The Silk Road: History and Purpose
The Silk Road was much more than just a road, it changed the world more than arguably any other single system in history including political and religious systems. The ability to utilize other regions’ resources and combine them with your own is more prominent than ever today and it all started in Central Asia, the heart of the Silk Road.
How did the silk road come about? Originally the purpose of the Silk Road was to establish trade routes between the Middle East and Europe. The Han Dynasty was in rule of China at the time and the Han’s ruled from 206 BCE to 220 AD. Zhang Qian was sent to the west by Emperor Wu in an attempt to establish trade routes with Central Asia. Along his travels, Qian discovered many separate, already established, trade routes. His communication with these major traders was a significant factor in the rise of the Silk Road (Whitfield 12-17)
The Royal Road was the main route established before the Silk Road. Zhong Qian found the system that connected Susa to Sardis. The Royal Road was formed by King Darius of the Persian Empire. This road was exactly what China had envisioned, but the Han Dynasty had something much larger in mind.
The maritime Silk Road is often an overlooked part of the trade route. It is believed that more trading was done overseas than on the Silk Road itself. The sea routes mainly Arab, Persian, and Indian ships took were dangerous. Many ships went missing never to be seen again. In the late fifteenth century new navigation routes were discovered making it possible for European ships to reach farther east. Since China did not really participate in the sea trade, their goods were still exchanged through European ships (Wriggins 9). They traded things like their Chinese porcelain, this trade created a global network of goods. Although China was not a main participant of the sea trade, they surpassed all other naval technology in the world at the time. After the ninth century the Chinese were using magnetic compasses and they had advanced star mapping systems to navigate themselves. The sea trade had items like pearls, spices, ivory, horses, and bird plumes come into Southeast Asia.
The Chinese made the other Central Asian Empires aware of their vast resources, particularly their silk. The Chinese had perfected a method of farming the worms whose cocoons are spun to make silk and they had the only productive silk textile in the world (Qiu 10-14). This caught the eyes of every kingdom in Central Asia. China began to mass produce and distribute their silk, selling to one merchant who would then sell to the next at an increased price. This chain slowly grew, and Chinese merchants began to buy other goods as well to bring home and sell. Once other countries caught on to how lucrative exporting a resource that is particular to their own culture was, everyone in the region wanted in on the trade.
Sericulture dates to the Chinese Neolithic period. The oldest silk was found around 3630 BC. Chinese myth says that Lady Hsi-Ling-Shi, or the Goddess of silk, introduced sericulture and the loom that silk is woven on. Silk originally was reserved for a select few, like the Emperor, his wife, high-dignitaries, and important family members. Over time silk became a huge industry in China. Silk was so prominent in Chinese life that silk is used as the “key” in many Mandarin texts. Silk was so valuable that it was used as a form of currency (Whitfield 25-50). People would pay taxes in silk and the state would pay its people in silk. They measured the value by the lengths of the silk. Eventually China lost its monopoly on silk with the secrets spreading through Chinese natives settling abroad and making a living through silk. Silk production would eventually reach all the way to India. The Byzantine empire became well known producers of cheaper made silk, but the Silk Road was still the way to go if you wanted the original high-quality Chinese silk. Silk eventually reached Rome, who had never even remotely seen or heard of silk. It eventually became the staple of well-off Romans and eventually was worn by all classes in Rome.
Although the Silk Road was very popular for its silk, that is not all that was traded. In the beginning of the Silk Road China received things like horses and seeds for grapes. Grapes were unknown to them before this and later during trade they would also discover things like onions, cucumbers, and carrots. Wool products were also something the Chinese were unfamiliar with. Things like carpets, curtains, and blankets left a big impression on them. China themselves were very popular for their Chinese china. They would make the most unique and expensive china and it was sold as a luxury item in Europe. China also offered Chinese paper, varnish, perfumes, and other basic things like tea or rice. Iran was popular for their silver products and India for their spices, fragrances, dyes, and ivory. Northern Europe not only provided things like fur and honey, but they also dealt in slaves.
