Chinese Language Blog

The Silk Road, Pt. 1: Introduction Posted by on Aug 5, 2010 in Culture

The Chinese word for China (中国 ) literally is translated as “middle country”, or more accurately “center land”–and justifiably so. The China of old was at the center of all trade, commerce, invention and advancement, rivaling the Greek, Roman and Ottoman Empires. Whatever China had, be it fine silks, porcelain, printed books, calendars, silver or technology, the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Europe wanted it. That’s because centuries before the rise of the Roman empire, the Silk Road, or 丝绸之路 (sīchóu zhīlù), was the vector of nearly all trade, technology and religion throughout the region. China and the Far East were the destinations, yet along the way, civilizations, cultures and ethnic groups blossomed.

It’s hard to say exactly when the trade routes began, but estimate dates back prior to 400 BCE when much of central Asia was inhabited by migratory societies. Traders and trappers would often come into contact with one another as they roamed the expansive grasslands and deserts of central Asia and into Mongolia. Life was difficult in these extreme environments which led to innovation of travel, housing and basic necessities that allowed people to colonize and form cities. This soon paved the way for merchants, who had everything they needed to make a living traversing the Silk Road (also can be called 丝路 [sīlù] for short).

Once a basic path and amenities were established along the route, the flood gates opened. Missionaries, migrant workers, merchants and guys like Marco Polo set off across this enchanted land, leaving behind tales and relics unlike anywhere else in the world.

Since its inception, the Silk Road has been the pilgrimage path of Buddism, Hinduism, Daoism, Confucianism, Islam, Zen, Shintoism and even Christianity. A million missionaries and a plethora of prophets have padded their way from continent to continent, leaving in their wake  societies, traditions, temples and architecture to celebrate their conquest. Sure, Abraham is the father of three religions, but the Silk Road is responsible for nearly 3 billion followers of non-Judeo-Christian beliefs. Not convinced? You’ll see just how entrenched religion is in the Silk Road when we focus on Kashgar, Urumqi and Dunhuang.

But the true story of how the Silk Road came to earn its moniker dates back to 114 BCE, when the Han Dynasty 汉朝 (Hàn cháo) expanded west, largely in part by an imperial envoy led by explorer  Zhang Qian (张骞) (click here for a history). After his explorations, many of the unofficial but immensely important trade routes had been mapped. It was now China’s turn to open up lines to the rest of the world, drawing in tributes, gold and silver in place of fine goods and technology previously unseen by the rest of the world. The most popular good China sent west? Silk of course. It practically built the Han Dynasty. Those little worms should be China’s official mascot, because sorry pandas, but what have you done for China lately?

This is not to say that China didn’t benefit (and also suffer) from contact with the Middle East and Europe. The Arabs brought the concept of zero, geometry and algebra. Hinduism, Buddism, and Islam all entered China from the Silk road. Europeans, even before they landed upon the far East through misguided ship explorations, were inclined to caravan across the expanses of the Gobi Dessert, brought ideas of Christianity and individualism and interestingly enough, brought firearms even though the Chinese invented gun powder. The back and forth kept China on its toes and made them culturally relevant to the rest of the world.

By the 12th century, the Silk Road had emerged as the center of almost all trade and technology, harboring almost every advancement and creation of humanity throughout the world. Within Chinese borders, the Silk Road had expanded from modern day Kashgar all the way to modern day Xian. It stood as an empire of empires, stretching to the brink of every major ocean.

Maybe that was reponsible for it’s downfall–it had just expanded so far that all that was left was the ocean. Sea exploration was emerging as the cheapest and quickest way to get around the world. Caravans were just too slow in an ever globalizing world (yes the Silk Road was really the first stage of globalization). From the 13th Century on, explorers, merchants, and missionaries turned to the uncharted great blue, leaving the Silk Road behind.

While it has waned in it’s influence, power and prestige, the Silk Road is still a modern-day intersection between the Middle East, India, Central Asia, Europe and China, and as a result of that fact, it is the center of societal conflict throughout all of China (Xingjiang and Tibet). What remains is a vast land of many diverse people, all trying to find their place in a modern world. As you’ll see from further posts, the Silk Road is but a figment of its past glory standing as a somber reminder of how quickly the world can change. Follow me as I traverse the Chinese section of the Silk Road, starting in Kashgar and ending in the previous Chinese capital of Xian (formerly Chang’an).

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.

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