Han Chinese silk

The Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu Di (141–87 B.C.) during the Han Dynasty. According to the Asia Society Museum: Although foreign influences had penetrated China since early times, official interest in the west began only during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.– A.D. 220). Threatened by incursions of mounted nomadic tribes from the north and northwest, the Han emperor Wudi (r. 141–87 B.C.) dispatched missions westwards to seek allies. Although these missions were unsuccessful in securing alliances, they returned with reports, not only of an existing trade in Chinese products, but also of a superior breed of horses. It was in part the need to secure this breed of horse, vital to the Han campaigns against the nomads, that drove Han armies into Central Asia. [Source:: Monks and Merchants, curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001, Asia Society Museum == ]

Richard Kurin wrote: Under the Han dynasty silk became a great trade item, used for royal gifts and tribute. It also became a generalized medium of exchange, like gold or money. Chinese farmers paid their taxes in silk. Civil servants received their salary in silk. In 198 B.C.E., the Han dynasty concluded a treaty with a Central Asian people, the Xiongnu. The emperor agreed to give his daughter to the Xiongnu ruler and pay an annual gift in gold and silk. [Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

According to the Asia Society Museum: “By the late second century B.C., military colonies were established in Gansu to protect the trade routes from nomadic incursions. These colonies became important trading posts on the Silk Road. The main route led from Chang'an (modern Xi'an) through Lanzhou, Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan to Dunhuang and was protected by a Han extension to the Great Wall. As trade flourished, new products and ideas entered China, brought by foreign merchants. Buddhism entered China at this time, but was confined mainly to colonies of foreign merchants. Indeed, imperial control of the country ensured that foreign influences were still largely unassimilated or marginalized. ==

“With the fall of the Han in 220 C.E., this situation began to change. China fragmented into independent kingdoms, and non-Han ethnic groups began to gain ascendancy. In the early fourth century, the ancient capitals Luoyang and Changían were sacked by armies of former nomad mercenaries and Gansu and Ningxia came under the rule of a succession of short-lived kingdoms, some of nomad origin. The breakdown of imperial rule had important consequences. The new rulers did not look solely to the capitals for cultural models, but instead were open to influences from outside. Buddhism began to take root, creating a demand for scriptures and images.” ==

Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes;

Zhang Qian: Han-Era Silk Road Explorer

More than 1,300 years before Marco Polo left Italy for China on the Silk Road, Chinese explorers were traveling nearly as far to reach Central Asia and the Middle East. In 138 B.C., the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian (Chang Chien, Zang Qian) was sent westward by Emperor Wu (140-87 B.C.) with the assignment of finding allies to fight the Xiongnu. He was captured by the Xiongnu soon after departing and was held in captivity for 10 years before he escaped and crossed the Pamir mountains to reach the Fergana Valley Zjhang Qian reached Syria, and possibly Egypt, and returned to China 19 years after he set out and long after the Xiongnu were subdued. In the first great account of Silk Road travel he described the pleasures of Central Asian wine and fantastic animals such as the "heavenly horses" of the Fergana Valley that had striped bodies and sweated blood.

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, ““Zhang Qian emerged on history's centre stage a few years after Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty ascended the throne in 141 B.C.. The emperor was dissatisfied with a long-standing reconciliation policy of paying tribute to the Xiongnu, a northern ethnic group, and decided to send a mission to the Yuezhi, who had been driven from their homes by the Xiongnu, in order to form an alliance with them against Xiongnu. Cui Jijun, 44, curator of the Zhang Qian Memorial Hall, presumes that Zhang Qian, who was chosen as leader of the mission, was probably around 20 to 25 years old at that time. "Considerable physical strength was vital in the harsh journey to the western regions. Emperor Wu preferred to appoint young people," Cui said. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+]

“Zhang Qian and his group of 100 or so were captured by the Xiongnu in the course of their journey to Yuezhi. According to history books, during his 10 years in captivity, Zhang Qian got married and started a family. But he managed to escape to fulfil his duty and headed west, finally finding his way to Yuezhi. Though he was unable to form an alliance, he came into contact with different cultures in central Asia before heading back to Han.” Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu a second time. This time, however, he succeeded in escaping after a single year of captivity. In 126 B.C., twelve years after his departure, he returned to the Chinese capital, accompanied by but one of the hundred men who had started with him. “When he was finally able to report the circumstances of the western regions to Emperor Wu, 13 years had already passed since his departure. /+\

“After returning from his mission to the Yuezhi, Zhang Qian participated in a battle against the Xiongnu. He was once sentenced to death when he was accused of incompetence during a battle. Afterwards, he was appointed as an envoy to central Asia once again and is said to have returned with a good horse.”

