less is more for shakuhachi and urban outfitters new collaboration
Silk Road Encounters
By: John S. Major
This sourcebook is designed to provide a general framework of ideas and information within which specific themes about the Silk Road can be more comprehensively understood and presented. Its purpose is twofold: first, to serve as a resource to help teachers prepare for lessons on the Silk Road by providing guidance in thinking through the big issues that surround the more specific curricular material and, second, to provide presenters of the Silk Road festivals and concerts with information on the Silk Road, especially its history of music and musical instruments. Presenters will then be able to enhance participants’ understanding and enjoyment of the festivals and to facilitate educational outreach for public schools in host cities. The sourcebook is organized into six thematic sections: Geographical Setting; Historical Background; Belief Systems; Arts; Travel of Ideas and Techniques; and Music of the Silk Road.
John S. Major
Ford Motor Company is proud to partner with The Silk Road Project and Yo-Yo Ma on this extraordinary initiative. Over the course of 2,500 years, the Silk Road fostered the exchange of customs, religious beliefs, and skills that led to significant advances in
To extend this legacy of innovation and exchange, Ford has been a key partner in the creation of Silk Road Encounters, a comprehensive educational program combining primary source materials and multimedia tools for schools and families across the world to enhance a greater understanding of the rich and dynamic history of the Silk Road. Ford is also supporting free family concerts with storytellers who will narrate the music in local languages for children and families.
At Ford, we salute the spirit of adventure and invention that accompanied Silk Road travelers, and we celebrate this spirit as it continues today. Since the company’s founding in 1903, Ford Motor Company has given travelers a powerful tool for discovering diverse landscapes and destinations. As a global company with more than 380,000 employees, Ford is committed to promoting opportunities for cultural exchange that further our ability to understand one another and that help us contribute to our many communities around the world.
Sandra E. Ulsh
President, Ford Motor Company Fund
1. Geographical Setting
The Concept of Asia
Intermontaine Desert and Oasis Belt
The Trans-Eurasian Steppe Belt
The Middle East
Mainland Southeast Asia
Island Southeast Asia
2. Historical Background
Decline and Transition
3. Belief Systems
4. Arts of the Silk Road
5. Travel of Ideas and Techniques
6. Music of the Silk Road
Musical Instrument Glossary
1. Geographic Setting
The ruins of Subashi, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.
The term Silk Road denotes a network of trails and trading posts, oases and emporia connecting East Asia to the Mediterranean. Along the way, branch routes led to different destinations from the main route, with one especially important branch leading to northwestern India and thus to other routes throughout the subcontinent. The Silk Road network is generally thought of as stretching from an eastern terminus at the ancient Chinese capital city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) to westward end-points at Byzantium (Constantinople), Antioch, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern cities. Beyond these end-points, other trade networks distributed Silk Road goods throughout the Mediterranean world and Europe, and throughout eastern Asia. Thus in thinking about the Silk Road, one must consider the whole of Eurasia as its geographical context. Trade along the Silk Road waxed or waned according to conditions in China, Byzantium, Persia, and other regions and countries along the way. There were always competing or alternative routes, by land and sea, to absorb longdistance Eurasian trade when conditions along the Silk Road were unfavorable. For this reason, the geographical context of the Silk Road must be thought of in the broadest possible terms, including sea routes linking Japan and Southeast Asia to the continental trade routes.
In dealing with the context of the Silk Road, it is important to remember that the nation-state is a modern invention, and clearly defined and bounded countries did not exist before modern times. Scholars, for example, are reluctant to use the word “China” in talking about pre-Han dynasty times (that is, prior to the 2nd century BCE), because no concept corresponding to a nation called China existed then. Similarly, when we talk about the Silk Road passing through Afghanistan, it is with the understanding that there was in some sense no such place; the land existed, its population existed, but no nation-state called Afghanistan existed before modern times. Throughout history, boundaries shift, peoples move from place to place, countries and kingdoms come into being and vanish, cities change their names. It is hard to avoid using modern geographical names for convenience, but it is necessary at the same time to avoid projecting modern concepts, such as the idea of the nation-state, back into a past where they do not belong.
Old Route of Silk Road
(Click on the map to a larger view)
The Concept of Asia
Asia can be fruitfully thought of as the major part of a larger physical territory, the continent of Eurasia. The Eurasian landmass is bounded by the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and the Red and Mediterranean Seas, including islands and archipelagos east and south of the landmass (excluding Oceania).
Asia may also be thought of as a collection of smaller entities, subcontinent- size regions occupying Eurasia’s major eastern part. Over the course of history, most of these regions have interacted through trade, religion, and other factors, while a wide range of cultural differences and formidable geographical boundaries have also separated them. Once Eurasia is seen as a whole, erasing the ancient but artificial and geographically meaningless division of the land mass into “Europe” and “Asia,” it becomes possible to visualize the important geographical and cultural regions into which the continent is subdivided, and the trade routes that linked them together, sometimes over very extensive distances and across formidable physical barriers.
