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History of the Silk Road

丝路歌舞Silk Road Performance

The Silk Road is the world's oldest, and most historically important overland trade route. The name evokes images of caravans wading through desert sand, and smell of exotic spices, and continues to fascinate travelers.

Its long history, closely linked with that of China, explains the political and economic reasons for its success.

Ancient Trade Route

The Silk Road is actually the collective name given to a number of ancient trade routes linking China and Central Asia.

The long and winding part in Northwest China, with a history of more than two thousand years, starts from the old capitals of Luoyang and Xi'an, crosses the Yellow River at Lanzhou, follows the "Gansu Corridor", and stretches along the edge of deserts and mountain ranges.

Silk

Silk, the most luxurious fabric of all, was almost exclusively made in China until the secret was revealed in the 7th century to the West. This precious commodity attracted Central Asian merchants, who in exchange brought horses, cattle, furs, hides, and luxuries, such as ivory and jade, to China.

New Commodities

New goods were also introduced to the Chinese by the traders: cucumbers, walnuts, sesame seeds, figs, alfalfa, and pomegranates, as well as new skills, e.g. using grapes to make wine, enriching China's ancient civilization.

The Silk Road in the Han Dynasty

xian the terra-cotta warriors and horsesTerracotta Army

Originally, the Chinese traded silk within the empire, from the interior to the western borders.

The caravans were often attacked by small Central Asian tribes, and in order to assure the safety of the trade, the Han Government sent General Zhang Qian (200–114 BC) as an envoy to build relationships with these small nomadic states.

Starting from Chang'an (today's Xi'an), the capital of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and crossing the vast Western Regions, Zhang reached Loulan, Qiuzi, and Yutian, and established trade relations with these small, but important kingdoms.

Loulan, Qiuzi and Yutian were later all abandoned for unknown reasons, but travelers today can still see the ruins of these three once flourishing places.

  • Loulan, on the western banks of Lake Lop Nur, about 200 km (120 mi) south of Urumqi, was subsequently covered by the desert.
  • Qiuzi was in the present Kuche County of Aksu Prefecture, about 400 km (250 mi) southwest of Urumqi.
  • Yutian is now called Hetian, and is a small prefecture level city on the southwest fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, about 1,000 km (600 mi) southwest of Urumqi.

Zhang's officers went even further into Central Asia. All of the kingdoms Zhang and his delegation visited sent their envoys to Chang'an to express their appreciation for the new relationship, and to show their respect to the Han Government.

From then on the merchants traveled on this route safely, and began to carry silk from China to other parts of the world.

The Silk Road in the Tang Dynasty

tuyugou mazhacunTurpan

In the early Tang Dynasty (618–917) the Silk Road was controlled by the Tuque Tribe, allying with small states in the Western Region against the government, and disrupting trade.

The Tang Dynasty later conquered the Tuque Tribe, reopened the route, and further promoted trading, resulting in a boom in trade with the West.

The famous Chinese monk Xuanzang (602–664) traveled the Silk Road during this period. He began his trip from Chang'an (today's Xi'an), passed through the Hexi Corridor (the area west of the Yellow River), Hami (Xinjiang Region), and Turpan (Xinjiang Region) and continued westward to India.

At the time it was commonly believed that people in those states were brutal and wild, and Xuanzang was surprised by the warm reception he received along the way. The change in his attitude contributed greatly to the Tang government's relationship with these nomadic tribes.

However, by 760 AD, the Tang Government had lost control of the Western Region and trade on the Silk Road ceased.

The Silk Road in the Yuan Dynasty

grand buddha templeGrand Buddha Temple Zhangye

Trade on the Silk Road revived and reached its zenith during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when China became largely dependent on its silk trade. Genghis Khan conquered all the small states, unified China, and built a large empire under his rule.

Marco Polo (1254–1324) traveled along the Silk Road visiting the Yuan capital city Dadu (today's Beijing). In his famous book about the Orient he mentions a special passport in the form of a board. It was issued by the Yuan government to the merchants to protect their trade and free movement within the country.

Other preferential treatment was also given to the merchants, and trade boomed, silk traded for medicines, perfumes, slaves, and precious stones.

As overland trade became increasingly dangerous, and travel by sea became more popular, trade along the Silk Road declined. While the Chinese did maintain a silk-fur trade with the Russians north of the original Silk Road, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the route had decreased significantly.

Today the Silk Road still tells many stories of ancient times, and the exchange of cultures. See our Silk Road Tours to discover the history and culture of the Silk Road.

Read China History to learn more on ancient China.