The four hundred years between the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.- C.
E. 220) and the establishment of the Tang dynasty (618-906) mark a division in the history of China. During this period, foreign invasion, transcontinental trade, and missionary ambition opened the region to an unprecedented wealth of foreign cultural influences. These influences were both secular and sacred.
Nomads, merchants, emissaries and missionaries flooded into China, bringing new customs, providing exotic wares, and generating new religious beliefs. Foremost among these beliefs was Buddhism, born in India, but which now took root in China. These new influences entered China by a vast network of overland routes, popularly known as the Silk RoadThe term Silk Road does not refer to a single, clearly defined road or highway, but rather denotes a network of trails and trading posts, oasis and markets scattered all across Central Asia. All along the way, branch routes led to destinations off to the side of the main route, with one especially important branch leading to northwestern India, and thus to other routes throughout the subcontinent. The Silk Road network is generally thought of as stretching from an eastern station at the old Chinese capital city of Chang’an to westward stations at Byzantium (Constantinople), Antioch, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern cities.
But beyond those end points, other trade networks distributed Silk Road goods throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, on one end, and throughout eastern Asia on the other end. It is not possible to think clearly about the Silk Road without taking into consideration the whole of Eurasia as its geographical context. Trade along the Silk Road flourished or diminished according to the conditions in China, Byzantium, Persia, and other countries along the way. There was also competition for alternative routes, by land and sea, to absorb long-distance1Eurasian trade when conditions along the Silk Road were unfavorable. For this reason, the geographical context of the Silk Road must be thought of in the broadest possible terms, including sea routes linking Japan and southeast Asia to the continental trade routes. The terrain of the Silk Road was difficult, to say the least. The many possible routes were numerous and complex, and the dangers of the journey were perilous.
The zone of this broad belt of oasis punctuated deserts extended across Central Asia from northwestern China to the Caspian and Black Seas, and on to the Middle East. The zone was bounded on the north and south by mountains, but could be traversed with only a few mountain ranges to cross along the way. Features of the landscape included a high, dry terrain, infrequent and irregular water supplies, and absent or scarce food for the caravan animals. What made trade possible at all, besides the techniques of caravan travel and the expertise of the local caravaneers, was the existence of substantial oases across Central Asia.
These islands of greenery, watered by rivers and springs, ranged in extent from a few square miles to hundreds of square miles, but even the largest were isolated by huge expanses of surrounding deserts. Much of the Middle East is desert, traversed by caravan routes linking scattered oasis cities, much as is the case along the Silk Road further east. Silk Road traffic coming from Central Asia passed through the Middle East along many different routes and with many different destinations; the Middle East was, in a sense, an end-point for the Silk Road, but perhaps more importantly a trans-shipment zone. The Silk Road itself was pioneered sometime during the mid-first millennium B.C.E. and not established as a regular trade route until near the end of that millennium.
The history of the Silk Road probably begins with the prior history of long-distance travel, trade, and population movements across the trans-Eurasian steppe belt. 2Horseback riding became common on the steppes during the second millennium B.C.E. This facilitated the long-range movement of peoples across the steppe belt. It also, in eastern Eurasia, set up the competition for land, wether to use it for agriculture or pasture, in the Inner Asian borderlands of China. For thousands of years to come, the enduring problem of Chinese foreign policy would be how to deal with mounted nomads on their northern frontier.
Eventually the threat from the north would encourage the Chinese to look to the corridor linking their own northwest with the deserts and oases of Central Asia- to look, in other words, to the Silk Road as an alternative to leaving all their non-maritime long-distance trade in the hands of the nomads of the steppes. Just as the domestication of the horses made possible the pastoralism of the steppe, the domestication of the camel made possible trade on the Silk Road. The deserts of Central Asia are impassible to carts and chariots, and horses were not hardy enough to carry pack cargo through the desert environment. With the domestication of the camel, caravan trade along these desert tracks began. The caravan trade was beneficial to China because it was not controlled by potentially hostile nomadic tribes, and because it offered a shorter route to the oasis marketplaces of Central Asia and the Middle East, but the steppe trade never disappeared entirely.
Trade both along the steppe belt and on the newly developing Silk Road was small scale and irregular, but it did succeed in carrying goods over long distances. Chinese silk was known in the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt at least by the mid-first millennium B.C.E.
Although foreign influences had penetrated China since early times, official interest in the west began only during the Han dynasty. Threatened by incursions of mounted nomadic tribes from the north and northwest, the Han emperor Wudi dispatched missions westwards to seek3allies. Although these missions were unsuccessful in securing alliances, they returned with reports of not only an existing trade in Chinese products, but also of a superior breed of horses. It was in part the need to secure this breed of horse, vital to the Han campaigns against the nomads, that drove Han armies into Central Asia. By the late second century B.C.
