Buddhism spread from India to Central Asia and China via an overland network of major and minor routes popularly called the Silk Road. This network connected Buddhist centers in Northwest India, western Central Asia, the Tarim basin, and China during the first millennium c.e. In the broadest sense, the silk routes extended from China to the Mediterranean, incorporating routes through Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran. Primary routes in western Central Asia ran through Margiana and the Oxus River (Amu Darya) valley, reached Bactria in northern Afghanistan or branched northward to Sogdiana, and continued to the Tarim basin in eastern Central Asia. Capillary routes through the Karakoram mountains in northern Pakistan directly linked the silk routes of eastern Central Asia with the major arteries for trade and travel in Northwest India. Northern and southern routes around the Tarim basin rejoined at Dunhuang, the westernmost outpost of the Chinese empire, and proceeded through the Gansu corridor to central China.
The transmission of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and China corresponded with the development of the silk routes as channels for intercultural exchanges. Chinese contacts with the "Western Regions" (Xi-yu) of Central and South Asia expanded during the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.–220 c.e.). By 111 b.c.e., the Han controlled the Gansu corridor to Dunhuang, and garrisons and irrigated agricultural oases around the Tarim basin were established in the first century b.c.e. Although Chinese control of these areas fluctuated, prosperous trade in luxury items (including silk) and dynamic cultural exchanges continued.
Chinese historical chronicles of the Han period refer to the gradual migration of Yuezhi nomads from the area around Dunhuang through the Tarim basin to Bactria in the second century b.c.e. The Kushans, a branch of the Yuezhi, advanced from Bactria across the Hindu Kush into Northwest India in the first century c.e. By the second century c.e. during the reign of Kanishka, the Kushan empire controlled the routes that connected northern India with the silk routes. Kushan control accelerated economic and cultural contacts and stimulated the movement of Buddhism beyond South Asia to Central Asia and China.
Translators of early Chinese Buddhist texts came to China from western Central Asia and Northwest India via the silk routes. An Shigao, Lokakṣema, and other Parthian, Sogdian, and Indian translators arrived in Luoyang beginning in the middle of the second century c.e. Buddhist monasteries emerged near irrigated oases at Khotan, Kucha, Turfan, and Dunhuang on the northern and southern branches of the silk routes during the third to fifth centuries c.e. Certain scholarly monks, including Dharmaraksa (ca. 233–310 c.e.) from Dunhuang and KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413 c.e.) from Kucha, came directly from Buddhist centers in the Tarim basin. Many anonymous monks who traveled between India and China along the silk routes were responsible for the transmission of Buddhism outside the monastic community. Chinese pilgrims to India returned with manuscripts, relics, and stories about sacred places in the Buddhist heartland. Faxian (ca. 337–418 c.e.) and Xuanzang (ca. 600–664 c.e.) were the most famous Chinese pilgrims; their accounts contain valuable details about social political, and religious conditions in Central Asia and India.
StŪpas (reliquaries), cave paintings, and manuscripts discovered by Aurel Stein and other explorers in the early twentieth century illustrate the role of the Silk Road as a path for the expansion of Buddhism. Stūpas at Buddhist sites on the southern route in the Tarim basin adopted architectural features from Northwest India. A Gāndhārī manuscript of the Dharmapada (Pāli, Dhammapada) from Khotan and approximately one thousand Kharoṣṭh documents from Niya, Endere, and Loulan show that the Gāndhārī language continued to be used along the southern silk route until the fourth century c.e. Numerous Buddhist paintings in caves along the northern silk route display close stylistic affinities with the art of Gandhāra, western Central Asia, and Iran, while others incorporate Chinese and Turkish elements. The distribution of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts from the second to sixth centuries c.e. indicates that Buddhist centers along the northern silk route were generally affiliated with mainstream Buddhist schools (particularly the Sarvāstivāda), but the MahĀyĀna tradition was prevalent in southern silk route centers such as Khotan. After the sixth century, Buddhist literature was written in Central Asian vernacular languages, including Khotanese Saka, Tocharian, Sogdian, Uighur, Tibetan, and Mongolian. Buddhist artistic and literary traditions continued to flourish in Central Asia along with Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian traditions in the middle to late first millennium c.e.
Despite this historical legacy, with the exception of the surviving Buddhist traditions in Tibet and Mongolia, Buddhism disappeared from the Silk Road regions of Central Asia as these areas gradually Islamicized in the second millennium c.e.
Klimburg-Salter, Deborah. The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art on the Trans-Himalayan Trade Routes. Los Angeles: UCLA Arts Council, 1982.
Liu, Xinru. Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges,a.d.1–600. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988. Reprint, 1997.
Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Interactions in Eurasia. Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1998.
McRae, John, and Nattier, Jan, eds. Buddhism across Boundaries—Chinese Buddhism and the Western Regions. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
Nattier, Jan. "Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism." Numen 37 (1990): 195–219.
Rhie, Marylin Martin. Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia, Vol. 1: Later Han, Three Kingdoms, and Western Chin in China and Bactria to Shan-shan in Central Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999.
Sander, Lore. "Buddhist Literature in Central Asia." In Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, ed. G. P. Malalasekera, Vol. 4, fascicle 1. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Government of Ceylon, 1981.
Zürcher, Erik. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China, 2 vols. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959.
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.