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Journey to the West: Lunar New Year (2016)

Prior to the Silk Road

China, the world’s oldest continuous civilization, remained untouched by outside influences for thousands of years because it was a world apart, cut off from other cultures in India, West Asia, and Europe, by desert and mountain ranges.  The first contact between China and the west finally occurred around 200 B.C.E., though the the Silk Road, which officially opened trade to the west, did not occur until 130 B.C.E. when the Han dynasty started it.  Once the road was opened, China attempted to keep strict control over the trade and travel to and from China. However, once they opened the road to allow for an exchange of goods, they also unintentionally opened up, for better or worse, the exchange of culture, art, religion, philosophy, language, science, architecture, and disease.

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The Silk Road

The ancient Silk Road began in the Chinese city of Changan (present-day Xi'an) and ran westward across deserts to oases and over mountain passes, through the great Central Asian trading cities of Samarqand and Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan and Merv (modern Mary) in Turkmenistan to Tyre on the Mediterranean Sea. Including all the twists and turns, it covered about 6,000 miles or a quarter of the way around the globe. Scholars have considered the Silk Road one of the most significant links connecting various peoples and cultures. The term "Silk Road," which refers to the route along which silk traveled from China to the West, however, is modern and was coined in the late nineteenth century by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen.  Von Richtofen’s catchy term quickly became popular and is widely used.

Despite its name, the Silk Road was not just one path.  Instead, it was made up of many trade routes that extended over 4,600 miles from eastern China to India and Egypt, through the cities of Baghdad and Constantinople and Samarkand, all the way to Moscow and Venice and other European cities.  The Silk Road traveled over land and over water. Routes also extended to the north and south. 

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Along with the literal meaning, the Silk Road is also a metaphor for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among extraordinarily diverse groups of people. Silk—a luxury good in the west, traded as currency, and a secret technology—was China's most important product, and crucial to the origin of the network. Over centuries, much more than just silk has moved along the Silk Road though, including other trade goods, such as jewels and gold, wool and linen, and salt; new ideas; religions, such as Buddhism and Islam, which spread from one country to another; and new technologies and inventions, art and literature. 

The Route

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The Silk Road was not a fixed road, but a series of tracks that ran through steppe and desert, branched, then converged on the many oases that offered sustenance to the traveler. The starting points in China were the imperial capital cities of Luoyang and Changan (now Xi'an). From there the route turned northwest, splintering into three: Bei lu—the great North Road, leading across the Gobi Desert and passing through the oasis town of modern Turpan in western China, where Buddhist monks left their devotions in the form of painting and carvings on the walls of nearby caves; Nan lu—the South Road—passing through Hotan and Shache (Yarkant) in western China, skirting the dreaded Taklimakan Desert, whose name some translated as "You go in, you don't come out"; and a third road going due west, past the oasis town of Loulan. The three routes merged in western China at Kashgar, the last Chinese emporium between East and West. From here Chinese merchants set out on their journey to the lands of the barbarians across the Snowy Mountain, down the passes, to the fabled cities of Central Asia, to Persia (Iran), then to the cities of Antioch and Tyre on the Mediterranean coast, where their precious cargoes were shipped to Rome.

Regular caravans seldom traveled beyond the major trading centers, from which goods were transshipped by those coming from the other direction. Samarqand and Bukhara were the common endpoints for caravans arriving from Baghdad and Aleppo. Here they exchanged their cargoes with merchants from Kashgar and farther east. On the other hand, individual travelers—merchants and emissaries, pilgrims and missionaries—of necessity traversed the entire route.


The Silk Road took its name from China’s most successful export commodity.  From the Shang empire onward the Chinese exported fine silk cloth to Asia and Europe. 

Silk is the original luxury fabric.  From its beginnings in ancient China to modern times, silk has been the choice for people who could afford the best.  Silk can keep people warmer when it is cold outside and cooler when it is hot.  Silk fabric does not crease like other cloth so it looks neater.  It has barely changed since its discovery thousands of years ago.  Silk is still only made by the caterpillar or a particular kind of moth, called silkworms.

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At first, only the Chinese royal family wore silk clothing.  Emperors gave silk away as gifts and rewards.  People began making silk throughout China.  By they did not give away the secret of its source: silkworms.  Even people who saw and used this amazing fabric had no idea it was made by domesticated insects.  The Chinese guarded this secret for more than 2,000 years. 

Silk became extremely valuable, and the Chinese were the only people who knew how to make it.  Making silk became a well-organized cottage industry in China. 

Silk was the most important thing that the Chinese traded.  People all over the world wanted silk and for thousands of years only the Chinese could make it.  It was not made in the west until C.E. 1000 and, even then, the quality of Chinese silk, and Chinese weavers, meant that the Chinese silk was still preferred.  As trade grew under the Han and later dynasties, China also traded large amounts of fur, spices, pottery, and various items, such as mirrors, made from bronze.


Caravans included groups of both private merchants and government officials.  The travelers hired professional camel drivers, baggage handlers, camp tenders, and other workers, all of whom typically worked only one relatively short stretch of the entire route.  Private merchants hired their own armed guards; the Chinese government officials who traveled between Chang’an and Tashkent had military escorts.  The caravans carried supplies of food, water, and animal fodder for crossing the deserts that lay in their paths.  Depending on the terrain, they might go as few as ten or as many as fifty miles in a day.  Each night the travelers pitched tents, hobbled their camels, and set out guards to secure their camp against bandit raids.

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Stopping Points Along the Silk Road

Chang’an – Located in the valley of the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River, the Tang capital of Chang’an was the most important city in China for over 1000 years.  Located at the eastern end of the Silk Route as well as near the Great Wall that marked the boundary between China and the nomadic tribes of the north, the city guarded China’s most important strategic interests.  This is where merchants got their caravans ready to go west.  The caravan included many private merchants as well as Chinese government officials, who exported silk along the Silk Route to Central Asia, where it was traded for fine horses for the imperial army.

