Silk Road — Ancient Trade Routes That Connected the East and West
The Silk Road was an ancient trade route network that opened up during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) and connected the East and the West.
Initially, it was a passageway opened by the great explorer and diplomat Zhang Qian in the year 139 BC. It later developed into a comprehensive network, including several land and maritime trade routes.
This network promoted communication among different cultures and connected East and Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and Europe.
Today, the term Silk Road usually refers to the Land Silk Routes or the historic Trade Routes Network of the Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor.
Remains of Hecang or Dafangpan City Constructed in 104 BC Along the Silk Road, Photo by Li Wenbo.
Silk Road Map, from UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads Photo Contest.
Time and Reason for the Opening of the Silk Road
In 200 BC, when the Xiongnu were attacking the northern borders, a king of the Han Empire rebelled and allied with the Xiongnu.
Emperor Liu Bang led his army to fight back and failed in that war.
Afterward, the Han Empire sent many gifts and some princesses in exchange for peace, but the Xiongnu still frequently implemented robberies on northern borders and caused huge losses.
Golden Crown of the King of Xiongnu — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
After Emperor Wu of Han ascended to the throne, he decided to fight back against Xiongnu.
One day, he heard that the Xiongnu had invaded a country named Yuezhi and killed their king, whose people were searching for vengeance.
Hence, he wanted to connect and ally with Yuezhi to attack the Xiongnu from different directions.
In 139 BC, an intelligent, determined, loyal, and brave young man named Zhang Qian was sent westward to an unknown region, trying to find a military ally for his empire to fight against their long-term enemy.
Endless Desert Along Silk Road, Photo by Meng Kaikuo.
Things Imported and Exported Through Silk Road in History
Things that were imported to China through the Silk Road in history include Ferghana Horse, walnut, cucumber, garlic, celery, carrot, exotic spices, grape, watermelon, maize, pepper, potato, tomato, cotton, as well as religions like Buddhism, Nestorian Christian, and Islam.
Things exported from China to the West include silk, porcelain, tea, handicrafts, and techniques of casting iron, making paper, gunpowder, compass, and so on.
Glass Cup of the Han Dynasty, Believed Was Imported Through Maritime Route — Hepu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
History of the Silk Roads in China
Zhang Qian left the Han Empire in 139 BC and returned in 126 BC.
His group had walked through the vast prairie, gobi, desert, mountain, lake, and depopulated zones over 2000 years ago, captured Xiongnu twice, and fought bravely to escape and return.
In the end, Yuezhi didn't want revenge anymore, but Zhang Qian brought back extremely valuable information about the western regions of the Han Empire.
Meanwhile, under the command of great marshals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, the Han Empire obtained unprecedented military success fighting against the Xiongnu and largely extended the territory.
Shandanjun Army Horse Breeding Farm in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces along the rounte, Built by General Huo Qubing in 121 BC, Photo by Chen Min.
In 114 BC, Zhang Qian completed his second westward expedition, bringing Silk and numerous exquisite goods from the Han Empire to other countries and officially opening up the Silk Road.
Then, the emperor extended the Great Wall to protect people living and traveling in this region.
Afterward, more people migrated there, more trade routes were developed, and Han's biggest enemy Xiongnu was defeated and disappeared in historical documents.
Relic Site Xuanquanzhi of the Han Dynasty, A Post Station and State Guesthouse Along with the Silk Road
After the Han Empire ended, China entered the Three Kingdoms, Jin, North and South Dynasties (220 — 589), an era of separation and endless wars.
The Silk Route as a network had experienced a cutoff.
However, this area kept developing steadily as a relatively isolated region and a trading center of the East and the West.
During the unified Sui (581 — 618) and Tang (618 — 907) dynasties, trade along the ancient route reached its peak when countless products, people, cultures, and religions were introduced between the East and West.
The Maritime Silk Road, formed in the 2nd century BC, developed rapidly in the prosperous Tang Dynasty to supplement trade on the land routes.
It peaked during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), an era with exceptional wealth, advanced scientific technology, and a smaller territory that didn't cover the Land Network region.
Therefore, international trade of the Song Empire was mainly through the Maritime Silk Road.
Exquisite Embroidery Fabric of the Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Zheng He's Seven Voyages (1405 — 1433) were representatives of the prime of the Maritime Silk Road.
The low points were banning international maritime trade during Kublai Khan's reign and some periods of the Ming Dynasty.
Restored Model of the Main Ship of Zheng He's Fleet — Wuhan Science and Technology Museum
However, the Land Route gradually declined since the mid-Ming Dynasty, after the Jiajing Emperor decided to retreat in the northwest region in 1524.
Maritime routes replaced trade along the roads.
The Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), an empire with bigger territories but closed border policies, didn't bring back the prosperity the Silk Road, both land and maritime routes, used to have in history.
Remains of the Yang Pass or Yangguan Pass of Han Dynasty Along the Route, Photo by Sun Zhicheng.
The Naming of the Silk Road
In Chinese history, various trade routes received their names based on the roads' destinations, directions, military or political purposes, etc.
In 1877, the German geologist Richthofen named the land trade route networks the Silk Road, and later, the French scholar Chavannes referred to sea routes as the Maritime Silk Road.
Silk Dresses of Court Ladies in Painting "Zanhua Shinv Tu", By Artist Zhou Fang of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Liaoning Museum
Important Sites on the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor of the Silk Road in China
Chang'an or Xi'an
Chang'an, today Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province, was the starting point of the Silk Road.
Chang'an was the capital city of the Han (202 BC — 220 AD) and Tang (618 — 907) dynasties, two of the most influential and prosperous empires in history that opened up and flourished the international trade routes.
Today, many extremely valuable cultural attractions are scattered in this historic area, including the ruins of Weiyang Palace (Han's imperial palace) and Daming Palace (Tang's imperial palace), the Terracotta Army, Mount Hua, the City Wall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), museums and ancient relic sites.
City Wall of Xi'an City
It was constructed in the year 652 in Chang'an city, with the current emperor's support, to preserve Buddhist scrolls and statues that were brought back through the Silk Route by the eminent monk Xuanzang.
Moreover, Dayan Pagoda is located in Ci'en Temple, a royal temple built in 648 to memorize and pray for Empress Zhangsun, the beloved queen of Emperor Taizong of Tang.
Therefore, the Dayan Pagoda held historical significance. Royals and accomplished scholars who achieved excellent scores in Imperial Examinations would ascend to the top of the pagoda, write poems, and carve their names on it.
Dayan Pagoda in Xi'an City
Maiji Mountain Grottoes
Maiji Mountain Grottoes in the Tianshui City of Gansu Province, first built from 384 to 417, is an exceptional Buddhist sculpture museum.
Maiji Mountain Grottoes in Tianshui City of Gansu Province
Exceptional Natural Views Along Silk Road
Lenglong Mountains in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces, Photo by Gucheng.
Colorful Danxia Landform in Zhangye City of Gansu Province, Photo by Meng Kaikuo.
Yardang Landform in Gansu and Xinjiang Provinces
Ancient City Ruins Along the Silk Road in Xinjiang Province
Jiaohe Ruins (2nd BC to 14th Century ) in Tulufan City, Photo by Danmozhuxiang.
Gaochang Ancient City (1st BC to 14th Century ) near Tulufan City, Photo by Dingling.
Beiting Ancient City (1st BC to 15th Century ) in Jimusaer City
Kizil Cave - Temple Complex (3rd to 9th Century ) in Baicheng City
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