Silk Road – a Fascinating Journey Through History

  • imperial I
  • December 3, 2010

Over the past two thousand years, perceptions of distance and scale have been continually exploded by technological advances. We now take for granted: airplanes, trains and roads; distribution systems that furnish ice-cool “Perrier” in the midst of a vast, baking desert. Yet even now, Nature with a flick of her skirt belies our pretensions to mastery. When you’re in the middle of a scorching desert, there is only so much your air-conditioning unit can do. Coaches turn back before an approaching sandstorm. Trains are only as reliable as their rail-tracks’ sandy foundations. And this is the twenty-first century. How much more treacherous would travel along the Silk Road have been two millennia ago? The monk, Faxian, traveling along it at the end of the fourth century, gives us an inkling:

“The only road-signs are the skeletons of the dead. Wherever they lie, there lies the road to India.”

Such were the perils of voyaging along one of the world’s oldest distribution systems. Like many good ideas, its roots lie in the military.


The History of the Silk Road

Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty decided in 138 B.C.E. to forge military alliances with kingdoms west of his northwestern archenemy the Xiongnu (or Hun) tribes. He charged General Zhang Qian with this mission, giving him one hundred of his best fighting men and valuable gifts to seal the military cabals. Thirteen years later, having been a Xiongnu hostage for ten years, General Zhang returned to the Imperial Han court with only one other member of the original party. Though he had failed to make a single military alliance, General Zhang enthralled the court with information of the thirty-six commercially vibrant kingdoms west of China’s frontier. Compounding the Emperor’s interest was his description of the magnificent horses he’d seen in the Ferghana valley (modern day Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan); horses that were stronger and faster than any in China, horses so fine as to render the Chinese army invincible.

Subsequent commercial and diplomatic ventures to the Ferghana valley failed to secure horses and so precipitated two full-scale Chinese invasions, the second of which in 102 B.C.E. succeeded in conquering all lands between China and the Ferghana Valley. The Chinese had secured not only horses but also foreign markets in which to sell their goods. Fifty or so years later, in 53 B.C.E., the Roman legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus on their doomed campaign in Parthia reported seeing wonderfully bright banners made of a marvelous, new textile.


Europe’s Fascination With Silk

In only a few decades all the ruling families of Rome were anxious to attire themselves in silk. By 14 C.E. this had gotten so out of hand that the Emperor Tiberius, disgusted by the revelatory bulges of this light and delicate fabric, forbade all men from wearing it. Before long the mystery of silk’s manufacture sucked Rome’s intellectuals into a blazing fervor. Pliny affirmed that “silk was obtained by removing the down from the leaves with the help of water.” Others countered that it grew like wool in the forest.

Its customers in a foment of wild curiosity, the prudent merchants of China made every effort to keep silk’s manufacture a secret. Sericulture was limited to the far off hinterlands of Sichuan, away from the prying eyes and the “big noses” of venturesome foreigners. Border guards, placed on high alert, double-checked all foreigners’ belongings.

Legion are the stories of silk smuggling. Some recount Persian monks disguising themselves as Christian missionaries, others describe English entrepreneurs stealing out of the country – with the wrong type of moth. The most romantic involves a young Chinese princess anxious to please her betrothed, the King of Yutian. When the King’s envoy revealed to her his master’s passion for silk, the princess resolved to smuggle the secret of silk to him.

A few days later the princess set off in a glittering cavalcade on her long journey westwards. Many days later, when they reached China’s border at Dunhuang’s Yumen Gate, her party was thoroughly inspected; even the princess’ personal belongings were closely scrutinized, much to the displeasure of the king’s envoy, Wei Chimu. After passing through the border gate, he approached the princess to inquire if she had succeeded in satiating his King’s love of silk. Removing her crown, the princess revealed silk worms hidden in her hair. Amongst her medicines, she showed him the mulberry seeds she had hidden in plain sight. Pointing at her serving maids, she revealed that, “all women in the Central Plains know how to grow mulberry seeds and rear silk worms.” Thus, it is said, did the secret of silk escape the confines of China.


The Height Of The Silk Road

Though characterized in the 1870’s by the German geographer, Baron von Richthofen, as the “seidenstrasse” or Silk Road, it would be as inaccurate to suppose the Silk Road as a single trade route as it would to imagine that its only traded commodity was silk.

The Silk Road can be thought of as an East-West network of interconnecting routes linking various Central Asian Kingdoms such as those of Bukhara, Samarkand, Bishkek and Islamabad in the west with major China cities; most notably the Han and Tang dynasty capital, Changan (modern day Xi’an) in the east. The two major arteries of traffic skirted the northern and southern edges of the Tarim basin, which in the west is popularly referred to (along with other areas) as the Gobi Desert. Both northern and southern routes merged shortly before the Yumen Pass on the outskirts of Dunhuang, whence the traveler followed the Hexi Corridor southeast into the central plains of China.


Image Map of the major trade routes on the Silk Road

It was not common for traders to traverse the entire length of the Silk Road. Customarily, traders distributed goods across their region’s markets in search of the best price. When the trader arrived at the edge of his operational region, he would sell the goods across a border usually to a different nationality and ethnic group who would continue the goods’ passage along the east-west axis. Thus, going westwards from China, Chinese traders would sell to Central Asians, who would deal with Persians, who connected with Syrians, who did commerce with Greeks and Jews, who supplied the Romans.

The greatest volume of goods were traded along the Silk Road during the Tang dynasty (618-907), particularly during the first half of this period. The Chinese predominantly imported gold, gems, ivory, glass, perfumes, dyes and textiles and they exported furs, ceramics, spices, jade, silk, bronze and lacquer objects and iron.

Of import for the world’s development were the inventions and ideas shared between east and west as the result of the increased trade and communication. Can we underestimate the impact that inventions like the plow, paper or movable type had on the development of the west? Similarly, China was immeasurably enriched by the introduction of Buddhism from India.


Buddhist Legacy

Buddhism is one of China’s three main religions, the other two being Daoism and Confucianism. Unlike the latter two however, Buddhism is not indigenous to China. It is a foreign import from northern India. As such it is representative of a strain in Chinese thinking that is receptive to accepting foreign ideas. (That said, some Buddhist doctrines were adapted in order to fit more successfully into the Chinese belief system.)

Within five centuries of the opening of the Silk Road to Central Asia, Buddhism had become so prevalent in China that some scholars estimate as many as 90% of her population to have been converted to Buddhism. By the Northern Wei dynasty (386-535) this religious philosophy had so penetrated the ruling elite as to inspire massive public works programs at some of the world’s finest cave complexes atMogao, Yungang and Longmen. And in 629, early in the Tang dynasty (618-907), concerns for textual authenticity inspired China’s most famous pilgrimage. The monk Xuanzang departed from Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) on a sixteen year journey to northern India in search of original Sanskrit texts. When he returned with over 600 such texts, the Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed in Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) as a library for these texts.

The first half of the Tang dynasty was the heyday of Chinese Buddhism. It enjoyed immense popular and imperial favor. China’s only Empress, Wu Ze Tian (625-705), in particular, sponsored many Buddhist projects, notably the massive White Buddha statue at the Mogao Caves. But in the end Buddhism became a victim of its own success. So widespread and complete was its displacement of traditional Chinese belief systems, such as Daoism and Confucianism, that in the second half of the Tang dynasty it provoked a series of conservative counter-reactions from which it never fully recovered. This demise occurred hand in hand with an increase in coastal sea trade, which came at the expense of the Silk Road. As a result, China’s focus was distracted from the devout Buddhist kingdoms of Central Asian which soon converted to Islam.