Ancient Silk Roads: Connections through Commerce

 A simplified picture of Silk Roads [1] .  Red Color: Land Silk Road  Blue Color: Maritime Silk Road

A simplified picture of Silk Roads[1].

Red Color: Land Silk Road

Blue Color: Maritime Silk Road

As early as in the ancient time, the continents were not isolated as people imaged, though there were challenges and difficulties such as natural disasters. Small and incoherent trade routes were found among those continents. According to the archeological discovery, back in the 13th BCE, people were trading golds, horses, marine products and jades.


The well-known Silk Road was officially opened up and gradually formed around 130 BCE. It was not named as “Silk Road” until 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen[1], a German geographer, because silk was the main traded product along the trade route. Beginning from about 139 BCE, the emperor of the Han dynasty decided to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu. Zhangqian was sent as an ambassador, who reported to the Emperor about the situations and developments of the countries he visited during the journey as well as the neighboring countries he did not visit.[2] Since then, the emperor became interested in developing commercial relationships with other countries. The Han government encouraged businessmen to deliver and trade the goods provided by the government to the western countries, while the Han army regularly policed the trade route and removed the obstacles along the route. Most of the adventurous businessmen became rich, which attracted more business to participate in the trade route[3]. Meanwhile, the Han government established the Protectorate of the Western Regions to supervise the area and activities. This control of the Silk Road, “by ensuring the freedom of transcontinental trade along the double chain of oases north and south of the Tarim, favored the dissemination of Buddhism in the river basin, and with it Indian literature and Hellenistic art.”[4] The government also profited from taxing the business via several customs.    


This trade route reached it most prosperous stage in history during the Tang Dynasty but experienced its last flourishing period during the reign of Yuan Dynasty and was disrupted around 1720s.  


The goods that were traded along the trade route including silk, china, iron, gold, silver, mirror, jewelry, fur, spices, medicinal materials. 


The maritime Silk Road was gradually formed in the Han Dynasty as well. However, prior to the Sui Dynasty, the maritime Silk Road was a supplemental route for trade. It was rapidly developed and became the main trade route later when the wars cut off the trade of the Silk Road and the development of the shipbuilding skill as well as the navigation technology.  


The maritime Silk Road reached it most prosperous stage during the Qing Dynasty. The Qing government organized several maritime activities, setting off from Guangzhou to 39 countries and areas of Asia, Europe and Africa. It was disrupted after the Opium War[5].


It was agreed that the greatest value of the ancient Silk Road was the exchange of culture. While the merchants carried the commercial goods from country to country, the art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization were exchanged via communications, reports and other means.  For instance, Christianity had spread both east and west, simultaneously bringing Syriac language since 781 when an inscribed stele shows Nestorian Christian missionaries arriving on the Silk Road[6].  Furthermore, the exchange of culture had influence on people’s life. People in different countries would adopt different dress style and lifestyle.


On June 22 of 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the Silk Road as a World Heritage Site at the 2014 World Heritage Conference.


[1]  Waugh, Daniel. (2007). "Richthofen's "Silk Roads": Toward the Archaeology of a Concept." The Silk Road. Volume 5, Number 1, Summer 2007, p. 4.

[2] Yiping Zhang (2005). Story of the Silk Road. 五洲传播出版社. p. 22. ISBN 7-5085-0832-7. Archived from the original on 2018-02-27. Retrieved 2011-04-17.


[4] Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 36–37, 48. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.


[6] Belief Systems Along the Silk Road," Asia Society website, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-11-17. Retrieved 2016-11-17., retrieved on November 14, 2016.