Legacy of Zhang Qian’s Mission

Zhang Qian

Kiyota Higa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Known to the Chinese as an explorer equal to Columbus, Zhang Qian opened up the Silk Road - the major route that connected the east and west of Asia during the time of the Han dynasty in ancient China. The determination that enabled him to cross the desert and overcome numerous difficulties was developed in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, a strategic location of military importance since ancient times. [Source: Kiyota Higa, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asia News Network, December 23, 2014 /+]

“The title "Lord of Bowang" was given to Zhang Qian when he achieved his feat, and that is how the area was named. I was able to meet descendants of Zhang Qian in this village. A "65th-generation" villager, 60-year-old Zhang Huazhong, told me stories of Zhang Qian's boyhood that have been handed down in the area. "He is said to have loved swimming" and, "it is said that when he found somebody being bullied, he would protect them". Zhang Qian's character is described in history books as being "patient and generous, and always trusting". Although there is no historical proof of what the people of Bowang told me, I listened with interest. Zhang Lijun, a 39-year-old "67th-generation" villager who worked for the local government told me that he always said to his 11-year-old daughter: "Never fear adversity. You are Zhang Qian's descendant."/+\

It is said that products such pomegranates, grapes, garlic and cucumbers were brought into China as a result of Zhang Qian's development of the Silk Road." Professor Derk Bodde of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in 1942: “Chang Ch'ien's [Zhang Qian’s] mission was a failure from a diplomatic point of view. But he brought back with him two important plants of western Asiatic origin. One was alfalfa, which was to prove of the greatest value to the Chinese as food for the horses used in their later military campaigns against the Huns. The other was the grape, which has ever since been one of China's favorite fruits. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“Most important of all, however, Chang Ch'ien gave to the Chinese their first accurate knowledge of the expanses of Central Asia. Following his advice, they launched a series of military campaigns which during the next century broke the power of the Huns. Finally all of Turkestan was brought under Chinese rule. Across the desert the Chinese conquerors laid out a series of garrison posts. Thus, well before the birth of Christ, a trade route was established which crossed Turkestan from China, passed through Persian territory, and reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. From there ships could continue the journey to Rome itself. Thus were Rome and China, then the two most powerful empires in the world, linked by trade.”

Western Expansion of China Under Wu Di

Ambassador Visiting Wu Di

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Under Wudi, China regained control of territories, first conquered by Qin Shihuangdi, in southern China and the northern part of Vietnam. New commanderies were established in Korea, and contacts were made with the western regions of Central Asia. The conquest of Fergana and neighboring regions in 101 B.C., which allowed the Han to seize a large number of the "heavenly" long-legged horses valued for cavalry maneuvers, also gave China control of the trade routes running north and south of the Taklamakan Desert. In return for its silk and gold, China received wine, spices, woolen fabrics, grapes, pomegranates, sesame, broad beans, and alfafa. “There was also an expansion of diplomacy: fifty envoys from Central Asia were recorded in 94 A.D., and Japanese envoys visited in 57 and 107 A.D. Jugglers from West Asia arrived in 122 A.D., and the reported arrival of an emissary from Andun (the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) bringing ivory, rhinoceros horn, and tortoiseshell suggests a direct link to Rome in 166 A.D. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art\^/]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The first step in preparing for this expansion was taken as early as 139 B.C., when Wu-di authorized a reconnaissance expedition to the far west by a courtier named Zhang Qian. Zhang journeyed for many years deep into Central Asia, increasing Chinese awareness of distant lands many fold. After Zhang’s return, by which time Wu-di had long become comfortable on the throne, it was determined that China would pursue an aggressive policy to subjugate the various kingdoms that lay along the route of Zhang’s travels. This policy naturally entailed the pacification of the Xiongnu confederacy as well. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Over the course of Wu-di’s reign, the Chinese launched a series of campaigns into Central Asia. To support these campaigns, garrisons were established in the northwestern corridor beyond the boundaries of early Han China which today constitutes western Gansu 4 Province, as far as Dunhuang. The Great Wall was extended westward and a series of watchtowers was constructed out into the desert. The Han armies marched through these regions and out into the Tarim Basin and the Tianshan Mountains. The petty kingdoms encountered by the armies were usually conquered without much difficulty, although a few were able to mount a resistance firm enough to lead the Han generals to bypass them. Ultimately, Han armies executed successful operations as far west as modern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (go to Tajikistan and turn right). /+/

