20080217-280px-ZhangQianTravels dunhuasnhg mural 7th c wiki.jpg
Zhang Qian in a 7th century
Dunhuanshang mural
More than 1,300 years before Marco Polo left Italy for China on the Silk Road, Chinese explorers were traveling nearly as far to reach Central Asia and the Middle East.Ban Chao (Pan Ch'ao) — traveled A.D. 73-102 — was a . Chinese general restoring the Tarim basin under Han's power and maintaining whole control of the area as west as Kashgar during his career there. He sent out emissaries to the area west and beyond the Tarim basin, including the area of modern-day Iran and the Persian Gulf. |*|

Gan Ying (Kan Ying) — traveled A.D. 97 — was the first Chinese envoy to Ta-Ts'in (the Roman Orient) sent by general Ban Chao from Kashgaria in 97 AD. Journeyed through the Pamir mountains, Parthia, and reached as far as the the coast of the Persian Gulf. However he was dissuaded from continuing further west. The first known Chinese visited the Middle East as west as T'iao-chih, near the present Nedjef, Iraq. |*|

Song Yun (Sung Yun) and Huisheng — traveled A.D. 518-521. Sung Yun of Dunhuang went with a monk Huisheng on a mission sent by the Empress Dowager to obtain the Buddhist scriptures in India in 518. Travled through the Taklamakan desert via the southern route passing Shanshan, Charkhlik, Khotan, then further west into the Hindu Kush, Kabul, Peshawar. The most interesting account is their visit to the Ephthalites (the White Hun) kingdom, who centered in eastern Afghanistan and controlled much of the Central Asia during the 5th and 6th centuries. Both wrote a travel account but none remained. |*|

Hwi Chao — traveled A.D. 713-741 — was a Korean monk but grew up in China. Traveled to India via sea route (route unclear). Lived there for several years and visited various Buddhist kingdoms in India, Persia and Afghanistan. On the returning journey, traveled to Kashmir, Kabul, passed the Pamirs and entered Xinjiang from Tashkurgan, then skirted around the Taklamakan desert from the northern towns, Kucha, Turfan and Hami. His account Wang wou t'ien tchou kquo tch'ouan or The Record to Five Indian Kingdoms provided vaulable information on the Islamic and Buddhist distribution among the Central Asian kingdoms during the 8th century. His book had been lost since Tang dynasty until an incomplete copy (14 pages, ~6000 words) was miraculously discovered by the French explorer, Paul Pelliot at Dunhuang cave in 1908. |*|

Du Hwai — traveled A.D. 751 - 762 — was a Chinese soldier defeated and prisoned by the Arab at the famous battle of Talas in 751. Stayed in the prison camp for ten long years and traveled to Tashkent, Samarkand, passed northern Iran to Iraq, west into Syria. On the Perisan Gulf, he boarded a foreign ship, returned to Canton via Indian Ocean and South China Sea. His book is a personal account of Talas battle and his prison life in Central Asia. |*|

Wukong (Wu-K'ung) — traveled A.D. 750-789 — Chinese monk went as a delegation with the ambassador from Samarkand who was returning home. He fell ill there and could not return with his countrymen. On his recovery he became a monk and lived in Gandhara and Kashmir, not returning to China until 790. |*|

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org

Transasia trade routes in AD 1

King Mu (956-923 B.C.)

King Mu (Mu Wang, 956-923 B.C.) was a West Chou king and the earliest reputed Silk Road traveller. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, written in the 5th-4th century BC, is the first known travel book on the Silk Road. It tells of his journey to the Tarim basin, the Pamir mountains and further into today's Iran region, where the legendary meeting with Xiwangmu was taken place. Returned via the Southern route. The book no longer exists but is referenced in Shan Hai Zin, Leizi: Mu Wang Zhuan, and Shiji. [Source: Silkroad Foundation silk-road.com |*|]

King Mu reigned 55 years and is said to have died at age 105. Sima Qian wrote in “The Shinji”: “Man, the son of King Zhao, was enthroned: this was King Mu. King Mu was already fifty at the time he came to the throne, and the kingly way had decayed. [Source: Shiji 4.126-149 by Sima Qian, via Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

