The Silk Road

The Silk Road

Hello everyone, I am Ming Wang. I am 20 years old and was born in China. I moved to America when I was 3 years old. My parents are still having a hard time with the move because of the pride they have for their homeland. In order to make them feel comforted by familiarity, I am making this website for them. It

Map of the Silk Road from Whitfield's "Life Along the Silk Road"
Map of the Silk Road from Whitfield’s “Life Along the Silk Road”

should remind them of how our ancestors made China influential and powerful..I’m getting ahead of myself. My ancestors were involved with the Silk Road in many aspects. There are countless stories of my ancestors being merchants, artists, and shopkeepers. These stories open the door to what they personally experienced and shed light on the history of this imprtant trading network. The Silk Road was a crazy adventure that lasted more than several life times, and by going through all of the amazing family stories, I have learned about the geography of China, sericulture, travels, and much more. I am excited to remind my parents of all that they have to be proud of, and to share this information with whomever may        stumble upon this website. So scroll down and enjoy!

Where Silk Came From?

As far as folk tales go, Lei-Tzu, or the Lady of the Silk Worms, is one of the most popular. I remember my grandmother telling me about her when I was still a little boy, commenting on her importance in our society.

Lei-Tzu discovered silk one day in her garden by spotting a strange little worm munching on some mulberry leaves. As she watched it, she saw the little creature spin itself a golden net. As she watched she could see the souls of her ancestors being spun so gracefully and carefully. We Chinese are very proud of our ancestors, as one could probably see by now, so this came as quite the comfort to Lei-Tzu. She watched the little worm closely as it closed itself away, and she thought it dead. All of a sudden it burst from a cocoon! She was so amazed that she took it upon herself to pick at the fiber and unwind it fully. The little fiber was golden and delicate, yet strong as steel. It was silk. Thus Lei-Tzu became known as the Lady of the Silk Worms. She became the woman who taught the Chinese ladies how to weave silk, and after she died, she was deified and placed in the celestial home of Scorpio forever (Thubron).

Now this legend was said to have occurred around 2,500 BC. That was a long time ago. However this myth can be disproven by real evidence. Paintings of silkworms and fossilized artificially broken cocoons from 6,000 years ago have been discovered by archeologists, making us believe that silk has been used by humans for longer than the famous Chinese story implies. One of the most fascinating facts about ancient silk is that the silk from China has been found in Afghani tombs, and in the hairs of mummified Egyptians (Thubron). How did it get there? The Silk Road.

 

        How Silk is Made

The secret of Chinese silk weaving and production was kept for many centuries. The Chinese had a serious monopoly on the silk trade and wanted to keep it that way. The production of silk was subject to state control and at some points in Chinese history, silk was forbidden to sell to foreigners. Even when silk did begin to spread, it took other countries a long time to get on China’s level. The production of silk was complicated and difficult to reproduce to the perfection that the Chinese had attained. There are two types of silk that could be made, wild silk and cultivated silk. Both types are made when silk moths lay their eggs that hatch into caterpillars that eat leaves (mulberry for cultivated silk and oak for wild silk), and then they spin their cocoons, resulting in the silk fibers. The act of spinning the cocoon can take about 30 days out of the larva’s life and produces about a mile of silk fiber. This fiber can then be spun into as much as 1,000 yards of silk yarn (Salusso).

       What Silks Could Be Used For

Silk is very unique in its characteristics. When one thinks silky what does one think? Smooth, luxurious, lustrous. Some things that the common person could not detect however are that under a microscope, cultivated silk have a triangular cross sectional shape that contributes to these qualities. Silk is also relatively warm and can also absorb 30 percent of its weight, and then dry relatively quickly. Unlike the Europeans that could only make wool, silk was lightweight and comfortable next to the skin, better for summers (Salusso). Silks could also be used for many other purposes. Their rich colors and resilient materials were very practical. They were used to string bows, lutes, fishing lines, as well as being the first surface to be written on. Paintings were painted on silk. Silk was also used to pay off nomads trying to burgle merchants (Thubron). Especially towards the beginning of silk trade, silk was the homogenous elite clothing style, and helped to identify culture and social class (Hanson 2006).

The Travels of a Merchant

Many of our relatives were merchants on the Silk Road. Obviously the Silk Road had been around for hundreds and hundred of years, and as time went on and powers changed, traveling on the Silk Road changed. I am going to talk about my great great-great…. grandfather who has detailed documents explaining his journeys on the Silk Road from 730-751.

