Silk Road

Written by Sally Guo Updated Sep. 5, 2022

The term Silk Road (Seidenstrassen, in German) was first coined by the German geographer, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (1833-1905), uncle of the famous "Great War" (WWI) German fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, aka the "Red Baron", in Ferdinand von Richthofen's book, "China: Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegrundeter Studien" ("China: The results of My Travels and the Studies Based Thereon"), published in 1877. However, the Silk Road identified by von Richthofen was a much more restricted route than the Silk Road route mapped out by a later Orient expert, Dr. Albert Herrmann (1886-1945) of Harvard University in the U.S.

In von Richthofen's defense, the famous geographer derived his Silk Road route based on extensive but perhaps less rigorous, historically speaking, Chinese sources (Hanshu, a Geography; Hanshu, the Biography of Xiyu, etc.) concerning the trade route between the Orient and the Occident, and which connected present-day western China (present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or Xinjiang, for short) with Europe via Bukhara and Samarkand, both ancient Soghdian cities that were part of the Persian Empire, but which belong to present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan's neighbor to the north. Herrmann, in contrast, relied heavily on the writings of Claudius Ptolemaeus (CE 90-168), aka Ptolemy - the Greek geographer, mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer - in pinpointing his Silk Road route.

In addition, one can rightly speak of an overland Silk Road route and a maritime Silk Road route, for both routes existed. According to received wisdom, the maritime Silk Road route arose solely as a result of the decline in the overland Silk Road route, which declines is generally believed to have been the result of increasing local and regional conflicts leading to the breakup of Central Asia into smaller states, which in turn resulted in a steep increase in the "toll fees" levied on passing caravans, since every local chieftain demanded a piece of the pie, as it were, and suddenly there were many such chieftains. Given the fact that Central Asia at this time (the 13th - 14th centuries) was indeed in the process of breaking into smaller ethnic and language groups, the incidence of excessive transit fees sounds quite plausible, which - together with the spread of the bubonic plague to China in CE 1330 - could naturally have caused a decline in the use of the overland Silk Road route.

How and Why of the Overland Silk Road Was Built

Any serious discussion of the history of the Silk Road route needs to address the question of how and why the Silk Road route originated in the first place. The "why" of the Silk Road route is a story in stages, the shortest explanation of which is that the trade aspect of this grand opening up of China over 2000 years ago to the outside world happened by accident, that is, the trade aspect was incidental to an entirely different aspect of what was going on in the China of the Qin (BCE 221-207) and Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty period...

silk road tour
Silk Road Gateway Tour

The Xiongnu tribes (Turkic tribes, though the Xiongnu were later referred to as Huns, when they pushed/ migrated westward into first northern, then southern Europe, even sacking Rome in CE 451 under the leadership of Atilla (the Hun), aka the Scourge of God) of the north had moved into the region located immediately north of late 3rd century BCE China (note that whereas the 3rd century CE denotes the period CE 200-300, the 3rd century BCE obviously denotes the period BCE 300-200), driving out the Yuezhi tribes living there who had maintained friendly relations with their Han Chinese neighbors. The Xiongnu tribes, in contrast, were hostile toward their Han Chinese neighbors - very aggressively so, in fact - which is what prompted China's first emperor, Emperor Qin of the Qin Dynasty, to erect the first Great Wall in BCE 214. This wall, initially a makeshift wall that was constructed out of whatever scraps could be found locally, and which therefore had to be repaired constantly, was designed to keep out the bands of marauding Xiongnu that were plaguing the northernmost villages of China.

Eventually, Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty, who ruled from BCE 140-87, hatched a clever plan to unite the Han Chinese and the Da Yuezhi ("Great" Yuezhi, but most often written as Dayuezhi) - the latter of whom had not forgotten their enmity toward the Xiongnu - against the selfsame Xiongnu, but Emperor Wu Di's plans were much broader than a simple alliance between the Dayuezhi and the Chinese - he wished to form a picture for himself of the nature of the tribes that lived farther west, what form of society they lived under, what was their form of rule, what they produced, what they ate, what kind of houses they lived in, etc.