King Mu’s greatest enemy was the Dog Nomads, who eventually, in 771 B.C., overran the Zhou capital, killed the king, and brought the Western Zhou to an end. According to the judgement of a 5th century B.C. who wrote in the following passage it was King Mu’s failings that planted the seeds of the later disaster: “King Mu prepared to launch a campaign against the Dog Nomads. Moufu, Duke of Cai, admonished him saying, “This may not be. The former kings made their virtue bright and did not need to make a show of their arms. Weaponry should be husbanded and mobilized in the proper season. If it is mobilized thus it will inspire awe, but to make a show of troops is to play with them, and if one plays with them they will have no power to inspire fear. For this reason, the ode of the Old Duke says, Assemble our spears and halberds,/ fill our sheaths with bows and arrows./ Our quest is for excellent virtue, / we lay it forth in this grand music:/ Truly, may our kings preserve this!” /+/

Zhang Qian's Travels


Faxian (Fa-hsien) — traveled A.D. 399-413 — was the first Chinese monk to reach India and return with a knowledge of Buddhism. He traveled the southern route through Shenshen, Dunhuang, Khotan, and then over the Himalayas, to Gandhara, Peshawur then India. He journeyed most of the way on foot and was the first known traveler passing through the Taklamakan desert from Woo-e to Khoten. Returned to China via the sea route. |*|


Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) — traveled A.D. 629-645 — was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator traveling across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Kindu Kush to India. Returned via the southern route. He spent his remaining life translating sutras into Chinese. .His travel and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels, such as Wu Ch'eng-en's famous novel in the 16th century, Journey to the West. |*|

Zhang Qian: Han-Era Silk Road Explorer

In 138 B.C., the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian was sent westward by Emperor Wu (140-87 B.C.) with the assignment of finding allies to fight the Xiongnu. He was captured by the Xiongnu soon after departing and was held in captivity for 10 years before he escaped and crossed the Pamir mountains to reach the Fergana Valley. Zhang Qian reached Syria, and possibly Egypt, and returned to China 19 years after he set out and long after the Xiongnu were subdued. In the first great account of Silk Road travel he described the pleasures of Central Asian wine and fantastic animals such as the "heavenly horses" of the Fergana Valley that had striped bodies and sweated blood.

Zhang Qian (Chang Ch'ien, Chang Chien, Zang Qian) — traveled 138-116 B.C. — was a Chinese general and envoy credited with opening the Silk Road.. His first trip (138-125) skirted the Taklamakan desert via the northern route, passed the Pamir, then reached Ferghana. He returned via the southern route. His second trip (119-115), a mission to seek alliance with Wu-sun people, took him to Dunhuang, Loulan, Kucha, then the capital of Wu-sun kingdom in the Ili river. His missions to the west led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia. See Below|*|

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Zhang Qian emerged on history's centre stage a few years after Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty ascended the throne in 141 B.C.. The emperor was dissatisfied with a long-standing reconciliation policy of paying tribute to the Xiongnu, a northern ethnic group, and decided to send a mission to the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homes by the Xiongnu, in order to form an alliance with them against Xiongnu. Cui Jijun, 44, curator of the Zhang Qian Memorial Hall, presumes that Zhang Qian, who was chosen as leader of the mission, was probably around 20 to 25 years old at that time. "Considerable physical strength was vital in the harsh journey to the western regions. Emperor Wu preferred to appoint young people," Cui said. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+]

“Zhang Qian and his group of 100 or so were captured by the Xiongnu in the course of their journey to Yuezhi. According to history books, during his 10 years in captivity, Zhang Qian got married and started a family. But he managed to escape to fulfil his duty and headed west, finally finding his way to Yuezhi. Though he was unable to form an alliance, he came into contact with different cultures in central Asia before heading back to Han.” Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu a second time. This time, however, he succeeded in escaping after a single year of captivity. In 126 B.C., twelve years after his departure, he returned to the Chinese capital, accompanied by but one of the hundred men who had started with him. “When he was finally able to report the circumstances of the western regions to Emperor Wu, 13 years had already passed since his departure. /+\

The reports of Zhang Qian's travels are quoted extensively in the 1st century B.C. Chinese historic chronicles "Records of the Great Historian" (Shiji) by Sima Qian. Zhang Qian visited directly the kingdom of Dayuan in Fergana (present-day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), the territories of the Yuezhi in Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan), the Bactrian country of Daxia (present-day Afghanistan) with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule, and Kangju. He also made reports on neighbouring countries that he did not visit, such as Anxi (Arsacid territories), Tiaozhi (Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia), Shendu (Pakistan) and the Wusun. [Source: Wikipedia +]

After returning from his mission to the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian participated in a battle against the Xiongnu. He was once sentenced to death when he was accused of incompetence during a battle. Afterwards, he was appointed as an envoy to central Asia once again and is said to have returned with a good horse.

