The Silk Road: Linking Europe and Asia Through Trade
The Silk Road is the most well-known trading route of ancient Chinese civilization. Trade in silk grew under the Han Dynasty ( 202 BC – AD 220) in the first and second centuries AD
Originally, the Chinese trade silk internally, within the empire. Caravans from the empire’s interior would carry silk to the western edges of the region. Often small Central Asian tribes would attack these caravans hoping to capture the traders’ valuable commodities. As a result, the Han Dynasty extended its military defenses further into Central Asia from 135 to 90 BC in order to protect these caravans.
Chan Ch’ien, the first known Chinese traveler to make contact with the Central Asian tribes, later came up with the idea to expand the silk trade to include these lesser tribes and therefore forge alliances with these Central Asian nomads. Because of this idea, the Silk Road was born.
The route grew with the rise of the Roman Empire because the Chinese initially gave silk to the Roman-Asian governments as gifts.
Spanning Two Continents
The 7000 mile route spanned China, Central Asia, Northern India, and the Parthian and Roman Empires. It connected the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through places such as Chinese cities Kansu and Sinkiang and present-day countries Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Northwestern Indians who lived near the Ganges River played prominent roles as middlemen in the China-Mediterranean silk trade because as early as the third century AD, they understood that silk was a lucrative product of the Chinese Empire. The trading relationship between the Chinese and the Indians grew stronger with increased Han expansion into Central Asia. The Chinese would trade their silk with the Indians for precious stones and metals such as jade, gold, and silver, and the Indians would trade the silk with the Roman Empire. Silk proved to be an expensive import for the Roman Empire since its trade across Indian and Central Asia was heavily controlled by the Parthian Empire.
Social Consequences of the Silk Road
While the Chinese silk trade played a minor role in the Chinese economy, it did increase the number of foreign merchants present in China under the Han Dynasty, exposing both the Chinese and visitors to their country to different cultures and religions. In fact, Buddhism spread from India to China because of trade along the Silk Route, similar to the way Islam spread along trans-Saharan routes in medieval West Africa. .
The Silk Road’s Decline
By 760 AD, during the T’ang Dynasty, trade along the Silk Road had declined. It revived tremendously under the Sung Dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when China became largely dependent on its silk trade. In addition, trade to Central and Western Asia as well as Europe recovered for a period of time from 1276-1368 under the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongols controlled China. The Chinese traded silk for medicines, perfumes, and slaves in addition to precious stones. As overland trade became increasingly dangerous, and overseas trade became more popular, trade along the Silk Road declined. While the Chinese did maintain a silk-fur trade with the Russians north of the original Silk Route, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the road had decreased.