The so-called Silk Road was a series of networks of overland caravan roads which connected China with Central Asia, the Middle East, and Rome. The chief Silk Road trading centers in China were at Dunhuang and Kashgar in northwestern China; caravan routes traveling west from China threaded along a variety of paths, including northern routes which passed through Samarkand, Tashkent, and Bukhara, and southern routes which connected up with Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus, and from there to Constantinople, Tyre, and Antioch, Mediterranean ports which in turn connected with Rome. Goods traveled between China and the Middle East by boat as well, across the Indian Ocean.
Regular caravan connections likely date back to around 100 BCE, during the Han Dynasty, while camels first came into general use around 300 CE, allowing caravans to cross deserts, incorporating many new lands into the trading networks.
It was through these connections that much cultural exchange took place, as well as the spread of technologies and plants, as well as diseases. Technologies such as the stirrup, compound bow, cultivation of wheat, and domestication of horses may have developed originally in Central Asia, being introduced to China in a very early period along these routes. Similarly, Chinese developments, such as the production of paper, the compass, water-powered mills, and gunpowder, spread gradually west over the course of the centuries. These exchanges and interactions also allowed for considerable cultural continuities, at least in certain cases. One prime example is the lute, a musical instrument which exists in various different, but related, forms, all across Eurasia. Perhaps originally developed in Persia or the Middle East, it moved both west and east, evolving into a variety of different versions, including the European lute, the Turkish ud, the Chinese pipa, and the Japanese biwa.
Though the total network of trade reached all the way from Rome to China (and beyond China, to Korea and Japan), no individual merchants ever traveled any significant portion of the distance, let alone the entire way. Rather, traders from China, Central Asia, Persia, and the like, each traveled and traded within overlapping local regions, with the goods often making a far longer journey. A Chinese merchant operating in Dunhuang or Kashgar (in northwestern China), for example, might trade silk to a Central Asian merchant, who might take the silk to Tashkent or Samarkand along northern roads, or to Baghdad or Damascus along a southerly route, and trade it to a Persian or Arab merchant there, who might in turn sell it to someone who might take it to Rome. Chinese goods traded along these routes (chiefly to steppe peoples of Central Asia) included silks, lacquerwares, metalwork, jewels, musk, and rhubarb, while the Chinese in exchange imported jades, wool, horses and donkeys, medicines, and indigo.
The vast majority of goods traded along these routes did not travel the full distance; in other words, the supply of Chinese goods in Rome, or of Roman goods in China, was extremely limited. Actual contact between Rome and China, or knowledge about one another's culture, was, similarly, extremely minimal. That said, Rome did enjoy some access to Chinese silks, and China to Roman glass and beads. Fragments of tartans and plaids, a fabric pattern unique to Europe, have also been found in archaeological excavations in China. Both Roman and Chinese goods were relatively prevalent, however, in the intervening regions in Central Asia and the Middle East, and similarly Persian and Middle Eastern goods made their way to both Rome and China in some volume. Objects that had made their way to China in this manner were then, of course, sometimes traded further, making their way to Korea, Japan, and elsewhere either as trade goods or gifts. Objects preserved by the Japanese Imperial Household in the Shôsôin Repository at Tôdai-ji in Nara represent one of the best surviving collections of Silk Road objects, most of them obtained by the emperors of Japan as gifts from China, or from Japanese monks returning from journeys to China. These include numerous objects with particularly Central Asian or Persian designs, including for example motifs of camels or grapevines, as well as a small number of items of Roman glass and the like.
- Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Chinese Civilization, Third Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 39-40.
- Walter McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History," in Ross Dunn (ed.), The New World History, Bedford/St. Martin's (2000), 152-153.
- Brought into wide use in China in the 4th century CE. Gallery labels, Royal Ontario Museum.