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The Silk Road

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The four hundred years between the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.- C.E. 220) and the establishment of the Tang dynasty (618-906) mark a division in the history of China. During this period, foreign invasion, transcontinental trade, and missionary ambition opened the region to an unprecedented wealth of foreign cultural influences. These influences were both secular and sacred. Nomads, merchants, emissaries and missionaries flooded into China, bringing new customs, providing exotic wares, and generating new religious beliefs. Foremost among these beliefs was Buddhism, born in India, but which now took root in China. These new influences entered China by a vast network of overland routes, popularly known as the Silk Road

The term Silk Road does not refer to a single, clearly defined road or highway, but rather denotes a network of trails and trading posts, oasis and markets scattered all across Central Asia. All along the way, branch routes led to destinations off to the side of the main route, with one especially important branch leading to northwestern India, and thus to other routes throughout the subcontinent. The Silk Road network is generally thought of as stretching from an eastern station at the old Chinese capital city of Chang'an to westward stations at Byzantium (Constantinople), Antioch, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern cities. But beyond those end points, other trade networks distributed Silk Road goods throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, on one end, and throughout eastern Asia on the other end.

It is not possible to think clearly about the Silk Road without taking into consideration the whole of Eurasia as its geographical context. Trade along the Silk Road flourished or diminished according to the conditions in China, Byzantium, Persia, and other countries along the way. There was also competition for alternative routes, by land and sea, to absorb long-distance


Eurasian trade when conditions along the Silk Road were unfavorable. For this reason, the geographical context of the Silk Road must be thought of in the broadest possible terms, including sea routes linking Japan and southeast Asia to the continental trade routes.

The terrain of the Silk Road was difficult, to say the least. The many possible routes were numerous and complex, and the dangers of the journey were perilous. The zone of this broad belt of oasis punctuated deserts extended across Central Asia from northwestern China to the Caspian and Black Seas, and on to the Middle East. The zone was bounded on the north and south by mountains, but could be traversed with only a few mountain ranges to cross along the way. Features of the landscape included a high, dry terrain, infrequent and irregular water supplies, and absent or scarce food for the caravan animals. What made trade possible at all, besides the techniques of caravan travel and the expertise of the local caravaneers, was the existence of substantial oases across Central Asia. These islands of greenery, watered by rivers and springs, ranged in extent from a few square miles to hundreds of square miles, but even the largest were isolated by huge expanses of surrounding deserts. Much of the Middle East is desert, traversed by caravan routes linking scattered oasis cities, much as is the case along the Silk Road further east. Silk Road traffic coming from Central Asia passed through the Middle East along many different routes and with many different destinations; the Middle East was, in a sense, an end-point for the Silk Road, but perhaps more importantly a trans-shipment zone.

The Silk Road itself was pioneered sometime during the mid-first millennium B.C.E. and not established as a regular trade route until near the end of that millennium. The history of the Silk Road probably begins with the prior history of long-distance travel, trade, and population movements across the trans-Eurasian steppe belt.


Horseback riding became common on the steppes during the second millennium B.C.E. This facilitated the long-range movement of peoples across the steppe belt. It also, in eastern Eurasia, set up the competition for land, wether to use it for agriculture or pasture, in the Inner Asian borderlands of China. For thousands of years to come, the enduring problem of Chinese foreign policy would be how to deal with mounted nomads on their northern frontier. Eventually the threat from the north would encourage the Chinese to look to the corridor linking their own northwest with the deserts and oases of Central Asia- to look, in other words, to the Silk Road as an alternative to leaving all their non-maritime long-distance trade in the hands of the nomads of the steppes.

Just as the domestication of the horses made possible the pastoralism of the steppe, the domestication of the camel made possible trade on the Silk Road. The deserts of Central Asia are impassible to carts and chariots, and horses were not hardy enough to carry pack cargo through the desert environment. With the domestication of the camel, caravan trade along these desert tracks began. The caravan trade was beneficial to China because it was not controlled by potentially hostile nomadic tribes, and because it offered a shorter route to the oasis marketplaces of Central Asia and the Middle East, but the steppe trade never disappeared entirely. Trade both along the steppe belt and on the newly developing Silk Road was small scale and irregular, but it did succeed in carrying goods over long distances. Chinese silk was known in the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt at least by the mid-first millennium B.C.E.

Although foreign influences had penetrated China since early times, official interest in the west began only during the Han dynasty. Threatened by incursions of mounted nomadic tribes from the north and northwest, the Han emperor Wudi dispatched missions westwards to seek


allies. Although these missions were unsuccessful in securing alliances, they returned with reports of not only an existing trade in Chinese products, but also of a superior breed of horses. It was in part the need to secure this breed of horse, vital to the Han campaigns against the nomads, that drove Han armies into Central Asia.

By the late second century B.C.E., the military colonies were established in Gansu to protect the trade routes from nomadic incursions. These colonies became important trading posts on the Silk Road. The main route led from Chang'an through Lanzhou, Wuwei, Ahangye, Jiuquan to Dunhuand and was protected by a Han extension to the Great Wall. As trade flourished, new products and ideas entered China, brought by foreign merchants. Buddhism entered China at this time, but was confined mainly



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