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The History of the Silk Road in China

Written by Candice SongUpdated Mar. 13, 2024
Silk Road performanceSilk Road style performances can be seen at the Tang Dynasty Show in Xi'an.

The Silk Road is the world's longest and most historically important overland trade route. Trade began thousands of years ago because the tradesmen found that ferrying products was profitable, and silk was one of the main trade items.

Through trade and travel along the road, the cultures throughout Eurasia developed economically, technologically and culturally, and religions and ideas spread east and west. The Han, Tang, and Yuan Empires especially prospered due to the trade, but during other eras, trade stopped for various reasons.

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Why Silk Road Trade Began

The region of China was isolated from the civilizations of the West by the world's highest mountains, some of the largest and most severe deserts, and long distances. In between, nomadic people raided travelers and traders.

However, the people of the Shang (1600–1046 BC), Zhou, and Han dynasties mastered producing several kinds of products that were important and unique such as silk, porcelain, and paper, and these were greatly prized in the West.

But to reach the West, there were only two overland routes. Sea travel was as yet too primitive. One land route passed through the Gansu Corridor, extended westwards to Xinjiang, and then split into several routes. This is called the Silk Road. The other called the Tea Horse Road started from Yunnan and Sichuan and crosses Tibet.

The products such as silk were very valuable to those in Central Asia and as far away as Europe. They paid with precious metals, animal skins, and some of their own manufactured products such as woolen goods, carpets, and glass products that were prized in the East.

The Silk Road's Prehistoric Beginnings (c. 5000–1300 BC)

SilkChinese silk fabrics were light to carry, easy to transport, and a very valuable export.

The prehistoric trade and travel across Eurasia is little known, but there is evidence of trade and travel to Xinjiang even 4,000 years ago. In the Shang Kingdom (1600-1046 BC), jade was highly valued, and they imported jade from an area of Xinjiang.

By the 1st millennium BC, people carried silk to Siberia through the Gansu Corridor over the northern branch of the Silk Road. Silk was found in a tomb in Egypt that dates to about 1070 BC that suggests that even at this early time, silk was traded across Eurasia.

Recommended tour: 7-Day Xinjiang Highlights Tour

Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC): Early Silk Road Trade

It is known that by around 600 BC, gold, jade, and silk was being traded between Europe and Western Asia and the advanced states of the Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC). Silk was found in a 6th century tomb in Germany.

Around 300 BC, civilizations active in the Silk Road trade included Ancient Greece, Persia, Yuezhi, and the Qin State that controlled the eastern part of the Hexi Corridor (or Gansu Corridor in Gansu Province). This corridor is a huge very long valley that extends from Luoyang to Xinjiang.

Recommended tour: 1-Day Longmen Grottoes and Shaolin Temple Tour

Sogdian Traders (200 BC–1000 AD): The Important Middlemen

To reach western Asia and Europe, products were transported through the Sogdian territories west of Xinjiang in modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and from the second century BC until the 10th century, the Sogdians dominated the Silk Road trade.

They were the Silk Road's most prominent merchants and middlemen for more than 1,000 years. They established a trading network across 1,500 miles from Sogdia to the Chinese empires. The common lingua franca of the trade route was Sogdian. Many Sogdian documents were discovered in Turpan.

The Han Empire (206 BC–220 AD): Trade Developed

The Silk RoadDuring the Han Dynasty era, big caravans of hundreds of people traveled between Chang'an and the West.

Silk Road trade commenced in a great fashion through the work mission of Zhang Qian (200–114 BC). Originally, the people in the Han Empire (206 BC–220 AD) traded silk within the empire from the interior to the western borders, but the internal trade was stymied by the attacks of small nomadic tribes on the trade caravans.

In order to protect their internal trade routes, the Han court sent General Zhang Qian (200–114 BC) as an envoy to build relationships with the Central Asian states and to find their former allies, the Yuezhi people, who had left Xinjiang and the Gansu Corridor after they were defeated by the Xiongnu in 176 BC.

Starting from Chang'an (today's Xi'an), the capital of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–9 AD), and crossing the vast Western Regions, Zhang reached the important small kingdoms of Loulan, Qiuzi, and Yutian and established trade relations with them.

 6-day Dunhuang and Zhangye tour

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

  • 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. It is a small prefectural city on the southwest fringe of the Taklamakan Desert about 1,000 km (600 mi) southwest of Urumqi.