E., the military colonies were established in Gansu to protect the trade routes from nomadic incursions. These colonies became important trading posts on the Silk Road.
The main route led from Chang’an through Lanzhou, Wuwei, Ahangye, Jiuquan to Dunhuand and was protected by a Han extension to the Great Wall. As trade flourished, new products and ideas entered China, brought by foreign merchants. Buddhism entered China at this time, but was confined mainly to colonies of foreign merchants.
After a military defeat of the northern nomadic tribes known as Xiongnu around 121 B.C.E. and extended control over the western regions by 60 B.C.
E., the Chinese control extended far out along the Silk Road to the approaches to the Tarim Basis, and state-sponsored trade had begun on a regular basis. Thus began the first great era of trade along the Silk Road. The Chinese exported mainly silk textiles, but also medicinal herbs, carved jade, and a wide variety of luxury goods. They imported not only horses, but also glassware, raw jade, gold and silver, and luxury goods from the western regions of Eurasia. Trade was carried out mainly by intermediaries, and goods changed hands several times during the course of a journey between China and the Middle East. Caravan drivers and their animals customarily traveled back and forth over one particular segment of the route.
Each time an item changed hands its value rose, so that goods were very expensive by the time they reached their final destination. The oasis merchants who served as intermediaries in this down-the-line-4trade were careful to discourage longer distance trade by exaggerating the distances and dangers involved, and they suppressed detailed accounts of distant lands, treating such information as trade secrets. One odd result of this is that the two greatest empires of the classical world, Rome and Han China, were in regular trade contact, but were still almost entirely ignorant of each other.
As far as history knows, no Chinese merchant ever visited the Rome of the Caesars, and no Roman ever crossed the Silk Road to the Chinese capital at Chang’an.In the period of political disunion that followed the fall of the Latter Han dynasty in 220 CE, lasting until the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty in 589, northern China was ruled by a succession of non-Chinese dynasties of various ethnic origins and affiliations. The breakdown of imperial rule had important consequences.
No longer did rulers look solely to the historic “high culture” of China for models, but instead became more open to influences from the outside. Trade along the Silk Road continued under the patronage of these dynasties, even if somewhat hampered by a fragmented political situation and warning of Chinese military power in the northwestern regions. These dynasties were almost all ardent devotees of Buddhism, and in part for that reason, these centuries were a great era for the creation of cliff sculptures, cave temples, monasteries, temples, and other centers of Buddhist worship throughout northern China, as well as the parts of the Silk Road under Chinese control or cultural influence. The second great era of the Silk Road trade began not long after China was reunified under the short-lived Sui dynasty and continued under its successor, the Tang(618-907). The Tang, often regarded as the most powerful and glorious dynasty in all of Chinese history, was also a “conquest dynasty” partly of non-Chinese descent; some of the ancestors of the ruling family of the Tang were Turks.
Tang power extended far out into Central Asia, almost to the Pamirs,5and that power was used to encourage and defend the Silk Road trade. Tang China was open to foreign goods and ideas to an unprecedented extent; trade brought new fashions (tight, long sleeved jackets for women), recreations (polo), music (many new instruments and new musical styles), furniture (chairs replaced floor mats), and many other innovations from Turkish and Persian culture areas to China’s west. After Tang power in northwestern China declined after 751, and a military rebellion in 755-763 shook the dynasty to its roots, Tang power never rose again to its former heights. Political fragmentation and weakness led to a decline in the trade along the Silk Road.
Eventually, power in China passed to the Song dynasty, but the Song state lost control over the Central Asian trade routes and the Silk Road began to play a diminished role in Eurasian trade. Once the Silk Road had been established during the Han dynasty, the dynamics of the trade remained relatively stable over the centuries. However, during the periods when a decrease or collapse of trade occurred, the oasis city-states declined, and the desert was full of ghost towns that were once prosperous trading centers. Trade on the Silk Road declined after the early twelfth century because of the Song dynasty’s loss of north China to Ruzhen invaders from Manchuria led the Chinese to concentrate their long-distance trade on maritime routes from the central and southern Chinese coasts. The conquest of most of Eurasia in the thirteenth century by Chinggis Khan and his successors resulted in severe damage to a number of oasis cities.
Nevertheless, trade did flourish under the Mongols, ushering the third great age of the Silk Road trade. This was the era of the extraordinary trip of Marco Polo from Italy to China; many other travelers also made trips from one end of the Silk Road to the other. Envoys from France and from the Papal Palace at Rome came to Mongolia seeking an alliance with the successors of6Chinggis Khan in a crusade against the Arabs in the Holy Land, however, the Mongols declined.The Mongol Empire began to collapse in disunity even before the generation of Chinggis’s grandsons had ended. In the fourteenth century a new and even more ferocious conqueror, Timur Ling, re-established part of the empire, with its capital in the oasis city of Samarkand.
