Guest Author - Caroline Baker
The Silk Road was one of the most important trade routes to ancient China. It exposed much of Asia to the ancient world and became an important conduit in history of sharing information.
The Silk Road got its name from the 19th century scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen from the main product that made its way through the trade routes, silk. A much sought after commodity in ancient Rome, it became the basis for the East-West trade.
Beginning in the Han Dynasty, around 200 BC, the Chinese began conquests to the west to stop invasions from the Xiongnu tribe, who later would be known as the Huns. News of other people who had been equally tormented by the Xiongnu made the empire hopeful to connect with their Western counterparts and join forces in defeating these invaders. During this, they came into contact with the growing Parthia Empire in Persia, which already had a fairly established trade route with the rest of Europe. In order to move the materials across the Silk Road, there were many tribes and cultures that contributed, many of which were not from the major empire (China, Rome, Parthia) involved in the actual trade.
Silk made a good percentage of the materials transported, however, it was not the only commerce exchanged. Ivory, gold, exotic animals, furs, jade, and spices were among the other things traded. In addition, the route became a means of sharing cultures and languages to overcome the need of communication between the traders. Religion was also passed along this route, bringing Buddhism into China.
The Silk Road started in the then capital of China, which resides near today’s Xi’an. The route traced its way to the west, along the borders of the Taklimakan desert, one of the most hostile environments in the world. Some of the paths extended down into India, across into Baghdad and eventually across Turkey and into Rome. The path was treacherous, with the merchants either having to pass through the heat of the desert or up around steep mountains. One of the most important cities on the Chinese side along this route was Dunhuang, where the merchants would officially travel beyond the Great Wall and what little protection those forts and walls provided against bandits. Along the way, the merchants left many marks that remain today of their culture and their travels. Much of it has been buried under the sands of the desert, but some remain, such as the Bizaklik Thousand Buddha Caves, and give us insight into the cultures that existed at the time.
The activity of the trade route coincided with the rise and fall of the Empires in China. It reached its height during the Tang Dynasty. When that Dynasty fell around 900 AD, so too did the activity of the trade route. China would not reform into a unified empire until nearly 50 years later. The lands between were thrown into turmoil, seeing many conflicts that would delay and endanger travel long the corridors of travel. In Europe, Rome no longer was the center of the world and other countries were beginning to build their seafaring abilities. Voyagers from that land sought and found easier, faster and most cost-effective routes to the Far East by sea. Persians had developed their own means of creating silk and thus the need to travel to China was no longer necessary.
Use of the trade routes established continued in China as an important means of unifying empires. However, the uprising of the Muslim religion in the Middle East and the Crusades brought to an end much of the travel east by European countries.
As the Ming Dynasty took over in 1300’s AD, after so many years of having foreign control by the Mongols and many invaders, the sentiment of isolationism took hold in China.