Khotan - Capital of an Oasis State on the Silk Road in China

New HIghway along the Southern Silk Road to Khotan
New HIghway along the Southern Silk Road to Khotan. Getty Images / Per-Anders Pettersson / Contributor

Khotan (also spelled Hotian, or Hetian) is the name of a major oasis and city on the ancient Silk Road, a trade network that connected Europe, India, and China across the vast desert regions of central Asia beginning more than 2,000 years ago.

Khotan Fast Facts

  • Khotan was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Yutian, beginning in the 3rd century BCE.
  • It is located at the western end of the Tarim basin in what is today Xinjiang Province of China.
  • One of a handful of states who controlled trade and traffic on the Silk Road between India, China, and Europe. 
  • Its main exports were camels and green jade.

Khotan was the capital of an important ancient kingdom called Yutian, one of a handful of strong and more or less independent states who controlled travel and trade throughout the region for well over a thousand years. Its competitors at this western end of the Tarim basin included Shule and Suoju (also known as Yarkand). Khotan is located in south Xinjiang province, the westernmost province in modern China. Its political power was derived from its location on two rivers in the southern Tarim Basin of China, the Yurung-Kash and the Qara-Kash, south of the vast, nearly impassable Taklamakan Desert.

According to historical records, Khotan was a double colony, settled first in the third century BCE by an Indian prince, one of several sons of the legendary King Asoka [304–232 BCE] who were expelled from India after Asoka's conversion to Buddhism. A second settlement was by an exiled Chinese king. After a battle, the two colonies merged.

Trade Networks on the Southern Silk Road

Endless Dune In Taklamakan Desert
Endless dune in Taklamakan desert, in southern Xinjiang province of China.  Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

The Silk Road should be called the Silk Roads because there were several different wandering pathways across Central Asia. Khotan was on the main southern route of the Silk Road, which began at the city of Loulan, close to the entry of the Tarim River into Lop Nor.

Loulan was one of the capital cities of Shanshan, a people who occupied the desert region west of Dunhuang north of Altun Shan and south of Turfan. From Loulan, the southern route led 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) to Khotan, then 370 mi (600 km) further to the foot of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan. Reports say it took 45 days to walk from Khotan to Dunhuang; 18 days if you had a horse.

Shifting Fortunes

The fortunes of Khotan and the other oasis states varied over time. The Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian in 104–91 BCE, implies that Khotan controlled the entire route from Pamir to Lop Nor, a distance of 1,000 mi (1,600 km). But according to the Hou Han Shu (Chronicle of the Eastern Han or Later Han Dynasty, 25–220 CE) and written by Fan Ye, who died in 455 CE, Khotan "only" controlled a section of the route from Shule near Kashgar to Jingjue, an east-west distance of 500 mi (800 km).

What is perhaps most likely is that the independence and power of the oasis states varied with the power of its clients. The states were intermittently and variously under the control of China, Tibet or India: In China, they were always known as the "western regions," regardless of who currently controlled them. For example, China controlled traffic along the southern route when political issues cropped up during the Han Dynasty about 119 BCE. Then, the Chinese decided that although it would be beneficial to maintain the trade route, the territory was not critically important, so the oasis states were left to control their own destiny for the next few centuries.

Commerce and Trade

Trade along the Silk Road was a matter of luxury rather than necessity because the long distances and limits of camels and other pack animals meant that only high-value goods—in particular in relation to their weight—could be economically carried.

Khotan Jade from the Qing Dynasty, China (1644–1912)
An Imperial Khotan-Green Jade Seal from the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period.  Marco Secchi / Getty Images

The main export item from Khotan was jade: the Chinese imported green Khotanese jade beginning at least as long ago as 1200 BCE. By the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Chinese exports traveling through Khotan were primarily silk, lacquer, and bullion, and they were exchanged for jade from central Asia, cashmere and other textiles including wool and linen from the Roman empire, glass from Rome, grape wine and perfumes, slaves, and exotic animals such as lions, ostriches, and zebu, including the celebrated horses of Ferghana.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the main trade goods moving through Khotan were textiles (silk, cotton, and linen), metals, incense, and other aromatics, furs, animals, ceramics and precious minerals. Minerals included lapis lazuli from Badakshan, Afghanistan; agate from India; coral from the ocean shore in India; and pearls from Sri Lanka.

Khotan Horse Coins

Six Zhu Sino-Kharosthi coin
Six Zhu Sino-Kharosthi coin with the image of a horse surrounded by Kharosthi script, circa 1st-2nd century CE. Gohyuloong

One evidence that the commercial activities of Khotan must have extended at least from China to Kabul along the Silk Road, is that indicated by the presence of Khotan horse coins, copper/bronze coins found all along the southern route and in its client states.

Khotan horse coins (also called Sino-Kharosthi coins) bear both Chinese characters and the Indian Kharosthi script denoting the values 6 zhu or 24 zhu on one side, and the image of a horse and the name of an Indo-Greek king Hermaeus at Kabul on the reverse side. Zhu was both a monetary unit and a weight unit in ancient China. Scholars believe Khotan horse coins were used between the first century BCE and the second century CE. The coins are inscribed with six different names (or versions of names) of kings but some scholars argue that those are all differently-spelled versions of the same king's name.

Khotan and Silk

Khotan's best-known legend is that it was ancient Serindia, where the West is said to have first learned of the art of silk making. There is no doubt that by the 6th century CE, Khotan had become the center of silk production in Tarim; but how silk moved out of eastern China into Khotan is a tale of intrigue.

The story is that a king of Khotan (perhaps Vijaya Jaya, who reigned about 320 CE) convinced his Chinese bride to smuggle seeds of the mulberry tree and silkworm pupa cases hidden in her hat on her way to Khotan. A fully sizeable silkworm culture (called sericulture) was established in Khotan by the 5th–6th centuries, and it is likely to have taken at least one or two generations to get it started.

History and Archaeology at Khotan

Documents referring to Khotan include Khotanese, Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese documents. Historic figures who reported visits to Khotan include the wandering Buddhist monk Faxian, who visited there in 400 CE, and the Chinese scholar Zhu Shixing, who stopped there between 265–270 CE, searching for a copy of the ancient Indian Buddhist text Prajnaparamita. Sima Qian, the writer of the Shi Ji, visited in the mid-second century BCE.

The first official archaeological excavations at Khotan were conducted by Aurel Stein in the early 20th century, but looting of the site began as early as the 16th century.

Sources and Further Information