Culture of Silk Road

Silk Road Culture Page introduces the religions on the Silk Road, arts and performances spreaded along the Silk Route, as well as technologies introduced via the Silk Road.

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. 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.

Religions on the Silk Road

Religions moved along the Silk Roads with the passage of goods, spreading beliefs and traditions throughout Asia and beyond. Religions varied from tribe to tribe among the nomads of the steppes, although there were many features in common. In the countries of southern and western Asia, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Christianity were widely followed until the advent of Islam, in the early seventh century, resulting in the conquest of the region by Islamic armies and the resulting dissemination of the religion.


Buddhism was arguably the most prominent of religions spread, and came as early as the 2nd Century BC from India. Buddhist merchants built temples and shrines along the Silk Road, and the priests and monks who staffed these establishments preached to the local populations and travelers. Monks, art, and paintings trickled into China, along with the emergence of cave temples. Missionaries from Central Asia began a program of translating sacred texts into Chinese, and it retained a dominant position in China until the decline of the Tang Dynasty in the 9th Century where it became more private.


Zoroastrianism spread into the western regions of China in the 5th Century to the 1st Century. It was one of the earliest religions in the area, and once the state religion of Persia. It developed rapidly during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) and the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). After the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Zoroastrianism began to fade.


Manichaeism, just like Christianity, was another middle eastern faith that was established by the Persian prophet Mani in the 3rd Century CE. It incorporated Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hindusim, Buddhism, and other faiths. It did not have much impact in China, and it’s spread was mostly due to persecution from Persia. It’s influence elsewhere declined in the 6th century.


Nestorianism, a school of Syrian Christianity, has many dogmatas and doctrines different from traditional Christianity. In 635, it was introduced into China via the time-honored Silk Road. Tang Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin ordered people to build a temple to practise Nestorianism. The temple was variously called Persian Temple, Roman Temple and Daqin Temple. After a 150-year development during the Tang Dynasty, the religion began a downwards decline. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), its followers could only be found in some parts of the Western Regions, Mongolian Grassland and border areas.


The widespread adoption of Islam beyond the Arab peninsula is recorded in some older histories as starting as early as the mid-seventh century, but in fact, this probably did not occur until at least a century later. Richard C. Foltz suggests that the reason for this confusion is due to misinterpretation of the word islam (“submission”), used in Muslim histories to indicate the submission of one clan to the authority of another, and not the spread of the Islamic faith proper.1 In fact, it was the great success of the early Muslim clans in acquiring the submission of other Arab groups that eventually led to the spread of the religion beyond the Arabian peninsula. Foltz argues that the act of submission generated defacto non-aggression pacts between Muslim Arabs and their neighbors. Most of the clans of the Arab peninsula had submitted and professed their loyalty to the Muslim clans by the year 630, forcing them to find more targets for raids beyond the Arabian peninsula in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt, lands held by Byzantium and Sassanian Persia. Expanding into these areas, the Muslim clans had little trouble expelling the Sassanian and Byzantine leadership and their armies; some villages, Foltz notes, opened their gates to the Muslim Arabs and welcomed them as liberators.

Technological Exchange via the Silk Road

The Chinese civilization used to lead the world for a fairly long period in history, with influential contributions in the areas of science and technology to other cultures on the Silk Road. Among the most important contributions were ancient China’s greatest inventions: compass, dynamite, paper-making & printing techniques, water well drilling, cast iron technologies, alchemy, sericulture, Chinese medicine (in particular, acupuncture), etc.

Many of these exported inventions had profound impact on Western civilizations. Compass greatly facilitated oceanic navigation. Paper-making & printing techniques were brought to Europe via the Middle East, and greatly promoted the spread and development of knowledge and culture. The peoples in Central Asia learned to drill well and develop irrigation systems of wells connected by underground channels from the Chinese migrants and troops via the Silk Road, which boosted the economy of the desert region states. The cast iron technology precipitated the transition of many Central Asian peoples from the Neolithic Age to the Iron. Dynamite became extensively used in Europe in wars, triggering a revolution in weapons and warfare and giving the European powers an edge over the Orient. Alchemy, a technology developed by Chinese Taoist religion, spread to the Arabic world which in turn, influenced Europe and formed the basis on which modern chemistry had grown.

Arts along the Silk Route

Along with spreading goods, cultural samples in the applied art, architecture, wall painting, the countries of the West and the East exchanged music and dances, theater performances. Numerous material proofs were found to testify on intercultural enrichment on the Silk Road:

  • The collection of Tan terracotta dancers, actors in masks, musical groups riding camels. The faces of these actors belong to the representatives of people of Central Asia.
  • The steppe frescos which have survived in the halls of Pendzikent, Varakhsha, Toprak -Kaly and the cities of Eastern Turkestan depict musicians and actors.
  • Playing polo is a sport spread from Persia. The Tang Emperor and his ministers, as well as the highest-ranking scholars, all likeed to play polo.

Culture has promoted mutual understanding and trade on the Silk Road.

Best Silk Road Poems

Numerous poems scattered on the Silk Road should have been edited and translated to form a great work. Here below are two of them for reference:

敕勒歌                                            A Classical Folk Song   The Chille-River
斛律金                                                          Hulujin                            

北朝(439-534)                 from the North-Dynasty, China(439-534)
敕勒川,                                             The Cloudy-Mountains lie,                                    
阴山下。                                             See the Chille-River pass by,
天似穹庐,                                         Like a big dome is the sky
笼盖四野。                                         Covering the prairie nigh.
天苍苍,                                             The lofty sky is deeply blue,
野茫茫,                                             The vast wildness not seen through.
风吹草低                                              The wind lowering grass in green,
见牛羊。                                              Sheep and cattle are easily seen.
(Tr. Z. Manfield)

关山月                                     To the Melody of The Pass-Mountain-Moon 
李 白                                                                  Li Bai (701-762)

明月出天山,                                       Rising up from the Heaven-Mountain,         
苍茫云海间。                                       The moon lay over the cloud-ocean.
长风几万里,                                       The wind blowing thousands of miles long,
吹度玉门关。                                        Passing through the Jade-Gate Pass strong.
由来征战地,                                      The ancient battlefield all army coveted to control
不见有人还。                                       But no soldiers could be seen to return home.
戍客望边色,                                       Looking at the frontier sight-seeing,
思乡多苦颜。                                       Homesick army men were never smiling.
高楼当此夜,                                       On watchtower spending their on-duty night
叹息未应闲。                                      All the vigilant army men kept on sign.
(Tr. Z. Manfield)

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