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Mogao Cave rendering of
Silk Road trade

Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian institution, wrote: “The Silk Road spanned the Asian continent and represented a form of global economy when the known world was smaller but more difficult to traverse than nowadays. A network of mostly land but also sea trading routes, the Silk Road stretched from China to Korea and Japan in the east, and connected China through Central Asia to India in the south and to Turkey and Italy in the west. The Silk Road system has existed for over 2,000 years, with specific routes changing over time. For millennia, highly valued silk, cotton, wool, glass, jade, lapis lazuli, gold, silver, salt, spices, tea, herbal medicines, foods, fruits, flowers, horses, musical instruments, and architectural, philosophical, and religious ideas traveled those routes. The roads themselves were generally in poor condition. Travelers in caravans had to brave bleak deserts, high mountains, extreme heat and cold. They had to face bandits and raiders, imprisonment, starvation, and other forms of deprivation. Those going by sea braved the uncertainties of weather, poorly constructed ships, and pirates. Yet because the goods and ideas were in great demand and commanded high prices, courtly rewards, or spiritual benefits, they were worth the trouble of transporting great distances. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution. 2002]

According to UNESCO: ““Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbours, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes across both land and sea, along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Maritime routes were an important part of this network, linking East and West by sea, and were used for the trade of spices in particular, thus becoming known as the Spice Routes. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities however: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.” ~

Silk Road Name and the Importance of Silk

Silk Lions from Central Asia

The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, the famous World War I German fighter pilot. According to UNESCO: “'Silk Road' is in fact a relatively recent term, and for the majority of their long history, these ancient roads had no particular name.”

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The network of routes commonly known as the "Silk Road" resulted from an expansion of commercial and cultural exchanges between China and the Tarim Basin. Ferdinand von Richthofen labeled numerous primary and secondary overland routes of commercial and cultural exchanges across Central Asia the "Silk Route" or "Silk Road" (Seidenstraáe) in the late nineteenth century. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

Richard Kurin wrote: “Since the concept of "Seidenstrassen" or "Silk Roads" was first invented by the German geologist and explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, the "Silk Road" has been used as a metaphor of European and Asian cultural interchange. While largely commercial, the Silk Road provided the vehicle for all sorts of creative exchange between tremendously diverse peoples and cultures. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution. 2002]

“Given the Silk Road's symbolic meaning of sharing and exchange, it is somewhat paradoxical that the desire to control its namesake commodity, silk, was so strong. The ancient Chinese guarded the secret of silk production for centuries. The Ottoman Turks and the Persians fought a war over it. The English and French competed to restrict its markets. But despite such attempts, silk moved across the planet with remarkable ease and was a vehicle of cultural creativity wherever it went. The degree of borrowings and choosing of techniques and patterns, the invention and discovery of uses and styles is incredible. Every culture that touched silk added to its adornment of humanity.

“And silk turns up everywhere — aboard medieval Viking ships sailing out of Constantinople and as kerchiefs from India (bandannas, from bandhana) around the necks of cowboys in the American West. The terms used for silk reveal its history and influences. Damask silk, referring to the style of Damascus, Syria, is actually Chinese in origin. Silk chinoiserie is not Chinese but a European imitation of Chinese style. Martha Washington wore a dress of Virginia silk to her husband's inauguration, and Native Americans learned silk embroidery to decorate traditional apparel. In the 19th century Paterson, New Jersey, of all places, declared itself "Silk City."

Early History of Silk and the Silk Road

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2nd century Vase with
gladiator found in China
The Silk Road was a conduit for goods such as silk and spices between Asia and Europe at least as far back as Greco-Roman times and possibly as far back as Egyptian times. Strands of silk have been found on 3000-year-old Egyptian mummies. The most likely source of silk from that period was China or India. It is not clear how it made its way to ancient Egypt.

In the Old Testament, Ezekiel speaks of silk. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle described a material that seemed a lot like silk and Alexander the Great brought silk back with him after his conquest of Persia. In the A.D. 1st century, Pliny the Elder described silken garments that allowed Roman women to be "dressed but nude." He speculated that silk may have originated from "the hair of the sea-sheep" or trees in the land of Seres.

