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What is the Ancient Silk Road ? What are the major land routes and sea routes of the Ancient Silk Road?

  The name Silk Road (‘Seidenstrasse’) was first given by a German geographer, Ferdinand Freiherr von Riehthofen in 1877. The German name reflected the functions of the road and the term was generally adopted thereafter. The Silk Road was a transport network of trading between the East and the West starting from the capital of ancient China, Chang’an, now Xian. Using the Silk Road, China exported mainly her silk and, in return, imported plants, musical instruments as well as Buddhism.

  There are several routes of Silk Roads in history: ‘Central and Southern Silk Road’, ‘Northern Silk Road’ and’ Maritime Silk Road’.

  In Han Dynasty, ‘Central and Southern Silk Road’ started from Chang’an, then passed through the Hexi Corridor before reaching Xinjiang. From Xinjiang, the Southern Silk Road branched out passing through the southern part of Taklimakan Dessert, then Hetian and Kusha. From Xinjiang, the Central Silk Road passed through the northern part of Taklimakan Dessert, then Cherchen, Yanqi, Kuqa, Aksu and Kusha. These two routes rejoined each other at Central Asia, Southern Asia, Persian Gulf, the Eastern Coast of Africa, and as far as Rome.

  The ‘Northern Silk Road’ was the route used during Tang and Song Dynasties, when the Hexi Corridor was blocked. The route started from central China, passing through Zhangye or Turfan, then climbed the slope of Tianshan before entering Mongolia. From Mongolia, the route turned west, passing through the northern part of Tianshan, and reached Kyrgyz of Central Asia before continuing to other regions. 

  Since Han Dynasty, Chinese started to use the sea route for importing and exporting her silk. In 662AD, the Tang Government founded the first Maritime Trade City Affairs Department(Shiboshi,市舶使,similar to the Custom Department nowadays) at Guangzhou.  Tuen Mun of Hong Kong then became the outer port of Guangzhou. In Song Dynasty, besides Guangzhou, seven other Maritime Trade City Affairs Departments(Shibosi,市舶司)had been set up in other cities. Among these, Quanzhou was the most important and it became the largest port in China. Using the sea route, ships from Guangzhou could sail to Vietnam, then Indonesia and the Arabian Peninsula. Ships from Quanzhou could sail to South China Sea, then to Arabia.

What famous characters are related to the Ancient Silk Road on land?

(1) Zhang Qian(張騫)(164BC-114BC): After Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty had taken his throne, he wanted to attack Xiongnu (匈奴) who had always been a threat to the northern border of China. Zhang Qian had been sent twice on missions in an attempt to seek military alliance with nations in the west that could help to check Xiongnu expansion. In 139BC, Zhang Qian was sent on his first mission to Yuezhi(大月氏). In 119BC, Zhang was sent on his second mission to Wusun (烏孫). Both of the missions failed, and Zhang had been captured by Xiongnu twice. However, Zhang's explorations of Central Asia had been detailed and revered by historians for playing a key role in opening up the commercial link between China and other parts of the world.

(2) Ban Chao(班超)(32AD-102AD): In 73AD, Ban Chao led a mission of 36 men to visit Shanshan State(鄯善國). At Shanshan, they met the Xiongnu mission of more than a hundred men. Ban and his men attacked the Xiongnu mission, and killed their leader. The king of Shanshan was scared and agreed to pledge his loyalty to the emperor of Han. Since then, Ban became the Protector General of the nations in the Western Regions. Ban led the allies of the Western Region and defeated Xiongnu many times. In 97AD, Ban sent his man Gan Ying (甘英) on a mission to the Roman Empire. Gan went as far as the Persian Gulf but failed to get to Rome. Although this mission was unaccomplished, Ban Chao had spent more than thirty years in the Western Region, and his contribution to Han was remarkable.

What famous characters are related to the Ancient Maritime Silk Road?

(1) Faxian(法顯,337AD-422AD):In 399AD, Faxian made his trip to India via Central Asia in the hope of getting better copies of Buddhist Books. Finally he returned China by sea in 412AD. Faxian translated totally 63 books of sutra, and he had also written a biography detailing his trip to India – ‘A Biography of Faxian’(《法顯傳》).

(2) Marco Polo (1254AD-1324AD): Marco Polo was born to a Venetian merchant family in Venice. In 1275, he visited the territory of Yuan Dynasty using the land route. Marco was so smart that the Yuan emperor Kublai appointed him as a senior official in the court of Yuan. In 1291, he was given the mission to consort a princess in the convoy to Persia. Marco Polo returned to Venice in 1295. He told other people his stories in China in a book titled ‘The Travels of Marco Polo(in Italian ‘Il Milione’ or Oriente Poliano’).

(3) Zhou Daguan(周達觀,1266AD-1346AD): In the early Yuan Dynasty, Zhou was a member of an expedition sent to Indo-China by the Yuan government. Zhou and his men reached Cambodia and they stayed there for more than a year. Zhou visited Angkor Temple, and after his return to China, he wrote the book: ‘the Customs of Cambodia’.