“The principal goals of the expedition were to extend the garrisoned outposts of China, to establish colonial posts of administration and reconnaissance in the far west, and to transform the peoples of Central Asia, who had previously been under the influence of the Xiongnu, into tributary states of China, ready to serve as allies in China’s struggle against the Xiongnu. /+/

“These western expeditions were coupled with direct attacks on the Xiongnu. The success of these was not uniform, and some of the greatest of Han generals found themselves unable to prevail against large armies of nomads so far from their own bases of supply. However, the wars of Wu-di’s reign seem to have begun the disintegration of the Xiongnu confederacy, which never again exerted the sort of pressure on China that it previously had. /+/

“An indirect benefit of these military policies was the creation of what later became known as the “Silk Road” in Central Asia. This commercial route roughly paralleled the path of Zhang Qian’s first expedition. Its military function gave way to a stream of merchant caravans that brought silk to the West and Western goods and peoples to China. While it was Wu-di’s armies that first opened this route, its contributions to Chinese civilization are better studied in the context of post-Han civilization, by which time Western imports, which included such unanticipated commodities as Buddhism, came to have an enormous impact on Chinese culture.” /+/

Rome, Parthian and Han Empires in AD 1st century

Han Dynasty and Ancient Rome

The first Europeans to arrive in China for which there is evidence were ancient Romans. Roman historian Florus wrote of envoys between the “Seres” or Chinese and the Emperor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C. to A.D. 14). The earliest recorded official contact between China and ancient Rome was in A.D. 166 when, according to a Chinese account, a Roman envoy, possibly sent by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius or Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, arrived in then Chinese capital of Luoyang. This is the only meeting between the great civilizations of Rome and China of which a record survives. The Romans referred to the people of the remote East as the Seres—the Silk People. The term may have referred to tribes in Central Asia not the Chinese. The Romans, by the way, thought silk came from trees. The Persian Empire also traded with China about this time.

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent under the Emperor Trajan in the A.D. century, just as the Han empire was beginning to decline. Most historians believe that the two empires had only indirect contact, as silk and spices were traded along the Silk Road through merchants in exchange for Roman goods such as glassware. [Source: The Telegraph]

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: By the 1st century B.C.E. silk reached Rome, initiating the first "Silk Road." Pliny, writing about silk, thought it was made from the down of trees in Seres. It was very popular among the Romans. People wore rare strips of silk on their clothing and sought more; they spent increasing amounts of gold and silver, leading to a shortage in precious metals.[Source: Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution |*|]

“Coinciding with the development of ruling elites and the beginnings of empire, silk was associated with wealth and power — Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph under silk canopies. Over the next three centuries, silk imports increased, especially with the Pax Romana of the early emperors, which opened up trade routes in Asia Minor and the Middle East. As silk came westward, newly invented blown glass, asbestos, amber, and red coral moved eastward. Despite some warnings about the silk trade's deleterious consequences, it became a medium of exchange and tribute, and when in 408 C.E. Alaric the Visigoth besieged Rome, he demanded and received as ransom 5,000 pounds of gold and 4,000 tunics of silk.” |*|