Some of the oldest known silk fibers have been found in Jiahu near the Yellow River in Henan Province in central China. Jiahu is regarded by many as China’s oldest culture and settlement.. Archaeology magazine reported in 2017:” Soil samples taken from beneath skeletons in two tombs that date back 8,500 years reveal traces of silk proteins, indicating that the deceased may have been dressed in silk garments when they were buried. This new evidence pushes back the first known silk production technology by nearly 3,500 years. [Source: Jason Urbanus, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2017]

The Roman Empire and Chinese Empire had made contact as early as the second century B.C. Roman coins have been found all over Asia and ancient Chinese coins have been found in Rome. In Gansu Province in China, a silver gilded coin with a representation of Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, dated to the 2nd century B.C., was unearthed in 1989. The silk trade drained so much money from the Roman treasury that Roman Emperor Tiberius complained that "ladies and their baubles are transferring our money to foreigners." He prohibited Romans from wearing silk. In one year, Rome reportedly paid 22,000 pounds of gold for silk shipments.

A peace agreement between China's Han dynasty and the Xiongnu — a warlike horse people from Mongolia that created a confederation of nomadic tribes in an area along the border of China and Mongolia around 200 B.C. — demanded tributes of silk, wine, rice, concubines and other luxuries. The transport of these goods from China to Central Asia marked the beginning of large-scale use of the Silk Road. The Xiongnu were the nemesis of the Han Dynasty Chinese. The Han built up the Great Wall for protection against them.

Origin of the Silk Road

The Persian and Indo-Greek, or Bactrian, civilizations of Central Asia were China’s neighbors to the west. Together with China, these empires were among the world’s most advanced civilizations in the centuries that coincided with the empires of Rome and Byzantium in the West, from roughly 200 B.C. to A.D. 1000.

Emperor Wu Di of Han Dynasty China

After the Alexander the Great’s conquest of western Asia in the 3rd century B.C., the Mediterranean became linked to the Indus Valley in present-day India-Pakistan and the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, opening of the route across the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor to China. This came about around 130 B.C., when the Han Dynasty ambassador Zhang Qian (originally dispatched to help form alliance against the proto-Mongol Xiongnu) traveled widely in Central Asia and established contacts with China there. After the defeat of the Xiongnu, Chinese armies established themselves in Central Asia and opened the strategic Hexi corridor in western China, facilitating trade between the Chinese capital Changan and eventually the rest of East Asia.

The Chinese Emperor Wu di (141-87 B.C.) became interested in developing commercial relationships with the sophisticated urban and trading centers of Fergana, Bactria and Parthian Empire: According to the Hou Hanshu, a late Han period historical record, after hearing Zhang Qian: Wu di “reasoned thus: Fergana (Dayuan “Great Ionians”) and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hsia) and Parthian Empire (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China”.

The Chinese were greatly attracted by the tall and powerful horses (named “Heavenly horses”) from the Fergana Valley, which were also sought after and valued for fighting by the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria(established by the successors of Alexander the Great). The Hou Hanshu reads: “Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]… As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.” The Chinese campaigned in Central Asia on several occasions and there were reports of direct encounters between Han troops and Roman legionaries (probably captured or recruited as mercenaries by the Xiong Nu).

“The “Silk Road” essentially came into being from the 1st century B.C., following these efforts by China to develop trade and political contacts to the West and India. The Han Dynasty Chinese army regularly policed the trade route against bandits and nomadic horsemen such as the Xiongnu and Huns. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 mounted infantry and light cavalry troops in the A.D. 1st century to secure the trade routes, reaching to the Tarim basin in present-day western China. Ban Chao campaigned across the Pamirs and reached the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of Parthia. From there the Han general dispatched the envoy Gan Ying to Rome.

Before the Silk Road, the Grain Road?

In April 2014, the New York Times reported: “Nomadic shepherds in the high plains of Central Asia used grain imported from China and southwestern Asia more than 5,000 years ago, according to a new study — perhaps to sprinkle over bodies in funeral rituals. The discovery came from a recent investigation of burial sites in Kazakhstan. The scientists, led by Michael Frachetti, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, included a botanist and local archaeologists. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, April 7, 2014]

“Because what is now Kazakhstan was at a crossroads in the nomads’ path, the findings, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provide clues about the later emergence of the trade route known as the Silk Road. Early on, the nomads moved only by foot, spending winters in warmer valleys and summers in the mountains. Their seasonal moves broadened their interactions and helped disperse the grains, Dr. Frachetti said.


