Silk Road — Ancient Trade Routes That Connected the East and West

Remains of Hecang or Dafangpan City Constructed in 104 BC Along the Silk Road, Photo by Li Wenbo.

What is Silk Road?


Silk Road was an ancient trade route network that connected the east and the west since the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).


It was originally a passageway that was opened up by the great explorer and diplomat Zhang Qian started from the year 139 BC, later developed into a whole network including several land and maritime trade routes, which promoted communications among different cultures. 

Today, Silk Road usually refers to the Land Silk Road or the historic Trade Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor. 


Silk Road Map, from UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads Photo Contest.

When and why the Silk Road was opened up?


In the year 200 BC, when Xiongnu was attacking the northern borders, a king of the Han Empire rebelled and allied with Xiongnu. 


Emperor Liu Bang led his army to fight back and failed in that war.


Afterward, the Han Empire sent large numbers of gifts and some princesses in exchange for peace, but Xiongnu still frequently implemented robberies in 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 Ro-Chi and killed their king, whose people were searching for vengeance. 

Hence, he wanted to connect and ally with Ro-Chi, to attack Xiongnu from different directions.  

In the year 139 BC, a smart, 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.

The history of the Silk Road 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, depopulated zones of over 2000 years ago, got captured by Xiongnu twice, and fought bravely to escape and come back.   


In the end, Ro-Chi didn't want to revenge anymore, but Zhang Qian brought back extremely valuable information about the western regions of the Han Empire 


Meanwhile, under command of great marshals Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, Han Empire obtained unprecedented military success fighting against Xiongnu and largely extended the territory.


Shandanjun Army Horse Breeding Farm in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces on the Silk Road, Built by General Huo Qubing in 121 BC, Photo by Chen Min.

In the year 114 BC, Zhang Qian finished his second expedition westward, in which he brought silk and large numbers of exquisite goods of the Han Empire to other countries, and officially opened 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 stepped into the Three Kingdoms, Jin, North and South Dynasties (220 — 589), an era of separation and endless wars. 


The Silk Road 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, Silk Road reached its peak, when countless products, people, cultures, and religions had been introduced between the east and west. 

Part of Tang Dynasty Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes, the exceptional Buddhist art gallery on the Silk Road, Photo by Dongmaiying.

The Maritime Silk Road that was formed in the 2nd century BC, developed rapidly in the prosperous Tang Dynasty, as a supplement of trades on the Land Silk Road. 


It reached the peak during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), an era with exceptional wealth, advanced scientific technology, and a smaller territory that didn't cover the Land Silk Road region.  


Therefore, international trades of the Song Empire were mainly through the Maritime Silk Road.

Exquisite Embroidery Fabric of the Song Dynasty — Fujian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The maritime routes were still open in Yuan (1271 — 1368) and Ming (1368 — 1644) dynasties and experienced some ups and downs. 


Zheng He's Seven Voyages (1405 — 1433) were representatives of the prime of the Maritime Silk Road, while the low points were some banning of international maritime trades 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

The Land Silk Road, however, gradually declined since the mid-Ming Dynasty, after Jiajing Emperor decided to retreat in the northwest region in 1524, and trades along the roads were replaced by maritime routes. 


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 Silk Road, Photo by Sun Zhicheng.

What things were imported and exported through the Silk Road in history?


Things that 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 that exported from China to the west include silk, porcelain, tea, handicrafts, and technics of casting iron, making paper, gunpowder, compass, and so on.


Glass Cup of the Han Dynasty, Believed Was Imported Through Maritime Silk Road — Hepu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

How it was named the Silk Road?


In Chinese history, different trade routes have their own names, based on the roads' destinations, directions, military or political purposes, etc. 


Until 1877, German geologist Richthofen named the trade route networks on land as the Silk Road, later French scholar Chavannes named sea routes the Maritime Silk Road. 


What are 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 is 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 Silk Road. 


Today, many extremely valuable cultural attractions are scattering in this historic area, including ruins of Weiyang Palace (Han's imperial palace) and Daming Palace (Tang's imperial palace), Terracotta Army, Mount Hua, City Wall of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), museums and ancient relic sites.


City Wall of Xi'an City

Dayan Pagoda


Constructed in the year 652 in Chang'an city, with the support of the current emperor, to preserve Buddhism scrolls and statues that were brought back through the Silk Road 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, Dayan Pagoda had been an honorable place in history, where royals, accomplished scholars that achieved excellent scores in Imperial Examinations would mount on 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 Tianshui City of Gansu Province, Firstly Built From 384 to 417, An Exceptional Buddhism Sculpture Museum Along Silk Road.

Maiji Mountain Grottoes in Tianshui City of Gansu Province

Exceptional Natural Views Along Silk Road

Lenglong Mountains in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces Along the Silk Road, Photo by Gucheng.

Colorful Danxia Landform in Zhangye City of Gansu Province, Photo by Meng Kaikuo.

Natural and Cultural Attractions in Dunhuang, An Important City in Gansu Province Along the Silk Road.

 Yardang Landform in Gansu and Xinjiang Provinces

Ancient City Ruins Along Silk Road in Xinjiang Provinces

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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