Trade was not the primary purpose of the Silk Road, more a network of pathways than a road, in its heyday. Instead, the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to travel along part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands. Thriving in new homes, newcomers mixed with local residents and often absorbed other groups who followed. Sites of sustained economic activity, oasis towns like Turfan, Dunhuang or Khotan, enticed still others to cross over mountains and traverse oceans of sand. While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road became the planet’s most famous cultural artery for the exchange between East and West of religions, art, languages and technologies.
We use the term “Silk Road” to refer generally to the exchanges between China and places farther to the west, specifically Iran, India and, on rare occasions, Europe. Most vigorous before the year 1000, these exchanges were often linked to Buddhism.
And that’s why Khotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, northwestern China, are famous for their Sunday markets, where tourists can buy locally made crafts, naan and grilled mutton on skewers. As visitors watch farmers bargaining over the price of a donkey, it’s easy to imagine Xinjiang always this way, but that’s an illusion. The predominantly non-Chinese crowds in the northwest prompt a similar reaction: surely these are the direct descendants of the earliest Silk Road settlers.
In fact, though, a major historic break divides modern Xinjiang from its Silk Road past. The Islamic conquest of the Buddhist kingdom in 1006 brought a dramatic realignment to the region. Eventually Xinjiang’s inhabitants converted to Islam, making that the principal religion in the region today. They also gradually gave up speaking Khotanese, Tocharian, Gandhari and other languages spoken during the first millennium AD for Uighur, the language one hears most often in the region today.
Excavated materials shed light on the nature of the Silk Road trade. These materials, written on paper, silk, leather and wood, survive only in dry locales, places like Niya, Loulan, Kucha, Turfan and Khotan in Xinjiang; Samarkand in Uzbekistan; Chang’an, Dunhuang in Gansu province; and Chang’an, the capital during the former Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and the Tang (618-907). These documents were recovered not only from tombs, but also from abandoned postal stations, shrines and homes, beneath the dry desert – the perfect environment for preservation of documents as well as art, clothing, ancient religious texts, ossified food and human remains.
Many documents, found by accident, were written by people from all social levels, not simply the literate rich and powerful. These documents were not composed as histories. Their authors did not expect later generations to read them, yet they offer a glimpse into the past that’s often refreshingly personal, factual, anecdotal and random.
Documents later recycled as shoes for the dead or in the arms of figurines show that Silk Road trade was often local and small in scale. Even the most ardent believer in a high-volume, frequent trade must concede that there is little empirical basis. Scholars offer varying interpretations of these scraps of evidence, but there’s no denying that the debates concern scraps, not massive bodies, of evidence.
The modern discovery of the Silk Road began in 1895 when the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin launched his first expedition into the Taklamakan Desert in search of the source of the Khotan River. After 15 days, he discovered he was not carrying enough water for himself and the four men with him. He did not turn back, not wanting to admit his expedition had failed. When their supply ran out, he began a desperate search, eventually locating a stream, but not before two men perished.
As he made his way out of the desert, Hedin encountered a caravan of merchants and pack animals, and he purchased three horses, saddles, maize, flour, tea, utensils and boots. This list, described in his biography, is revealing. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, almost all the goods traded in the Taklamakan were locally made necessities, not foreign imports.
Similarly, during the first millennium, markets offered more local goods for sale than foreign-made imports. At one market in Turfan in 743, officials recorded prices for 350 items, including typical Silk Road goods like ammonium chloride, used for dyeing cloth and softening leather, as well as aromatics, sugar and brass. Of course, locally grown vegetables, staples and animals, some brought over long distances, were also available.
Despite the limited trade, cultural exchange between East and West was extensive – first between China and South Asia, and later West Asia, especially Iran. Refugees, artists, craftsmen, missionaries, robbers and envoys travelled these routes in Central Asia. The most influential people moving along the Silk Road were refugees. Waves of immigrants brought technologies from their homelands, practising those skills or introducing motifs in their new homes.
Frequent migrations of people fleeing war or political conflicts meant that some technologies moved east, others west. As techniques for making glass entered China from the Islamic world, the technology for manufacturing paper was transported westward. Invented in China during the 3rd century BC, paper moved out of China, first to Samarkand, arriving around the year 700, and then into Europe from the Islamic portals of Sicily and Spain. Paper, the most convenient and affordable material for preserving writing, encouraged great cultural change, including the printing revolution in Western Europe. Of course, the Chinese developed woodblock printing much earlier than Gutenberg, starting around 700 AD.
Cultural transfer took place as the Chinese learned from other societies, specifically India, the home of Buddhism. Buddhist missionaries were key translators and worked out a system for transcribing unfamiliar terms in foreign languages, like Sanskrit, into Chinese that remains in use today. Chinese absorbed some 35,000 new words, including both technical Buddhist terms and everyday words.
People who spoke different languages often encountered one another on the Silk Road. Some had learned multiple languages since childhood. Others had to learn foreign languages as adults, a more arduous process than it is today given how few study aids were available. Surviving phrasebooks shed light on student identities and reasons for their studies. Used in monasteries throughout the first millennium, Sanskrit attracted students, but so, too, did Khotanese, Chinese and Tibetan.
The most important legacy of the Silk Road is the atmosphere of tolerance fostered by rulers of small oasis kingdoms along the northern and southern Taklamakan. Over the centuries these rulers welcomed refugees, granting them permission to practice their own faiths. Buddhism entered China, and so too did Manicheism, Zoroastrianism and the Christianity of the East. Archeological sites and the preserved artefacts offer a glimpse into this once tolerant world. The new Silk Road is indeed far removed from the legacy of the historic network.
Valerie Hansen teaches Chinese history at Yale University.
Yale Centre for the study of globalisation.