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Location of Kucha within Xinjiang with the county of Kucha in pink, and the prefecture of Aksu in yellow.

Kucha or Kuche (also: Kuçar, Kuchar; Uyghur: كۇچار‎, simplified Chinese: 龟兹; traditional Chinese: 龜茲; pinyin: Qiūcí; also romanized as Qiuzi, Qiuci, Chiu-tzu, Kiu-che, Kuei-tzu from Chinese: 屈支 屈茨; 龜玆; 龟兹, 丘玆; Sanskrit: Kucina[1]) was an ancient Buddhist kingdom located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin and south of the Muzat River.

The area lies in present day Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang, China; Kuqa City itself is the county seat of that prefecture's Kuqa County. Its population was given as 74,632 in 1990.


  • Etymology of Kucha 1
  • History 2
    • Tang Dynasty 2.1
    • Modern 2.2
  • Archaeological investigations 3
  • Kucha and Buddhism 4
    • Monasteries 4.1
    • Nunneries 4.2
    • Monks 4.3
      • Po-Yen 4.3.1
      • Po-Śrīmitra 4.3.2
      • Po-Yen 4.3.3
  • Tocharian languages 5
  • Neighbors 6
  • Kucha and the Kizil Caves 7
  • Timeline 8
  • Sources 9
  • See also 10
  • Footnotes 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Etymology of Kucha

Chinese transcriptions of the Han or the Tang also infer an original form Küchï, but the form Guzan, representing [Küsan], is attested in seventh century Old Tibetan (in the Old Tibetan Annals, s.v. year 687).[2] Mongol Empire-period Uighur and Chinese transcriptions support the form Küsän/Güsän/Kuxian/Quxian rather than Küshän or Kushan (Yuanshi, chap. 12, fol 5a, 7a). (The form Kūsān is still attested in the early-modern work, Tarikh-i-Rashidi, Cf. ELIAS and ROSS, Tarikh-i-Rashidi, in the index, s. v. Kuchar and Kusan: “One MS. [of the Tarikh-i-Rashidi] reads Kus/Kusan. Both names were used for the same place, as also Kos, Kucha, Kujar, etc., and all appear to stand for the modern Kuchar of the Turki-speaking inhabitants, and Kuché of the Chinese. An earlier Chinese name, however, was Ku-sien.” Elias (1895), p. 124, n. 1.) However, transcriptions of the name 'Kushan' in Indic scripts from late Antiquity include the spelling Guṣân, and are apparently reflected in at least one Khotanese-Tibetan transcription.[3] The history of the toponyms corresponding to modern 'Kushan' and 'Kucha' remain somewhat problematic.[4]


Tarim Basin in the 3rd century

According to the Book of Han, Kucha was the largest of the 'Thirty-six kingdoms of the Western Regions', with a population of 81,317, including 21,076 persons able to bear arms.[5]

Tang Dynasty

During the periods of Tang domination during the Early Middle Ages, the city of Kucha was usually one of the 'Four Garrisons' of An-hsi (Anxi) the 'Pacified West',[6] typically the capital of it. During periods of Tibetan domination it was usually at least semi-independent. It fell under Uighur domination and became an important center of the later Uighur Kingdom after the Kirghiz destruction of the Uighur steppe empire in 840.[7]

For a long time Kucha was the most populous oasis in the Tarim Basin. As a Central Asian metropolitan center, Kucha was part of the Silk Road economy, and was in contact with the rest of Central Asia, including Sogdiana and Bactria, and thus eventually with the peripheral cultures of India, Persia, and China.[8] The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited Kucha and in the 630s described Kucha at some length, and the following are excerpts from his descriptions of Kucha:[9]

A specific style of music developed within the region and "Kuchean" music gained popularity as it spread along the trade lines of the Silk Road. Lively scenes of Kuchean music and dancing can be found in the Kizil Caves and are described in the writings of Xuanzang.