Zhang Qian on Fergana and Its Heavenly Horses

Tang rendering of a Fergana horse

After being released from captivity by Xiongnu, Zhang Qian visited Dayuan, located in the Fergana region west of the Tarim Basin. The people of Dayuan were portrayed as sophisticated urban dwellers similar to the Parthians and the Bactrians. The name Dayuan is thought to be a transliteration of the word Yona, the Greek descendants that occupied the region from the 4th to the 2nd century B.C. [Source: Wikipedia]

During his stay there Zhang reported the famous tall and powerful "blood-sweating" Fergana horse. :The people [of Ferghana]...have...many good horses. The horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the ‘heavenly horse,’ he wrote. The refusal by Dayuan to offer these horses to Emperor Wu of Han resulted in two punitive campaigns launched by the Han Dynasty to acquire these horses by force, which in helped to expand the Han Chinese Empire westward. New York Times- Silk Road Seattle]

Zhang Qian reported: "Dayuan lies southwest of the territory of the Xiongnu, some 10,000 li (5,000 kilometers) directly west of China. The people are settled on the land, plowing the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. The people live in houses in fortified cities, there being some seventy or more cities of various sizes in the region. The population numbers several hundred thousand". [Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian on Rouzhi (Yuezhi) and Bactria

After obtaining the help of the king of Dayuan, Zhang Qian went southwest to the territory of the Yuezhi, with whom he was supposed to obtain a military alliance against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian reported: "The Great Yuezhi live some 2,000 or 3,000 li (1,000 or 1,500 kilometers) west of Dayuan, north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered to the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi, and on the north by Kangju. They are a nation of nomads, moving place to place with their herds and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." [Source: Shiji, 123, trans. Burton Watson ==]

On the origins of the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian said they originally came from the eastern part of the Tarim Basin, which led some historians to speculate they are connected to the Caucasian mummies of the Tarim Basin. Zhang Qian reported: "The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan (Fergana), where they attacked the people of Daxia (Bactria) and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui (Oxus) river." ==

A smaller group of Yuezhi, the "Little Yuezhi", were not able to follow the exodus and reportedly found refuge among the "Qiang barbarians". Zhang was the first Chinese to write about one humped dromedary camels which he saw in this region.

Zhang Qian probably witnessed the waning years of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, as it was being subjugated by the nomadic Yuezhi. They few small, powerless chiefs that remained were apparently vassals to the Yuezhi horde. Their civilization was urban, similar to that of Anxi and Dayuan, with a large population. Cloth from Shu (Sichuan) was found there.

Zhang Qian reported: "Daxia is situated over 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) southwest of Dayuan (Fergana), south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land, and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Dayuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked and conquered Daxia, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is Lanshi (Bactra) where all sorts of goods are bought and sold." [Source: Shiji 123, translation Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian on Shendu (India) and Anxi (Parthia)

Bactria (Afghanistan)

Zhang Qian also reported about the existence of India southeast of Bactria. The name Shendu comes from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", meaning the Indus river of Pakistan. Sindh was one of the richest regions of India at the time, ruled by Indo-Greek Kingdoms, which explains the reported cultural similarity between Bactria and India. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Zhang Qian reported: "Southeast of Daxia is the kingdom of Shendu (Sindh)... Shendu, they told me, lies several thousand li southeast of Daxia (Bactria). The people cultivate the land and live much like the people of Daxia. The region is said to be hot and damp. The inhabitants ride elephants when they go in battle. The kingdom is situated on a great river (Indus)" [Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson ==]

Zhang Qian identifies "Anxi" (Chinese: ) as an advanced urban civilization, like Dayuan (Fergana) and Daxia (Bactria). The name "Anxi" is a transcription of "Arshak" (Arsaces),[20] the name of the founder of Arsacid Empire that ruled the regions along the silk road between the Tedzhen river in the east and the Tigris in the west, and running through Aria, Parthia proper, and Media proper. +

Zhang Qian reported: "Anxi is situated several thousand li west of the region of the Great Yuezhi. The people are settled on the land, cultivating the fields and growing rice and wheat. They also make wine out of grapes. They have walled cities like the people of Dayuan (Fergana), the region contains several hundred cities of various sizes. The coins of the country are made of silver and bear the face of the king. When the king dies, the currency is immediately changed and new coins issued with the face of his successor. The people keep records by writing on horizontal strips of leather. To the west lies Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) and to the north Yancai and Lixuan (Hyrcania).