“These folks were not traveling extremely long distances, but it spread fairly rapidly,” he continued. “You can imagine a story where a person goes down in the valley, starts trading seeds and takes them back.” The scientists also found evidence that by about 1500 B.C., the nomads were cultivating their own barley, wheat, millet and peas. Dr. Frachetti’s graduate students found remnants of grains from the period in an ancient domestic oven, a storage vessel and a kiln. “We see the evolution,” he said, “from the introduction of seeds used for ritual purposes to something that has impact on the local economy.”

Together with his Kazakh colleagues, Frachetti began digging a decade ago in the Dzhungar Mountains of Kazakhstan. A site called Begash has yielded some interesting discoveries related ancient horsemen. Ancient pastoralists built this dwellings there dated to around 2500 B.C. In a nearby grave, archaeologists found tiny grains of millet and wheat, the oldest domesticated grains yet found in Central Asia. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, May/June 2012 \^/]

Begash is a Eurasian pastoralist campsite, located in Semirch'ye in the piedmont zone of the Dzhungar Mountains of southeastern Kazakhstan, which was occupied episodically between ~2500 BC to AD 1900. The site is located at about 950 meters (3110 feet) above sea level, in a flat ravine terrace enclosed by canyon walls and along a spring-fed stream. Archaeological evidence at the site contains information about some of the earliest pastoralist "Steppe Society" communities; the important archaeobotanical evidence suggests Begash may have been on the route which moved domestic plants from the point of domestication into the broader world. [Source: K. Kris Hirst, About.com]

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Covering nearly 500 square miles” is a region between “the Tian Shan and Altai mountain ranges” that “boasts sharp peaks topping 12,000 feet, as well as harsh desert. At a site near a village called Begash, on a flat terrace enclosed by steep canyon walls alongside a small stream, the team uncovered the foundations of simple stone structures along with an array of potsherds and bronze and stone artifacts in stone-lined oval and rectangular tombs. The earliest layers at Begash date to at least as early as 2,500 B.C.,based on alpha magnetic spectrometry dating of organic remains, says Frachetti. One woman was laid to rest with a bell-shaped hooked bronze earring around 1700 B.C., according to electron spinresonance dating. Similar earrings are only found several centuries later some 600 miles to the north on the Siberian steppes, hinting at styles that moved north over time. \^/

“More surprisingly, the excavators found wheat, which was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and broom corn millet that was first widely grown in northern China. The grains were used ritually in a burial, and radio- carbon dating of the remains dates them to about 2200 B.C.,making them the oldest known domesticated grains in Central Asia. The people of Begash may not have grown either grain—there are no grinding stones, the telltale sign of grain preparation—but instead received it via trade networks stretching from the Near East to China. \^/

“Dorian Fuller,a leading expert in ancient grains based at University College London, calls the finds“important and well dated.” He adds that Chinese crops such as millet began to appear in southwest Asia around 1900 B.C., a few centuries after they reached Begash, which could mean the passage through the mountain regions was a means of gradual transmission from east to west. Frachetti speculates that the grains may have been acquired from other tribes and used for ritual purposes, and then perhaps were passed on in turn to other pastoral peoples. What makes the Begash discoveries so important is that previously this region was assumed to have been a land of scattered foragers until steppe people trickled down into the area’s valleys and mountain ranges after 2000 B.C. But it is becoming evident that the people of Begash were not simple foragers, but sophisticated pastoralists who tended their fiocks, much as people in the area still do today. They built small encampments, favored sheep and goat over cattle, and ate few wild animals. \^/

Early History of Silk

Thanks to the Goddesss of Sil

According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in 2460 B.C. by the 14-year-old Chinese Empress Xi Ling Shi who lived in a palace with a garden with many mulberry trees. One day she took a cocoon from one of the trees and accidently dropped it in hot water and found she could unwind the shimmering thread from the pliable cocoon. For hundreds of years after that only the Chinese royal family was allowed to wear silk. Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.