Trade Routes between Europe and Asia in the Roman Era

20080217-170px-BegramGladiator 2n cen greco-roman wiki.jpg
2nd century Vase with
gladiator found in China
According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Long-distance trade played a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia during antiquity. Some of these trade routes had been in use for centuries, but by the beginning of the first century A.D., merchants, diplomats, and travelers could (in theory) cross the ancient world from Britain and Spain in the west to China and Japan in the east. The trade routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods from areas with surpluses to others where they were in short supply. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Trade Routes between Europe and Asia during Antiquity", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,, October 2000 \^/]

“Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods. China, for example, supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia. These goods were transported over vast distances— either by pack animals overland or by seagoing ships—along the Silk and Spice Routes, which were the main arteries of contact between the various ancient empires of the Old World. Another important trade route, known as the Incense Route, was controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. \^/

“Cities along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces. Some, like Palmyra and Petra on the fringes of the Syrian Desert, flourished mainly as centers of trade supplying merchant caravans and policing the trade routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. \^/

“The trade routes were the communications highways of the ancient world. New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business. These connections are reflected, for example, in the sculptural styles of Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan and northern India) and Gaul (modern-day France), both influenced by the Hellenistic styles popularized by the Romans." \^/

Books: Milleker, Elizabeth J., ed. “The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West," Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Simpson, St. John, ed. “Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen," London: British Museum Press, 2002


The Sogdians were the inhabitants of fertile valleys surrounded by deserts, the most important of which was the Zeravshan valley, in today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The French scholar Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: “This Iranian-speaking people had a fifteen-centuries-long historical identity between the sixth century B.C. and the A.D. tenth century when it vanished in the Muslim, Persian-speaking world. Although the Sogdians constructed such famous towns as Samarkand and Bukhara, they are quite unknown. Only specialists on the Silk Road know that they were among the main go-betweens of the exchanges in the steppe, in Central Asia, and in China during the first millennium CE, and especially between the fifth and the eighth centuries CE. During this period, the “inland silk road” and the “Sogdian trading network” are almost synonymous. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

Albert E. Dien wrote in a Silk Road Foundation article: “Western Turkestan, the area of modern Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, was an important area in the history of the Silk Road. It was the area through which the Road passed, and the inhabitants were very much involved in the commercial activity which took place along its route. This area, known variously as Transoxiana (that is, across the Oxus, or the Amu Darya) or Eastern Iran (meaning really the eastern extension of Iranian culture) is a fascinating area, well worth exploring. It is an area where a number of cultures met, that of the Greco-Roman world, of Iran and India, and to some extent even China. It is a dry, semi-arid area, containing the fearsome Kara Kum and Kyzyl Kum deserts, traversed by some rivers from which water could be diverted into agriculture, and thus support some cities with large populations, really an oasis culture. Trade and agriculture supplied the economic basis of what were important cultural centers. But at the same time, the area abutted on the steppes, and there was almost constant pressure from nomads to the north and east, across the Syr Dary, to move in with their herds and to raid, and if successful, to become the rulers of this rich land. It was in effect the early-comers fending off the late-comers, because the inhabitants of Transoxiana were an Iranian population who had themselves moved in from the steppes and who had settled down. [Source: Albert E. Dien, Silk Road Foundation =]

Transasia Trade Routes AD 1st century

Parthians and the Silk Road

Silk began reaching Europe from China and India in significant amounts via Persia when Persia was ruled by the Parthians (274 B.C. to A.D. 226). The Parthians loved silk. In the early days of the silk trade they traded ostrich eggs for it. When their empire was at its height, Parthian armies carried great banners made of silk into battle. The first complete east-to-west land routes were linked together under the Parthians. They controlled strategic trade centers in the Middle East and many stops on what became the Silk Road passed through their empire. Some scholars argue that the Silk Road was formally founded when Parthia and China exchanged ambassadors and made trade agreements on the caravan route between them in the 2nd century B.C.

The Parthian empire was the most enduring of the empires of the ancient Near East. It began as a small kingdom of tribal warriors in northeast Persia. After the Parthians defeated the Seleucids — a Macedonian dynasty that ruled in the Asian territories of the former Persian Empire — they controlled most of Persia, Mesopotamia and parts of eastern Arabia. At its height, the Parthian empire occupied all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and -for brief periods- territories in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The Parthians endured from 250 B.C. to A.D. 229 until they were replaced by the Sassanians, another Persian dynasty. The Parthians are often called the second Persian Empire and were one of the great rivals of Rome.

