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Silk Road

The Silk Road winds its way through numerous lands and deserts, colorfully stretching its way through the civilizations of Asia, Europe and Africa. It was through the Silk Road that the four great ancient Chinese inventions of papermaking, gunpowder, the compass and printing were diffused across the world. Likewise, breathtakingly splendid silk production, Chinese tea and porcelain were also spread throughout the globe. The exchanges of material culture along went both ways, with Europe also exporting a wide range of goods and plants to meet the demands of the Chinese market.

The Origins of the Silk Road

The German geographer F. Von Richtofen coined the term “Silk Road” in 1877. It refers to the major trade route linking China with Southwestern and Central Asia and india. Starting during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), this route was used to transport a variety of trade goods, of which silk was the most important. The Silk Road originates in the Chinese interior, passes through Northwestern China, and continues west across Asia. Providing links with ancient overland routes to Africa and Europe, the Silk Road paved the way for extensive political, economic, and cultural exchanges among widely separated regions and ethnic groups.

China was the first country in the ancient world to cultivate the mulberry plant, raise silkworms, and produce silk items. To the present day, silk remains one of China's greatest offerings to the peoples of the world, surpassing every other Chinese product in the scope of its distribution. Although trade in various other Chinese products was concentrated along roads known the "Jade Road," "Gem Road," "Buddhist Road," and "Porcelain Road," in actuality these routes represented only individual segments of the Silk Road. in the end, this great artery of commerce and exchange will always be known for its most important product, silk.

The History of the Silk Road

When it comes to the Silk Road, Zhang Qian, a renowned diplomat and explorer, could in no way be neglected who pioneered the opening of the Silk Road. Zhang Qian was first sent to establish diplomatic relations with the Western Regions by the great emperor Han Wudi (reigned 140-87 BC), braving great hardship and danger to investigate the politics and geography of these new lands. A second mission followed, during which he made his way even farther west. on his two journeys, Zhang Qian explored a road of trade relations to the far west, the Silk Road.

Throughout the history, the Silk Road saw unceasing changes to the routes in accordance with the evolution of geography, politics and religion. The Silk Road took on it shape today around the Han dynasties (BC 206-260 AD) with the West Han’s capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) or East Han’s capital Luoyang (capital of the middle Henan Province) as its starting point. Then it went west through Jincheng (today’s Lanzhou, capital of western Gansu Province), Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang, four ancient cities along the Gansu Hexi Corridor to the ancient state of Loulan. The road did not stop at Loulan; it went on to the farther west through today’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to countries far away from China like Afghanistan, Iran and east of the Roman Empire.

Maritime Silk Road

The maritime Silk Road, like its overland counterpart, had its origins during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Although vast seas separate the four corners of the Earth, with advances in shipbuilding and navigational technologies, maritime transport came to provide unprecedented access to the most distant destinations. It is known that the bulk of the raw and processed silk transported along the overland Silk Road during the Han Dynasty was produced primarily along China's southern coast and in the coastal Wu, Wei, Qi, and Lu regions (present-day Shandong Province ). Since ancient times, these areas have been thriving centers of shipbuilding as well as silk production. They were thus able to supply both commodities for export and the means to transport them across the sea. It was this combination that provided the social and material conditions necessary for the development of maritime trade during the Han Dynasty. The maritime routes opened by Emperor Han Wudi (reigned 140-87 BC) provided access to the Roman Empire via india. This enabled China to actively seek out overseas markets and establish foreign trade relations, and laid the foundation for the development of the maritime Silk Road.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Chinese ships set sail from Guangzhou , bound across the South China Sea, thus pioneering the most important routes of the maritime Silk Road. in addition to transporting silk, the South China Sea routes stimulated both material and cultural exchange. Countries throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and even Europe dispatched emissaries to China via the new maritime routes to establish diplomatic relations, purchase silk, and engage of trade of all sorts. Silk, as the principal maritime trade commodity, flowed in a steady stream from China to other countries.

Profits from the maritime trade were one of the Chinese government's major sources of revenue during this time. The Tang, Song (960-1279), and Yuan (1279-1368) Dynasties all appointed special Commissions of Maritime Affairs at coastal cities including Guangzhou (Canton), Mingzhou (present-day Ningbo), and Quanzhou . These offices were responsible for overseeing maritime trade and providing logistic support and preferential treatment for foreign merchants in China. The maritime Silk Road thus became a conduit for promoting friendly relations and linking East and West.

Exporting Chinese Culture via the Silk Road

The West's first knowledge of China came from the silk exported via the Silk Road. During the Tang Dynasty, innovations in weaving and decorative techniques propelled China's silk industry to new heights. The Ming Dynasty continued the Tang tradition of producing a wide range of luxurious silk items. Chinese silk was highly prized around the world, particularly in the West, for its exquisite quality. As early as the First century BC, the Roman poet Virgil extolled Chinese silk as "More beautiful than fresh flowers, more delicate than woven cobwebs." With the continued export of silk products, Westerners became more familiar not only with Chinese silk, but with China as well. Chinese silk gradually became the most profitable and widely distributed export commodity of the Ming Dynasty. in addition to silk, distinctively Chinese products such as porcelain and lacquer ware became highly sought after throughout the West.

introduction of Foreign Culture via the Silk Road

A number of plants and local products common in China today actually originated outside of China. Ancient Chinese records frequently use the term hu, originally used to describe the non-Chinese tribes of the northwestern frontier, in plant names. Examples are hutao (walnut), hugua (cucumber), hucong (onion), hujiao (black pepper), and huluobo (carrot), as well as xigua (western melon, or watermelon), almost all of which originated to the west of China. Starting during the early Han Dynasty, not only plants were transplanted to China. Roman glassware, as well as dance, music, and acrobatics from the Western Regions, are also among the many imports that entered China via the Silk Road. From the Wei-Jin period (221-420 AD) through the Sui-Tang period (581-907 AD), numerous merchants from Anxi (Parthia, present-day Iran) settled in China, bringing with them the dance, cuisine, and apparel of Central and West Asia. The opening and continued use of the Silk Road has been instrumental to both material and cultural exchange between East and West.

Religion and Art along the Silk Road

With the development of commercial trade between East and West, the influence of these two great civilizations on each other steadily increased. The Silk Road served as a conduit for the exchange not only of material goods, but also a wide range of brilliant cultural achievements. Buddhism, one of the three great religions of the world, was first introduced to China from india via the Silk Road during the later years of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-8 AD). By the time of the Sui-Tang period (581-907 AD), Buddhism was firmly established in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, and a number of distinctively Chinese Buddhist schools of thought had emerged. Today, famous Buddhist temples and grottoes can be seen throughout China, reflecting the influence and legacy of Buddhism in China. Surviving Buddhist grottoes in the area of the Silk Road are of particular significance. Famous sites such as the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, the Yulin Grottoes at Anxi, Mt. Tianshui's Maiji Grottoes, the Yungong Grottoes at Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang all represent the merging of Eastern and indian art forms and Buddhist spirituality. These artifacts attest to the process of cultural exchange and assimilation that took place along the Silk Road. The dissemination of Buddhism in China had deep and far-ranging effects on Chinese culture and spiritual life, opening the door for foreign cultural influences to enter China.

The Silk Road, both overland and maritime roads, was a trade road connecting the east and the west in the ancient times. Moreover, it served to be a road of exchange in politics, economics and culture. It is through the Silk Road that the old Chinese civilization got to be known to the world and the outside world came to understand ancient Chinese life.

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