Richard Kurin wrote: “Silk cultivation and production is such an extraordinary process that it is easy to see why its invention was legendary and its discovery eluded many who sought its secrets. The original production of silk in China is often attributed to Fo Xi, the emperor who initiated the raising of silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees to feed them. Xi Lingshi, the wife of the Yellow Emperor whose reign is dated from 2677 to 2597 B.C.E., is regarded as the legendary Lady of the Silkworms for having developed the method for unraveling the cocoons and reeling the silk filament. Archaeological finds from this period include silk fabric from the southeast Zhejiang province dated to about 3000 B.C.E. and a silk cocoon from the Yellow River valley in northern China dated to about 2500 B.C.E. Yet silk cloth fragments and a cup carved with a silkworm design from the Yangzi Valley in southern China dated to about 4000-5000 B.C.E. suggest that sericulture, the process of making silk, may have an earlier origin than suggested by legend. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

The earliest evidence of silk was found at the sites of Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi, where a silk cocoon was found cut in half by a sharp knife, dating back to between 4000 and 3000 B.C. The species was identified as Bombyx mori, the domesticated silkworm. Fragments of primitive loom can also be seen from the sites of Hemudu culture in Yuyao, Zhejiang, dated to about 4000 B.C.. The earliest example of silk fabric is from 3630 BC, and was used as wrapping for the body of a child. The fabric comes from a Yangshao site in Qingtaicun at Rongyang, Henan. Scraps of silk were found in a Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang in Huzhou, Zhejiang, dating back to 2700 B.C.. Other fragments have been recovered from royal tombs in the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1046 B.C.). [Source: Wikipedia]

Evidence of silk weaving includes impressions found on a bronze urn dated to 1330 B.C. The provincial museum in Hangzhou houses silk threads and embroidery knots that may be 4,500 years old. In 1982 brickyard workers stumbled across a ancient tomb from 300 B.C. with remarkably well preserved silk quilts and gowns. Tombs in the Hubei province dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC contain outstanding examples of silk work, including brocade, gauze and embroidered silk, and the first complete silk garments.”

The secret of making silk remained in China for thousands of years. Imperial law decreed death by torture to anyone who disclosed it. No one is sure when the secret first seeped out of China, but it is known to have reached Japan by way of Korea by the A.D. 4th century and said to have been brought there by four Chinese girls. It is also said that silk was brought to India by a Chinese princess who hid eggs and mulberry seeds in the lining of her headdress.

Ancient Silk Production

Han Dynasty Silk

According to UNESCO: “Silk is a textile of ancient Chinese origin, woven from the protein fibre produced by the silkworm to make its cocoon... Regarded as an extremely high value product, it was reserved for the exclusive usage of the Chinese imperial court for the making of cloths, drapes, banners, and other items of prestige. Its production was kept a fiercely guarded secret within China for some 3,000 years, with imperial decrees sentencing to death anyone who revealed to a foreigner the process of its production. [Source: UNESCO]

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Some time probably in the fourth millennium B.C., the Chinese learned the secret of unraveling the fine, rounded filament of the cocoons spun by a worm (Bombyx mori) which fed on the leaves of mulberry trees. There are other species of silk worms (for example, ones native to India), which produce a flatter filament or chew through the cocoon, leaving short fibers. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

Richard Kurin wrote: “ Indian tussah silk dates back possibly to 2500 B.C.E. to the Indus Valley civilization and is still produced for domestic consumption and foreign trade in various forms. Since traditional Hindu and Jain production techniques do not allow for the killing of the pupae in the cocoon, moths are allowed to hatch, and the resultant filaments are shorter and coarser than the Chinese variety. The ancient Greeks, too, knew of a wild Mediterranean silk moth whose cocoon could be unraveled to form fiber. The process was tedious, however, and the result also not up to the quality of mulberry-fed Bombyx mori. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

“Early in Chinese history, silk was used to clothe the emperor, but eventually it was adopted widely through Chinese society. Silk proved to be valuable for fishing lines, for the making of paper, for musical instrument strings.Under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), 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.

Silk Trade

Han Dynasty ox cart

According to UNESCO: “The Chinese monopoly on silk production however did not mean that the product was restricted to the Chinese Empire – on the contrary, silk was used as a diplomatic gift, and was also traded extensively, first of all with China’s immediate neighbours, and subsequently further afield, becoming one of China’s chief exports under the Han dynasty (206 BC –220 AD). Indeed, Chinese cloths from this period have been found in Egypt, in northern Mongolia, and elsewhere. [Source: UNESCO ~]

“At some point during the 1st century BC, silk was introduced to the Roman Empire, where it was considered an exotic luxury and became extremely popular, with imperial edicts being issued to control prices. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages, with detailed Byzantine regulations for the manufacture of silk clothes, illustrating its importance as a quintessentially royal fabric and an important source of revenue for the crown. Additionally, the needs of the Byzantine Church for silk garments and hangings were substantial. This luxury item was thus one of the early impetuses in the development of trading routes from Europe to the Far East.” ~

