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the silk road

The Silk Road: Full Guide to China’s Ancient Network

The Silk Road (or Sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路) is a term coined in the late 19th century meant to describe the trade routes that connected the Middle East, Ancient India and the Mediterranean to China. It wasn’t a single road, rather an intricate network of routes across both land and sea that enabled trade between ancient empires.


Map of the Silk Road


silk road map


Part 1: Origin of The Silk Road


Han Dynasty Troubles


The history of the Silk Road starts with Han Dynasty Emprorer Wudi and his diplomatic messenger, Zhang Qian. Wudi’s arch enemies were the Xiongnu nomadic tribes living to the north of the Han, whose capital was Chang’an (present-day Xi’an).


They lived in what’s now known as Mongolia and began raiding the Chinese during the Warring States Period (476-206BC), causing the first emperor Qin Huangdi to begin consolidating what we now know as the Great Wall of China.


Wudi Seeks Alliance


To help offset these attacks, Emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qian on a diplomatic mission to the west to seek alliances with the people that were previously defeated by the Xiongnu, known as the Yuezhi.


Zhang Qian set off in 138BC but was soon captured by the Xiongnu in present-day Gansu, where he and his caravan of 100 were held captive for nearly 10 years. Eventually escaping and reaching the Yuezhi, his efforts proved fruitless as he learned that the Yuezhi had happily settled down and wanted no part in avenging their losses on the Xiongnu.


History says that Zhang Qian returned to Wudi with only one of his former 100 companions, but even still, the emperor was pleased with the geographical knowledge he brought back and the gifts he acquired along the way.


Results of Zhang Qian’s Initial Trip


Unknowingly, Zhang Qian had just introduced China to the existence of western kingdoms that they never even knew existed. One of which included the Kingdom of Fergana, who’s vast supply of horses led Zhang Qian to recount of the “heavenly horses” of Fergana. Wudi, understanding how important these animals could be to his military power, sent several parties to Fergana to buy/take the horses back to China.


This move became so intertwined with the culture of the Han Dynasty, sculptures of the “Flying Horse of Gansu” are now on display at the Gansu Provincial Museum.


The Silk Road Opens


From Wudi’s time forward, the Chinese made a concerted effort to use and protect the roads through their western territories in order to trade goods with the west. All trade went through the Han-built Yumenguan (玉门关), or Jade Gate.


They built outpost towns and soon there thousands of camels and merchants bringing silk, furs and ceramics across the Taklamakan Desert into Europe, while wool, jade, wine, slaves, animals, tableware, Mediterranean-colored glass, gold and other precious stones would travel east into China.


Over the next 1,500 years, until Ming emperors cut off all contact with foreigners, the Silk Road would see varying levels of importance as power within and around China would shift upwards or downwards. It is generally regarded that the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) saw the golden age of information and material trade along the Silk Road.


Zhang Qian was ultimately named by the Han Court as The Great Traveler and is known to this day as the Father of the Silk Road.


Part 2: About the Silk Road


How have we been able to learn about the Silk Road?


Surprisingly, our knowledge of the Silk Road isn’t from ancient writings or stone inscriptions, but rather, trash. The intensely dry climate of the Taklamakan Desert has served to protect several different types of documents written on wood, paper and cloth. And since paper had such a high value back then, that it was rarely thrown out.


What kinds of goods were traded on the Silk Road?


Perfume, gems, coral, ivory, furs, gunpowder, metals, spices, medicines, glass, leather goods, and paper all moved across Eurasia. Silk was the major commodity exported being exported from China, but the most important export was arguably paper. As paper became the primary writing material for all of Eurasia, it’s impact on human history is far greater, considering silk was used primarily just for garments.


Invented during the second century BCE, paper moved out of China, first into the Islamic world in the eighth century, and reached Europe via its Islamic portals in Sicily and Spain. People north of the Alps learned to make their own paper only in the late fourteenth century.


Buddhism’s growth in through China can also be attributed to the Silk Road, as the religion was spread rapidly from town to down as merchants traveled along the road during the 1st century.


Was it always called the Silk Road?


Nope. In fact, the phrase “Silk Road” wasn’t created until 1877, when Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), a prominent geographer, produced a five-volume map of China. One map showed a single line connecting Europe and China, which he called the “Silk Road,” and the name stuck.


During it’s use, travelers would refer to the different sections of the road as the “Road to Samarkand” (or whatever the next major city was). They did, however, refer to the different routes around the Taklamakan as either the “northern” or “southern” route.


Part 3: Facts about the Silk Road


  • The Silk Road was over 4,000 miles long.
  • Not all that was traded along the Silk Road was good. It is thought that the bubonic plague, or Black Death, traveled to Europe from the Silk Road.
  • Very few merchants traveled along the entire route. Goods were instead traded at cities and outposts along the way.
  • Silk was very light to carry and very valuable, often considered as valuable as gold. It was traded in its raw form, as dyed rolls, tapestries, clothing, carpets and as embroideries.
  • Spices were important on the Silk Road both for preserving food or masking the flavour of rotten food, and for trade in the West. Popular spices included cloves, pepper, cumin, mace, ginger, nutmeg, saffron, and cinnamon.
  • In China and Central Asia the traders would often use camels, horses, and even yaks to carry their goods.
  • The biggest and most impressive city on the Silk Road was Samarkand, located where China’s many routes met with the main route that would continue on towards Europe.
  • Samarkand was famous for its craftsmen, astronomers, poets, and for its aqueduct that provided water for 200,000 people.
  • Many of the large caravans that traveled the Silk Road were heavily guarded. These caravans were easy targets for bandits if unguarded.
  • Marco Polo, the first European to chronicle his experience traveling to China, was one of the most famous historical figures to travel the Silk Road.
  • There is a railway called the Eurasian Land Bridge that runs between China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia that is sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road.