Silk Road Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The trading route known as the Silk Road linked the civilizations of China in eastern Asia, Rome in Europe, and the rich kingdoms in between.

Summary of Event

In the early years of the twentieth century, a handful of explorers made a series of remarkable discoveries in Central Asia. Sir Aurel Stein of Great Britain, Sven Hedin of Sweden, and a few other key figures from Europe, the United States, and Japan rediscovered what had been one of the most significant trade routes in the history of civilization. Along the way, they also recovered manuscripts, art objects, and religious artifacts that eventually made their way into the museums of the Western world. Today, their activities are regarded as little more than plundering by the Asians whose lands they penetrated, but Stein and his fellow explorers helped turn the attention of the world to what is known today as the Silk Road. Wudi Zhang Qian

An artist’s depiction of silk making in ancient China.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Although given its familiar name by German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, the Silk Road had its origin more than two millennia earlier. In the second century b.c.e., Wudi, a Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-220 c.e.) emperor, wished to make contact with the Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih), a people living far to the west of China. He hoped to persuade them to make joint war on the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), the people who would become known centuries later in Europe as the Huns.

In 138 b.c.e., Zhang Qian, an officer in Wudi’s household, set out to reach the Yuezhi, but he was captured almost immediately by the Xiongnu and imprisoned for ten years. After making his escape in about 128 b.c.e., he skirted the southern reaches of the great Taklimakan (Takla Makan) Desert (which the Chinese knew as Liu Sha, or moving sands) and the southern slopes of the Tian Shan (T’ien Shan), eventually locating the Yuezhi in Bactria (now northern Afghanistan).

Received cordially but finding himself unable to persuade the Yuezhi to take up arms, Zhang Qian managed to return to China only in 126 b.c.e., having been captured by the Xiongnu once again and imprisoned for a year. He had failed in his immediate goal, but his long and eventful journey revealed the existence of rich kingdoms to the west—Samarqand, Bukhara, and Fergana—all now in Uzbekistan. The explorer also brought back reports of fabulous lands farther to the west, including Persia (centered in what is now Iran), Arabia, and, apparently, the Roman Empire. Although he could not know it, Zhang Qian had reached the terminus of a network of trade routes that had existed for at least two thousand years, linking the lands of the Mediterranean with those of Central Asia.

The emperor’s attention, however, was drawn to Zhang Qian’s reports of the jade to be found in Hotan (Khotan) on the southern edge of the Taklimakan and of the swift horses of Fergana. Jade is highly valued by the Chinese, and the horses Zhang Qian described might well give the Chinese, who rode inferior mounts, an advantage in their ongoing war with the Xiongnu.

Some ten years later, Zhang Qian was sent by Wudi on a second expedition, this time to forge an alliance with the Wu-sun, who lived north of the Tian Shan. He and his men carried with them horses, cattle, sheep, gold, and silk as gifts to the Wu-sun; they returned in 108 b.c.e., carrying gifts from the Wu-sun in return. Although he again failed to make the strategic alliance Wudi wished, Zhang Qian succeeded in dispatching envoys to Parthia and India, encouraging these civilizations to send diplomats and traders to China in turn. Pleased with his official’s efforts, the emperor named him the “Great Traveler.”


Although western sections of the route had long been in existence, the expeditions of Zhang Qian and a few other explorers led to the establishment of what is known today as the Silk Road. Eventually stretching some 4,000 to 5,000 miles (6,500 to 8,000 kilometers) across Asia, the route served as a conduit not only for goods but also for skills and ideas, and for the first fifteen hundred years of the common era, it was the most important trade route in the world.

Just as Zhang Qian had followed several different routes in his travels, the Silk Road evolved into different branches. Because most routes passed through dry, inhospitable country, travelers depended on the maintenance of oases spaced within a day or two’s march of each other. Most trade was carried out over relatively short distances, with goods passed from merchant to merchant and kingdom to kingdom, each transaction increasing the ultimate cost of the merchandise. Very few individuals probably made the entire journey, but one who did was Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324), who published a famous account of his travels in 1299.

The commodity for which the Silk Road was named was first produced in China about 3,000 b.c.e. By the first century b.c.e., it became known to the Romans, who encountered it in the hands of the nomadic Parthians in what is today Iraq, apparently traded by one of Zhang Qian’s successors. The diaphanous material proved enormously popular in the West and accounted for much of the early traffic on the road, but many other commodities were traded as well. These included ivory, precious stones (especially jade and lapis lazuli), ceramics, incense, paper, spices, horses and other animals, hides and furs, and tapestries and rugs. The route also served to introduce a number of plants into China, including grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, cucumbers, sesame, and alfalfa.

The Silk Road also became a route for the spread of religions, including Buddhism, which originated in what is now northeastern India, and Manichaeanism. Nestorian Christianity, declared a heresy in the West, became established in China in the early seventh century c.e. Perhaps equally important, the Silk Road became a means by which art and music spread and evolved. The most important example of this is perhaps the artistic style known as Serindian, a complex mixture of Chinese, Greek, and Indian elements.

The sophisticated civilizations that grew up along the Silk Road reached their zenith in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries c.e. After this period, deteriorating political conditions in China and worsening climatic conditions led to the gradual abandonment of settlements and of the Silk Road itself.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ball, Warwick. “Following the Mythical Road.” Geographical Magazine 70 (March, 1998): 18-23. Argues that there is no evidence that the Silk Road actually existed in any organized fashion and suggests that scholars and readers have been all too willing to believe in a romantic myth. An important counterweight to other sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franck, Irene M., and David M. Brownstone. The Silk Road: A History. New York: Facts on File, 1986. Well-researched popular history, quoting a number of ancient sources and following Zhang Qian’s journeys in substantial detail. Black-and-white illustrations, maps, and substantial bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grousset, Rene. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Originally published in French in 1939 but unsurpassed for understanding the context of the Silk Road. Numerous maps, extensive notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. London: John Murray, 1980. A popular account of the rise and fall of the Silk Road and in particular of the explorers who rediscovered it. Maps, some black-and-white illustrations, and brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Juliano, Annette L., Judith A. Lerner, et al. Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China: Gansu and Ningxia, Fourth-Seventh Century. New York: Abrams with The Asia Society, 2001. Sumptuous volume surveying the artistic impact in northwest China of the cultural exchange brought about by the Silk Road. Color illustrations, chronologies, and short glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mirsky, Jeannette, ed. The Great Chinese Travelers. New York: Random House, 1964. Includes a summary of Zhang Qian’s travels drawn from a first century b.c.e. account by Chinese historian Sima Qian (Ssu-Ma Chien).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitfield, Susan. Life Along the Silk Road. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Reconstructs the lives of ten individuals—merchants, monks, soldiers, and so on—who lived along the Silk Road during its heyday. Black-and-white and color illustrations, map, plans, table of rulers, and discussion of sources for further reading.
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Categories: History