Richard Kurin wrote: “Conventionally, historians refer to three periods of intense Silk Road trade: 1) from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., between the ancient Chinese Han dynasty and Central Asia, extending to Rome; 2) from about 618 to 907 C.E., between Tang dynasty China and Central Asia, Byzantium, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid empires, the Sasanian Persian Empire, and India, and coinciding with the expansion of Islam, Buddhism, Assyrian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and Judaism into Central Asia; and 3) during the 13th and 14th centuries, between China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and early modern Europe, made possible by Mongol control of most of the Silk Road. Some would add a modern Silk Road period, beginning in the 19th century with the "Great Game" — the competition between Russian and British colonial powers for influence over Central Asia — and extending through today. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

Early Silk Trade

Tang Dynasty camel and rider

Richard Kurin wrote: “Evidence of trade in ancient Chinese silk has been found in archaeological excavations in Central Asian Bactria (currently the region around Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan) dating to about 500 B.C.E. Strands of silk have been found in ancient Egypt from about 1000 B.C.E., but these may be of Indian rather than Chinese origin. Alexander the Great, who ruled much of the known world from the Mediterranean to India in the late 4th century B.C.E., wore robes of deep purple-dyed silk. The silk was probably from China, which the Greeks knew as Seres — the place where serikos or silk was made — and made optimum use of the rare and expensive purple dye that was produced by the Phoenicians of Tyre from the secretions of sea snails. Yet, in the West, knowledge of silk and its trade were relatively limited. So, too, in the Far East. Sericulture was carried to Korea by Chinese immigrants in about 200 B.C.E. Though silk was extant in Japan at the turn of the millennium, sericulture was not widely known there until about the 3rd century C.E. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Discoveries in Egyptian tombs indicate that some Chinese silk made its way to the Mediterranean world at least as early as 1000 B.C. The routes of transmission presumably were the same which developed more extensively in later centuries, overland across the heart of Asia or via the coastal trade around Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. In most histories though, the real beginning of the "Silk" Road dates to the establishment of the Xiongnu (Hun) nomadic empire on the northern borders of China around 200 B.C. and the development of a relationship between the Xiongnu and the Han Imperial court whereby large quantities of silk were shipped to the nomads to buy peace along the frontiers and ensure the supply of horses and camels for the Chinese armies. This transmission of silk into Inner Asia established the pattern for later centuries, the nomads receiving both finished garments, embroidered or woven with Chinese designs, and raw silk yarn and unfinished cloth. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

“Striking evidence of the Xiongnu's appreciation for the silk has been uncovered in the royal burials at Noin-Ula in Mongolia, dating from the second and first century B.C. The fabrics discovered there include woolens and silk embroidered with silk thread or decorated with silk appliques. Of particular interest is the fact that some of the embroidery depicts faces of individuals who have distinctly "western" features, suggesting the possibility that even at this early stage in the history of the Silk Road weavers from further west were employed by the Xiongnu in processing the "raw materials" imported from China. Such a pattern of the exchange of craftsmen involved in silk processing recurs throughout the history of the Silk Road. We cannot be certain who were the "westerners" depicted in the Noin-Ula embroidery, but there is substantial archaeological evidence even from some centuries earlier documenting the presence in Inner Asia of people with "Indo-European" features and documenting as well interactions between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia and the peoples of the steppe regions of Southern Siberia and Mongolia. *\

“The quantities of Chinese silk shipped on a regular basis to the nomads down through the centuries were substantial, often tens of thousands of bolts of silk or packages of silk floss annually. Possibly the peak of this exchange was reached in the T'ang Dynasty in the eighth and early ninth centuries, when as much as one-seventh of the government's annual tax revenue paid in silk was being used to obtain horses for the imperial army. The silk was important to the nomads, who acquired a taste for the luxury it provided. The process of building and maintaining a nomadic confederacy of the numerous tribes in the steppe was dependent in part on the ability of the nomadic ruler to distribute on a regular basis to his allies and relatives luxurious silks. Yet it seems quite clear that the quantities of silk sent to the nomads far exceeded their needs. The surplus has to have provided one of the important means for the nomads to acquire other goods they sought by trading the silk to those further west. Thus it is no coincidence that Roman sources from around the first century B.C. begin to indicate a sizeable influx of silk into the Roman Empire, within a century or so following the initial agreements by which the Han supplied the Xiongnu with silk on an annual basis. By the first century CE, Roman moralists complained that the taste for the luxury (and for other luxuries imported from the east, such as spices) was bankrupting the empire. *\

