History of the Ancient Silk Road

Written by Ruru Zhou Updated Sep. 29, 2021

From 139 BC, when Zhang Qian first made a trip to open up a new era of Sino-foreign exchange, the Silk Road lasted for more than 1,000 years and declined around 1200 ( during Ming and Qing Dynasties). On June 22, 2014, the Silk Road by the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site in the 38th World Heritage Committee meeting.

A List of History of the Ancient Silk Road

The Origin of the Silk Road

Zhangqian to western regions
 

Zhang Qian to western regions

The Silk Road has a history of over 2000 years. It was first built during the  Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty period.

Zhang Qian - China Silk Road pioneer

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 Da Yuezhi, 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.

In 119 BC, Han Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian to visit neighboring countries to establish an early route from China to Central Asia.

In order to promote exchanges between the Western Regions and Chang'an (Xi’an), Emperor Wudi recruited a large number of low-profile merchants taking the goods distributed by the imperial court to conduct business in all countries in the Western Regions. Most of these adventurous businessmen became wealthy merchants, attracting more people to engage in trade on the Silk Road and greatly promoted economic and cultural exchanges between Central Plains and Central and West Asia.

The "how" of the Silk Road route (how it came into being)

Silk
 

Silk

The first factor is the kings of Europe interesting in Chinese silk.

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.

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 second factor is China needs a large number of horses to increase combat effectiveness.

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 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.

The Two-Way Silk Road Cultural Exchange

Chinese Porcelain
 

Chinese Porcelain

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.

The Decline of Silk Road 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.

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.

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.

Although the overland Silk Road route is decline the maritime Silk Road route was developed.

On June 22, 2014, at the 38th World Heritage Committee meeting held in Duha, the Silk Road along with the Grand Canal was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO

Popular the Silk Road Trips

Want to get to know the history of the Silk Road? Please see our more popular silk road experience and cultural trips to explore this ancient wonder:

We have developed some special activities along the silk road route, including discovering a mysterious place to have a close experience with visiting the local village. Contact us if you want to add these activities to your itinerary.

Back to Silk Road

Need Help?

Request a custom itinerary today and get one step closer to your personalized trip

Create Your Trip