Accordingly, a cultivated diplomat, Zhang Qian, was sent westward south of the area controlled by the Xiongnu, partly with the aim of locating the Dayuezhi and partly to simply explore the region, to learn about how the different peoples lived, and to record all of this for the sake of the emperor. At the same time, Zhang Qian was to serve as a Chinese "ambassador", or model representative of his country, toward his various hosts.

It was years, going on decades before Zhang Qian returned to the court of Emperor Wu Di to present his "findings" (but the emperor reigned for many, many years, so he was there when his emissary returned). In the meantime, the emperor had lost interest in the alliance with the Dayuezhi, mainly because the Xiongnu problem had been contained with bigger and better fortifications along the new Beijing Great Wall (one well might advance the theory that the westward push/ migration of the Xiongnu cum Huns was owing to their eastern advance being blocked by the Great Wall).

But the emperor was highly interested in the things that his emissary could tell him about China's neighbors to the west (Central Asia) and to the southwest (India). More emissaries were sent out to these capitals bearing gifts, including silk, and slowly interest in exotic goods from China was sparked in such faraway places as the Parthian capital of Nisa (situated near the city of Ashgabat in present-day Turkmenistan, near the border with present-day Iran) and Rome. The travel accounts - and "findings" - of Zhang Qian appear in the Early Han Dynasty historical chronicles, Records of the Grand Historian (aka Shiji) compiled by Sima Qian, the 1st century BCE "Grand Historian" himself, aka the Father of Chinese Historiography, whose chronicles sketched the ancient history of China from the earliest times - i.e., from the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor, aka the Father of China - to the time of Emperor Wu Di.

The "how" of the Silk Road route (how it came into being) is less complicated but is also inseparable from the "why" of the Silk Road route: the Chinese people, by the time of the Qin and Han Dynasties, had become master craftsmen, skilled in the art of weaving and in the art of silkworm husbandry, which in turn required the careful planting and nurturing of the mulberry tree (family Moraceae) - whose leaves were the food on which the silkworm larvae feed - leading to the creation of that most fantastic of fabrics, silk. But the Han Chinese were also master craftsmen in the use of precious metals, precious stones, and ivory to be used in the fashioning of exquisite objects of art. In other words, once the kings of Europe and the princes of Parthia had set their eyes on silk, had discovered the exciting taste of spices, and had seen the exquisitely crafted Chinese works of art made of gold, silver, jade, and ivory, they coveted these exotic things.

There are two other subsidiary factors that played a significant role in the opening of the overland Silk Road trade route: the fact that a near-complete route had already been opened from west to east by Alexander the Great, all the way to the city of Alexandria Eschate ("Alexandria the Farthest"), aka Khujand in present-day Tajikistan, about 100 kilometers south-southwest of Tashkent in present-day Kyrgyzstan; and to the acquisition of larger horses.

Khujand lies at the western entrance to the Fergana Valley, which in turn lies just north of the narrow, east-west mountainous strip, the Alay Mountains, that divides the Fergana Valley from the Kyzyl Suu Valley, the latter of which, according to Herrmann (as we will see in the next section), is the site of one of the first routes of the overland Silk Road.

The other subsidiary factor that played a significant role in the opening of the overland Silk Road trade route was the fact that the Chinese traders in question, as indicated, had acquired larger horses, which they obtained from the Dayuan people who lived in the aforementioned Fergana Valley; while the Levantine trade caravans used camels, since they crossed vast deserts, their Chinese counterparts preferred horses.

The Dayuan were a large-specimen, fair-haired people who were neither of Turkic or of Chinese origin. This fact, plus the fact that they bred large horses, has convinced many historians that the Dayuan are the descendants of Alexander the Great, blended with the local Bactrians (hence the designation "Greco-Bactrian"), themselves Indo-European migrants who had entered parts of India (India at that time was much larger than present-day India) and the northeastern fringes of what eventually became part of the greater Persian Empire.

