

After the Han Dynasty had gained control of Loulan, the renamed kingdom of Shanshan became a Chinese puppet state.[11] The newly installed king, fearing retribution from the sons of the assassinated king, requested that a contingent of Han forces be established in Yixun (伊循, variously identified as Charklik or Miran). Chinese army officers were therefore sent to colonise the area, and an office of commandant was established at Yixun.[12] A number of settlements in the Tarim Basin such as Qiemo and Niya were indicated in Hanshu to be independent states, but these later became part of Shanshan. While the name of the kingdom was changed to Shanshan by the Chinese, the Loulan region continued to be known as Kroran by the locals.

The region remained under Chinese control intermittently, and when China was weak in the Western Regions Loulan was essentially independent. In 25 CE it was recorded that Loulan was in league with the Xiongnu. Around 119, Ban Yong recommended that a Chinese colony of 500 men be established in Loulan.[13] A later military colony was established at Loulan by the Chinese General So Man. It was recorded that in 222 CE Shanshan sent tribute to China, and that in 283 the son of the king was sent as a hostage to the Chinese court during the reign of Emperor Wu of Jin Dynasty.[14] Loulan was also recorded as a dependent kingdom of Shanshan in the 3rd century Weilüe.[15] The town of Loulan was abandoned in 330 CE due to lack of water when the Tarim River, which supported the settlement, changed course; the military garrison was moved 50 kilometres (31 mi) south to Haitou (海頭). The fort of Yingpan to the northwest remained under Chinese control until the Tang Dynasty.[16] According to Weishu, in 442 CE, the king of Shanshan, named Bilong, fled to Qiemo (Cherchen) together with half of his countrymen after an attack by Juqu Anzhou on Shanshan, and Shanshan then came to be ruled by Qiemo.[17] In 445 Shanshan submitted to the Northern Wei. At the end of the 6th century, the Sui Dynasty established the city state of Shanshan.[11]

After the 5th century, however, the land was frequently invaded by nomads such as Tuyuhuns, the Rourans, and the Dingling, and the area gradually became abandoned. At around 630 (at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty period), the remaining Shanshan people, led by Shan Fu Tuo (鄯伏陁), migrated to Hami in the Northern area.[11] The Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang passed through this region in 644 on his return from India to China, visited a town called Nafubo (納縛波, thought to be Charklik) of the Loulan country, and he also wrote of Qiemo: "A fortress exists, but not a trace of man".[18]

Descriptions in historical accounts[edit]

Felt hat from Loulan. Early Han dynasty 202 BCE - 8 CE

According to Hanshu, Han envoys described the troops of Loulan as weak and easy to attack.[19] Shanshan was said to have 1570 households and 14,000 individuals, with 2912 persons able to bear arms,[20] It further describes the region thus:

According to Shui Jing Zhu, General Suo Mai (索勱, also So Man) of Dunhuang introduced irrigation techniques to the region by damming the Zhubin (possibly the Kongque) river to irrigate the fields, and produced bumper harvest for the next three years.[22]

The Buddhist pilgrim Faxian who stayed in Shanshan in 399 on the way to India, described the country thus:


The early settlers in Loulan were an Indo-European people called the Tocharians who lived in the region as early as 1800 BCE. Their language is sometimes called Tocharian C.[24] However, the official language used in the region from the third to fourth century CE was Prakrit written in Kharoshthi scripts, perhaps introduced by Gandharan migrants from the Kushan Empire around 200 CE.[25] The local language was not recorded except for proper names and around 150 loan words in the Kharoshthi scripts. The Gandharans also introduced Buddhism to Loulan.


Sven Hedin[edit]

The ruined city of Loulan was discovered by Sven Hedin who excavated some houses and found a wooden Kharosthi tablet and many Chinese manuscripts from the Western Jin Dynasty (265–420) which recorded that the area was called "Krorän" by the locals in Kharosthi (but which was rendered as "Lou-lan" in Chinese)[11][26]

Aurel Stein[edit]

Kharosthi document found in Loulan by Aurel Stein

Aurel Stein made further excavations in 1906 and 1914 around the old lake of Lop Nur, and identified sites in the area which he named L (standing for Loulan) followed by a letter of the alphabet (A to T) allocated in the chronological order the sites were visited.[27] Stein recovered many artifacts, including various documents, a wool-pile carpet fragment, some yellow silk, and Gandharan architectural wood-carvings.

L.A. - A walled settlement lying to the north of the lake. The thick wall is made of packed-earth and straw, and was over 1,000 feet (300 m) on each side, and 20 feet (6.1 m) thick at the base. It contains a large stupa and some administrative buildings and was occupied for a long time. This is usually thought to be the city of Loulan.
L.B. - A site with stupas at 13 km to the northwest of the L.A..
L.E. - A fortified town lying 30 kilometers to the northeast of L.A.. It is the only known city in the region with a northern gate. Since a northern gate was mentioned in the Han Chinese text about the assassination of the king of Loulan, this is therefore suggested by some to be the capital of Loulan in the 1st century BCE before the Han Chinese gained control the region. Others, however, argue that the northern gate does not refer to Loulan but Chang'an. The site was occupied until the late 3rd century CE.
L.F. - 10 kilometers (6 mi.) to the northwest of L.A., containing building foundations and a cemetery. Archaeologists discovered the body of a young man in a wooden coffin, wearing a felt hat and leather boots and lying under a woolen blanket. A bunch of ephedra twigs was placed beside him in a similar fashion to many much older burials found in the region.
L.K. - A walled city to the west of the lake with only a single gateway in the city wall. This has been identified as Haitou by some archaeologists.[28]
L.L. - A fortress lying 5 km north-west of L.K., similar in construction to L.K. but smaller.

