What Was Traded on China's Silk Road and Why
China traded with south, west, and central Asia, Europe, and North Africa through the Silk Road. As the name implies, silk was the most representative of the goods traded on the Silk Road.
In addition to the silk, China’s porcelain, tea, paper, and bronze products, India’s fabrics, spices, semi-precious stones, dyes, and ivory, Central Asia’s cotton, woolen goods, and rice, and Europe’s furs, cattle, and honey were traded on the Silk Road.
The Silk Road also contributed to the first upsurge of cultural exchanges between China and the West.
Discover the products and items that made the Silk Road the world's most important ancient trade route in this article. If you are interested in traveling the Silk Road, contact us to book a trip.
What Did China Export on the Silk Road
The kinds of products exported from China during the at-least-3,000-year history of the Silk Road changed over time, but silk was generally the most precious export.
Silk, the most luxurious fabric of all, was light and easy to pack, and it was the favorite export product along the Silk Road. It was almost exclusively made in China until the secret was found out by the Japanese around the year 300.
Then it was made in certain Central Asian countries and Byzantium in the 5th or 6th centuries. By the 1100s, silk was produced in Italy.
Early on however, during the Han Dynasty era that was contemporaneous with the Roman Empire, the Han had a near monopoly of the silk trade, and the translucent, colorful silk fabric dazzled the eyes of the people in the vast Roman Empire. The rich and powerful paid such huge sums of gold to obtain it that it caused the empire experienced some economic problems.
The Tang (618–907) exported more silk than did the Han and became a major supplier to the Eurasian market. Then the empires of the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) greatly increased the production and nurtured large-scale silk industries that helped supply the Eurasian market with quality silk. However, once the trade routes were closed by the Mongol invasion, the Song used the ships along the Maritime Silk Road to export their goods. See The History of Silk Road — Routes and Chronology
Porcelain was another invention that was prized in the West. It was during the Han Dynasty era that the first kinds of brightly colored porcelain were manufactured and sent westwards, and especially during the Tang and Yuan eras, fine porcelain pieces were produced in massive quantities and exported.
Europeans did not learn how to make porcelain until the 1700s. See more about Porcelain History.
If you are interested in the making and history of Chinese porcelain, we recommend a 3-Day Jingdezhen Porcelain Tour. You could walk into a workshop to learn about the process, make your own porcelain, and understand why china is called “china”.
Other Valuable Exports
Bronze ornaments and other products from this metal such as ornate bronze mirrors, lacquerware, medicines, and perfumery were also popular. Paper was invented during the Han Dynasty era and was also appreciated in the West. Merchants also carried tea and rice.
Recommended Silk Road tours
- 11-Day Along the Great Silk Road
- 8-Day Miraculous Qinghai and Legendary Silk Road Tour
- 6-Day Silk Road Photography Tour
What Did China Import via the Silk Road
China exported many goods to the West through the Silk Road. In return, China received many kinds of products ranging from precious metals to horses, weapons, and manufactured goods.
The various empires always had a need for horses. Local breeds were considered too small, and they wanted better horses to use in battles against nomads and enemy cavalry. This is actually what spurred the Han court to begin regular Silk Road trade in the 2nd century BC.
The Yuezhi people had been allies of the Han, but they were driven out of Xinjiang and the Gansu Corridor by the Xiongnu by about 176 BC.
The Han Emperor sent Zhang Qian westwards to find them. He reached Sogdia and was surprised that they had settled the region of the Fergana Valley (now Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and had a high level of civilization, craftsmanship and wealth.
The Sogdian townspeople profited richly from their trading operations 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 and among the gifts they sent to obtain the horses was silk. See more about the History of the Silk Road.
During the Tang and Song eras, the Tea Horse Trade Route to Tibet was also used to bring in horses.
Sheep were largely unknown in the eastern empires. Woolen goods, carpets, curtains, blankets, and rugs came to China from Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. These products impressed them because they were unfamiliar with the methods of wool processing, carpet manufacture, and weaving. Parthian tapestries and carpets were highly appreciated in the ancient empires.
Initially, during the Han era, traders brought in grape seeds. Much of Eurasia had cultivated grapevines and made wines from time immemorial, but the Han, separated from other civilizations, by seas, extreme deserts and high mountains, thought it was novel. They were surprised that people made wine from them.
Later Chinese received other agricultural crops such as string beans, alfalfa, sesame, onions, cucumbers, and carrots. They also received exotic fruits such as pomegranates, figs, watermelons, other kinds of melons and peaches. Wheat first originated in the Fertile Crescent and it had been carried to the Gansu Corridor by about 2,800 BC.
Other Valued Imports
Central Asian countries exported camels which were appreciated in the Han and Tang empires. They also sent military equipment, gold and silver, and precious stones and jewels.
First the Romans and then Samarkand made glasswares that were especially valued due to their high quality and transparency. Glassware was novel. It was considered to be a luxury good. Other imports were animal skins, cotton fabrics, gold embroidery, and sheep.
What Traveled along the Silk Road besides Goods?
Apart from material goods, religion and technology also traveled along the Silk Road.
In the area of religion and philosophy, the Chinese were net importers. None of the religions and philosophies of China such as Taoism and Confucianism gained much of a following in western countries, but the religions of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity all gained followings in the eastern empires.
Science and inventions spread east and west. In particular, the technology for silk fabric making, stained glass, paper, books, gunpowder and guns production were important innovations that spread to the west.
The papermaking technique reached Samarkand in the 8th century. By the 13th century, the very important technology for making paper reached Europe through Baghdad and enabled the Renaissance of European science and culture.
In the 5th century, glass making technology reached China, and later it was applied to make colorful cloisonné.
How the Goods Were Traded
Goods were often traded through bartering. Very few merchants traveled along the entire route, because it took too long, and profits were not very high. Instead, merchants traded their goods in intermediate cities. Goods were often sold many times and eventually flowed to far away countries along the Silk Road.
Merchants and tradesmen traveled in large caravans. They would have many guards to defend themselves from bandits. Camels were popular animals for transport, because much of the Silk Road was through dry and harsh land.
You could experience camel riding in the desert, listen to the shifting sand, and imagine you are traveling the ancient Silk Road on our 11-Day Silk Road tour below.
Explore the Silk Road with China Highlights
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. See our Silk Road tour designs for inspiration ( all tours can be customized):
- 11-Day Along the Great Silk Road — the most selected Silk Road itinerary
- 7-Day Xinjiang Highlights Tour — Explore the western end of the Silk Road in China
- 6-Day Silk Road Photography Tour — Rainbow mountains, rocky landscapes, desert wonders, and cultural relics
- Or contact us to create your Silk Road tour based on your group size, time, budget, interests, and other requirements.