Silk and Buddhism

8th century Buddha from Turpan

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: ““Another factor in the demand for Chinese silk was the spread of Buddhism. From its beginnings in northern India around 500 B.C., Buddhism spread throughout south, central and east Asia. Of particular interest for the history of the Silk Road are the paths which brought that faith into what is now northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, the river valleys of Central Asia and then the oasis cities surrounding the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang. The Buddhist communities in these regions were sizeable: travellers such as the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang in the middle of the first millennium CE reported several thousand monks at some of the oasis cities. Some scholars speak of the Buddhist "conquest" of China, where the adherents of the faith at its peak would have numbered in the millions. Silk occupied an important place in Buddhist rituals. Stupas (relic shrines) would be draped in silk and painted silk banners commissioned as donations by laymen. We see examples of these banners in the paintings and relief sculptures of the caves at Yungang and Dunhuang, and many of the striking banners themselves were preserved in the famous Library Cave at the Mogao temples near Dunhuang. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

“Donations of sizeable quantities of silk guaranteed that prayers would continue to be said for deceased individuals to ensure their favorable rebirth. Graves excavated along the northern Silk Road (for example in the Turfan region) contain lists of objects which presumably were to accompany the dead. However, the large quantities of silk in some of the lists generally were not in fact buried with the dead but seem to represent symbolic (and to a degree, real) donations. There was a belief that silk thread provided a link between this life and rebirth in one of the Buddhist heavens; the symbolic loads of the camels among mingqi, sculpted grave figurines, seem to include bundles of such thread. Buddhist imagery both of holy figures and of laymen being memorialized in the cave temples of places such as Dunhuang, Kizyl and Bezeklik often preserve for us a precise visual record of fabric designs. While Xinru Liu's argument about the causal relationship between the spread of Buddhism and the development of the Silk Road trade may be somewhat forced, there is no denying that a growing demand for silk was connected with the spread of that faith. *\

China’s Secret About Silk Leaks Out

Knowledge about silk production was very valuable. This secret of making it remained in China for thousands of years, with many arguing that the Chinese tried to keep the technique of silk production a closely guarded secret. Imperial law decreed death by torture to anyone who disclosed it. No one is sure when the secret first seeped out of China, but it is known to have reached Japan by way of Korea by the A.D. 4th century and said to have been brought there by four Chinese girls. It is also said that silk was brought to India by a Chinese princess who hid eggs and mulberry seeds in the lining of her headdress.

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “One of the most striking bits of evidence” that silk production was a closely-guarded secret” is a small painted board excavated by Aurel Stein at Dandan Oilik, in the Taklamakan Desert not far from the important center for jade export, Khotan. The painting depicts what Stein determined was the story of the "silk princess," who smuggled silk worms out of China in her hairdo when she was sent off to marry the local ruler. The painting clearly is connected with silk production, since it shows some of the implements used; one figure is a possible "god of silk," depicted separately in another of the paintings found by Stein at Dandan Oilik. Whether or not the story of the silk princess is true, there is good reason to believe that silk production did begin in Central Asia by the second or third century CE. A silk industry also developed in the Persian Sasanian Empire, which was founded at the beginning of the third century. Fabrics produced by the Sasanians and Sogdians (the inhabitants of merchant city states in the region around today's Samarkand) were woven with designs based on earlier Persian ones, designs which then would be emulated all the way from Spain to China. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

According to UNESCO: Despite the efforts of the Chinese emperor to keep it a closely guarded secret, it did eventually spread beyond China, first to India and Japan, then to the Persian Empire and finally to the west in the A.D. 6th century. [Source: UNESCO ~]

The historian Procopius wrote in the 6th century: “ About the same time [ca. 550] there came from India certain monks; and when they had satisfied Justinian Augustus that the Romans no longer should buy silk from the Persians, they promised the emperor in an interview that they would provide the materials for making silk so that never should the Romans seek business of this kind from their enemy the Persians, or from any other people whatsoever. They said that they were formerly in Serinda, which they call the region frequented by the people of the Indies, and there they learned perfectly the art of making silk. Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk, nature itself forcing them to keep always at work; the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises of the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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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