      Preparations

Before leaving for the long journey from Samarkland, over the Pamir mountains, through the Taklamakan desert, to Chang’an, the capital of China during the Tang dynasty, serious preparations had to be made. Mao Chang, our protagonist, had to pack various currencies to get through boarder guards and to pay off burglars. He also had to pack special footwear and furs to cross over the freezing mountain peaks. Weaponry, though heavy, was necessary to defend bandits, especially for merchants carrying such expensive goods like Mao did. Another important part of the journey was organizing the animals that were going to carry the goods for Mao. Yaks typically carried the goods through the first portion of the journey because they were quicker and could last through normal roads with water stops. However when they would go through the deserts, camels were necessary. Even though they only went 2.5 miles per hour, they store water in their hump and can find sources of water on their own (Whitfield 1999).

        The Land

Photo of the Kunlun Desert along the Silk Road towns from Whitfield's "Life Along the Silk Road"
Photo of the Kunlun Desert along the Silk Road towns from Whitfield’s “Life Along the Silk Road”

The most difficult parts of traveling along the Silk Road included traversing through all of the different landscapes. Roads would change from harsh rock, to mushy mud, to gravel glacis, to the sandy desert. None of these landscapes were easy to cross but the desert was by far the most difficult for Mao. The desert had long hot stretches during the day and freezing nights. Camels would get sick and die on merchants. There was featureless landscape except for the bleached bones of cattle and travelers that came unprepared. Dust storms would come without warning,

there were constant threats of bandits (Whitfield 1999). For all of these reasons, when Mao could find another merchant to travel with, he would. He wrote down a story about how once he was traveling with his servant and a dust storm rose, wiping away the trail and making them lose the trail. For three days, the men followed the sun, traveling East towards the capital without water. They did not know where there were going and on the third day they laid down to die. All of a sudden, Mao opened his eyes to see other merchants splashing water on them. He turned to his servant to rejoice about being found, but he had died. Turns out they had only been a few feet away from the main road, hidden behind some shrubbery. It was easy to die in the desert. Once the merchants made it through however, they had a lot to look forward to in the capital of Chang’an.

      Entertainment

Excitement abounded in Chang’an! In the marketplace, more than 10 languages could be heard at a time, consisting of bargaining, trading, and conversation. Everything was sold in the markets that could be sold. There was silver, gold, ginger, silk, fish, sugar, cakes, iron, medicine, medical services, pleasurable services like massage – so many things (Whitfield 1999(! When my great grandfather would get there, he would get together with some of his buddies he had met over his years of travel, go to a nice restaurant and eat decadently. Singers and dancers would be at the restaurants, and he records how he could call over 16 or 17 year old girls to dance for him as he ate. He wrote that after dinner, they would get him drunk and take off their shirts while sitting on their laps. What a naughty boy!

       Princesses

Royals would travel with a troupe of muscicians for entertainment, like these people on the camel. From Whitfield’s “Life Along the Silk Road”

There was also a story he wrote about the royalty he would pass on his journeys. When royalty from other countries had to get from place to place, they also would travel along the silk road because it was fairly safe and a well traveled path. He spoke of how elegant their accommodations were on the trail compared to the average traveler. Tents were found off the trail that had fine silk on top of thicker wool carpets on both the wall and the floor. Furs were hung everywhere, and colors were vibrant and abundant. He once spoke of a princess he saw, and how lavish her outfit was. He described it as an under-gown of red silk with a round neck, a long crimson robe with wide embroidered lapels,, decorated with red and white braids down the opening. Sleeves were narrow, hair was in large loops on either side of her head, and then a wide red silk scarf was wound around her head with both ends falling down her back almost to the floor. Clearly these luxuries were reserved for the wealthiest of the wealthy (Whitfield).

       Monks

A monk’s assembly robe made of luxurious silk from China which contradicted their religious views. From Whitfield’s “Life Along the Silk Road”

Other interesting people that Mao reported seeing on the trail were monks. During the Tang dynasty, monks were a hot topic. They were being heavily criticized because they had been taught to not involve themselves in material goods, yet monks were interested in silk, beads, and other material goods that they should not have cared about. Another reason why it was bad that monks had so many silk robes is because silk resulted in the death of the silk worms through production, and monks believed that no one should cause harm to humans or animals no matter what. For all of this monasteries were being accused of being corrupt. Mao spoke of one monk he met taking a pilgrimage though Chang’an to the Wutai mountain. The monk had been traveling for about a year from his monastery and brought two ponies with him. Monks are not supposed to have very many belongings so my great grandfather asked what he had been carrying besides food and water. The monk replied that many of his monk friends had requested that he bring them back souvenirs like silk, jade rosary beads, sutras, and other things found in the Chang’an marketplace (Whitfield 1999.

 Jade

Another interesting commodity traded on the Silk Road was jade. Jade has always been associated with China throughout the world.. Jade is either nephrite or jadeite, two monomineralic rock types found in China. Ever since 6,000 BCE jade has been carved into ornaments and jewelry attracting the people of ancient China with its unique beauty. Jade is very hard and therefore difficult to carve into the complex shapes they were usually sold in. This meant that it was expensive because it required skilled artisans, and was reserved for the highest classes. Other than for style, jade was also used in medicines in both liquid and powder form, for all sorts of common ailments. There were very few places in China in which the jade could be harvested. Yotkan, situated between two Chinese rivers, was a fantastic source of jade. After the spring and summer floods, torrents of water would bring sand and mud down off of the boulders surrounding the rivers, along with the jade that had been in the boulders themselves (Whitfield 2004).

Shift in Powers

       The Fall of the Han

The Han dynasty lasted from 206 BCE- 220 AD. It was the first dynasty in which regular commerce in Chinese silk was established. This happened because the Emperor Wu dispatched his Ambassador (Zhang Qian) to seek allies in Central Asia that could help them defend themselves against neighbors that were threatening Chinese boarders. As this was happening they explored other domains and saw other foreign goods that they were interested in, and China wanted to set up a trading system with Central Asia. The Central Asians and later other countries wanted silk so bad, and were eager to set up friendly trading relations with China. Because the Silk Road went across so many difficult obstacles, like sandstorms, avalanches, banditry, high tariffs and boarder controls, people were still willing to pay high prices so they could get the silk. When the Han Dynasty fell in 220 AD, political and social disunity broke out, and the people were just waiting for the Tang Dynasty to come in and take control (Watt).

       The Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty opted for an expansionist foreign policy as soon as they took control in 618. They made adjustments to ensure that safe passage during the seventh and eighth century would allow merchants to reach China with new ideas, goods, and technologies in regions like Iran, India, and Central Asia. This was new and created high traffic and economic stimulus on the Silk Road. The Chinese silk was brought to Central and West Asia and Iran providing a profitable market. Another ethnic group called the Sogdians, which I will talk about later, crafted their own silk as well. It was made from iron, and had designs. This silk gained a lot of popularity for its unique style. During this time of trade, Islam was becoming more and more important because of Muslim merchants and artisans serving as middlemen in delivery of Chinese goods into Central Asia and Iran. The Muslims had even established communities in northwest and southeast China for themselves. The decline of the Tang Dynasty beginning in the middle of the eighth century put the Silk market and all it had become at risk. In 907, the Tang Dynasty was overthrown. Trade was heavily compromised because the people no longer had a guarantee of safe passage (Watt).

       Foreign Chinese Style Dynasties

A pair of boots made of silk during the Liao dynasty. From Watt and Wardwell’s “When Silk Was Gold”

During the Tang Dynasty, foreigners had been discriminated against. Because of this, after the fall of the Tang, minorities began their own Chinese-style dynasties on Chinese property. The Khitans from Mongolia started the Liao dynasty and took control of an area around modern Beijing and sixteen prefectures in North China from 907-1125. The Tanguts from Tibet started the Xia dynasty and took over northern China until 1227. In 1115, the Jurchens from Manchuria came into the territory of the Whitens and took over much of North China. This heavy invasion forced Chinese to move south. When the Tang dynasty was no longer regulating the trade on the Silk Road, it made it much easier for these groups to go and claim land that had been a part of the Silk Road. Having several different ethnic dynasties did not make continuing trade on the Silk Road easy. Although the structure of these dynasties did not last incredibly long, their influence after these groups had disintegrated continued to persist all over North China, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Central Asia (Watt).

The Song Dynasty

A very popular style of silk known as ling, which first appeared during the Tang dynasty. This piece was made during the Song Dynasty. From Watt and Wardwell's When Silk Was Gold"
A very popular style of silk known as ling, which first appeared during the Tang dynasty. This piece was made during the Song Dynasty. From Watt and Wardwell’s When Silk Was Gold”

The Emperor Taizu (r.960-76) founded the Song Dynasty. One of his first moves as emperor was moving the capital from Chang’an to the city of Kaifeng. They had less territory than the Tang because they were constantly confronted by other dynasties’ armies (like the ones stated above).. The Song attempted to occupy the areas around the Silk Road so they could control it like the Tang had but they were already occupied so they gave up. Although they did not have as much control over trade as the Chinese dynasties that preceeded them, silk continued to play a huge role in Song foreign policy. After realizing that continuing to fight for land was not going to work and was a waste of time and money, they decided to form relations between the Khitlans for commercial and diplomatic reasons. The Treaty of Shayuan was signed in 1004. The treaty forced the Song to promise huge payments of silver and silk towards the Liao Dynasty but also call them their imperial younger brother, which was a big deal. The Song signed a similar treaty promising similar things with the Tanguts. Silk was the most valuable means of currency in Song foreign relations. It was so highly regarded that other foreign dynasties refrained from acts disrespecting the Song Dynasty’s treaty in order to obtain it. This is how silk became a powerful tool in foreign relations. Silk could even be given to foreign rulers to avoid war. If the Song Dynasty gave royalty from another land a few hundred silk robes, all issues would go forgotten. Because the Silk Road was not regulated, silk could not be traded nearly as frequently, but this made it more in demand and the silk trade was still in the spotlight. The trade persisted during this time but on a smaller scale. There began to be more seaborne commerce as the world started to industrialize. Growing commercialism and urbanization resulted in an increase in the use of silk. This is because the people who just began to profit off of these new means of commercialism, or “the new rich”, wanted to look like the age-old elite so they wanted silk to copy their fashion. However it was no longer just royals that wore silk. Silk became more widely available as merchants sold it to markets, stalls, and shops all across Asia (Watt).

The Sogdians

Although there were a lot of Chinese merchants, like Mao Chang, the majority of them were Sogdians. Sogdiana was where Iran is now. It’s people, the Sogdians, were the most frequent faces one would see traveling on the Silk Road. With their heavy beards and the way they were dressed, with knee-length coats and trimmed trousers of bright color, they were distinctly not Chinese (Whitfield 1999). Along with distributing the silk, Sogdian’s also made their own silk. At one point, all the silk that was distributed to West Europe was made in Sogdiana. Their silk was very well made, and high in popularity. It was made with iron, and had intricate designs dyed on it. Much of the silk that was exchanged from the 8th to 11th century was heavily influenced by or created by the Sogdians. When the Chinese would make Sogdian influenced silk, the technique they used still incorporated the ancient and traditional Chinese technique of wrap-faced patterning. Archeologists have found these silks all over the Silk Road route, supporting the frequency and popularity of the trade (Watt).

This coat is one of the best preserved Sogdian silk pieces. The symmetrical arrangement of the design is frequently seen in Sogdian pieces. From Watt and Wardwell's "When Silk Was Gold"
This coat is one of the best preserved Sogdian silk pieces. The symmetrical arrangement of the design is frequently seen in Sogdian pieces. From Watt and Wardwell’s “When Silk Was Gold”

 

The Spread of Silk

Romans fell for Chinese silk as soon as they realized it existed. When the Romans had accessibly to the silk, they would pay the fabric’s weight in gold. Most people were going wild about it, but there were also critics about the crazy-popular textile. Many of these critics were found in the ancient Roman senate, where the politicians stated that silk was a decadent and immoral material good. Because of all of these concerns, the emperor restricted its import. Of course, Romans were not pleased with this decision, except for the few that thought that silk “enabled Roman maidens to flaunt transparent clothing in public”. Of course this ban did not last long with the backlash from the Roman citizens. For more than a thousand years, middleman would travel at great length to get silk to Rome by riding, walking, and climbing. Some of the merchants were so poor, they would carry their goods on their back and walk hundreds of miles, through deserts and mountains. Three central paths connected the east to the west, and travellers would choose their route depending on the water they had available and where they had to meet their next middleman. This increased the efficiency of travel of merchandise, so that one man didn’t have to journey thousands of miles at a time with one load of goods. As the silk would travel through the trail, the prices would grow to be 10, 100, or 1000 times more than it would have sold for in China the closer it got to the Roman Empire. Silk was nearly a third of all trade into Rome. This created a dangerous trade deficit because Rome was importing expensive silk and hardly selling any goods back to China. Along with spreading silk, ideas and inventions made their way through the silk road. Some very important new things came from China like coal power, post offices, and paper currency (Smith).

