Almost no where in history can one find material and cultural exchange that rivals that which was present on the Silk Roads during their prime years of use. The scale of this exchange was so grand that the routes
themselves spanned all the way from China to the Roman Empire, with branches even stretching into the north (Stockwell 14). With so much distance covered, many people of different ethnicities, religions and cultures were incorporated into this massive trade network. The trafficking of goods facilitated interaction between these groups of people, thus fostering cultural exchange as well. Along the Silk Roads, one could find amazing material trade and cultural mingling that connected civilizations thousands of miles apart, affecting those involved in dynamic ways. The exchanges along the Silk Roads gave China a valuable influx of new perspectives and cultures that it had never had access to before.
The term “Silk Roads” was never used by the people who actually traveled the trade routes; it was in fact coined by a German geographer named Von Richthofen in the 19th century. He was the first westerner to realize the significance and interconnectedness of these ancient roads, and felt compelled to name them. He christened them for their most precious Chinese commodity, hence the now common name: the Silk Roads (Sinor 1). Although interactions between the East and West may have occurred on a minute scale previously, it wasn’t until the Northern Silk Road began to develop around 138 B.C.E. that trade really took off. This particular route started at present day Xi’an and traveled through the Western Corridor beyond the Yellow River before reaching Xingjian, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Iraq, where it finally met the western border of the Roman Empire. This route was the most heavily traveled at first, and it was utilized for over a thousand years (Stockwell 14).
A second trade route existed by sea, beginning at the ports of Xuwen and Hepu in southern China. After passing through the Malacca Strait, this course ended in Burma. Sea routes had some advantages over land routes because ships could carry much heavier loads and the trips were often quicker. However, ships had to beware pirate attacks and brutal storms at sea. This path was very significant, for it connected China to Japan, Korea and the Philippines. This sea route was used so often that the Chinese government even set up the Bureau of Merchant Shipping in the 8th century in order to monitor the imports and exports. Appointed officials used their discretion to regulate and tax imports in order to benefit the Chinese economy as well as to prevent the export of illicit materials (Stockwell 14).
An important third branch of the Silk Roads existed in southwestern China. This branch sprouted from Chengdu in Sichuan Province and went through Yunnan, Burma, India, Afghanistan, and Russia. Here, it joined the Northern Silk Road at Mary in Turkmenistan. It was along this road that gold, silk, and precious stones were first traded between China, India, Burma, the Middle East, and Africa (Stockwell 15). These three branches of the Silk Roads provided the means for most of the trade that occurred in central Asia during this time period.
Although these roads existed, and trade was occurring on a fairly large scale, China remained unaware of their existence. It wasn’t until 139 B.C.E., when the Han Emperor Wu Di sent Zhang Qian to the west, that a Chinese person came upon the Silk Roads. Until this point in time, China remained isolated from the outside world. Zhang’s journey to the west opened new doors for cultural exchange on a massive level that the Chinese had never experienced before. Zhang Qian was sent on a mission to contract an alliance with a nomadic tribe called the Yuezhi, but he failed. He was captured by the Xiongnu, long term enemies of the Chinese. As he roamed about with his captors, Zhang learned much about the lands neighboring China, and after he escaped he continued on his journey. His travels took him as far west as India, and he was amazed at what he found. Zhang Qian discovered merchants selling Chinese goods along these great routes in places that no Chinese person had ever been. Once he finally found the Yuezhi, they were not interested in forming an alliance, and upon his return journey, Zhang Qian was once again captured by the Xiongnu. He was eventually able to escape a second time and returned to China after thirteen years of traveling (Foltz 2). Wu Di was captivated by Zhang Qian’s tales of foreign lands and the extensive opportunity for trade. In only a few years, Chinese merchants were regularly following the Silk Roads west, and for nearly twenty years, this trade prospered under Wu Di (3). Once China discovered the Silk Roads’ existence, trade between East and West flourished on a whole new level.
China began extensive trade once it first utilized the Silk Roads, but they really became a powerhouse when they took over the eastern portion of the trade routes. In 104 and 102 B.C.E., a Han general led expeditions to the Pamir Mountains to subdue the Ferghana, thus gaining lordship over the area. Those native to the area accepted Chinese rule because Chinese garrisons protected the trade routes from marauding bandits (Ebrey 61).