Origins of the Overland Silk Road Route

There are two disputed, out of China routes belonging to the earliest Silk Road. The dispute concerns the name and location of the village, or city, which represented the western terminal point of the Chinese trade caravans, or the rendezvous point at which merchandise was exchanged between Levantine (Middle Eastern) and seric ("silk-bearing", i.e., Chinese) caravans, according to Ptolemy.

One theory holds that the first such route stretched from Kashgar in present-day Xinjiang to the village of Kyzyl Suu on the banks of the Kyzyl Suu River in the Kyrgyz valley of the same name, situated about 75 kilometers, as the crow flies, north of Lake Karakul in present-day Tajikistan. This is the Silk Road route suggested in 1910 by the famous German-born Orient expert, Albert Herrmann. The village of Kyzyl Suu was thus believed by Herrmann to be the westernmost, or terminal, point of the Chinese Silk Road caravans. Note also that both the Kyzyl Suu River (alternately known as the Vakhsh or the Surkhob River) and the Panj River (aka Pyandzh River) are headwaters of the ancient Oxus River in the writings of Ptolemy, known today as the Amu Darya, or the Amu River.

The other theory, espoused by Joseph Hackin (1896-1941), the famous Luxembourg-born China explorer, archeologist, and life-long employee at the Musée Guimet in Paris (where he eventually rose to the position of Curator), places the route from Kashgar westwardly to the city of Tash-Kurgan, or Taxkorgan Tajik, in present-day Xinjiang, which ancient city lies roughly 250 kilometers, as the crow flies, southwest of the city of Kashgar. This theory would place the rendezvous point between the Levantine and Chinese caravans on the eastern side of the Pamirs, rather than atop them.

According to Ptolemy himself, the rendezvous point was a stone tower (lithinos pyrgos) at the foot of the "Hills of Komedai", which many historians believe to be the city of Irkeshtam in present-day Kyrgyzstan, a city that lies almost at the summit ridge of the Pamirs (but perhaps at the foot of one of these peaks, as mountain peaks inevitably beget valleys, however small and shallow), adjacent to the border between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. The appeal of this location - apart from its being the "halfway" point that divides the eastern and western slopes of the Pamirs - is that it is on the same route between Kashgar and the village of Kyzyl Suu suggested by Herrmann.

The origins of the Kyzyl Suu River high on the western slopes of the Pamirs is separated by the origins of the body of water (initially an elongated lake, or natural mountain reservoir - read: somewhat closed valley) that eventually becomes the eastward flowing Kezilesu River, which in turn becomes the Weiquke River just south of Kashgar, by little more than 40 kilometers, as the crow flies, and on a flat trajectory, though the terrain here is anything but flat (think of an inverted "V" - present-day Highway A371 connects the cities of Irkeshtam and Kyzyl Suu, and follows the valley that eventually becomes the Kyzyl Suu River Valley.

In other words, the Chinese silk trade caravans might well logically have followed the Kezilesu River Valley that leads up the Pamirs from the eastern side, while the Levantine silk trade caravans arrived and returned via the Kyzyl Suu River Valley on the opposite, or western, side of the Pamirs, and where the Kyzyl Suu River itself links up with the Panj River at the western foothills of the Pamirs, near the city of Kunduz in present-day Afghanistan, just before the Panj flows into the Amu River, Ptolemy's Oxus River.

Since there were countless local branches of the Silk Road, it is not improbable that there eventually were two such routes over the Pamirs. The route via Tash-Kurgan would have led westward through the narrow valley (the Wakhan Corridor) represented by the elongated, eastward-stretching panhandle situated in the northeastern corner of present-day Afghanistan, which narrow corridor lies on the same latitude as the city of Kunduz farther west (from the city of Eshkashem at the "mouth" of the Wakhan Corridor to the due-west city of Kunduz is a distance of some 200 kilometers, as the crow flies).