Not only were tangible goods exchanged on the route, but also cultures. Buddhism was spread to China from the Kushan kingdom. Traces of Buddhism have been found, such as monuments in cities, along the Silk Road. Christianity was also spread during the 13th century. The Silk Road served as a route for Catholic missionaries to spread the word of their religion. Notably the Islamic faith was carried eastward on the route, also bringing their scientific and medical advancements. Silk weaving was spread from China to Central Asia, Iran, and Byzantium in the fifth and sixth centuries. In Central Asia paper production started in the eighth century effectively driving out the other writing materials, parchment and papyrus. Along with skills, architectural styles were shared. In Central Asia Timur’s structures in Shahrisabz, and the Timurids tombs are just a few structures that prove the people along the Silk Road were combining styles of architecture. Art and music were also spread. Eastern Turkestan and Central Asian music were the obvious favorite among the Chinese. The Silk Road heavily influenced the enrichment of all the cultures along it.
Although the Silk Road was very effective in connecting and spreading many different cultures and ideas, it was also responsible for negative things. The Silk Road spread diseases such as smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague (Ursula 12-24). The bubonic plague is also commonly known as the black death and would later kill off half of Europe. The environments that merchants had to travel through could be extremely harsh. Merchants were subjected to sandstorms from the Taklimakan desert or ice storms from Mount Tirich Mir. Bandits were also very prominent on the Silk Road. Raids were organized around the difficult terrain leaving whole caravans robbed.
The Silk Road became much more than just a road, it was essentially the world’s first ever intercontinental network. When that many cultures are interacting on such a consistent basis, a lot more than goods get spread. The Silk Road became a transference of ideas, techniques, skills, culture, ways of thinking, and disease. East Africa, Asia, and Europe all boomed significantly in these days of trade. Culturally, architecturally, and intellectually each and every region now could peer into other cultures and see what was behind closed doors. Each culture did a number of things, including adopting techniques for transportation, ideas behind civil engineering, learning of different religions, utilizing materials not found in their own area, and gaining an appreciation for things they felt that they had done better than anyone else. The implications of the cultural rub-off and this style of networking are deeply ingrained into modern society. A simple, common t-shirt made in 2020 has seen more of the world than most human beings and by the end of its life could easily pass through upwards of 10 countries. Why? Because different countries have taken on certain aspects of all the processes required to create a shirt. This is a direct result of the Silk Road and in a way, a cultural assembly line. When the Silk Road was at its peak productivity, each merchant had a designated role in each society, which had their own role in the larger network now referred to as the Silk Road.
In conclusion, the Silk Road was more than an extensive trade route. It was a catalyst for the globalization of the world. Establishing itself during the Han Dynasty, it spanned from 130 BCE to 1453 CE. The production and cultivation of silk is what the Silk Road was most famous for. The art was monopolized by China until the secret got out and eggs were smuggled. Silk eventually became accessible not only by the rich, but all classes. Silk became so popular it was a form of currency on the Silk Road and people would even pay their taxes in silk. However much more than just silk was traded on the route. Things like spices, porcelain, ivory, and gold are just a few of the luxury goods that were traded. The maritime Silk Road is an often-overlooked part of the trade routes history, but it is thought to have been even more extensive and impactful than the land routes. Tangible items and goods were not the only things that were exchanged on the Silk Road, the cultural trade was just as important. Religions, architectural design, and technological developments changed each society on the Silk Road. Diseases were also spread through the trade route such as measles, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. The Silk Road started off as just a simple Royal Road, but its potential was quickly realized by the Han Dynasty and would forever change the course of history.
- Ursula Sims-Williams with Whitfield, Susan, eds. “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith,” London: British Library, 2004
- Whitfield, Susan, “Life along the Silk Road,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
- Wriggins, Sally. “A Pilgrim on the Silk Road.” Faces, vol. 13, no. 4, Dec. 1996, p. 8. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ulh&AN=9612310547.
- Qiu, Jane. “Silk Road Heads for the Hills.” Scientific American, vol. 314, no. 4, Apr. 2016, p. 23. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0416-23.Qiu, Jane. “Silk Road Heads for the Hills.” Scientific American, vol. 314, no. 4, Apr. 2016, p. 23.EBSCOhost,doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0416-23.