The Opening of the Silk Road in Ancient China

Zhang qian (chen) wax figure

Peter Griffin/ CC0


In his excellent Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Peter Hopkirkt details the history of the Silk Road along with the archaeological uncovering of buried sites (and subsequent plundering of ancient artifacts) along the ancient trade routes by early twentieth century Western explorers. Anyone traveling in the western reaches of China is undoubtedly either wholly or partially, directly or indirectly, on a Silk Road tour.

Find yourself in Xi'an and you are standing on the ancient capital of Chang'an, the home of the Han Dynasty capital whose emperors are responsible for the opening of the ancient trade routes and also home to the Tang Dynasty under whose "golden age" trade, travel and the exchange of culture and ideas flourished.

Travel to the ancient Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and you are exploring an ancient oasis town that bustled with not only trade activity but also a thriving Buddhist community. Go even farther west from Dunhuang and you will pass Yumenguan (玉门关), the Jade Gate, the gate every ancient Silk Road traveler had to pass through on his way west or east.

Understanding Silk Road history is intrinsic to the enjoyment of modern-day travel. Why is all this here? How did it come to be? It starts with Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi and his envoy Zhang Qian.

Han Dynasty Troubles

During the Han Dynasty, its arch enemies were the Xiongnu nomadic tribes living to the north of the Han whose capital was Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). They lived in what is now Mongolia and began raiding the Chinese during the Warring States Period (476-206BC) causing the first emperor Qin Huangdi (of Terracotta Warrior Fame) to begin the consolidation of what is now the Great Wall. The Han further fortified and lengthened this wall.

It should be noted that some sources say the Xiongnu are thought to be the predecessors of the Huns - rascals of Europe - but it's not necessarily definitive. However, our local guide in Lanzhou did speak of the connection and called the ancient Xiongnu "Hun People".

Wudi Seeks Alliance

To offset the attacks, Emperor Wudi sent Zhang Qian on to the west to seek allies with a people that were defeated by the Xiongnu and banished beyond the Taklamakan Desert. These people were called the Yuezhi.

Zhang Qian set off in 138BC with a caravan of 100 men but was captured by the Xiongnu in present-day Gansu and held for 10 years. He eventually escaped with a few men and proceeded to Yuezhi territory only to be let down as the Yuezhi had settled happily and wanted no part in avenging themselves on the Xiongnu.

Zhang Qian returned to Wudi with only one of his former 100 companions but was revered by the emperor and court because of his 1) return, 2) geographical intelligence he had gathered and 3) gifts he brought back (he traded silk to some Parthians for an ostrich egg thus starting the silk obsession in Rome and "delighting the court" with such a large egg!!)

Results of Zhang Qian's Intelligence Gathering

By way of his travel, Zhang Qian introduced China to the existence of other kingdoms to the west of which they were until then unaware. These included the Kingdom of Fergana whose horses Han China would seek and ultimately succeed in acquiring Samarkand, Bokhara, Balkh, Persia, and Li-Jian (Rome).

Zhang Qian came back telling of the "heavenly horses" of Fergana. Wudi, understanding the military advantage of having such animals in his cavalry sent several parties to Fergana to buy/take the horses back to China.

The extreme importance of the horse became intertwined in Han Dynasty art as can be seen in the Flying Horse of Gansu sculpture (now on display at the Gansu Provincial Museum).

The Silk Road Opens

From Wudi's time forward, the Chinese patronized and protected roads through their western territories to trade goods with kingdoms to the west. All trade went through the Han-built Yumenguan (玉门关), or Jade Gate.

They put garrisons in outpost towns and caravans of camels and merchants began taking silk, ceramics, and furs to the west beyond the Taklamakan Desert and ultimately to Europe while gold, wool, linen, and precious stones traveled east to China. Arguably one of the most important imports to come over the Silk Road was Buddhism as it spread through China via this important route.

There was not just one Silk Road - the phrase refers to a number of routes that followed oasis towns and caravansaries beyond the Jade Gate and then north and south around the Taklamakan. There were offshoot routes that took trade to Balkh (modern-day Afghanistan) as well as to Bombay through the Karakoram Pass.

Over the next 1,500 years, until Ming emperors closed off all contact with foreigners, the Silk Road would see rises and falls in importance as Chinese power waxed and waned and powers to China's west gained or subsided in strength.

It is generally thought that the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) saw the golden age of information and trade exchange over the Silk Road. Zhang Qian was regarded by the Han Court as The Great Traveler and can be called the Father of the Silk Road.

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