Chinese archaeological expedition, 1979-1980[edit]

In 1979 and 1980, three archaeological expeditions sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Xinjiang Branch performed excavations in Loulan.[29] They discovered a man-made canal, 15 feet (4.6 m) deep and 55 feet (17 m) wide, running through Loulan from northwest to southeast; a 32-foot (9.8 m) high earthen dome-shaped Buddhist stupa; and a 41 feet (12 m) long by 28 feet (8.5 m) wide home, apparently for a Chinese official, housing 3 rooms and supported by wooden pillars. They also collected 797 objects from the area, including vessels of wood, bronze objects, jewelry and coins, and Mesolithic stone tools[30][31] Other reported (2003) finds in the area include additional mummies and burial grounds, ephedra sticks, a string bracelet that holds a hollowed jade stone, a leather pouch, a woolen loincloth, a wooden mask painted red and with large nose and teeth, boat-shaped coffins, a bow with arrows, and a straw basket.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 126 BCE the Chinese envoy, Zhang Qian described Loulan as a fortified city near the great salt lake or marsh known as Lop Nur. (Watson, Burton, trans. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II - Revised Edition. Columbia University Press, New York, p. 233).
  2. ^ Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty, p. 89. E. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 90-04-05884-2.
  3. ^ Mallory and Mair (2000). pp. 81-87.
  4. ^ Hill (2009), p. 88.
  5. ^ Watson (1993), p. 140.
  6. ^ Hill (2009), pp. 3, 7, 9, 11, 35, 37, 85-101.
  7. ^ Hanshu Chapter 96a, translation from Hulsewé 1979.
  8. ^ Hulsewé 1979, p. 87-88
  9. ^ Hulsewé 1979, p. 90.
  10. ^ Hulsewé (1979), p. 90-91.
  11. ^ a b c d Makiko Onishi and Asanobu Kitamoto. "Hedin, the Man Who Solved the Mystery of the Wandering Lake: Lop Nor and Lou-lan". Digital Silk Road. 
  12. ^ Hulsewé 1979, p. 91-92
  13. ^ Mallory, J. P. and Mair, Victor H. (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson. London. p. 86. ISBN 0-500-05101-1. 
  14. ^ Charles F.W. Higham, ed. (2004). Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilization. Fact on Files, Inc. pp. 309–311. ISBN 0-8160-4640-9. 
  15. ^ Annotated translation of the Weilüe by John E. Hill
  16. ^ Baumer, Christoph. (2000), pp. 125-126, 135-136. Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. Bangkok, White Orchid Books.
  17. ^ Weishu Original text: 真君三年,鄯善王比龍避沮渠安周之難,率國人之半奔且末,後役屬鄯善。 Translation: In the third year of Zhenjun, the Loulan king Bilong, so as to avoid troubles from Juqu Anzhou, led half his countrymen and fled to Qiemo, which later controlled Shanshan.
  18. ^ Da Tang Xiyu Ji Original text: 从此东行六百余里至折摩驮那故国。即涅末地也。城郭岿然人烟断绝。复此东北行千余里至纳缚波故国。即楼兰地也。
  19. ^ Hulsewé (1979), p. 86.
  20. ^ Hulsewé (1979), p. 83.
  21. ^ Hulsewé (1979), p. 85.
  22. ^ Shui Jing Zhu
  23. ^ James Legge (1886). Fa-Hien's Record Of Buddistic Kingdoms. Oxford University Press Warehouse. pp. 12–15. 
  24. ^ Mallory, J.P. "Bronze Age languages of the Tarim Basin" (PDF). Expedition 52 (3): 44–53. 
  25. ^ Valerie Hansen (2012). "Chapter 1: At the Crossroads of Central Asia - The Kingdom of Kroraina". The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0195159318. 
  26. ^ Hedin, Sven (1898). Through Asia. London: Methuen & Co. 
  27. ^ Christoph Baumer. "Explorer Club Flag 60 report" (PDF). The Explorers Club. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 7, 2014. 
  28. ^ "Unclosed the Mystery of the Ancient City LK". travel-silkroad.com. 
  29. ^ Ma Dazheng. An Overview of 20th Century Xinjiang Explorations. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Web site, 2003 May 22
  30. ^ "Loulan vanished in sand". Washington Times. 2005-01-13. 
  31. ^ Mallory, J. P. and Mair, Victor H. (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson. London. ISBN 0-500-05101-1. 


  • Hill, John E. (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.
  • Hulsewé, A. F. P. (1979). China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. E. Brill, Leiden. ISBN 90-04-05884-2.
  • Mallory, J. P. and Mair, Victor H. (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson. London. ISBN 0-500-05101-1.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. (1993). Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II - Revised Edition. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-08166-9 and ISBN 0-231-08167-7.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Downloadable article: "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age" Li et al. BMC Biology 2010, 8:15. [1]
  • Loulan, vanished in sand