* maps of China and the Chinese provinces
* lists of the dynasties and historical timelines
* some information about Feng Shui
The name `Silk Road' was coined by the German scholar, von Richthofen in the 1870’s. He named it for the most well known trading route between the ancient Chinese civilization and the western civilizations during its era. However, the description of this route as the `Silk Road' is somewhat misleading.
Firstly, while silk was perhaps most exotic and precious for the people of the West, many other commodities headed west for trading-furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron ware. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, animals and plants, ivory, precious stones, and glass.
Secondly, no single route was taken. Instead many branches of the route developed when crossing through Central Asia and passing through different oasis settlements.
The Silk Road trade route was traveled for almost 1,000 years, beginning during the Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220) and continued in its prominence until around the 1400’s AD.
Trade along the Chinese eastern end of the Silk Road route and trade along the Indian, Persian, Syrian and Greek western end developed at differing paces. The western empires along the route developed earlier than the eastern end mostly because these western neighbors had already started to trade with each other and had begun to influence each other’s cultures and economies. The route grew even more with the rise of the Roman Empire, which cherished silk.
Initially, the Chinese traded silk internally, within their empire. Caravans from the empire's interior would carry silk to the western edges of the region. Often small tribes would attack these caravans hoping to capture the traders' valuable commodities. As a result, the Han Dynasty extended its military defenses further into Central Asia from 135 to 90 BC in order to protect these caravans. They built forts and defensive walls along part of the route. As a result, sections of `Great Wall' were built along the northern side of the trade route.
Chan Ch'ien, the first known Chinese traveler to make contact with the Central Asian tribes, later came up with the idea to expand the silk trade to include these lesser tribes and therefore forge alliances with these Central Asian nomads. Because of this idea, the Silk Road trade route developed.
Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian, is probably the most famous Westerner who traveled along the Silk Road. He excelled all the other travelers in his determination, his writings, and his influence. His journeys through Asia lasted 24 years. He reached further than any of his predecessors, beyond Mongolia into China. He traveled the whole of China and returned to tell his tales. He became a confidant of Kublai Khan (1214-1294)-the Mongol emperor and founder of the Yüan dynasty of China
Spanning Two Continents
The 7,000-mile route spanned China, Central Asia, Northern India, and the Parthian (Persia) and Roman Empires. It connected the Yellow River Valley in China to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through the Chinese cities of Kansu and Sinkiang and the present-day countries Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
This area is one of the most inhospitable places in the world. Much of it is taken up by the “Land of Death”-the Taklimakan desert. It has almost no rainfall; sandstorms are very common, with blazing summertime heat and in winter freezing temperatures. On the remaining three sides lie some of the highest mountains in the world including the Himalayas.
Indians who lived near the Ganges River played prominent roles as middlemen in the China-Mediterranean silk trade because as early as the third century AD, they understood that silk was a lucrative product of the Chinese Empire. The Chinese would trade their silk with the Indians for precious stones and metals such as jade, gold, and silver, and the Indians would trade the silk with the Roman Empire. Silk proved to be an expensive import for the Roman Empire since its trade across Indian and Central Asia was heavily controlled by the Parthian Empire.
Social Consequences of the Silk Road
While the Chinese silk trade played a minor role in the Chinese economy, it did increase the number of foreign merchants present in China under the Han Dynasty, exposing both the Chinese and visitors to their country to different cultures and religions.
In fact, Buddhism spread from India to China because of trade along the Silk Route. Buddhism may have been the most significant commodity carried along the Silk Road route. The Chinese emperor Mingdi is thought to have sent representatives to India to discover more about this strange faith, and further missions returned bearing scriptures, art works and Indian priests. Buddhism reached the pastures of Tibet at a later period. Along the way from India, Buddhism developed under many different influences, before reaching central China.
The Silk Road's Decline
By 760 AD, during the Chinese T'ang Dynasty, trade along the Silk Road had declined. It was revived tremendously under the Sung Dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when China became largely dependent on its silk trade. In addition, trade to Central and Western Asia as well as Europe recovered for a period of time from 1276-1368 under the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongols controlled China. During this time, the Chinese traded silk for medicines, perfumes, and slaves in addition to precious stones.
Ultimately, sea-faring ships became stronger and more reliable, and with new sea routes, new and promising markets in Southern Asia. With overland trade becoming increasingly dangerous, with middlemen skimming more profits, and with overseas trade became safer and therefore more popular, trade along the Silk Road declined.
While the Chinese did maintain a silk-fur trade with the Russians north of the original Silk Route, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the road had decreased.
Today tourists, filled with images camel caravans and following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, are rapidly increasing the number of people interested in visiting the now desolate places along the ancient Silk Road. Since
China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970s, it has realized how much foreign currency can be brought to the country by tapping this tourist potential. This has encouraged the authorities to do their best to protect and restore the remaining sites.
Year of the Rabbit