Silk Road, or called Silk Route, Silu in Chinese, is a series of ancient trade routes connecting China with the middle, west, south and east Asia, European and North Africa. Silk Road nowadays we talk about commonly refers to the Land Silk Road, which started from the ancient capital of China in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC~8 AD)- Chang’an (today’s Xian), through Northwest China’s Gansu and Xinjiang to the Central, West Asia and reached the Mediterranean countries. Along with peculiar goods trades, like outbound silks, porcelains, inbound spices, jewelry between China and other countries, cultures, arts, techniques and religions from different countries encountered and interacted on the Silk Road, prompting significant political, economic and cultural exchanges. Ancient Silk Road is not in use today, but more known as a mysterious travel route with numerous historical and cultural heritages and multi-culture. Let’s travel back to ancient China to find out when and why the Silk Road started, how it evolved and declined. Hopefully, the introduction here gives you a clear and detailed insight into Silk Road history, spirit and culture and helps you better plan an adventure to the Silk Road regions of China.
The ancient Silk Road has experienced several important stages since it was originally opened in the Western Han Dynasty and ended in the Qing Dynasty. And, it played different roles in different dynasties. Follow the timeline to check the complete history of the Silk Road’s beginning, flourishing and fading.
Why did the Silk Road begin?
Areas in the west of Yangguan Pass and Yumen Pass, including Xinjiang, were called the Western Regions during the Western Han Dynasty.
From the beginning of the establishment of the Western Han Dynasty, the northwest regions of the country had always been harassed by the northern nomadic tribe - Xiongnu. To make military alliance with the Yuzi against Xiongnu and expand the market, in 139 BC, Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty dispatched Zhang Qian, an official as a diplomat with a mission from Chang’an to the Western Regions. Unfortunately, Zhang Qian and his diplomatic corps were caught in the Hexi Corrider. The Xiongnu leader didn’t kill him, but made Zhang Qian married a Xiongnu wife and detained him in the remote western area for over 10 years. Later, Zhang Qian got a chance and successfully escaped with his only surviving accompany and his Xiongnu wife and child. He never forgot his mission and continued his adventure to the Western Regions. With the kind treatment and help from the Dayuan, Zhang Qian finally arrived at Yuezhi. But the king of Yuezhi was not interested in revenge against Xiongnu and alliance with the Western Han Dynasty. After staying in Yuezhi and persuading for more than 1 year, Zhang Qian had to return but again got arrested by Xiongnu for another year. He ran back to Chang’an when civil strife broke out in Xiongnu. Though Zhangqian’s first visit didn’t achieve the mission, his 13-year experience offered a helpful perception of customs and cultures of the Western Regions’ countries, which laid a foundation for the opening of Silk Road.
Many years later (in 119 BC), Zhang Qian made a second journey to the Western Regions with more envoys and goods. On the one hand, he tried hard to establish an alliance with Wusun - another foe of Xiongnu and finally succeeded. On the other hand, Zhang Qian sent deputy envoys to Dayuan, Yutian, Kangyu, Yuezhi, Daxia (today’s northern Afghanistan), Anxi (Iran today), Shendu (India) and other surrounding small countries. The second contact was accomplished. The path Zhang Qian walked is the original route of the world-famous Silk Road. Thanks to Zhang Qian’s two-time brave adventures and Emperor Wu’s political ambition and economic foresight, talking to the Western Regions and farther areas became possible and smooth and influential. The Silk Road promoted cultural fusion of the east and the west, and Buddhism was hence transmitted into China via the ancient Silk Road during this period.
After Wang Mang usurped power in the late Western Han Dynasty, countries in the Western Regions were ruled by the Xiongnu, and cut off communication with the new regime. The Silk Road was thus forced to halt.
In the Eastern Han Dynasty (73 AD), Ban Chao, a notable militarist and diplomat, was ordered to visit the Western Regions with a senior general who fought against the Xiongnu. He firstly subdued the Shanshan Kingdom, and soon successfully convinced Yutian and totally over 50 Kingdoms to pledge allegiance to the Eastern Han Dynasty. After helping countries in the Western Regions get rid of Xiongnu’s control, Bao Chao was assigned as the protectorate of the Western Regions to manage the areas. The Silk Road, which had been cut down for 58 years, therefore reopened again. In the following years, Bao Chao sent envoys to Daqin (Roman Empire) and Tiaozhi Sea (today’s Persian Gulf), and Daqin sent back emissaries to Luoyang, capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty. The territory expansion, reopening and farther reaching of Silk Road were credited to Bao Chao, his distinguished talent and 30-year management in the Western Regions. China's first Buddhist temple - White Horse Temple was built in Luoyang in 68 AD of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Silk Road continued to develop during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220 AD ~ 420 AD). Persia (the old name of Iran) made frequent communication with the Northern Wei Dynasty. Nearly 10 diplomatic corps were sent to ancient capitals at that time - Datong and Luoyang. Glass making craft was brought to China consequently. In 518 AD of the Northern Wei Dynasty, Song Yun and monk Hui Sheng, Fa Li departed from Luoyang, via Tuguhun, Shanshan, Zuomo (today Xinjiang’s Qiemo), Han, Yutian to the Western Regions, and traveled across Persia and other Asian countries to India. In 522, they returned to Luoyang with 170 Mahayana sutras. Ambassadors of Persia also traveled to ancient China via the Silk Road, and presented rare Buddha tooth relic and many other treasures to the court. The contacts and exchanges greatly enriched the Buddhist and ritual culture of China, and promoted the exchange of economic trade and production technology between ancient China and other countries.
