The term Silk Road (die Seidenstrasse) was first coined by the nineteenth-century German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905). It broadly describes the ancient trading routes stretching across the Eurasian continent from China to Europe. While silk was clearly one of the earliest and most important commodities traded along the route, precious metals and stones, spices, porcelain, and textiles also traveled the road. More significantly, the Silk Road was an avenue for the exchange of ideas. The technologies of silk production, paper making, gunpowder manufacture, and block printing made their way west across Asia via this highway. Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity entered China via the Silk Road. Migrants, merchants, explorers, pilgrims, refugees, and soldiers brought along with them religious and cultural ideas, products, flora and fauna, and plagues and disease in this gigantic cross-continental exchange. Thus, the Silk Road is a symbol of the globalization of trade, technology, and ideology for the premodern world.
Although Chinese silk was found in Europe as early as 500 BCE, well recorded trading started only when China gained control of its western frontier during the Western Han dynasty (202 BCE –9 CE). The first route started from China’s capital at the time, Chang-An (now Xian), and continued through the northwest frontier of China and the elaborate trading networks of major Eurasian civilization zones in Central Asia, Persia, and Roman Europe. Traffic along the Silk Road was disrupted at times of political disintegration, such as the collapse of the Han dynasty around 220 CE. A second, “southern” Silk Road started in southwest China, passing through China’s Sichuan and Yunan provinces and Burma to reach India. Trade in silk between China and India increased substantially between the fourth and sixth centuries when the northern route became unstable.
During the first two hundred years of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) silk trade via the northern route thrived again, only to decline toward the end of dynasty when Tang lost control of the northwestern territories to the Arabs. The route was significantly revived under the Mongol Empire established by Genghis Khan (1167–1227). Safe trade routes, effective post stations, the use of paper money, and the elimination of trade barriers marked the high stage of East-West exchange, which saw the famous travels of Marco Polo.
As shipbuilding technology progressed, maritime routes became easier and safer; this was the most important contributing factor to the relative decline of the overland Silk Road from around the fourteenth century. A significant breakthrough came in 1488 when Portuguese ships found their way to East Asia by bypassing the mighty Ottoman barrier and rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Meanwhile, in China the centers of economic and cultural activities began to shift decisively southward, with the lower Yangzi delta area (roughly in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces) emerging as the most important center of production of luxury goods, including silk. This development helped accelerate the geographic shift in Eurasian trade from the overland to the sea route, which is sometimes called the maritime Silk Road.
Accompanying the trade in silk was the slow but cumulative diffusion of the craft of silk-making, which traveled from China through Central Asia, Persia, Anatolia, North Africa, and Eastern and Southern Europe, and finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, took hold in the newly discovered American continent.
SEE ALSO Trade
Boulnois, L. 1966. The Silk Road. Trans. Dennis Chamberlin. London: Allen & Unwin.
Franck, Irene M., and David M. Brownstone. 1986. The Silk Road: A History. New York: Facts on File.
Liu, Xinru. 1988. Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges, AD 1–600. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Ma, Debin. 2005. The Great Silk Exchange: How the World Was Connected and Developed. In Textiles in the Pacific, 1500-1900, ed. Debin Ma, pp. 1–32. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.
"Silk Road." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/silk-road
"Silk Road." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/silk-road
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"Silk Road." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/silk-road
"Silk Road." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/silk-road