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Chinese History
sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路 The Silk Road


The Silkroad (or Silk Road; Chinese: Sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路) or rather the "silkroads" is the most famous and longest trade route of human history. It served as a path not only for items and goods being transportated from east to west and vice versa, but also as a door for foreign ideas, foreign religions (Buddhism, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, Islam), foreign cultures, foreign knowledge (Indian and Arab astronomy and mathematics) and foreign arts (music, dance, painting, handicrafts) enriching China and for Chinese culture and knowledge leaving the motherland and spreading to the west. The most important good leaving China and wandering to the west was the silk, hence the name of the road(s), but Chinese knowledge also left China to wander to the west (bookprinting, moxibustion, rhubarb, paper making, compass, porcelain). The name "silkroad" was first created by the German scholar Richthofen in 1877. From the begin of the 20th century on archeologists like the Swede Sven Hedin started to rediscover the old trade routes that had stretched from the Chinese capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an/Shaanxi) to Persia and the Mediterranean Sea from the Han Dynasty 漢 to the end of the Tang period 唐.

History of the Silkroad

The technique of silk production and weaving was fully developed in the beginning bronze age of China (Shang period 商), and at the begin of Han the neighboring people of the northwestern steppe highly estimated silk fabrics. Peoples like the Wusun 烏孫, Yuezhi 月氏, and Xiongnu 匈奴 controlled the ways to Inner Asia and acted as intermediary traders. In the late 2nd century BC the belligerent emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 conquered the territories of the northwest to get rid of the tributary pressure of the intruding and robbing Xiongnu tribes. He installed the commanderies Jiuquan 酒泉, Wuwei 武威, Zhangyi 張掖, and Dunhuang 敦煌 where Chinese soldiers were deployed and had to supply themselves with military agro-colonies (tuntian 屯田). Additionally, forts and fortified walls (later known as the Great Wall, Changcheng 長城) were constructed to prevent the Xiongnu from plundering Chinese villages. To administer and to control these regions, a Protectorate of the Western Regions (Xiyu duhu 西域都護) was installed, and the Han court often interfered into the politics of the city states along the silkroad. Along the silkroad, China sent embassadors to kingdoms and empires in the west, one of them called Daqin 大秦 that some scholars identify with Rome.
After the political center of the unified empire collapsed with the end of Eastern Han, and during the three centuries of the division between north and south (Southern and Northern Dynasties, Nanbeichao 南北朝) trade and political and cultural exchange along the silkroad increased, and trade centers like the commandery Dunhuang developed a vivid cultural and religious life. With the foundation of the Sui 隋 and shortly after the Tang Dynasty 唐 the regular trade with the Central Asian kingdoms became crucial for the social and economic life of the capital Chang'an. The Tang government installed four garrisons (sizhen 四鎮) to administer the protectorate of the "Pacified West" (Anxi duhufu 安西都護府), Qiuci 龜茲 (Kucha), Yanqi 焉耆 (Karashar), Yutian 于闐 (Khotan), and Shule 疏勒 (Kashgar). After the end of Tang the Chinese government and economy of Song 宋 oriented more to the seashore and the trade with Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and India, and the trade routes along the silkroad were again controlled by Non-Chinese empires like the Khitan-Liao 遼, Jurchen-Jin 金 and Tangut-Xixia 西夏. The Mongols that controlled Asia from China to Eastern Europe again allowed a continuous passage from the Near East to the capital in modern Beijing. Marco Polo and many other traders and missionaries followed the silkroad to enter the realm of the mighty qaghan Khubilai.

Geography of the Silkroad


For more details see citystates of the silkroad. The silkroad started in the Han and Tang capitals Chang'an 長安 and Luoyang 洛陽 and lead through the Gansu corridor along the commanderies Wuwei 武威, Zhangyi 張掖, Jiuquan 酒泉 and Dunhuang 敦煌 to the Yumen Pass 玉門關 and the Yangguan Pass 陽關 from where the road first ended in Loulan 樓蘭 (northwest of Lop Nur Lake 羅布泊/Xinjiang, today buried under sand dunes). From there, the silkroad separated in a northern route and a southern route to by-pass the Taklamakan desert. The northern route passed Yiwu 伊吾, Cheshi 車師 , Gaochang 高昌, Yanqi 焉耆, Weixu 危須, Quli 渠犁, Wulei 烏壘, Luntai 輪台, Qiuci 龜茲, Gumo 姑墨 to Shule 疏勒. The southern route passed Shanshan 鄯善, Qiemo 且末, Yumi 扜彌, Yutian 于闐, Pishan 皮山, Shache 莎車, and met the northern route in Shule. Today, many cities of the southern route have been swallowed by the desert. A second northern route was opened in Later Han and lead along Yiwulu 伊吾廬 (modern Hami 哈密), Liuzhong 柳中, Gaochangbi 高昌壁, Cheshi 車師, Jiaohecheng 交河城 (near modern Turpan 吐魯番), crossed the Tianshan and ended in Yanqi 焉耆 and Qiuci. During the division in south and north, the Southern Dynasties (Nanchao 南朝) reached the silkroad via modern Sichuan and Qinghai that was dominated by the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾 realm. From Shule, the silkroad stretched on to the empire of Dayuan 大宛 and from there on divided into many sideroutes to Eastern Europe, Persia and India.


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September 16, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail