History of Silk Road

History of Silk Road is a major part for you to learn if you want to discover more about it.  The Silk Road was a trade route that went from China to Eastern Europe. It went along the northern borders of China, India, and Persia and ended up in Eastern Europe near today’s Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. 

As the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, the term “Silk Routes” has become increasingly favored by historians, though ‘Silk Road’ is the more common and recognized name.

Silk Routes Chronology

The Silk Road, or roads, more appropriately, was a major source of cultural, economic and political exchange from the time of China’s Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. through the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and beyond. The roads, used by merchants, travelers, missionaries and military forces, connected some of the great civilizations, such as the Chinese, Roman, Persian, Greek, Parthinian and Indian.
In the timeline below, discover the events that shaped Silk Road history and its people.

Before Western Han Dynasty (202BC – 9AD) Small-scale business sprouted between central and western China, trading bronze ware, lacquer ware, and jade.
138BC and 119 BC during Western Han General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty is sent on a diplomatic mission by Emperor Wudi to areas west of China in order to acquire help in defeating the Xiongnu, a group of nomadic peoples harassing China’s borders. In the years that followed, the Han became more intentional about using trade routes from western China into Central Asia and beyond.
16 AD Western Regions cut off the connection with the central court, and also broke the trade route.
Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220) In 73AD, Ban Chao set off on a diplomatic trip to western China and reopened the road, and later his assistant extended this route to the Persian Gulf. In 166AD, the Roman Empire sent an envoy to China. Then ties with the Europe  were formed through this road.
Sui and Tang (581 – 907) Tang Dynasty ushers in the Silk Roads “golden age.” By this time, the Chinese are playing polo, a game imported from Persia. Also during the Tang, the Chinese invention of paper begins to spread westward.
Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty in China welcomes travelers from the west, including Marco Polo. Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo reached China and introduced the prosperity of this trade route to the whole world through his book.
Ming and Qing (1368 – 1911) It declined due to the rapid development of maritime trade.
Modern Times The trading function fades but it now becomes a tourist route with many historical attractions along the way.

Silk Road Timeline

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Silk Road in Different Dynasties

This route was opened up by Zhang Qian in the Western Han Dynasty and the routes were gradually formed throughout the Han Dynasty. This trade route spent its childhood and gradually grew up in this dynasty. With the establishment of the Tang Dynasty, which saw rapid development of economy and society, this famous trade route reached its most prosperous stage in history. During the reign of Yuan Dynasty, it experienced its last flourishing period.

  • Zhou Dynasty (1045–221 BC): Early Silk Road Trade Around 300 BC, civilizations active in the Silk Road trade included Ancient Greece, Persia, Yuezhi, and the Qin State that controlled the eastern part of the Hexi Corridor (or Gansu Corridor in Gansu Province). This corridor is a huge very long valley that extends from Luoyang to Xinjiang.
  • The Han Empire (206 BC–220 AD): Originally, the people in the Han Empire (206 BC–220 AD) traded silk within the empire from the interior to the western borders, but the internal trade was stymied by the attacks of small nomadic tribes on the trade caravans.
  • Three Kingdoms Period (220–581): Trade Ceased
  • Tang Dynasty (618–917): In the early Tang Dynasty (618–917) era, the Silk Road route in Xinjiang was controlled by Turkic tribes. The Tang Dynasty later conquered the Turkic tribes, reopened the route, and promoted trade. Trade with the West boomed. However, by 760 AD, the Tang Government lost control of the Western Region and trade on the Silk Road ceased.
  • Song Empire (960–1279): Trade Ceased Once Again
  • Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368): Trade on the Silk Road revived and reached its zenith during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when the Mongols promoted trade in their huge empire that stretched across Eurasia.

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Selected Travelers on Silk Road

In history, many renowned people left their traces on the most historically important trade route, including eminent diplomats, generals and great monks. They crossed desolate deserts and the Gobi, passed murderous prairies and went over the freezing Pamirs to finish theirs missions or realize their beliefs.

Name Period Description
 Zhang Qian 136–125, 119–115 BCE emissary sent by Han Dynasty Emperor Wu Di to the “Western Regions,” who supplied important commercial and political intelligence.
Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) 629–645 CE  Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled through Inner Asia to India, studied there, and once back in the Chinese capital Chang’an (Xian) was an important translator of Buddhist texts.
Tamim ibn Bahr 821 Arab emissary, who visited the impressive capital city of the Uyghurs in the Orkhon River valley in Mongolia.
William of Rubruck (Ruysbroeck) 1253–1255 Franciscan missionary who traveled all the way to the Mongol Empire capital of Karakorum and wrote a remarkably detailed account about what he saw.
Marco Polo 1271–1295 Venetian who accompanied his father and uncle back to China and the court of Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan. Marco entered his service; after returning to Europe dictated a romanticized version of his travels while in a Genoese prison. Despite its many inaccuracies, his account is the best known and arguably most influential of the early European narratives about Asia.
Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Battuta 1325–1354 Moroccan whose travels even eclipsed Marco Polo’s in their extent, as he roamed far and wide between West Africa and China, and once home dictated an often remarkably detailed description of what he saw.
Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo 1403–1406 Spanish ambassador to Timur (Tamerlane), who carefully described his route through northern Iran and the flourishing capital city of Samarkand.
Ma Huan 1413–1415, 1421–1422, 1431–1433 Muslim interpreter who accompanied the famous Ming admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) on his fourth, sixth, and seventh expeditions to the Indian Ocean and described the geography and commercial emporia along the way.
John Chardin 1664–1667, 1671–1677 a French Huguenot jeweler who spent significant time in the Caucasus, Persia, and India and wrote one of the major European accounts of Safavid Persia.

Major Events on the Silk Road

Many great events happened on this ancient road, making the trade route historically important. Cultural exchange and trade strenthen the ties of the regions along the route. Zhangqian, Xuanzang and other legates made great contribution to the cultural exchange and establishment of diplomatic ties with the regions on the routes. Many soldiers also devoted their lives to protecting the route.

Read More about Memorabilia along the Silk Road

Edited by Brittany Tian/田春燕