China is one of the ancient civilizations that still exist today. China has the longest continuous history of any country in the world – 3500 years of written history and developments. Meanwhile, most ancient cultures declined or sought to hide in other civilizations for their new existence. It is considered that civilization in China is preserved because the language, the writing system hanzi, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are pretty much still practiced and used by the Chinese today. Chinese civilization continues to evolve vibrantly and presents its unique adaptation to the changing world. The way of Chinese’s existence and the persistence of its vitality assert a unique feature of China when compared with other civilizations. The rise of China continues to be the most important trend in the world for this century.
More than two millennia ago Chinese people explored and opened up several routes of trade and cultural exchanges that linked the major civilizations of Asia, Europe, and Africa, collectively called the Silk Road by later generations. For thousands of years, the Silk Road spirit of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit” has been passed from generation to generation, promoted the progress of human civilization, and contributed greatly to the prosperity and development of the countries along the Silk Road. Symbolizing communication and cooperation between the East and the West, the Silk Road spirit is a historic and cultural heritage shared by all countries around the world.
From antiquity, Chinese societies of the Yellow River Valley and the Yangzi River Valley had treasured jade more than gold. Most of the jade items found in their rulers’ tombs were made in modern Xinjiang.
If one wishes to stand on one’s own feet, one must help others to stand on their own feet; if one wishes to succeed, one must help others to succeed.
The expansion of China saw a surge of interest in what lay beyond. Officials were commissioned to investigate and write reports about the regions beyond the mountains. Trade between China and the world developed slowly. Negotiating the routes along the edge of the Gobi desert was not easy, especially beyond the Jade Gate, the frontier post past which caravans of traders traveled on their way West. Passing from one oasis to another across treacherous terrain was difficult whether their route took them through the Taklamakan desert or through the passes of the Tian Shan mountains or through the Pamirs. Extremes of temperature had to be negotiated – one reason why the Bactrian camel was so valued.
The term “Silk Road” was first introduced by a German geographer von Richthofen in the 1870s which referred to routes for trade running through Central Asia and linking Europe with South and East Asian countries including China, India, and the countries across the Mediterranean region. Richthofen also noted that the “Silk Road constituted a network of transcontinental commercial routes”. The Silk Road changed over time depending on various conditions such as war, robbers, natural disasters, etc. For example, during the initial years of the foundation, the Northern part of the ancient Silk Road was protected by “nomadic horsemen,” whereas the Southern part of the road was “endangered by frozen mountain passes”. The road mostly traded low-weight, low-bulk, high-value goods, predominantly luxury goods because of the high transportation cost and favorable transport conditions.
Silk performed a number of important roles in the ancient world apart from its value to nomadic tribes. Under the Han dynasty, silk was used alongside coins and grain to pay troops. It was in some ways the most reliable currency: producing money in sufficient quantities was a problem, as was the fact that not all of China was fully monetized; this presented a particular difficulty when it came to military pay since theatres of action were often in remote regions, where coins were all but useless. Grain, meanwhile, went rotten after a time. As a result, bolts of raw silk were used regularly as currency, either as payor, as in the case of one Buddhist monastery in Central Asia, as a fine for monks who broke the foundation’s rules.
Silk became an international currency as well as a luxury product. The Chinese also regulated trade by creating a formal framework for controlling merchants who came from outside territories. Visitors passing into China had to stick to designated routes, were issued with written passes and were regularly counted by officials to ensure that all who entered the country also eventually made their way home.
Chinese silk because of the low weight and high demand in the European market became popular goods for transportation through the route. Chinese production of silk was boosting at that time and the prices were exorbitant. Since silk was easy to carry, it became one of the most popular commodities carried through the Silk Road and sold into the Western, predominantly European, market.
Apart from Chinese silk, other luxury goods and commodities such as “brocade, embroidery, paper, precious metals, carpets, apparel, glass, horses, and slaves” were also transported, traded, and sold via the Silk Road. Bulkier goods with the relatively low cost such as “grain, olive oil, other preserved foodstuffs, wax, lumber, textiles, and manufactured goods” were also traded through the routes in different local and regional markets over a different period of time in history. The Silk Road was also the prime route from ancient to medieval times for economic, cultural, and medicinal exchange across Eurasia.