Zhang Qian on Mesopotamia, Sogdiana and the Steppe

Zhang Qian's reports on Mesopotamia are in hazy terms. He did not himself visit the region, and was only able to report what others told him. Zhang Qian reported: Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia) is situated several thousand li west of Anxi (Arsacid territory) and borders the Western Sea (Persian Gulf/ Mediterranean?). It is hot and damp, and the people live by cultivating the fields and planting rice... The people are very numerous and are ruled by many petty chiefs. The ruler of Anxi (the Arsacids) give orders to these chiefs and regards them as vassals. (adapted from Shiji, 123, Zhang Qian quote, trans. Burton Watson]

Zhang Qian also visited directly the area of Sogdiana (Kangju), home to the Sogdian nomads: "Kangju is situated some 2,000 li (1,000 kilometers) northwest of Dayuan (Bactria). Its people are nomads and resemble the Yuezhi in their customs. They have 80,000 or 90,000 skilled archer fighters. The country is small, and borders Dayuan. It acknowledges sovereignty to the Yuezhi people in the South and the Xiongnu in the East." [Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson]

On Yancai (the vast steppe) he said: "Yancai lies some 2,000 li (832 km) northwest of Kangju (centered on Turkestan at Beitian). The people are nomads and their customs are generally similar to those of the people of Kangju. The country has over 100,000 archer warriors, and borders a great shoreless lake, perhaps what is now known as the Northern Sea (Aral Sea, distance between Tashkent to Aralsk is about 866 km)"[Source: Shiji 123, trans. Burton Watson]

Kazak steppe

Legacy of Zhang Qian’s Mission

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Known to the Chinese as an explorer equal to Columbus, Zhang Qian opened up the Silk Road - the major route that connected the east and west of Asia during the time of the Han dynasty in ancient China. The determination that enabled him to cross the desert and overcome numerous difficulties was developed in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, a strategic location of military importance since ancient times. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+]

“The title "Lord of Bowang" was given to Zhang Qian when he achieved his feat, and that is how the area was named. I was able to meet descendants of Zhang Qian in this village. A "65th-generation" villager, 60-year-old Zhang Huazhong, told me stories of Zhang Qian's boyhood that have been handed down in the area. "He is said to have loved swimming" and, "it is said that when he found somebody being bullied, he would protect them". Zhang Qian's character is described in history books as being "patient and generous, and always trusting". Although there is no historical proof of what the people of Bowang told me, I listened with interest. Zhang Lijun, a 39-year-old "67th-generation" villager who worked for the local government told me that he always said to his 11-year-old daughter: "Never fear adversity. You are Zhang Qian's descendant."/+\

It is said that products such pomegranates, grapes, garlic and cucumbers were brought into China as a result of Zhang Qian's development of the Silk Road." Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in 1942: “Chang Ch'ien's [Zhang Qian’s] mission was a failure from a diplomatic point of view. But he brought back with him two important plants of western Asiatic origin. One was alfalfa, which was to prove of the greatest value to the Chinese as food for the horses used in their later military campaigns against the Huns. The other was the grape, which has ever since been one of China's favorite fruits. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Most important of all, however, Chang Ch'ien gave to the Chinese their first accurate knowledge of the expanses of Central Asia. Following his advice, they launched a series of military campaigns which during the next century broke the power of the Huns. Finally all of Turkestan was brought under Chinese rule. Across the desert the Chinese conquerors laid out a series of garrison posts. Thus, well before the birth of Christ, a trade route was established which crossed Turkestan from China, passed through Persian territory, and reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. From there ships could continue the journey to Rome itself. Thus were Rome and China, then the two most powerful empires in the world, linked by trade.”