The Parthian Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran founded by Arsaces I, the leader of the Parni tribe of nomadic horsemen. Its name comes from Parthia, a region in northeast Iran conquered by Arsaces I in the mid-3rd century B.C. when it was a satrapy (province) in rebellion against the Seleucid Empire. After that Parni nomads settled in Parthia and built a small independent kingdom. They rose to power under king Mithradates I of Parthia (171-138 B.C.). Also known as Mithridates the Great, he greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce.

Edith Porada, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, wrote: “Mithradates I called himself 'Great King', thereby manifesting the Parthian claim to the heritage of the Achaemenids. Instead of the massive military campaigns of the Achaemenids toward the west, however, the method and direction of Parthian expansion took the form of caravan trade toward the east. [Source: Edith Porada, Iran Chamber Society ||||]

“Within the territory of Mithradates II (123-88/87 B.C.) — the ablest of the Parthian rulers — caravan trade could proceed unhampered from Dura Europos in Syria to Merv in Turkmenistan. From there the caravans would continue to Central Asia until they reached the place where Chinese merchants or their envoys took over the wares for further transport to the Far East. Tentatively this place has been identified as Tashkurgan on the upper Yarkand river. Riches brought in through trade accumulated in the treasuries of the Parthian empire. Its economic importance in the second century B.C. is documented by a delegation sent to the Parthian capital by the Han emperor Wu-ti (141-87 B.C.). ||||

“The protection of this caravan trade against attacks by predatory mounted nomads required constant vigilance on the part of the Parthian cavalry, whose single-mounted archers probably often had to use their own initiative in a precarious situation. The cavalry could best be maintained by a feudal system in which the army depended on the mobility and valour of the knights and their bowmen. This is the convincing explanation given by Rostovtzeff for the maintenance of a feudal system by the Parthians instead of a centralized autocratic system, such as that of the Achaemenids or Seleucids, which would have seemed more efficient to most modern historians.” ||||

20080321-nmadic horsemen five dynasties u wash.jpg

Nomad Rulers in Northwest China

According to the Asia Society Museum: “The nomads of China's northern borders are frequently portrayed in its histories as barbarians bent only on pillage and destruction. The reality was much more complex. The Chinese and the nomads warred, but they also traded and intermarried, enriching the societies and cultures of both. From the nomads, the Chinese received furs, leather, camels and horses, and technology such as the stirrup, as well as luxuries acquired by the nomads from farther west. Nomads coveted not only the products of the Chinese, such as silk, but their land. Conquest, however, was often followed by the abandonment of a true nomadic life in favor of a more sedentary one and by an intermingling of nomadic and Chinese customs. [Source: “Monks and Merchants,” curated by Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, November 17, 2001,Asia Society Museum == ]

“Between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., a series of overlapping short-lived dynasties and kingdoms of nomadic origin jostled for control of northern and northwestern China. Of those that gained control of Gansu, the various Liang kingdoms (314–439), Northern Wei (386–535), and Northern Zhou (557–581) were the most influential. The rulers of these kingdoms were of various origins — the Northern Wei, for instance, were a branch of the Xianbei, a confederation of tribes from the northeast speaking a language that contained Turkish and Mongolian elements. ==

“The turbulent situation is reflected in the contents of tombs shown in this section. The nomadic origins of the elite and the endemic militarism of the period find expression in tomb figures with non-Chinese features and clothing and of armored warriors. Other figures, however, portray civilian officials drawn from the Chinese populace. Foreign luxury goods and coins found in the tombs reveal that, despite the political turmoil, trade with the West continued to flourish.

“These nomad dynasties, moreover, became major patrons of Buddhism, establishing translation centers for Buddhist scriptures, founding temples, and commissioning images and other Buddhist paraphernalia.” This occurred even tough several hundred years earlier the famous Confucian scholar Mencius (c.371–c.289 B.C.) said: “I have heard of men using doctrines of our great land to change barbarians, but I have never heard of any being changed by barbarians.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/’ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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