The Silk Road :

Silk Road
Europe and Asia at the time of the Roman and Han dynasties

The Silk Road or Silk Route evokes an exotic vision of China; the imagination immediately conjures up camels carrying rare and exotic treasures thousands of miles through the desert landscapes of Central Asia.

It was of great importance in the Han (200BCE); Tang and Yuan dynasties. However trade did start at a much earlier date but on a much smaller scale as Chinese silk has been found in Afghanistan from 1500BCE. The Silk Route fell into decline during the Song and Ming dynasties when trade by sea from southern ports became safer and more profitable than the overland route. There is more than one road, so it should be thought of as a network as the road had several branches, starting in both India and the Middle East and ending at the Chinese capital (for a long while at Luoyang). There was also an overland route through Tibet to Bangladesh, from Chengdu to Hanoi and over the mountains of Yunnan into Burma. The name ‘Silk Road’ can only be traced back as far as the 19th century to the German geographer Baron von Richthofen , it was not known by this name in China. The trade along the route was much more significant to the Indians, Europeans than the Chinese, it carried only a small proportion of Chinese trade. The exotic and expensive goods, particularly silk, that could only be bought in China gave the road its importance.

Silk road, Jiayuguan, fort
Fortress (14th century) at Great Wall of Jiayuguang, September 2009. Photo by Sigismund von Dobschütz available under a Creative Commons license .

The map above shows the Silk Road at about 100CE, when the Roman Empire extended into Asia Minor and the Han Empire had conquered much of modern China (except for Fujian). At the beginning of the Han dynasty explorer Zhang Qian spent 13 years on an eventful trek to the west where he married into the Xiongnu tribe (the Xiongnu had withstood Chinese expansion to the north-west). Zhang eventually brought back tantalizing news of advanced civilizations beyond China's borders. His journey into Parthia and India encountered vestiges of the Greek Empire that had been founded by Alexander the Great 356-323BCE . Emperor Wudi's curiosity was piqued and he sought to find out more, including the exploration of a southern route into India through Yunnan. This first contact proved that China was not alone in developing an urban-based civilization. The Silk Route was first used to import horses into China, which were needed to improve the effectiveness of Han cavalry against the horsemen of the northern frontier tribes. With the new horses General Ban Chao was able to subjugate these tribes. Thereafter more tales and rumors of the great, far away Roman Empire reached China. They learned such things as the Romans drank from glasses rather than earthenware cups. The Han dynasty name for Rome was Da Qin 'Great Qin' named after the Qin dynasty itself, apparently called 'great' due to their taller stature. Trade along the Silk Road between the two great empires grew rapidly. The Romans developed such a veracious appetite for silk that Emperor Tiberius introducing a ban to try to stem the outflow of gold. At this time it was the Sogdians with center at Samarkand who were the main traders along the route.

silk road, Xian, sculpture
Statue commemorating the Silk Road, Xian
Chinese Silk

Chinese Silk


Along with porcelain and tea, silk is one of China's important innovations. Just like other great inventions the secret was closely guarded for centuries. Fabulous fine cloth was an important export as far back as the early Roman Empire.

Silk Route Cities

Along the Silk Route are many ancient trading posts: Bakhara; Kashgar; Tashkent; Kunduz; Samarkand ; Turpan; Tehran. The fortunes of these great cities ebbed and flowed as different peoples came into ascendency; Central Asia remained an area in flux for many centuries. Most chroniclers emphasize the long route to the Mediterranean and yet it was the trade with India which was more significant. It was from India that many would say the most precious cargo was imported: Buddhism. The grand western entrance into China was the Jiayuguan Gate, Gansu 嘉峪 at the western end of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall gave protection to travelers from attacks by tribes to the north on their passage deep into China through Lanzhou and on to the ancient capitals at Luoyang and Chang'an. When the Tibetan kingdom reached the height of its power in the Tang dynasty, Tibetans controlled the southern strands of the route. It was at Dunhuang, famous for its Buddhist caves, that the route divided - one route on the north of the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert to Central Asia and the other to the south with a branch to India.

silk road, Turkey
The magnificent entrance to the Sultanhani caravansary on the Silk Road, Turkey

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The traditional caravan that traveled the route was made up of a hundred camels roped together. They generally managed thirty miles a day, hoping to reach the next oasis in good time for sunset. Bells hung around the necks would enable any camels that broke free to be located and alerted caravans to each other's presence from afar. As well as their prodigious skill in storing water, camels were invaluable for finding new sources of underground water that they could sense and paw at the ground to allow a temporary well to be dug. Knowledge of the exact route and weather conditions was passed down through generations of camaleers, to stray from the path was almost certain death. The journey was so long and arduous would normally only make one trip a year. To make a decent living they had to transport only the most expensive goods to make a profit.