Chinese Explorers from the Marco Polo Era

Wu-ku-sun Chung tuan — traveled 1220-1221 — was accompanied by An T'ing chen. He was sent as ambassador of the Jin emperor to Chingis Khan, whom he found apparently in the Hindukush mountains (today's Afghanistan), not "the North." The Pei shi ki (Notes on an Embassy to the North) is a written version of his oral report copied in the Chi pu tsu chai ts'ung shu. Bretschneider indicates the "narrative is of little importance." |*|

K'iu Ch'ang Ch'un and Li chi ch'ang — traveled 1221-1224 — was an eminent Taoist monk born in 1148 CE and thus elderly at the time of his trip, Ch'ang Ch'un was ordered by Chingis Khan to travel to his court. The route went through the Altai and Tienshan mountains, the southern parts of today's Kazakhstan, through Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand and then down into NE Iran and Afghanistan. He was accompanied by Li Chi ch'ang, who wrote the Hsi Yu Chi, a rather detailed diary of the journey; it was published with an introduction by Sun si in 1228 and included in the Tao tsang tsi yao. Bretschneider feels that this account "occupies a higher place than many reports of our European mediaeval tavellers." |*|

Ch'ang Te — traveled 1259-1260 — was an envoy from Mongol Khan Möngke to his brother Hülegü soon after the latter's conquest of the Abbasid Chaliphate. Ch'ang Te's Si Shi Ki, recorded by Liu Yu, is part travel diary and part a second-hand account of Hülegü's campaigns in the West. Its geographical information is inferior to that of Ch'ang Ch'un. |*|

Yeh-lü Hi Liang — traveled 1260-1263: — was the great-grandson of Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai, who, with his father, worked for Möngke Khan and then Kubilai. His biography in the Yüan-shi relates his travels in Inner Asia in the period of the Mongol civil war prior to Kubilai's consolidation of power. |*|

Rabban Sauma: Chinese Christian Travels to Europe

Between 1275 and 1288, around the same time Marco Polo made his journey, a Mongol Christian monk named Rabban Sauma traveled west from China to Europe. Described as a reverse March Polo, he originally intended to stop at Jerusalem but continued on to Constantinople and then Rome. He met the Philip the Fair, the king of France, and Edward I, the king of England.

Sauma trekked more than 7,000 miles on the Silk Road. He wrote diaries of his adventurers that have survived. His life and adventures are described in the book "Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West" by Morris Rossabi, a professor at the City University of New York.

Born in Beijing, Sauma was a cleric in the Nestorian Church. His goal was seek help from Europe to drive the Muslims out of areas where Nestorians lived. Samua wrote that crossing the Taklamakan Desert was "a toilsome and fatiguing journey that took two months." It took him four years to reach the Middle East, where he lingered for a while, and another three years to reach Rome from Jerusalem. He said Italy "resembled a paradise; its winter was not cold; and its summer not hot." In the end he was unable to win support for his cause and headed back east and died in Baghdad in 1294.

The high authorities of the Roman Catholic Church interrogated Bar Sauma to find if he was a heretic. In his defense he said, “Mar Thomas and Mar Addai and Mar Mari taught our religion and we hold to the ordinances they gave us until now...many of our Fathers went to the lands of the Mongols and Turks and Chinese and taught them. And today there are many Mongol Christians. Indeed some of the children of the King and Queen are baptized and confess the Christ. And they have churches with them in the Camp. And they honor the Christians greatly, and there are also many believers among them. And the King, since he is assiduous in affection for the Catholicus and is desirous to conquer Palestine and the lands of Syria, desires your help because of the Captivity of Jerusalem.”

Bar Sauma's writings have been incorporated into “The History of Yaballaha III and His Vicar Rabban Bar Sauma.” Grigor Yohannan Abu al-Faraj Bar ‘Ebhraya, known as Bar-Hebraeus (12251286), was a Jacobite priest who wrote profusely in Syriac and Arabic. He authored “Makhetebhanuth Zavne,” a history of the world from the creation till his own time. In his history Bar-Hebraeus mentions the favor shown to Christians, both Jacobite and Nestorian, under Mongol rule. George Lane in “An Account of Gregory Bar Hebraeus Abu al-Faraj and His Relations with the Mongols of Persia” states that Bar-Hebraeus’s praise of his Mongol masters is measured and in no way excessive. The Syrian Ortholdox Church undoubtably prospered and experienced a period of stability under Hulagu and Abaqa. Bar Hebraeus stated, “[Under early Mongol rule] the church acquired stability and protection in every place.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated June 2022

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