His kill-and-destroy campaigns against other oasis cities completed the damage done by Chinggis Khan, and only partly repaired thereafter. Cities were depopulated, fields and orchards dried up, and the Silk Road trade never recovered. The Ottoman Empire, which took control of most of the Byzantine and Arab-Islamic worlds in the fifteenth century, did not succeed in extending its control into Central Asia.
Ming dynasty China adopted of policy of appeasement towards the Mongol and other nomads of the northern frontier, and stressed maritime trade in the early fifteenth century, before turning its back on foreign trade altogether after the middle of that century. Opportunity to revive the Silk Road seemingly appeared when the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was established. Using both conquest and diplomacy, these invaders from Manchuria assembled an empire that went far beyond China’s borders. The empire included the northeast up to the Amur River, Mongolia, Tibet, and a large part of Central Asia. But while goods were carried far and wide by caravan, cart and boat within this far-reaching empire, the Silk Road could not be revived to compete with the newly established maritime routes. Long-distance trade between western and eastern Eurasia began to shift decisively to maritime routes, and into the hands of entirely new players in the game.
When thinking of the Silk Road, one must keep in mind that Silk Road trade was only part of a much larger network of trade routes that extended throughout Eurasia. Goods that came east on the Silk Road might continue on to Korea and Japan via the maritime trade in the seas of7Northeast Asia. Silk from China brought to Byzantium might cross the Black Sea and travel up the Danube to northern Europe. Baltic amber purchased in trade for the silk might eventually find its way back to China. The port cities of the Levant dispatched Chinese and Central Asia goods westward throughout the Mediterranean world, and in turn collected goods from that world for trade to the east.
And always, the maritime route between the Mediterranean and East Asia, via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia was potentially available as a rival to, or substitute for the Silk Road if overland travel became impaired. It is essential to keep this larger picture in mind to understand how and why the European “Age of Exploration” began, and how long-distance trade between Europe and East Asia came to be concentrated in European hands. The final chapter in the history of the Silk Road was not one of trade, but of a struggle for control of the region by newly expanding empires. By the 19th century, the Quing dynasty had to contend with the ambitions of foreign powers. Russia and England became rivals for control of Central Asia. England sought supremacy in Afghanistan and Tibet to protect its vital empire in India. Russia maneuvered to incorporate the Central Asian oases into its own expanding empire, as a way of curbing British and Chinese expansion or influence in the region, and in hopes of establishing land access through Persia to the Indian Ocean.
European demands for trade concessions cost China its administrative control over many of its coastal cities during the 19th century. China also lost territories to Russia, and in turn Russia and successor the Soviet Union conquered and incorporated much of the Central Asian desert and oasis zone through which the Silk Road had passed. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1905 turned the Boreal Forest- traditionally one of the least traversable Eurasian subregions, into the principal route of overland8travel between Europe and easternmost Eurasia. Long distance trade across the steppe belt or by caravan along the Silk Road became a thing of the past.
European explorers played a role in uncovering Silk Road history. The English explorer Sir Aurel Stein, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, the Swedish archeologist Sven Hedin, and others rediscovered the Buddhist cave temples at Dunhuang and elsewhere, and explored evidence of caravan routes in places like Turfan and Loulan. The Europeans helped themselves to thousands of Buddhist manuscripts, works of art, and other cultural materials which they took back to museums and libraries. Europeans at the time thought nothing of taking such materials from their original locations. Today, such actions would be considered acts of cultural vandalism.
Faults aside, these explorers and scholars brought to light important aspects of the forgotten history of the Silk Road. The People of the Silk Road today are heir to a heritage of trade and exchange that still enriches their cultures. The Silk Road, after a long period of hibernation, has been increasing in importance again recently. Interest has been growing in this ancient trade route.
Books written by Stein, Hedin, and others have brought the perceived oriental mystery of the route into western common knowledge. A rapidly increasing number of people, with the romantic ideals as following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, have been interested in visiting the desolate places once part of the Silk Road. Since China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970’s, the tourism trade has encouraged the authorities to do their best to protect the remaining sites of the original zone, and restoration of many of the sites is presently underway.
The caravans are gone forever, replaced with new issues of national identity, regional and international relations, competing roles of religion and the secular state, and most intriguing, the task of fitting traditions together with the modern-day life of the peoples of the Silk Road today.9Works CitedBeers, Burton F. (1988).
World History Patterns of Civilization. New Jersey: Prentice-HallClyde, Paul H., Beers, Burton F. (1971) The Far East: A History of the Western Impact and the Eastern Response. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Goodrich, L. Carrington (1959). A Short History Of The Chinese People. New York: Harper & Row.The Great Silk Road.
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