The Tocharians were an Indo-European people who inhabited the Tarim basin in what is now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwestern People's Republic of China from the 1st millenium BCE to the end of the 1st millenium CE.
Earlier mummified burials suggest that precursors of these easternmost speakers of an Indo-European language may have lived in the region of the Tarim Basin from around 1000 BCE until finally they were assimilated by Uighur Turks in the 8th century CE. There is evidence both from mummies and Chinese writings that many of them had blond or red hair and blue eyes. This suggests the possibility that they were part of an early Indo-European migration that ended in what is now the Tarim Basin in western China. According to a controversial theory, early invasions by Turkic speakers may have pushed Tocharian speakers out of the Tarim Basin and into modern Afghanistan, India, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Textile analysis has shown some similarities to the Iron Age civilizations of Europe. One of the unusual finds with one of the mummies was a classical "witch's hat", which was worn by the witches of European myth, suggesting very ancient Indo-European roots for this tradition. Women also wore the same kind of skirts as have been found preserved in graves from the Nordic Bronze Age.
Main article: Tocharian languages
The Tocharians spoke an group of Indo-European language called the Tocharian languages, and also sometimes referred to as Kuchean. Besides the religious texts, the texts include monastery correspondence and accounts, commercial documents, caravan permits, and medical and magical texts. Their late manuscript fragments, of the 7th and 8th centuries, suggest that they were no longer either as nomadic or as barbaric as the Chinese had considered them.
The Tocharians, living along the Silk Road, had contacts with the Chinese and Persians, and Turkic, Indian and Iranian tribes. They may have been the same as, or were related to, the Indo-European Yuezhi who fled from their settlements in the eastern Tarim Basin under attacks from the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BCE (Shiji Chinese historical Chronicals, Chap. 123) and expanded south to Bactria and northern India to form the Kushan Empire.
The Tocharians who remained in the Tarim Bassin adopted their Buddhism, like their alphabet, came from northern India in the first century of the 1st millenium, through the proselitism of Kushan monks. The Kushans and the Tocharians seem to have played a part in the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China. Many apparently also practised some variant of Manichaeanism.
Protected by the Taklamakan desert from steppe nomads, the Tocharian culture survived past the 7th century. The Kingdom of Khotan was one of the centers of this ancient civilization.
The term Tocharians has a somewhat complicated history. It is based on the Tokharoi Τόχαροι of the Greek historians (Ptolemy VI, 11, 6). These are identified with the Kushan Empire, and the term Tokharistan usually refers to 1st millennium Bactria (Chinese Daxia 大夏). Today, the term is associated with the Indo-European languages known as "Tocharian". Based on a Turkic reference to Tocharian A
as twqry, these langauages were associated with the Kushan ruling class, but the exact relation of the speakers of these languages and the Kushan Tokharoi is uncertain, and some consider the "Tocharian languages" a misnomer. Tocharian A is also known as East Tocharian, or Turfanian (of the city of Turfan), and Tocharian B is also known as West Tocharian, or Kuchean (of the city of Kucha)
The term is so widely used, however, that this question is somewhat academic. Tocharians in the modern sense are, then, defined as the speakers of the Tocharian languages. These were originally nomads, and lived in today's Xinjiang (Tarim basin), known by the Chinese as the Yuezhi, first mentioned by Chinese historians in the 3rd century BCE as having been defeated and displaced by the Xiongnu. The native name of the historical Tocharians of the 6th to 8th centuries was, according to J. P. Mallory, possibly kuśiññe "Kuchean" (Tocharian B), "of the kingdom of Kucha and Agni", and ārśi (Tocharian A); one of the Tocharian A texts has ārśi-käntwā, "In the tongue of Arsi" (ārśi is probably cognate to argenteus, i.e. "shining, brilliant"). According to D. Q. Adams, the Tocharians may have called themselves ākñi, meaning "borderers, marchers".
Note: The recent discoveries have rendered obsolete René Grousset's classic The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, published in 1939, which still provides the broad background against which to assess more modern detailed studies.
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1999. The Mummies of Ürümchi. London. Pan Books.
- 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 0500051011
- Walter, Mariko Namba 1998 Tocharian Buddhism in Kucha: Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 85. October, 1998.
- Xu, Wenkan 1995 “The Discovery of the Xinjiang Mummies and Studies of the Origin of the Tocharians” The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol. 23, Number 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1995, pp.357-369.
- Xu, Wenkan 1996 “The Tokharians and Buddhism” In: Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 9, pp. 1-17.