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Silk was generally the favorite export of China's empires that traded with western countries along the Silk Road from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) onwards. But there were other important exports as well. In return, China received many kinds of products ranging from precious metals to horses, weapons, and manufactured goods until modern times.
Discover the products and items that made the Silk Road the world's most important ancient trade route here.
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.
Bronze ornaments and other products from this metal such as ornate bronze mirrors were exported as was lacquerware. Paper was invented during the Han Dynasty era and was also appreciated in the West. Merchants also carried tea and rice.
Jade has always been a favorite semiprecious stone in the region starting from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) who imported jade from Xinjiang central Asia. This was one of the earliest goods to be imported.
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.
Of course, the people in the west commonly paid in gold and silver. The Roman Empire was a major gold and silver exporter. Silver metal and coins also came from Central Asian countries, and Persia sent famed fine silver wares.
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.
Central Asian countries exported camels which were appreciated in the Han and Tang empires. They also sent military equipment, gold and silver, and semi-precious stones.
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.
Crops, fruits, nuts and other edible products traveled east and west as well. So the various countries involved in the trade benefited because they acquired valuable new crops that improved their nutrition.
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.
Varieties of millet, rice and other crops traveled the opposite way through the Gansu Corridor and reached western Asia and Europe from the fifth millennium to the second millennium BC.
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.
Not only tangible goods were exchanged. 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.
For technological imports, in the 5th century, glass making technology reached China, and later it was applied to make colorful cloisonné.
Armies went back and forth along the trade routes also. Though religion didn't travel eastwards from the region of China, armies did. Tang armies occupied the Silk Road routes of Xinjiang.
Then during the Mongol conquest, first Mongol and other tribes of the north who originated in Mongolia and Xinjiang attacked Central Asian and countries in western Asia. Then as the Mongols slowly occupied the Western Xia, Jin and Southern Song territories, Han Chinese engineers and weapons makers were also sent to help in attacks against the Middle East and Europe.
They helped in designing and manufacturing explosive devices, cannons, catapults and other weapons. Siege machines were an important part of Genghis Khan's warfare especially when he wanted to attack fortified cities. The engineers built siege weapons from materials on site. A Han general named Guo Kan played a big role in leading the Mongol siege warfare.
However, except for a successful attack of an Arab army against the Tang army in Central Asia in 751, armies from the West rarely attacked eastwards along the Silk Road routes.
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 (they can all be customized):
Interested in something different? Just tell us your interests and requirements, and we will tailor-make a Silk Road tour for you.