News & Events

Silk Road - History

Silk Road History

A Short History of the Silk Road

Named in the middle of the 19th century by the German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, the Silk Road - perhaps the greatest East-West trade route and vehicle for cross-cultural exchange - was first travelled by General Zhang Qian in the second century BC while on a mission from Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Zhang was sent to recruit the Yueh-chih people, who had recently been defeated by the Xiongnu (Huns of Turkish descent) and driven to the western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Since the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the Huns had been launching aggressive raids into Chinese territory, which prompted Emperor Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) to build the Great Wall. Eager to defeat these powerful roving marauders, Han Wudi heard that the Yueh-chih were seeking revenge on the Xiongnu and would welcome help with retaliation from any ally.

Zhang, with a caravan of 100 men, set out in 138 BC from the Chinese capital of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) only to be captured by the Huns as they passed through the Hexi Corridor in northwest Gansu. The surviving members of the caravan were treated well; Zhang married and had a son. After ten years, he and the remainder of the party managed to escape and continue their journey west along the northern Silk Road to Kashgar and Ferghana. Upon reaching the Yueh-chih, Zhang found them to have settled prosperously in the various oases of Central Asia and no longer interested in avenging themselves of the Huns. Zhang stayed one year gathering valuable military, economic, political and geographical information and returned via the southern Silk Road, only to be captured again, this time by Tibetan tribes allied with the Xiongnu. Once again he was able to escape. In 125 BC, thirteen years later, he returned to Chang'an. Of the original party only he and one other completed the trailblazing journey - the first land route between East and West and one that would eventually link Imperial China with Imperial Rome.

Zhang reported on some 36 kingdoms in the Western Regions, delighting Emperor Han Wudi with detailed accounts of the previously unknown kingdoms of Ferghana, Smarkand, Bokhara and others in what are now the former Soviet Union, Pakistan and Persia (Iran) as well as the city of Li Kun, which was almost certainly Rome. Zhang recounted stories he had heard of the famous Ferghana horse, rumored to be of "heavenly" stock. Tempted by this fast and powerful warhorse, seemingly far superior to the average seed and having the potential to defeat the marauding Huns, Han Wudi dispatched successive missions to develop political contacts - the first of which Zhang led in 119 BC - and return with foreign envoys, and of course horses, from the courts of Ferghana, Sogdiana, Bactria, Parthia and northern India. Now extinct, these horses were immortalized by artists of both the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and the Tang dynasties (AD 618-907). The most famous work is the Flying Horse of Gansu, a small bronze sculpture cast by an unknown artist over 2,000 years ago and excavated in 1969 by Chinese archeologists in Wuwei County. Zhang continued seeking allies against the Xiongnu, travelling in 115 BC to the territory of the Wusun, a nomadic tribe that lived on the western frontier of the Huns, but again Zhang was unable to enlist support. Upon his return, Zhang died in 113 BC, bearing the Imperial Title of Great Traveler.

Alexander the Great's expansion into Central Asia stopped far short of Chinese Turkestan, and he appears to have gained little knowledge of the lands beyond. The Romans, with only a slightly better understanding, were convinced that the Seres (the Silk People, or the Chinese) harvested silk from trees, the "wool of the forests" according to Pliny. In 53 BC, the seven legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus were the first Romans to see silk in battle whilst pursuing the Parthians, a rough warlike tribe, across the Euphrates. They became the victims of the first "Parthian shot", which broke the Romans' front line formation and was quickly followed by a tactic that both terrorized and amazed the Romans: the Parthians waved banners of a strange, shimmering material that towered above the defeated soldiers, blinding them in the brilliant heat of the desert. The Romans managed to obtain samples of this marvelous silk from the victorious Parthians, who had traded it for an ostrich egg and some conjurers with a member of Emperor Han Wudi's early trade missions.

The Parthians along with the Sogdians, Indians and Kushans soon became prominent middlemen in the trade of silk, reaping tremendous profits, bartering with Chinese traders who escorted their merchandise to Dunhuang and as far as Loulan, in the heart of the Lop Nor Desert beyond the Great Wall, and carrying the trade on to Persian, Syrian and Greek merchants. Each transaction increased the cost of the end product, which reached the Roman Empire in the hands of Greek and Jewish entrepreneurs. Silk garments became all the rage in Roman society, so much so that in AD 14 men were no longer permitted to wear them, as they were perceived to contribute to an already overly decadent society. Despite the disapproval of the Empire's moral superiors and its high cost, silk was widely worn by even those in the lowest socio-economic classes. The silk trade flourished up until the second century AD, when it began to arrive in Rome via the sea trade routes.

Revised June 13, 2011