With more control over the Silk Roads, Chinese trade with the West exploded. For the first time, China was right on the forefront of trade. New food substances brought to China by the Silk Roads included walnuts, pomegranates, sesame, and coriander (61). Other imports included dates, saffron powder, pistachio nuts, frankincense, aloes, myrrh, sandalwood, and even glass. China exported iron, spices, lacquer ware and porcelain, but silk was always its most valuable commodity (Stockwell 14). In fact, so much silk was purchased in Rome during the Augustan Age that Roman writers such as Pliny began to protest that Rome was spending far too much money on foreign imports. Some Romans even began to criticize women for their particular preference of silk over other clothes, proclaiming that silk was an immodest and excessive indulgence that would bankrupt the state (15). Without the Silk Roads, China would have remained relatively isolated for a much longer period of time, thus missing out on the beneficial material trade.
Trade over the Northern Silk Road reached its greatest height during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). The extent of trade that occurred during this time period was enormous; the imperial gardens of the Tang were said to be full of such exotic birds as rare herons, tufted ducks, peacocks, and hunting hawks, while the warehouses were full of ice to store the imported fruit (15). This trade was made possible by the use of the Bactrian camel. With its thick, coarse fur, it could withstand the frigid temperatures often encountered along the Silk Roads, and each camel could carry approximately 500 pounds (Ebrey 61).
More than material goods were exchanged via the Silk Roads. Many cultural exchanges occurred as well. The imperial capital at Xi’an experienced a constant flow of foreign merchants, and ethnic minorities from some of these foreigners are still present in China today. These merchants brought with them new perspectives, music, art, and skills, thus enriching and diversifying Chinese culture. In the absence of the Silk Roads, China would have lost out on many significant additions to its culture (Stockwell 15).
Another one of the largest cultural exchanges was that of language. It was through spoken language that people from different civilizations communicated their beliefs, ideas, and general viewpoints about the world. Therefore, language provided a vehicle for cultural mingling on a massive scale. An amazing variety of languages were used along the Silk Roads, with the total number soaring around seventeen (Sinor 3). According to Sinor, “The many multilingual inscriptions to be found in the lands crossed by the Silk Roads testify to the linguistic diversity of the peoples living along them and, at the same time, to the political or religious need to address them in their own tongue (6).” Although there were many people who became multilingual, most tradesmen, lacking the time or skills to learn other languages, made use of interpreters. Interpreters were of high value and paid handsomely for their skills. Many caravans would not travel without several linguists in their company (7).
Arguably the most important exchange along the Silk Roads was not made in material goods or in language, but in religion, for it is was along the Silk Roads that Buddhism made its way into China. The two major Buddhist schools on the Silk Roads were Dharmaguptakas and Sarvastivadins, but Mahayana Buddhism gained strength in regions such as Khotan, and quickly replaced the others (Foltz 39). Buddhist monks probably reached Khotan on the southern loop of the Silk Roads skirting the Takla Makan desert in the first century, and the king of Khotan sponsored many Buddhist schools (Foltz 48). The kings of this time period recognized that spiritual acceptance would attract a greater number of people and therefore be beneficial for business and trade, so they were extremely tolerant of Buddhism. In the first half of the first century, the Han Dynasty pushed into central Asia in search of the fine horses bred there, and China gained control of the eastern part of the Silk Roads (49). Once the Chinese merchants came into contact with foreign merchants who practiced Buddhism along the Silk Roads, the base for Buddhism in China was born. Soon, central Asian and Chinese monks were translating Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese (Ebrey 69). This massive translation spurred the spread of Buddhism throughout East Asia, including Korea and Japan (70). This spread of religion along the Silk Roads shows how, when different civilizations collide, ideas and beliefs are shared, and may even become deeply rooted in the cultures of each group. China today, for example, still has a large Buddhist population. Here, one can see that cultural exchange that occurred thousands of years ago still has an echo in modern times.
It is almost inconceivable that thousands of years ago, people were engaging in trade on such a massive level, but the Silk Roads did in fact allow for huge amounts of cross-cultural trade. Of course, material goods were exchanged, but even more importantly, cultures interacted and influenced one another. Languages and religions were spread along with general understandings of other cultures. These amazing trade routes crossed thousands of miles and the huge continent of Asia, uniting civilizations that were worlds apart. The Silk Roads hold great significance for China. It was via these trade routes that China received its first massive flood of new material goods and cultural perspectives, thus breaking its isolation.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais. Pre-Modern East Asia: To 1800 A Cultural, Social, and Political History. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Foltz, Richard C. Religions of the Silk Roads: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange
from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1961.
Sinor, Denis. “Language and Cultural Interchange along the Silk Roads.” Diogenes Fall 1995: 1-12.
Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient Times through the Present. London: McFarland, 2003.