Spanning more than one thousand years in existence, and many kilometers in length, the Silk Road is one of the most intriguing trade routes in the world. While its name implies a single road, the Silk Road is really a network of paths that link much of the Eurasian continent together, both by land and by sea. This famous road also boasts a rich and varied history, which will be explored below.
Linking China with many different civilizations, the Silk Road is a path along which goods, ideas and religions were introduced and traded. This road "channeled merchants, pilgrims, immigrants, smugglers, refugees, soldiers and adventurers across this land," this land being China (Clark 139). Two distinctions were made with regard to the Silk Road: there was a Northern route, most vulnerable to raids by nomads and bandits, as well as the Central and Southern routes, which crossed deserts and desolate landscapes (Clark 143). Most travelers ventured along these routes in caravans led by camels, but the journey was still quite treacherous, no matter which direction was chosen.
Museum (silk road)
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date that the Silk Road was first traversed, several approximations have been made. According to the 19th century historian, Ferdinand von Richthofen, the route connecting China to Persia "opened in the 2nd century BC by the Chinese Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty" (Hattori 2000). This route, spanning 6500 kilometers, connected China with Rome, and other western locations (Feldman 1999). In fact, "by this road, East and West met each other. We may say that on this foundation present human civilizations have been built" (Hattori 2000). The influence this famous trade route has had on history truly is quite remarkable when one considers its extensive ground coverage.
If the Silk Road was the point of convergence for so many cultures, goods and ideas, what specifically was exchanged? The most obvious commodity, as the road's name implies, was silk. Many civilizations, the Romans especially, sought large quantities of silk from China. The Romans used this silk for their looms, or they unraveled it and created sheer silk that was popular among the women of Rome (Vollmer, par.10). Caravans from the West came away from the Silk Road with porcelain. It was in the 9th century that porcelain goods were introduced to Central Asia, and became one of the "most admired Chinese inventions marveled by the western world (Silkroad Foundation "Porcelain and It's Spread to the West", par. 1). In exchange, the Chinese received Western riches, such as silver and gold (Vollmer, par. 2). Not only did house wares and fabric pass along the Silk Road but also such things as horses and Polo in the 9th century. The introduction of horses to China put a great strain on the silk industry in China with an "annual requirement of fifty million feet of silk for the purchase of horses from Turkic tribes". The sport of Polo, which was introduced by the Persians became immensely popular, and the "emperors [of China] kept 40,000 horses in [their] stables, both for games and for war" (Silkroad Foundation "The Exoticism of the Tang", pars. 10-11).
Aside from tangible goods, different ideologies also were spread on the Silk Road. The philosophies of Buddhism, Nestorianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Islam came to China by way of the trade route, though at different points in history (Silkroad Foundation "The Exoticism of the Tang", par. 18). The Chinese seemed to be very accepting and open to foreign doctrines, and so the Silk Road allowed pilgrims to venture to China to spread their ideas. The Silk Road truly was an extraordinary path that saw so many goods and so much culture traipse through its sand.
The Silk Road, begun during the Han dynasty, truly reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty. During this point in history, China was unified with a strong central government. The trade the Silk Road brought to the country strengthened the economy and so China really blossomed. Because China was so open to new culture during the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road made it quite easy for foreigners to have great influence on the Chinese people. From Central Asia came harpers and dancers, while Chinese poetry incorporated Turkish folksongs. Stories and plays from the West became popular at court. It is quite obvious that "Chinese life and Chinese art had been touched by strong foreign influences during the Tang dynasty" (Silkroad Foundation "The Exoticism of the Tang", par. 7). The prosperity marked by the Tang Dynasty made it possible for many travelers to come to China and share in the richness of her culture, but also to relate their own culture in the hopes that the two might mesh together.
Since there were so many caravans passing into China by way of the Silk Road over the centuries, the ruling dynasties attempted to provide protection. During the Tang Dynasty, garrison posts were set up to provide protection along the Silk Road, as well as to "[facilitate] the flow of goods and people, religion and culture" (http://www.silk-road/artl/tang.shtml). During the Han Dynasty, efforts were made to repair and expand the Great Wall. Wu Di, believed to be one of the greatest of the Han emperors, "restored the crumbling Qin wall [built under the Qin Dynasty] and extended it 300 more miles across the…Gobi desert" (Rause, par. 3). This extension of the Great Wall provided safe travel for the many caravans that ventured forth on the Silk Road to trade with China. In later centuries, other rulers strove to ensure safety along the Silk Road. In his journals, Marco Polo notes how safe the Silk Road was under the Mongols' rule during the Pax Mongolica in the 13th century. The Mongols created a postal relay system that worked similarly to the American Pony Express. "Those on the business of the khan could show their badge of authority and expect to receive fresh mounts at the regularly placed relay stations…the invocation of the ruler's authority could provide favored travelers with some degree of security" (Waugh, par. 12). It was obviously quite important to the Chinese throughout the Silk Road's history to protect this main trade route.
The history surrounding the Silk Road is quite extensive, and this summary is merely meant as a brief overview of some of the more interesting features. Used for centuries, the Silk Road allowed China to interact with the Western world as well as other regions. All cultures, from Chinese to Persian to Roman, benefited from the religions, rich ideas and commodities that crossed the Silk Road, paving the way for more global interaction during its peak existence.
Clark, Robert P. Global Life Systems: Population, Food, and Disease in the Process of Globalization. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Feldman, Harvey J. "Han Dynasty." Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000. Microsoft Corporation, 1999.
Hattori, Eiji. Letters from the Silk Roads: Thinking at the Crossroads of Civilization. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2000.
The Silk Road Foundation. "The Exoticism in Tang (618-907)." Retrieved 11 November 2001. http://www.silk-road.com//artl/tang/shtml.
The Silk Road Foundation. "Porcelain and Its Spread to the West." Retrieved 11 November 2001. http://www.silk-road.com/artl/porcelain.shtml.
Rause, Vince. "The Han Dynasty: The World Comes to China." Secrets of the Great Wall. Retrieved 11 November 2001. http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/greatwall/han.html.
Vollmer, John E., E. J. Keall, and E. Nagai-Berthrong. "Silk Roads: An Introduction to Trade." Retrieved 18 October 2001. http://www.askasia.org/frclasrm/readings/r000063.htm.
Waugh, Daniel C. "The Pax Mongolica". The Silkroad Foundation. Retrieved 11 November 2001. http://www.silk-road.com/artl/paxmongolica.shtml