Kuchean music was very popular in China during the Tang Dynasty, particularly the lute which became known in Chinese as pipa.[11] For example, within the collection of the Musée Guimet, two Tang female musician figures represent the two prevailing traditions: one plays of a Kuchean pipa and the other plays a Chinese jiegu (an Indian-style drum).[12] The 'music of Kucha' was transmitted from China to Japan, along with other early medieval music, during the same period, and is preserved there, somewhat transformed, as gagaku, or Japanese court music.[13]

The extensive ruins of the ancient capital city, in Chinese Guici [the 'City of Subashi'], lie 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of modern Kucha.


Francis Younghusband, who passed through the oasis in 1887 on his journey from Beijing to India, described the district as "probably" having some 60,000 inhabitants. The modern Chinese town was about 700 yards (640 m) square with a 25 ft (7.6 m) high wall, with no bastions or protection to the gateways, but a ditch about 20 ft (6 m) deep around it. It was filled with houses and "a few bad shops". The "Turk houses" ran right up to the edge of the ditch and there were remains of an old Turk city to the south-east of the Chinese one, but most of the shops and houses were outside of it. About 800 yards (732 m) north of the Chinese city were barracks for 500 soldiers out of a garrison he estimated to total about 1500 men, who were armed with old Enfield rifles "with the Tower mark."[14]

Modern day Kucha is divided into the new city (xin cheng) which includes the People's Square and transportation center, and the old city (lao cheng) where the Friday market and vestiges of the past city wall and cemetery are located. Along with agriculture, the city also manufactures cement, carpets and other household necessities in its local factories.

Archaeological investigations

There are several significant archaeological sites in the region which were investigated by the Third (1905–1907 – led by Albert Grünwedel) and Fourth (1913–1914 – led by Albert von Le Coq) German Turfan expeditions.[15][16] Those in the immediate vicinity include the cave site of Achik-Ilek and Subashi.

Kucha and Buddhism

Bust of a bodhisattva from Kucha, 6th-7th century. Guimet Museum.

It was an important Buddhist center from Antiquity until the late Middle Ages. Buddhism was introduced to Kucha before the end of the 1st century, however it was not until the 3rd century that the kingdom became a major center of Buddhism, primarily the Sarvastivada school of the Sthavira or Śrāvakayāna branch, but eventually also Mahayana during the Uighur period. (In this respect it differed from Khotan, a Mahāyāna-dominated kingdom on the southern side of the desert.)

According to the Book of Jin, during the third century there were nearly one thousand Buddhist stupas and temples in Kucha. At this time, Kuchanese monks began to travel to China. The fourth century saw yet further growth for Buddhism within the kingdom. The palace was said to resemble a Buddhist monastery, displaying carved stone Buddhas, and monasteries around the city were numerous.

Kucha is well known as the home of the great fifth-century translator monk Kumārajīva (344-413).


  • Ta-mu had 170 monks
  • Che-hu-li on Po-shan (Chinese 白山?; pinyin: bai shan?), a hill to the north of the town, had 50 or 60 monks.
  • Another monastery, founded by the king of Wen-Su (Uch-Turpan) had 70 monks.


There were two nunneries at A-li (Avanyaka):

  • Liun-jo-kan: 50 nuns
  • A-li-po: 30 nuns

Another nunnery, Tsio-li, was 40 li north of Kucha and is famous as the place where Kumārajīva's mother Jīva retired.



A monk from the royal family known as Po-Yen travelled to the Chinese capital, Luoyang, from AD 256-260. He translated six Buddhist texts into Chinese in 258 at China's famous White Horse Temple, including the Infinite Life Sutra, an important sutra in Pure Land Buddhism.


Po-Śrīmitra was another Kuchean monk who traveled to China from 307-312 and translated three Buddhist texts.


A second Kuchean Buddhist monk known as Po-Yen also went to Liangzhou (modern Wuwei, Gansu, China) and is said to have been well respected, although he is not known to have translated any texts.

Tocharian languages

Wooden plate with inscription in a Tocharian language. Kucha, 5th-8th century. Tokyo National Museum.

The language of Kucha, as evidenced by surviving manuscripts and inscriptions, was Tokharian (Tocharian), an Indo-European language. Later, under the Uighur domination, the Kingdom of Kucha gradually became Turkic speaking.

