The Neolithic Dadiwan culture site found in eastern Gansu (of which excavation began in late 1970s) suggests that habitation started in this area around 6,000 BC.  Other ancient cultures that took root in Gansu include the Majiayao culture (3100 BC – 2700 BC) and part of the Qijia culture (2400 BC – 1900 BC).

Chinese influence in this area dates back to more than 2,000 years ago.  For centuries, the Chinese have considered Gansu as the extreme border of China though it wasn’t officially a Chinese province till the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368).  Chinese attempts to expand into the northwest had its roots in the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC), when Qin Shi Huang the first emperor of China began building the Great Wall along their new northern frontier to protect the empire against invasions by the Xiongnu people from the north.  Parts of Gansu province – specifically the Hexi Corridor, came under the rule of the northern tribes of Xiongnu and Yuezhi as well as the Chinese at different points of history prior to the Han Dynasty. 

Chinese effort to expand into the deserts region started in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), motivated by their desire to gain control over the Silk Road trade.  In 121 BC, Han Emperor Wudi forced the Xiongnu out of the Hexi Corridor and subsequently set up 4 garrison outposts in this region – Jiuquan, Zhangye, Dunhuang and Wuwei.  This military success brought about the expansion of the corridor westward and was the foundation for the future development of the Silk Road. 


The growth of the Silk Road across the Hexi Corridor came with the expected problems often associated with precious goods – Banditry.  News of caravans carrying valuables passing through the corridor into Taklamakan desert attracted bandits from Xiongnu and Tibet alike and policing this route posed a big problem for the Han Emperors.  The forts and walls that were built along Hexi Corridor were meant as defence against these bandits. (A side trip from Dunhuang to Han Dynasty ruins will bring you to Yumen Guan, where sections of Han dynasty wall can still be seen; some distance further than the more recognised beginning of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, which was added later in the Ming Dynasty.)  However, these walls did not prove to be as effective as imagined, the Chinese lost control over the Silk Road trade more than once. The north western end of the province was the site of frequent struggles between the Imperial Chinese and the nomadic tribes.

China lost the entire Gansu province for a long while because of trouble   between the Tibetan Empire and the Tang Dynasty .  Later, the Kyrgyz invasion caused the collapse of the Uyghur Empire in 847, and this led to a diaspora of the Uyghur people across Central Asia.  Those who fled formed 3 different kingdoms – one of them was Gansu, which remained a Uyghur state from 848 to 1036 AD.  Many Gansu residents converted to Islam during this period.
During the Dungan Revolt (also known as the Muslim Rebellion) in 1862 – 1877, many parts of the province saw heavy fighting.  Many Hui rebels died resisting the Qing government.  A large number of those in Gansu who survived were cleared out of the Hexi Corridor and resettled in southern Gansu.  This was to prevent future conspiracy amongst Muslims of Gansu and Shanxi with those of Xinjiang.

Natural disasters added on to Gansu’s list of troubles.  A devastating earthquake killed around 180,000 people in 1920, while another with a magnitude of 7.6 killed 70,000 in 1932.  Frequent earthquakes, droughts and famines have contributed to Gansu’s slow economic progress and kept it as one of China’s poorest provinces.  It is hoped that tourism and better use of the abundant mineral resources will begin to bring in wealth to alleviate the poverty.