Zhang's officers went even further onwards into Central Asia. He reached Sogdia and was surprised that the Yuezhi had settled the region of the Fergana Valley and had a high level of civilization, craftsmanship and wealth. The townspeople operated a rich trading network with India, the Near East, the Middle East, and the countries of the ancient world.

When Zhang Qian came back to China, he told the emperor about the rich countries lying to the west, and he described the large and swift "winged horses" which were better than the breeds in the empire. The emperor wanted these horses to use in their wars against the Xiongnu and other tribes, so soon trading embassies were sent to Central Asia to obtain the horses. Among the gifts they sent was silk that was highly prized for its beauty and novelty. So the Silk Road trade began in a big way.

The countries Zhang and his delegation visited sent their envoys to Chang'an, and traders began to travel the trade routes to carry silk and ceramics to other parts of the world. The Han imported Roman glassware and gold, silverware from Persia and much silver, gold and precious stone from the countries of Central Asia among many other imports.

Recommended tour: 1-Day Xi'an Highlights Tour

Three Kingdoms Period (220–581): Trade Ceased

After the Han Empire fell in the year 220, from 220 to 581, the region was divided into three big warring states. At the same time during the 200s, barbarian attacks on the Roman Empire increased, and this further stymied trade with Europe.

During the 200s also, the Huns attacked states west of the Roman Empire, and this warfare decreased trading in Central Asia. About 400 AD, the Roman Empire collapsed. For these and other reasons, there was a decrease of trading through the Gansu Corridor to the West until the Tang Empire.

 7-day Dunhuang, Zhangye, and Ejina qi Photography Tour

Tang Dynasty (618–917): Trade Flourished


In the early Tang Dynasty (618–917) era, the Silk Road route in Xinjiang was controlled by Turkic tribes. They allied with small states in Xinjiang against the Tang.

The Tang Dynasty later conquered the Turkic tribes, reopened the route, and promoted trade. Trade with the West boomed.

The Sogdians played a major role in the Tang Dynasty trade and rose to special prominence in the military and government of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) court. Sogdian merchants and diplomats traveled as far west as the Byzantine Empire, and they established a trade network that stretched about 1,500 kilometers from Sogdiana to Tang territory.

The famous 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 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. His report contributed to the Tang government's improved relations with these tribes and kingdoms.

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

 11-day Silk Road Tour

Song Empire (960–1279): Trade Ceased Once Again

The Tang Empire ended in 907, and there followed some decades of warfare until the Song Empire arose. The Song Empire was powerful, but they didn't have control of the Gansu Corridor.

The Western Xia was a kingdom in the northwest that controlled access to the strategic Gansu Corridor. The Song Dynasty thought that if they could regain the land of the Western Xia, they could perhaps reestablish the lucrative Silk Road trade that benefited the Han and Tang dynasties. They tried to conquer the country, but they couldn't.

Then, in 1127, the Song court was forced south of the Yangtze River, and the remaining Southern Song Empire was even further from the Silk Road route. Then in 1200s, the Mongols attacked them.

However, as the Mongol Empire expanded in Central Asia and Europe before the fall of the Southern Song Empire, they promoted and protected the trade on the western Silk Road routes.

Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368): Trade Reached Its Zenith

Grand Buddha Temple in ZhangyeGrand Buddha Temple in Zhangye

Trade on the Silk Road revived and reached its zenith during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when the Mongols promoted trade in their huge empire that stretched across Eurasia. 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 was traded for medicines, perfumes, slaves, and precious stones.

Qinghai & Silk Road Tour

Why China's Silk Road Trade Ended

Technological changes, political changes in the Ming Empire, and European production of silk, porcelain and other traditional export products caused the decline of the Silk Road.

By the 1500s, European trading ships were regular plying Ming Empire coastal waters, and as travel by sea became easier and more popular, trade along the Silk Road declined. At the same time, it became more difficult to travel overland. Ship transportation was faster and more economical.

The conquest of the Byzantium Empire and the Ottoman control of western Asia kept Europe and the empires of the Ming and Qing separated from the West, and overland travel became dangerous. While trade of silk for furs with the Russians north of the original Silk Road continued, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the route had decreased significantly.