In the early 20th century inscriptions and documents in two new related (but mutually unintelligible) languages were discovered at various sites in the Tarim Basin written in Central Asian Brahmi script. It was soon found that they belonged to the Indo-European family of languages and had not undergone the Satem sound change. The only records of East Tokharian, or "Tokharian A" (from the region of Turfan [Turpan] and Karashahr), and West Tokharian, or "Tokharian B" (mainly from the region of Kucha, but also found in Turfan and elsewhere), are of relatively late date – approximately 6th to 8th century CE (though the dates are contested); but the people arrived in the region much earlier. Their languages became extinct before circa 1000 CE. Scholars are still trying to piece together a fuller picture of these languages, their origins, history and connections, etc.[17]


The kingdom bordered Aksu then Kashgar to the west, and Karasahr then Turpan to the east. Across the Taklamakan desert to the south was Khotan.

Kucha and the Kizil Caves

The Kizil (Thousand Buddha) Caves lie about 70 km (43) miles northwest of Kucha and were included within the rich fourth-century kingdom of Kucha. The caves claim origins from the royal family of ancient Kucha, specifically a local legend involving Princess Zaoerhan, the daughter of the King of Quici (Kucha). While out hunting, the princess met and fell in love with a local mason. When the mason approached the king to ask for permission to marry the princess, the king was appalled and vehemently against the union. He told the young man he would not grant permission unless the mason carved 1,000 caves into the local hills. Determined, the mason went to the hills and began carving in order to prove himself to the king. After three years and carving 999 caves, he died from the exhaustion of the work. The distraught princess found his body, and grieved herself to death, and now, her tears are said to be current waterfalls that cascade down some of the cave's rock faces.[18]



See also


  1. ^ 中印佛教交通史
  2. ^ Beckwith 1987, p. 50.
  3. ^ Beckwith 1987, p. 53.
  4. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. 381, n=28.
  5. ^ Hulsewé and Loewe (1979), p. 163, and note 506.
  6. ^ Beckwith 1987, p. 198.
  7. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. 157 ff.
  8. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. xix ff.
  9. ^ Daniel C. Waugh. "Kucha and the Kizil Caves". Silk Road Seattle. University of Washington. 
  10. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes a History of Central Asia. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. p. 98. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ Sims-Williams, edited by Susan Whitfield with Ursula (2004). The Silk Road : trade, travel, war and faith : [Exhibition, British library, 7 may-12 september 2004]. Chicago (Ill.): Serindia Publications. pp. 254–255.  
  13. ^ Laurence E. R. Picken and Noel J. Nickson (2000). Music from the Tang court 7. Cambridge University Press.  
  14. ^ Younghusband (1896), p. 152.
  15. ^ Le Coq, Albert (1922–1933). Die Buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien. Ergebnisse der Kgl. Preussischen Turfan-Expeditionen. Berlin. 
  16. ^ "German Collections". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  17. ^ Mallory and Mair (2000), pp. 270-296, 333-334.
  18. ^ Bonavia, Jeremy Tredinnick, Christoph Baumer, Judy (2008). Xinjiang : China's Central Asia. Hong Kong: Odyssey.  


  • Beckwith, Christopher I. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1987; revised edition 1993.
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2009.
  • Grousset, Rene. The Empires of the Steppes a History of Central Asia. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick 1970.
  • Hulsewé, A. F. P. and M. A. N. Loewe, China in Central Asia: The Early Stage: 125 B.C.-A.D. 23. Leiden E. J. Brill (1979) ISBN 90-04-05884-2.
  • Mallory, J. P. and Victor H. Mair. (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames & Hudson, London. ISBN 0-500-05101-1.
  • Younghusband, Francis E. (1896). The Heart of a Continent. John Murray, London. Facsimile reprint: (2005) Elbiron Classics. ISBN 1-4212-6551-6 (pbk); ISBN 1-4212-6550-8 (hardcover).

External links

  • Silk Road Seattle - University of Washington (The Silk Road Seattle website contains many useful resources including a number of full-text historical works)
  • Kucha at Google Maps

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