The Westward Expansion of the Overland Silk Road Routes

The overland Silk Road route, whether it was connected to Kashgar via the Kyzyl Suu River Valley or via the Wakhan Corridor, stretched eastward to the ancient Chinese capital of Chang'an, present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, where many of the Chinese trade items that would be transported westward via caravan were collected. Later, the capital - and thus the origin of the overland Silk Road trade route - moved to Luoyang in Henan Province. From Luoyang/ Chang'an, the westward route went to Lanzhou in Gansu Province, through the province's Hexi Corridor (which, in ancient times, was the only northerly entrance into China from the landward side), on through the province's Yu Men ("Jade Gate") Pass, from which pass the Silk Road split into two routes.

From Yumen (as it is commonly written today) Pass, the route split north and south around the great expanse of the Taklimakan Desert. The southerly route followed the northern contours of the Kunlun Mountains (i.e., it followed the southern rim of the Taklimakan Desert) first to the ancient city of Dunhuang, Gansu Province, then on to the city of Lop Nur (named after the lake of the same name), Xinjiang, then on through the province's famous Silk Road cities such as Loulan, now buried under the sand (to learn more about the ancient city of Loulan), Miran, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Loulan, Qarkilik, Qarqan ("Qiemo", in Chinese, "Qarqan" being the ancient Uyghur name), Niya, now also buried under the sand and apparently abandoned in great haste (to learn more about the ancient city of Niya, click here), Keriya, Khotan, yet another ancient Silk Road city that was buried under the sand (to learn more about the ancient city of Khotan, click here), Yarkand, an ancient Buddhist city and seat of a small Buddhist kingdom, though today Yarkand (also written "Yarkant") is populated by Muslim Uyghurs, the city also served as a hub for the Silk Road route that passed southward into India (Kashmir) via the Karakoram Pass, and finally, on to the city of Kashgar (to learn more about the ancient city of Kashgar).

The northerly route followed the southern contours of the Tian Mountains or the northern rim of the Taklimakan Desert. From Yumen, the route crossed the eastern entrance, or neck, of the Taklimakan Desert, just west of the western extremity of the Gobi Desert, then on around in a northwesterly arc along the northern rim of the Taklimakan to the ancient city of Hami (aka Kumul today, historically considered the Eastern Gate of Xinjiang), and from there on to Turpan, Karashahr (alternatively written as Karaxahr, or "Yanqi" in Chinese), Kuqa (alternatively written as Kucha, or "Qiuci", in Chinese), Aksu, which was the hub, or junction between the northern Taklimakan route and the Silk Road route that branched off directly northward through the Muzart Pass (and up over the Tian Mountains and a hostile, frigid (glacial) landscape, then into present-day Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), then on to Tumxuk before arriving at Kashgar.

The overland Silk Road route, especially, eventually developed a maze of alternate local and regional routes, for what reason is rarely given, though one can easily imagine that there might have been any number of reasons for this, including inclement weather a particular year (eg., a severely hard drought, drying up key water sources), forcing the caravans to find an alternate route; it might have been due to the presence of bandits along the usual route; or it might simply have been owing to a pioneering soul who decided to try a different route, just to see if it could be done, and the new route might or might not have proven to be easier, but in any case, it would have presented new opportunities for the sale of return goods from Arabia, Persia and India, not to speak of new markets for the sale of return goods from Rome.

Further west, in Central Asia, and southward (toward India) and northward there were several alternate, early-period Silk Road routes, not unlike the Silk Road route development in China, where the natural contours of the local and regional terrain often determined the exact local route, with several alternate routes to choose from. At the western extremity of the westward overland Silk Road route, other routes branched north (into central and northern Europe) and south (into Arabia and eventually Africa). The traffic in goods along most of these routes was two-way, with many exotic animals from Arabia and Africa arriving in China. There was also a lively "trade" in ideas (cultural exchange) along the Silk Road, which is the subject of the next section.