During the early Sui Dynasty, the rising Tujue (Turks) occupied large areas of the Western Regions. As a result, trade and communication between the Central Plains and Western Regions was hindered. However, the Sui Dynasty later developed a close relationship between the countries in the Western Regions, and many merchants made trades in Zhangye. Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty even sent Pei Ju, a famed politician, diplomat and geographer, to Zhangye to supervise frontier trades in the Western Regions. Pei Ju further promoted commodity circulation and cultural exchange. He recorded the landscape, products, costumes and customs of 44 countries in the Western Regions in his book - the Maps of and Notes About the Western Regions 《西域图记》, which made a significant contribution to the territory expansion and ethnic fusion of the Sui Dynasty.
The Silk Road stepped into the most thriving and prosperous stage in the Tang Dynasty (618 AD ~ 907 AD), when China was the richest and most powerful country in the world. Emperor Taizong and Gaozong defeated the Eastern and Western Turks successively and established special organizations to manage the areas. The Tang Dynasty by this time had all-sides and friendly contacts with the Arab Empire through the Silk Road.
In the Tang Dynasty, many branches were built in the east section of the Silk Road for worshipping Emperor Taizong who got the title of “Tengeri Qaghan”. The Arab Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire both dispatched envoys to Chang’an (Xian) to make intercourse with China. Dunhuang, Yangguan Pass, Yumen Pass served as busy trade centers. Besides, the Tang Dynasty made long-range voyages to today’s Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, India, Jave and all the way to the Arab Empire, and tried deeper contact with the western nations. Guangzhou, Quanzhou (in Fujian) and some coastal cities were the busiest ports in those days.
Buddhism reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty based on open and prosperous conduct. During the period of Emperor Taizong, Tang Sanzang, a famous hierarch, traveled along the Silk Road to the Central Asia and India to seek Buddhist sutras. After a 16-year journey, he brought 657 Buddhist scriptures back to the Tang Dynasty and wrote a book - Journey to the West to record the societies and folk customs in India and countries along the Silk Road. Emperor Gaozong specially constructed the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Chang’an (Xian) to let him store and translate the Sutras. Another eminent monk - Yi Jing, made a voyage to India for 16 years and also carried hundreds of important Buddhist Sutras, which introduces the culture and life of the South Asian countries.
Just because of the strong national power and open mind of the Tang Dynasty, Silk Road was very smooth and booming, further promoted ideological and cultural exchanges between the East and the West and had lots of profound and positive influences. Many things were introduced between China and the western countries, such as the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, China’s paper-making, medicine, crops and fruits, dances, music from the west, etc.
The Silk Road during the Ming Dynasty was drawn on a 30.12-meter long, 0.59-meter-wide silk scroll painting - Landscape Map of the Silk Road 《丝路山水地图》. The painting was a remarkable cultural relic from the middle Ming Dynasty and it clearly marks over 200 cities along the Silk Road, such as Dunhuang, Turpan and Hami (China), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Damascus (Syria). It helps us know the detailed Silk Road route - from China’s Jiayuguan to Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and spectacular cities and land in the Ming Dynasty. The painting has been donated to the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) in Beijing to let the public learn more about the authentic history of the Silk Road.
Maritime Silk Road entered its heyday in the Ming Dynasty. The most famous feat belongs to Zheng He’s 7-time sea adventures to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean with the largest scale, the largest ships, seamen and longest duration in Chinese history. He and his fleet had visited more than 30 countries in the South Asia and East Africa, expanded overseas trade, affected home industry, created impactful contribution to cultural exchange and geographical exploration. Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Ningbo are the three major ports of the Maritime Silk Road of the Ming Dynasty. On July 25, 2021, “Quanzhou: Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China” in Quanzhou, Fujian Province was listed as a new UNESCO World Cultural Heritage for the complex completely shows the successful overseas trade of ancient China and witnessed the extraordinary maritime trade prosperity during the 10-14th century. To protect the peace and stability of the southeast coastal areas of China, the officials in the Ming and Qing Dynasties carried out isolation policy and bans of maritime affairs, which unfortunately cut off both the land and maritime Silk Road and contacts with the outside world.
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