 The Color of Silk

The Chinese mindset surrounding color was very interesting. During the Tang Dynasty, the style of having mono-toned clothes was just as popular as having bright, over the top colors and designs. Don’t get me wrong, color was used in a sophisticated manner, but compared to other cultures like Japan’s, color was used in a more interesting and boundary pushing manner. Color could represent political powers or ties to certain foreign regions through commercialization. Native, old-school Chinese tended to think bright colors were too exuberant and over the top. This mindset was related to the Shang era (ca. 1570-1045 BCE). During this time the only color materials would be was the color of oracle bones (nude or beige). Oracle bones were considered to be full of magic and power so the Chinese mimicked it in fashion and art. Within the Han Empire (206 BCE-9CE), the empire began to import new materials. These luxury products like ivories, sable fur, silver, gold, and dyes changed China’s fashion world forever. During the Tang dynasty, vibrant colors and patterns began to appear in art and in clothes. Most of it mimicked nature and involved complex color symbolism. One really interesting aspect of color in Chinese fashion during the time of the Silk Road is that when the Tang Empire was being rebelled against and the Song dynasty was rising, China was nearly cut off from the silk road completely. Other empires had cut off China from almost all of West Asia, from where all of their dyes and luxury goods were imported.. A decline of color is seen during this time and a definitive comeback of monotone fabrics came back because of the lack of material goods. During the Mongol Conquest of China in 1279, color came back into Chinese fashion and art as quickly as it left with the reintroduction of luxury items from other areas. This was around the time that the blue and white Chinese “china” or porcelain came into style (Finlay).

The Questions behind the Silk Road

Although there is plenty of valid evidence about the Silk Road and what went on, some experts, like Susan Whitfield, are questioning whether historians have accurately captured the Silk Road’s meaning. She states that “the Silk Road is a romantic oversimplification of what was a complex economic system involving a network of trade routes, but we should be careful before dismissing the concept just because a catchy name is being exploited by the marketing sector”. She speaks to how this trading route was unique because it was the first one that went to such lengths like from China to Rome in such an early time. The Silk Road was the first time the East and West had really come together before pre-modern times. We know a lot about the Silk Road, but the majority of it is from the Chinese perspective. This makes historians want to make the definition of the Silk Road broader than just China’s trading system, because we know it incorporated more countries and regions than just China. They think it should “consider all the routes, economies, markets, peoples and politics throughout Central Asia and those to and from India and Africa, along with the economies and markets of Europe and China.” On top of this, Silk Road research should also begin to consider sea routes on top of land routes.  Historians have settled on understanding that “the Silk Road” has become a frequently used general term and a marketing brand so people must be wary when using it, and understand what the Silk Road actually entailed (Whitfield 2007).

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Well everyone, thank you for journeying down the Silk Road with me. I hope that you learned a lot about Chinese history and culture during this fascinating time in my family’s homeland. The extraordinary progress made during this 1,000 years that I focused on compares, if not exceeds, the progress made from 1900-2000 America. Transportation was accessible because of the security of the Silk Road. Trade was popularized, increasing countries economic standing and giving them access to luxury products from other regions. Different types of people were brought together in market places, through their travels, and by trading their work. Communities were brought together to enhance the world through trade.

I hope you all found this as interesting as I do, and Mom and Dad I would like to dedicate this website to you. Without you all, I would not know half as much nor would I have the interest to learn more about my heritage. Thank you.

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Sources:

Finlay, Robert. 2007;2008;. Weaving the rainbow: Visions of color in world history. Journal of World History 18 (4): 383-431
Hansen, Stephanie Danielle. 2006. The emperor’s new clothes: Sericulture, silk trade, and sartorial exchange along the silk road prior to the first crusade.ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Hansen, Valerie. 2012. The silk road: A new history. Oxford;New York;: Oxford University Press.
Salusso, Carol. 2005. silk.
Smith, Jeremy N. 2005. Reweaving the silk road. World Trade 18 (10): 68.
Thubron, Colin. 2007. Shadow of the silk road. 1st U.S. ed. New York: HarperCollins.
Watt, James C. Y., Anne E. Wardwell, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). 1997. When silk was gold: Central asian and chinese textiles. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in cooperation with the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Whitfield, Susan. 1999. Life along the Silk Road. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Whitfield, Susan, Ursula Sims-Williams, and British Library. 2004. The silk road: Trade, travel, war and faith. Chicago, IL: Serindia Publications.
Whitfield, Susan. 2007;2008;. Was there a silk road? Asian Medicine 3 (2): 201-13.