The Two-Way Silk Road Cultural Exchange

The East-to-West Cultural Exchange

It was during the Silk Road era that the knowledge of many unique Chinese inventions was passed from east to west, such as the knowledge of gunpowder, bronze smelting, papermaking, porcelain making (including the highly prized celadon technique) as well as the art of sculpted pottery in general (think: Terracotta Army, though these particular exemplars of Chinese sculpted pottery were first discovered in recent times), the use of paper money, the art of printing, the compass, the art of healing via specific herbal treatments, the martial arts, and the raising of silkworms in the production of silk thread, to name the most obvious. It was thanks to the spread of this knowledge to China's immediate neighbors - especially Japan - during the Tang Dynasty that China earned a reputation as a highly developed culture, worthy of emulation.

The West-to-East Cultural Exchange

Not surprisingly, there was much knowledge that traveled the Silk Road in the other direction, i.e., from the outside world to China, one of the first such "ideas" to travel the Silk Road being Buddhism, which made its appearance in China during the Western Han (BCE 206- CE 009) Dynasty while the Silk Road was still in its infancy, though Buddhism in China would first become widespread after a Chinese Buddhist monk translated the key sutras, imparting a Chinese flavor to them (for example, Chinese Buddhism, rather than opposing China's existing belief systems (Taoism, and to a lesser extent, Confucianism), actually incorporated significant elements of these belief systems (though Confucianism is more of a philosophy than a belief system), thus making Buddhism very Chinese-friendly.

It should also be noted that Chinese Buddhism was exported to the neighboring countries of Korea and Japan, that is, the Buddhism that came to be spread throughout these two countries was based on the Chinese translation of the Indian Sutras, not on the original Indian Sutras themselves.

Other important beliefs and/or ideas to arrive in China, thanks to the Silk Road, were Nestorian Christianity, Islam, astronomy, the Gregorian calendar (though China, to this day, observes the Lunar calendar when it comes to national holidays), and mathematics, as well as Indian, Persian and European music and art.

ejinaqi golden tour
Dunhuang, Zhangye, and Ejinaqi Golden Autumn Tour

The Decline of One Silk Road Route

The Decline of the Overland Silk Road Trade Route

The overland Silk Road trade experienced many ups and downs throughout its long history. By the end of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, the otherwise blossoming overland Silk Road trade had already begun to decline, but was revived for a time during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, then declined thereafter until the emergence of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty's Mongol rulers were quite eager to embrace China's Muslims and their religion, with the result that Islam was allowed to spread freely across China via the overland Silk Road (though the spread of Islam restricted itself chiefly to the western part of China, where China's Turkic minorities live, not making much headway against Buddhism, Taoism (itself being crowded out by Buddhism) or Confucianism (itself having been forbidden by various former emperors)), and where the Muslim middlemen merchants of Central Asia essentially controlled the overland Silk Road trade, which arrangement was initially to everyone's liking.

Alas, this unity soon disintegrated with the breakup of the region into smaller political entities and the emergence of powerful, local warlords, which only increased the threat to the otherwise lucrative overland Silk Road trade; not only was there an increase in the size and incidence of the "toll fees" which were required to cross the Central Asian steppe, the "goods" themselves - which included not only silk, spices, precious stones, precious metals (gold and silver), ivory, exotic animals and plants as well as medicinal herbs, but also slaves - suddenly risked being seized outright.

Another factor that contributed to the demise of the overland Silk Road trade route was the CE 1330 outbreak in China of the bubonic plague (aka the Black Plague, Black Death, etc.), where entire cities were wiped out and where the resulting quarantines made Silk Road commerce all but impossible (not to speak of the fact that not only did the authorities discourage such trade contacts, private individuals themselves shunned them for fear of contracting the plague).

However, more recent scholars dispute the claim that the maritime Silk Road route first arose as a result of the decline in the overland Silk Road route. These scholars claim instead that the maritime Silk Road route existed in parallel with the overland route, almost from the outset, even if the maritime Silk Road route was perhaps less developed, initially, and even if it came to dominate after the decline in the overland Silk Road route.

