Legendary Stories from the Silk Road

Written by Sally Guo Updated Sep. 5, 2022

As a major route for economic, political, and cultural exchange between East and West for more than 1,500 years, the ancient Silk Road has had a massive influence on development in the world, and many remarkable stories about the road have been told.

The Mystery of Ancient Loulan

Crescent Lake in Dunhuang

Crescent Lake in Dunhuang

Loulan, or Kroraina, was an oasis town of the Western Regions on the ancient Silk Road. Now there are only some ruins near Lop Nor, in modern Xinjiang.

As early as the 2nd century, Loulan was a famous “kingdom of cities”. It passed through Dunhuang in the east and Lop Nor in the west. The southern and northern routes of the ancient Silk Road were distinct from Loulan.

According to historical records, Loulan originally belonged to Xiongnu. The Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) competed with Xiongnu to seize control of Loulan, so Loulan had to surrender to both sides and befriend both forces.

After Zhang Qian succeeded in visiting the Western Regions, Loulan became a strategic place on the Silk Road. Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty then sent troops to attack Loulan and Loulan surrendered to the Han dynasty.

In the 5th century, the ancient city of Loulan – an important post on the Silk Road, after 500 years of glory, gradually became uninhabited and disappeared silently from the historical stage. The ruins of the ancient city were not found until the beginning of the 20th century.

But what was the real reason for the disappearance of Loulan, this mysterious ancient city known as the “Pompeii of the desert”? Experts and scholars are still investigating…

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Marriage Alliance – Wang Zhaojun

Team of Camels

Team of Camels

In addition to conferring titles upon local leaders, there was another way for Chinese dynasties to cement relations with rulers of minority nationalities in the border areas: by marrying daughters of the imperial family, called “heqin”, to them.

Stories about these peacemaking brides were passed down along the Silk Road. One of the most famous was Wang Zhaojun, one of the four legendary beauties of ancient China.

On an autumn day in BC 33, Emperor Yuan of the Han married Zhaojun to Huhanye, the chief of Xiongnu. Zhaojun bade farewell to her homeland and went to Xiongnu along the Silk Road.

As she viewed the desolate and boundless grasslands, she strummed the pipa (a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard), playing a tragic parting song.

Flying geese were so immersed in the sweet sound of the pipa and the pretty appearance of the lady sitting on the carriage that they forgot to flap their wings and fell from the air. Since then, the term “falling geese” has been used as a metaphor for Zhaojun.

After Wang Zhaojun’s marriage, the Han and Xiongnu maintained a friendly and harmonious relationship for 60 years and this made a tremendous contribution to the development of the Silk Road.

Ban Chao – Defender of the Silk Road

Ruins of Jiaohe Ancient Town

Ruins of Jiaohe Ancient Town

The use of the Silk Road opened up by Zhang Qian was disrupted because of the harassment of Xiongnu in the last years of the Western Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 8).

In AD 73, Ban Chao, a general of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD) joined the army on a punitive expedition to the north and helped the Western Regions get rid of the control of Xiongnu.

The Eastern Han’s sovereignty over the southern margins of the Tarim Basin resumed and the Western Regions which had been isolated from the central plains of China for 58 years were reconnected. This event facilitated the route’s first extension to Europe.

  • In AD 97, Ban Chao carried large quantities of silk fabric to the Persian Gulf and the Syrian province of Rome (possibly today's Antioch in Turkey).
  • In AD 166, the Roman Empire sent the first batch of special envoys to the Eastern Han dynasty via the Road, marking the first cultural exchange between Europe and China.

Among the goods traded along the road, China’s silk was the most representative and this gave the “Silk Road” its name.

Ban Chao dedicated himself to the Western Regions for 30 years, defending the Silk Road and further promoting economic and cultural exchanges between China and West Asia.

Xuanzang’s 16-Year Adventure along the Silk Road

Buddism in India

Buddism in India

Since Buddhism was brought into China during the Western Han dynasty, it soon became widespread in the country and reached its peak during the Sui (581-617) and Tang (618-907) dynasties.

Shortly after the establishment of the Tang dynasty, an eminent Buddhist monk Xuanzang set off from Chang’an, walking along the Silk Road, and traveling to India after passing by Central Asia, to acquire scriptures. This adventure lasted 16 years.

The book “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” written during this period records the politics, society, and customs of the countries in India at that time. This is still the most important material for scholars of India in studying their medieval history.

Later generations wrote a well-known mythological novel “Journey to the West” describing the story of Xuanzang.

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The Spread of Papermaking

Drying Rice Paper under Sun

Drying Rice Paper under Sun

The technology of papermaking invented by Cai Lun was spread along the Road during the Tang Dynasty to Arabs, and on to Europe.

During the Tang dynasty, people who cultivated government land needed to join the army; papermakers were no exception. In AD 751, the Tang army fought against Arabs in the Western Regions but lost, and many soldiers were captured, some of whom were papermakers.

These craftsmen were sent to the Middle East to establish papermaking workshops and impart techniques to Arabs, who later transmitted them to Europe (Spain, France, and Italy, etc).

By the 19th century, China’s papermaking technology had spread throughout the five continents.

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