(4) Zheng He(鄭和,1371AD-1433AD): Zheng was originally named Ma He. Zheng was born to a Muslim family and became a Palace Servant later. From 1405 to 1433, he was commissioned by Emperor Yongle and later Emperor Xuande to visit Western Ocean (Indian Ocean) for seven times. The convoy fleet had more than 240 ships, and with 27,000 men. The fleet visited Indochina, India, Persian Gulf, Arabia and the Eastern Coast of Africa.

During the ancient period, what kinds of trade had been going on between the Chinese cities and the inland Silk Road countries?

  In Han Dynasty, when the Silk Road was first opened, the major exports from China were silk, lacquer wares and iron wares. Since Tang Dynasty, porcelain and tea were also exported. During Song Dynasty, Rhubarb(Dahuang,大黃)was exported from Jiuquan of Gansu. With the development of the porcelain industry in China and the Maritime Sea Road, porcelain became a major export. The types of porcelain exported, included porcelains from: Ding Yao(定窰)located in Ding Zhou (Hebei Province), Cizhou Yao(磁州窰)which was located in places such as Henan, Shanxi, and Hebei Provinces, Yaozhou Yao (耀州窰)located in Tongchuan (Shanxi Province), Jingdezhen Yao(景德鎮窰)located in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi Province), Longquan Yao(龍泉窰)located in  Longquan (Zhejiang Province), Jian Yao (建窰)located in Nanping (Fujian Province) and Jizhou Yao(吉州窰)located in Jian (Jiangxi Province).

  In Yuan Dynasty, handicraft products such as silk, woven silk, clothes became the major exports of China while porcelain, pottery wares, gold and silver wares, iron and tin wares remained important on the list of export. Besides the goods mentioned above, there were also exports of household wares like tooth-box, wooden comb, umbrella, curtains, as well as foodstuff like tea, wine, salt and sugar.

  Using the Silk Road, China imported pepper, garlic, walnuts, pomegranates, carrots, spinach, cucumber, grapes and glass wares. Since Yuan Dynasty, goods imported were comprehensively documented and recorded. Besides the items mentioned above, China also imported cloth, medicine, leather, timber, luxuries (horns of rhinoceros, ivory, pearls, jade, hawksbill and agate) and spices. A total of more than forty items was recorded.

What kinds of cultural exchange took place between the Mainland cities and foreign countries during the ancient period of ‘The Maritime Silk Road’?

(1) The culture of food: Some people claim that Italian food such as Spaghetti and Tortellini originated in China because they bear close resemblance to some Chinese food such as Lamian (noodle) and Huntun (dumpling). However, there are pieces of archaeological evidence showing that in the 4th Century, the people of Roman Empire had already had such kinds of food. As for Pizza, there is another story related to Marco Polo after he had returned to Italy. One day, Marco Polo wanted to have some Xiangcong Xianbing (Spring Onion Pie) which he had seen and tasted in China. He asked a chef from Naples to make it. The pie was made and the chef put all the fillings on top of the pie. Since then, pizza had become a very popular food in Italy.
Centuries ago in China, many Arabs had inhabited the cities of China such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Nanjing. Until now, Muslim food such as ‘soup with ox organs’, ‘soup with beef’, ‘soup with tomato and egg’, and pancake are still very popular in those areas.

(2) Religion: Buddhism and Islam
Both Buddhism and Islam entered China by sea route and land route. The first Buddhist Temple built in China was the White Horse Temple (Baimasi) in Luoyang(洛陽) in 68AD. In 412AD, the Chinese monk, Faxian(法顯), used the sea route to return to China after his long study visit in India. The Indian monk, Bodhidharma, visited China using the sea route. He first landed in Guangzhou around 470AD to 478AD. Later, he visited Henan and became the founder of the Buddhist school in China – Chan Zong(禪宗,Zen).          
Since Tang Dynasty, many Muslim traders from Arabia arrived and settled in Chinese cities. They built mosques in Guangzhou, Quanzhou and Hangzhou. Up to date, there are still many descendants of Arab Muslims living in those cities.

(3) Clothing: When silk was exported to the Middle East, Western Asia  and Europe, all the people in these regions were crazy about dresses made from silk fabrics tinted with ‘Phoenician Red’(腓尼基紅). In China, most Muslims kept their original style of clothing.

What examples of historical relics had been found by archaeologists along the Ancient Silk Road?

Year of Discovery The History of Relics Archaeologists The name of Relics Remarks
1906-1908 618AD-907AD Marc Aurel Stein(斯坦因) 24 cases of manuscripts of sutra/ 5 cases of paintings Collection of the British Museum
and the British Library
1913-1916 618AD-907AD Marc Aurel Stein(斯坦因) 5 cases of manuscripts of sutra and paintings Same as above
1967 618AD-907AD   Lease of a vineyard in 703AD Collection of the Museum
of Xingjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region
1980 1,800BC Mu Shunying
(穆舜英)
Mummy of the Loulan Lady (Found in the historical remains of Loulan) Same as above
1989 afterward 1132AD-1162AD Nanhai No. 1
(南海一號)
Totally 60,000 to 80,000 pieces of Relics Collection of the Maritime
Silk Road Museum of Guangdong
1998 9th Century Batu Hitam
(黑石號)
Totally 67,000 pieces of Relics Collection of Singapore
Before2014 960AD-1279AD   Porcelain discovered in Limau Mains River Collection of Brunei Darussalam
Maritime Museum