The Blossoming of the Maritime Silk Road Trade Routes

As early as the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, there was a maritime Chinese trade route (not generally considered a Silk Road trade route, however) that originated at the mouth of the Hong ("Red") River in present-day Vietnam, near the present-day city of Hanoi. The route proceeded around the Indo-Chinese peninsula beyond the Thai-Malay Peninsula and then northwestward through the Malacca Straits to Ceylon and India, and eventually on across the Arabian Sea (the present-day Indian Ocean) to the Arabian Peninsula, where one route followed the eastern contours of the Arabian Peninsula up the Persian Gulf to the city of Al Basrah (present-day Basra in Iraq), while another route skirted around the Arabian Peninsula and continued up the Red Sea.

One of these Red Sea routes ended at the terminus city of Suez, where the goods were carried overland to Cairo, then were sailed down the Nile to the city of Alexandria and on across the Mediterranean Sea to the Sicilian Peninsula, from whence they were traded throughout Europe. An alternate route ended near the ancient Nabataean city of Petra (think: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), from whence the goods were transported to Nabbatea's port cities along the Meditteranean and then onward to Sicily. Much of the Middle East at this time was still under the rule of Rome, though, with the advent of Islam under the prophet Muhammad (CE 632-732), whole swaths of the Middle East, including Syria, Mesopotamia, and Arabia, were wrested from Roman control.

The traders who actually transported the "Oriental" goods across the Mediterranean during this period may well themselves have been descendants of the ancient Phoenicians, who had plied their trade across the Mediterranean from BCE 1500 to BCE 300 when the Phoenicians were eventually conquered by Rome. Phoenicia comprised roughly the strip of land on which present-day Israel sits, plus parts of ancient Syria and present-day Lebanon. Nabataea lay south of this, in what is present-day Lebanon

Of course, the Egyptians and the Nabataeans were themselves major consumers of Silk Road goods, and during the later period of the Silk Road trade (it still exists in a modern sense, of course), much of the silk exported from China was in the form of raw silk that was shipped to the Middle East to be processed into more exquisitely refined garments in keeping with the increasing demand for more delicate and more beautiful garments as a result of the saturation of the market - as today's economists would put it - with more common silk garments (think: silk damask, whose etymology derives from the name Damascus).

By the middle of the 15th century, barely a century after the decline of the overland Silk Road route, most of the volume of the maritime Silk Road trade had ceased as well. A limited maritime Silk Road trade in the most exquisite items of the Ming and Qing Dynasties continued. Especially items such as porcelain and lacquered furniture were popular at the courts of the kings and queens of Europe and in the homes of the rising bourgeois classes.

The Legacy of the Silk Road

Though the traditional Silk Road routes may have disappeared (replica Ming and Qing Dynasty pottery is still produced and is quite popular, even if the replica market is designed to appeal to more ordinary consumers), the Silk Road routes have left a lasting legacy on the world. Most 14th - 17th-century Italian pottery, beginning with the early Renaissance period, bears a distinct, China-inspired influence. Similarly, the art of lacquering wood had a major influence on Renaissance period furniture manufacturing in Europe, especially furniture for the court, for high-ranking ministers and for the increasingly wealthy bourgeois class, including the production of small boxes designed for the safe-keeping of sundry personal items - everything from snuff boxes to jewelry boxes, the latter of which played music, a Western refinement to an ancient Chinese concept.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who accidentally discovered America (if Erik the Red (CE ca.950-1003), the red-headed Norwegian Viking, isn't to be credited with this accomplishment), set out westward hoping to find a shorter and therefore quicker route to China, thus opening up, if not discovering, America instead, which discovery has had a profound effect on the history of the world. Similarly, the Dutch explorer, William Barentz (1550-1597) set sail northward from Amsterdam hoping to cross north America via what would be referred to as the Northwest Passage, also in the hope of finding a shorter route to China, all of which explorations bear witness to the fact that there was still a lively trade in goods made in China.

Of course, Marco Polo (1254-1324) had been one of the first such famous China travelers, returning to Europe with glowing praise of all things Chinese. Other famous historical personages such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) were similarly generous in their praise of Chinese handicrafts, as witnessed by the following quotes:

"Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies..."
"Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China."

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