Several epidemics and pandemic diseases during medieval and early modern times were transported and disseminated by the traders from one region or continent to another along the Silk Road when they traveled through. Known spread by the Silk Road was the “Black Death,” the bubonic plague, which originated in Southeast Asia and is estimated to have killed up to a third of China’s and Europe’s population in the fourteenth century. Another example is smallpox which was brought into India from Egypt either via the land or sea route and became epidemic in later part of history, the eighteenth and nineteenth century in particular. Smallpox was also introduced in China by the outsiders when they used Silk Road, and there is very little mention of this disease in early Chinese and Indian medical texts such as Huangdi Neijing, Caraka Samhita, and Sushruta Samhita. Silk Road was thus a network of routes for international and regional commercial, cultural, and medical exchange between Europe, Central Asia, India, and China from BC to the early modern age. There are several prominent figures who traveled in the early times of the Silk Road.
Zhang Qian, an early expeditor and ambassador during China’s Han dynasty in 138–119 BC, led the first Chinese diplomatic missions to Central Asia as part of the Silk Road expedition and collected information on states to the West of China. Zhang Qian was accompanied by 300 armed men and a caravan and “carrying gold and silk goods” to pay the expenses of his journey.
Faxian (337–422 AD), a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator of Buddhist texts, traveled by foot from China to India and believed to use the Silk Road during his journey. Faxian entered India from the Northwest in the early fifth century when India was ruled by the Gupta dynasty and took back many Buddhist texts from India to China. Faxian spent the rest of his life translating and editing the scriptures he had collected from India. Faxian in his book also mentioned the geography and history of numerous kingdoms and cities along the Silk Road and the similarities and differences between China and those cities. Faxian’s journey and account clearly symbolize that the ancient Silk Road was used as the major route of cultural and religious connectivity among countries along the Silk Road. Landed Silk Road reached golden age during China’s Tang dynasty (618-906 AD).
Famous Chinese Buddhist scholar and traveler Xuan Zang (602–664 AD) during the seventh century traveled to India for exploring Buddhism. The prosperity of the landed Silk Road began to decline during the later parts of the Tang dynasty for political and commercial reasons.
After the An Lushan Rebellion from 755 to 762 AD, the landed Silk Road became mostly abandoned and the maritime Silk Road increasingly became popular. By the time of the Song (960–1279 AD) and Yuan (1279–1368 AD) dynasties, maritime trade had reached its peak. Like the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties did not exert control over the Western territories, the main trade route to West Asia and Europe was via the seas. The main commodity that was traded between the East and the West also changed from silk to porcelain. This East-West route closely connected the Chinese mainland and Western territories to Arabia and Persia. After a few centuries of continual development and evolution, the maritime Silk Road extended all the way to the Mediterranean.
Zheng He, a Chinese admiral during the Ming dynasty, made seven voyages West (1405–1433 AD) successively with 30,000 troops and more than 270 ships on average. Zheng He reached East Africa, crossed the Malacca peninsula in Southeast Asia, and entered the Indian Ocean. His journey was performed several decades earlier than Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama who arrived in India by the sea in 1498 as the first European and linked Europe and Asia by an ocean route connecting the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. However, Zheng He did not colonize a single inch of land along the coastal routes as Vasco da Gama did.
Although maritime exploration and trade reached to peak during the early Ming dynasty, China’s navigation industry declined from the late Ming to Qing dynasties for various reasons including European expansion across Asia, China’s domestic priority, and eventually maritime Silk Road also became less important.
It was not only goods that flowed along the Silk Road route that linked the Pacific, Central Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean in antiquity; so did the most potent ideas. And among the most powerful ideas were those that concerned religion and philosophy. The intellectual and religious exchange had always been animated across this region. Local cults, ceremonies and belief systems came into contact with well-established cosmologies producing as a result rich intercultural international dimensions.