As per the Historical accounts available the Silk Road was a grand route that facilitated trade, cultural exchange between the Eastern and Western parts of the World starting since second century BC. The first traveler on this great road was Zhang Qian who took up the journey to the far Western corner of the World for the purpose of developing political connections with Yuezhi, a known nomadic tribe, in the year138 BC. However a geographer, known by the name of Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the Silk Road in 1870s. Zhang Qian was sent on the political mission by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220) to develop contacts with the Yuezhi, who were known as the enemies of the Xiongnu in the second century BC.
Like Yuezhi tribe, Xiongnu was also a nomadic group and made a successful attempt to invade the Kansu province of Han Dynasty. As the Xiongnu tribe could not be restrained for long, then the Emperor Wu decided to forge an alliance with Yuezhi tribe who had also been defeated by their common enemies Xiongnu and were driven to the Ili valley, located on the western periphery of the Taklamakan Desert. With this objective in mind, general Zhang Qian leading a caravan of 100 men set out on this strange journey documented as the first travel from Chang’an, the capital of Han Dynasty, to the far West of the area beyond the Great Wall. It was a 13 year long tough journey and, Zhang Qian was able to reach his destination, Yuezhi only in the year 128 BC.
The original party that commenced the journey along with him of that only he and another company were successfully able to complete the 13 years tedious journey, the rest of them perished on the way. It was the first land route between Eastern and Western parts of the World that eventually linked Imperial China with Imperial Rome. Zhang Qian’s mission was very important in terms of political, military and commercial angles. The Emperor Han Wudi was very happy by the accounts of Zhang Oian about the other kingdoms in the western regions. He gave juicy accounts about the previously unknown kingdoms of Ferghana, Smarkand, Bokhara and erstwhile Soviet Union, Pakistan and Persia as well as about the city of Li Kun, Rome, that was famous for their special products.
The attractive products and prices from western Kingdoms of West enticed the Emperor Wudi to send consecutive missions for developing for further more political, as well as trade relations with them led by Zhang Qian in the year 119 BC. The group sent from China after some years returned with foreign products, for example, Ferghana horses, furs and like that. During the same time, the kingdoms prevailing in Central Asia also sent their own messengers to Chang’an China. The demand for the precious eastern goods grew from the West very fast.
The developments of previous years ensured that now there were not only diplomatic contacts and economic relations but also the exchanges of the various culture and religion between East and West. The network of the Silk Road was at it’s bets during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). However later on the downfall of Tang Dynasty led to political chaos and an unstable economy that was less able to support foreign imports. Moreover, the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) shut China off from the outside world, resulting in the end of the centuries-old exchange of culture and religion between East and West.(Silk Road Study Group,History, http://gallery.sjsu.edu/silkroad/history.htm).
The famous traveler Marco Polo traveled along the Silk Road and visited the capital city Dadu,( today’s Beijing) and wrote his famous book about the orient. In his book, he mentioned a special board held by merchants. This board was special passport issued by the Yuan government to the merchants to protect their trade and free movement within the country. Preferential treatment was given to merchants and trade boomed.
The Chinese traded silk for medicines, perfumes, and slaves in addition to precious stones. As overland trade became increasingly dangerous, and travel by sea became more popular, trade along the Silk Road declined. While the Chinese did maintain a silk-fur trade with the Russians north of the original Silk Route, by the end of the fourteenth century, trade and travel along the road had decreased significantly.(History of the Silk Road, http://www.chinahighlights.com/silkroad/history.htm).
Along the Silk Road silk was only one of many items that were traded throughout the history of the Silk Road. Other than silk Gold, precious metals and stones, ivory, and glass went to China, while firs, ceramics, gunpowder, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, and iron went to west from the east. All of these items went overland by way of caravan that consisted of anywhere to 100 to 1000 camels, each loaded with roughly 500 pounds of goods. Different religions spread along the route. The religions existing in Central Asia owe much of their existence to the trade routes that carried their basic tenets to Tibet,and the Taklimakan region, and finally to the China’s ancient capital Changan.
Buddhism started spreading in China from India as early as the first century AD, and changed the whole face and outlook of the towns laid along the Silk Road with monasteries and pagodas. Buddhism’s influence was very strong during the art prevalent in those times, as more and more artists started using the images of Lord Buddha in their creations. Later on, Islam made inroads into the heart of China in the similar fashion as Buddhism did before. The tenets of Christianity too were spread by European missionaries and took root in Tang China in 638 AD(Gonzales, Ray. “Geography of the Silk Road” http://www.humboldt.edu/~geog309i/ideas/raysilk.html)
. The role and condition of women in those times cannot be ignored, though religion played a greater part in the kind of roles assigned to the women of those times, like for example the Buddhist religion was a bit more progressive and women were accorded greater freedom, while in Islam which is not such a progressive religion as far as women are concerned the women folk were veiled and always kept in a purdah. In China the women played a very big role in the production process of silk. In central Asia the nomadic women were freer and can visit bazaars (market place) also but the women of town were not allowed that kind of liberty and were forced to keep behind a veil.
The embroidery of the nomadic groups of Central Asia is outstanding for its colour, diversity and exhuberance. The exquisite skill of the embroiderer was highly valued in nomadic society. Nomadic embroidery was traditionally worked by women, whose mothers taught them their skills and a repertoire of traditional motifs from childhood. The embroidery of each ethnic group is generally quite distinctive. Embroidered motifs decorate most everyday clothes, domestic textiles and animal trappings. Some of the finest and most beautiful work is prepared for weddings, not only to wear but for the girl’s dowry and as gifts (Nomadic Traditions, Embroidery, http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/previous/beyond_silk.asp).
So finally it can be said that the development of the trade route developed along the silk road helped in expanding the trade and economy of the chiense state, the central asian region and to some extent the european region. It was developed as a safe road for the carvans to go to and fro and deliver goods and gold between different nations. The trade along the whole route not only helped in finding a market for the equisite chienese silk in the central asian market and the european market but also resulted in the trading of many more products that helped the economy of those times a lot.
The Silk Route also helped in the spread of the Buddhist and the Islamic religion along the whole route. These religions gained foothold in many parts along the whole silk road route. One thing can also be said very conclusively that though the women folk of that period cutting across religions played a very important part in the production of silk and many other products and in result giving a boost to the trade but it had no bearing on their living conditions and they spent their lives according to the archaic religious laws.
- Gonzales, Ray. “Geography of the Silk Road” http://www.humboldt.edu/~geog309i/ideas/raysilk.html
- Wood,Frances. “The Silk Road”.