In the 1400s, the Ming court policy shifted to isolationism. They stopped Silk Road trade. Also, there was less of a demand for silk and porcelain in the West because they produced their own. In the 1100s, Italians began producing silk and textiles, and by the 1400s, Lyon was a major silk textile production center for the European market. By the 1700s, Europeans also produced porcelain and partly satisfied internal demand.

After this, some of the Central Asian Silk Road routes, especially those in high-mountain areas in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and India continued to be used until the beginning of the 20th century.

Short Revival During the Japanese Attack (1937–1945)

The Japanese attack on China forced the revival of the overland route to Europe. By 1939, the Japanese controlled Chinese coastal waters, and the Kuomintang government asked the USSR to build an automobile road that partially coincided with the northern route of the Silk Road. The road ran about 3,000 kilometers from the Turkestan-Siberian Railway (Turk-Sib) to Lanzhou.

In 1940, Great Britain closed the Burma Road to China at the behest of Japan, and the Soviet Silk Road became the only road by means of which China could receive aid from the outside world. From 1937 to 1941, the Soviets delivered armaments and this helped the Kuomingtang and Communist armies to survive. After 1945, maritime trade revived, and airplanes also helped to transport goods.

Several Silk Road Routes (c. 1300 BC – 1400 AD)

Silk Road Map

Not actually a single road.... The Silk Road is actually the collective name given to a number of ancient overland trade routes that linked China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The Silk Road trade with China passed through Xinjiang.

The long and winding routes in northern China followed the Gansu Corridor, a huge valley that is 1,000 kilometers long across Gansu Province. The valley's eastern end opened at Lanzhou, and the valley's western end opened near Dunhuang.

The routes started at the old capital cities of Luoyang and Xi'an, crossed the Yellow River at Lanzhou, and then followed the Gansu Corridor into Xinjiang. At Dunhuang, the route split three ways: the northernmost branch crossed north around the Tianshan Mountains and the other two crossed north and south of the Taklamakan Desert or Tarim Basin.

Recommended tour: 5-Day Dunhuang Desert Culture Journey

The Southern Silk Road or Tea Horse Road (700–1930)

Pu'er teaIn contrast with the northern Silk Road, the Tea Horse Road's major export product was tea.

However, the empires of the Ming and Qing dynasties continued trade in silk, but especially of tea, with Tibet and southern Asia via the very old Tea Horse Road (Chama in Chinese) trade routes. This trade route is also called the "Southern Silk Road."

Yunnan and Sichuan were big exporters of tea for more than a thousand years to the Tibetan Empire. In return, the Tibetans exported horses and various products.

However, during modern times, maritime trade and the availability of Indian and Ceylon tea made the Tea Horse trade route obsolete.

The Maritime Silk Road (1112 BC – 1912)

The Maritime Silk Road grew in importance from the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). Due to Arab conquests and wars in the West, maritime trade increased in the Tang era. With the Mongol invasion of Central Asia, maritime trade peaked during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) with Song trading junks controlling most of the trade.

Then maritime trade again decreased in the Ming era (1368–1912) due to imperially imposed sea trade bans. During the Qing Dynasty, filling the vacuum, Europeans took over the trade routes and their ships ferried most of the products.

Recommended tour: 3-Day Quanzhou Tour to Discover the Starting Point of the Maritime Silk Road

The New Silk Road (21st Century)

Silk Road trade is reviving in part due to the improvement of land transport technology. The Chinese government has been talking about building highways and bullet train lines to connect China and Europe as part on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). These would follow the old routes and use the mountain passes such as the Gansu Corridor all the way to Athens.

However, not much practically has been built yet. There is a bullet train line between Lanzhou and Urumqi, but there isn't one yet west of Urumqi.

Silk Road Tourism

Partly due to the recent news of the Chinese government's interest in reviving Silk Road trade, there is increased interest in touring the ancient trade routes' main sites not only within China, but westwards. Some people are enjoying touring the old trade routes extending west from Greece into Central Asia.

Within China, there are many sites to explore. See Top Things to Do Along the Silk Road.

Explore the Silk Road with China Highlights

silk roadYou can enjoy riding in a caravan train like a Silk Road trader in Dunhuang.

Today the Silk Road still tells many stories of ancient times, and the exchange of cultures. Take a tour to discover the history and culture of the Silk Road. Please see our popular Silk Road Tours below for inspiration:

Not interested in the above tours? You can just tell us your interests and requirements, and we will tailor-make a Silk Road Tour for you.

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