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The Silk Road - Marco Polo

There are only a few passes through the mountains into Western China and even then climbing up to 213,255 feet [65,000 meters] was no mean achievement for the hardy traders and their beasts of burden. In the deserts of Taklamakan it was that was the crucial commodity. Only limited amounts could be carried and these would last only a few days. The ancient civilization built the Karez or (Qanat ) water system to take the melt-water from the mountains and channel it underground down to the towns fringing the desert. The system at Turpan is the most impressive where melons and grapes can be grown with no direct water supply. These irrigation systems were already in place by the Han dynasty.

The Mongol conquest of China caused the whole of the route through Central Asia to come under Mongol control and trade flourished. The route had always been subject to raids by bandits who would kill the porters and steal their precious cargo. The Silk Road into China at this time is described in the travels of Marco Polo. Trade was carried in stages by local tribesmen, Parthians; Bactrians and Sogdians of Central Asia, who zealously maintained their role as middlemen. Only very few ever made the complete trek along the whole route. The lack of direct contact denied first hand knowledge in Europe of China and of course China of Europe. However some Chinese inventions did make their way along the route including gunpowder; the abacus and silk. In return China grew fond of using chairs rather than simple stools.

Gansu, Jiayuguan, camel
Camels in front of Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

As the name 'Silk Road' implies, the most important goods transported were silks as they were light; non-perishable and highly prized, they were the ideal cargo for long distance journeys by land. At the time of Diocletian the price of silk is estimated to be $0.5 million per pound - more than gold by weight. Apart from silk China exported grain, lacquer-work, bronzes, decorated metalwork, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb (then believed the only reliable cure for constipation ). While in return imports of spices (from India and Central Asia); glass; coral (for ornamentation) woolen textiles; rhino horn; hides; ivory; fruit; amber; tortoiseshell; purple cloth and horses came into China. Diseases were a less welcome import and export. Exotic birds and animals if they survived the long, grueling journey commanded a high price too.

Jiayuquan, Ming dynasty, silk road, Gansu
Entrance gate under a tower into the Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

Silk Road decline

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The Early Years of the Silk Road

The decline of the Silk Route started when Northern China was conquered by the Jin and Xixia kingdoms during the Song dynasty. The Southern Song dynasty had to rely on the sea to the south for trade as the overland silk road to the north was denied to them. Although the Silk Road re-emerged as the main overland transport route during the Mongol dynasty when it fell in 1368 the overland route was no longer as safe. Central Asian kingdoms and their trading cities along the route had been devastated by the Mongol conquests. Northern barbarian tribes resumed their threat to the northern Chinese Silk route and more significant of all, advances in maritime technology allowed for safe and more profitable transport by sea - maps and the compass made long distance sailing trips practical. Even in Roman times there had been small scale but significant maritime trade via Sri Lanka and Arabia. By the start of the Ming dynasty the sea routes had become well established. This was another reason why the center of Chinese civilization moved south from the Yellow to the Yangzi River valley.

Tue 12th Sep

Mulberry bark money

Among the most influential inventions of the Chinese has been paper money. While the rest of the world was lugging around silver and gold China had made the break in the Tang dynasty around 800CE. In China the problem was that normal coinage was in standard bronze discs. The coins had a hole in the middle so they could be strung together in groups of 100. A string of cash was a heavy and inaccurate unit of currency (some traders would claim a 'complete' string which would only have 65 coins). How much better to carry around IOUs rather than cash? As long as the IOU was unequivocally signed by a reputable merchant it was just as valuable as thecoins it represented.

The problem of metal coins was particularly acute when the government forced Sichuan province to use iron coins. As soon as the government saw that the system of IOUs was working well they of course stepped in and made it a government monopoly.

At the same time counterfeiters threatened the new currency and for that reason in the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-1294) Marco Polo witnessed the use of money in the form of strips of black mulberry bark which was then marked with the red seal of the Emperor (only the Emperor was allowed to write in vermillion ink). The bark had to be specially processed and so the notes were hard to forge. An even rarer form of currency had been attempted much earlier in the Han dynasty (175 BCE) when Emperor Wudi introduced money made from pieces of hide from rare white stags.

As the issuing of paper money did not have to be backed by actual silver and gold the modern system was born where a government can just print money to get itself out of (or into!) financial difficulties.

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Silk Road re-discovered

After many of the silk road cities had been abandoned and become buried in sand for centuries it was the turn of explorer-adventurers in the late 19th century to enter a race to rediscover them. There was great interest in Europe and America about the distant, exotic history of Central Asia. Museums paid handsome rewards for 'rediscovered' (effectively stolen) treasures as they attracted many visitors. The explorers included Aurel Stein (UK); Paul Pelliot (France); Sven Hedin (Sweden); Albert von le Coq (Germany); Count Otani Kozui (Japan) and Langdon Warner (US).

Silk Road re-invigorated

In the last few years the Chinese government has begun an ambitious program to bring economic development along the line of the original Silk Route, not just in China but to Central Asian states as well. It is called the Belt and Road Initiative and was launched in 2015. Just like the ancient Silk Road the new over-land route now offers cost-effective transportation from China all the way into Europe.

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