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Members of the caravan traveled together to help one another on the long, dangerous journey.  Along the way they faced heat, hunger, thirst, and bandit raids.  Few members of the original caravan traveled all the way to the Mediterranean.  Traveling the Silk Road was more like a relay race, with each trader traveling only part of the total distance.  The silk and other goods that they brought from China changed hands several times along the way, with the price increasing at each stop. 

Dunhuang – This oasis town was a major stop along the Silk Road.  Not only was it an important trading and supply center for caravans, it also was a great religious center. Around A.D. 100 the Buddhist religion came to China from India along the Silk Road and in Dunhuang, hundreds of Buddhist cave-temples were cut into the soft rock of a nearby cliff.  At this stop some of the merchants went to to the cave-temples of Dunhuang to pray for a safe journey, while others bought supplies in the town market.  Some Chinese officials took charge of a small herd of horses brought from the west from another caravan and escorted the horses back to the capital, while other officials continued west to purchase still more of them.

Taklamakan – The Taklamakan is one of the world’s driest deserts.  Its name means “if you go in, you won’t come out” in Uighur Turkish, one of the main languages of Central Asia. Having to transverse this part of the Silk Road was extremely rough.  The travelers had to pass around sand dunes, across rocky flats, and through tangled willow thickets along the dry riverbeds.  Many of the camels and camel drivers that set out from Chang’an turned back at Dunhuang so the merchants had to hire new ones for this stage of the journey, along with extra animals to carry food and water across the desert.  Such changes of men and animals occurred several times along the way from China to Damascus.

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Kashgar – Kashgar was an oasis city famous for its fruit.  Dates, melons, and grapes grew in irrigated fields and vineyards. The pastures near the city were dotted with grazing animals and the camps of herding people   Everyone in the caravan looked forward to fresh fruit and water once they arrived here.  Some of the Chinese members of the caravan ended their journey here.  They traded silk for dried dates, raisins, jade, and other local products to bring back to China.  Others continued on to the west, joined by new merchants, guards, and camel drivers with fresh animals from Kashgar.

The Pamirs are a range of high mountains in eastern Afghanistan.  Here the route winds through narrow, high-walled valleys besides rushing rivers.  The camel drivers calledl this section of the Silk Route the “Trail of Bones” because of the many men and animals that died along the way from falls and from sudden storms in the high, cold passes.  The westbound caravan might have met a caravan heading for China with luxury goods from Western lands and a herd of fine horses from Ferghana.

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Tashkent, Kingdom of Ferghana – In the central market of Tashkent, the last remaining Chinese officials in the caravan trade bolts of silk for horses that they will take back to China.  The horses of Ferghana are considered by Chinese military leaders to be the strongest and toughest in the world.  Tashkent marks the eastern edge of the Persian cultural world.  Some private merchants trade Chinese silk, porcelain and other goods for Persian metal-work, glass and musical instruments.  They too will head back to China here.

Transoxiana –After making another stop, in the city of Samarkand, the caravan enters the wild country east of the Oxus (Amu Darya) River.  No government rules this land; the nomads who live here will rob caravans if they get a chance to. 

Herat – In this thriving Persian city, artisans produce fine metalwork, glassware, carpets, and other goods that can be sold for a high price in China.  Herat is also, for the moment, on the eastern edge of the rapidly expanding Islamic world.  A newly built mosque looms over the city market.  Merchants from the caravan mingle in the market with local merchants and Turkoman nomads, as well as with Arabs from Baghdad and Damascus.  Traders from India are here too, selling spices and brightly dyed Indian cloth.  The caravan will leave its last Bactrian camels in Herat.  For the rest of the journey they will use dromedaries, the one-humped camels of western Asia.

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Baghdad is the greatest city of the Islamic world and a hub of world trade.  Caravans crowd the roads leading to the city.  Ships coming upriver bring spices, printed cotton cloth, pearls, and precious stones.  Some of these goods will soon be heading east to China.  Only a handful of Chinese merchants remained with the caravan, and they will end their journey here.  Most of the silk, porcelain, and other products from China have already changed hands several times along the way, increasing in value each time.  The last remaining Chinese merchants will sell their goods for a fortune in Baghdad, but then they face a long, difficult, and dangerous trip home again.

Damascus – Arab merchants have brought bolts of silk fromj Baghdad to Damascus.  Only the finest silk cloth has traveled this far; it includes intricately patterned brocades, brilliantly colored satins, and thin gauze to make nightgowns for aristocratic ladies. 

Tyre – In the port city of Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, goods are loaded on ships bound for cities farther to the west.  Some of the silk that was traded in the market at Damascus will be sent to Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Byzantium – Chinese silk is sold in Byzantium and Byzantine gold coins circulate in the markets of China.  The two empires are linked together by trade, thanks to the brave and enterprising merchants of the Silk Route.

What Traveled Along the Silk Road?

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The Silk Road was a conduit not only for tangible goods but also for technology and culture—both objects and ideas. Missionaries and merchants carried their religions (including Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism) to distant lands. Both raw materials and finished products made the journey, including paper, furs, tea, and ceramics traveling west from China while ivory, glass, spices, metalwork, and aromatics were sent eastward. Before objects reached their next destinations, local artists might be inspired to borrow from or improve upon them. As goods traversed the Road, so did the ways they were made. Key among these technologies was silk making, or sericulture, which had already been practiced in China for thousands of years. Others included glassmaking, paper making, and metalworking. Scientific knowledge of subjects such as astronomy and mathematics also moved along the Silk Road, as did visual styles and motifs.


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