Different authorities define the borders and number of Eurasia’s subregions differently. Subregional maps of Eurasia are all generally similar, however, since the subregions correspond closely to geographical realities. The major subregions are: the Intermontaine Desert and Oasis Belt; the Trans-Eurasian Steppe Belt; China; the Mediterranean; the Middle East; South Asia; Northeast Asia; Northern Europe; Mainland Southeast Asia; Island Southeast Asia; the Boreal Forest; and the Arctic Littoral. (Although the latter two occupy a significant fraction of the Eurasian landmass, they historically played little role in long-distance travel and trade, and so they are generally left out of this discussion.)
The zone of the Silk Road itself, this broad belt of oasis-punctuated deserts extends across Central Asia from northwestern China, to the Caspian and Black Seas, and on to the Middle East. The zone is bounded on the north and south by mountains, but can be traversed with only a few mountain ranges to cross along the way. Features including a high, dry terrain, infrequent and irregular water supplies, absent or scarce forage for caravan animals, and other difficulties made this zone passable only to highly skilled Silk Road caravaneers. Travel was made possible by people whose local knowledge and experience could enable them to survive and deliver their cargo safely from stage to stage.
The most clearly defined segment of the Silk Road was that leading northwest from Chang’an through the Gansu Corridor. This segment passed through Lanzhou, Wuxi, Dunhuang, and Yumen (the famous Jade Gate of antiquity) and thus to the deserts and oases of Central Asia. Bounded by mountains to the south, and by the western Gobi Desert to the north (and defined as well by the western stretches of the Great Wall of China), the corridor forms in effect a narrow funnel through which all trade passed on the Silk Road into and out of China.
Beyond the Jade Gate, the Silk Road opens into a number of alternative trails. One possibility is to go northwest through Hami, Turfan and Urumqi, traveling north of the Tian (Heavenly) Mountains through Dzungaria, then on to Kokand and Tashkent in the Ferghana Valley. Another route leads southwest from the Jade Gate and soon poses a choice, whether to skirt the fierce Taklamakan Desert along the northern or along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin. The southern route via Khotan and Yarkand was perhaps marginally easier. Either way, the route converges again at Kashgar, at the foot of the Pamir Mountains, where the route crosses the Turugart Pass leading to Kokand and points west. Still another branch route took a more southerly pass through the Pamirs, and went on to Bactria leading to routes through Afghanistan and on to northwestern India.
Of the northern routes that converged in the Ferghana Valley, several routes led onward to Samarkand and Merv. Divergent trails led north of the Caspian to the Russian trade routes up the Volga and the Don; straight west, skirting the southern coast of the Caspian and Black Seas toward Byzantium; or south, through Herat and Persepolis toward Babylon, Damascus and Tyre. The Silk Road had not one western terminus, but many.
The terrain of the Silk Road was difficult, the possible routes were numerous and complex, and the dangers of the journey were deadly serious.
What made the journey possible at all, besides the techniques of caravan travel and the expertise of the caravaneers, was the existence of substantial oases across Central Asia. These islands of greenery, watered by rivers and springs, ranged in extent from a few square miles to hundreds of square miles, but even the largest were isolated by huge expanses of surrounding deserts. In mapping routes of the Silk Road, one can easily imagine the terrors and hardships of the desert; one can imagine also the joys of arriving at oases like Dunhuang, Hami or Herat, filled with sweet water and fresh fruit to refresh the traveler and provide respite before the journey’s next stage.
The Steppe Belt is a zone of rolling grassland, steppe being the Russian word for this kind of treeless, grassy plain. It extends from eastern Mongolia west all the way into Romania and Hungary. In prehistoric times, the steppe was inhabited for tens of thousands of years by groups of hunter-gatherers who lived off the abundant big game that the grasslands supported. Gradually, hunting gave way to a lifestyle of living off managed herds, which in turn led gradually to the domestication of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. Hunters had become herdsmen, and pastoral nomadism developed into a highly specialized and sophisticated lifestyle that took maximum advantage of steppe resources.
As with any short-grass prairie, some of the Eurasian steppe can be turned to agricultural use with the application of modern methods, including the steel plow and extensive irrigation. The wheatlands of southern Russia and Ukraine are steppe lands put to the plow. Prior to the invention of such techniques, the steppe extended for thousands of miles in an unbroken belt, only partly interrupted by mountain ranges and forest.
With the mobility afforded by the invention of horse- and ox-drawn wheeled vehicles, and later still by horseback riding, the steppe belt became a vast highway that facilitated the spread of populations, languages, and cultural traits across much of Eurasia long before the caravan trade routes of the more southerly Silk Road were ever imagined. Over the centuries, many groups of horse-riding warriors, including Huns, Turks, and Mongols, conquered their way across Asia, creating sometimes extensive but usually short-lived empires.
China can be divided basically into North China and South China, along a line roughly defined by the Han and Huai Rivers. North China is characterized by a relatively dry climate, where crops, especially grains such as wheat and millet, grow in the fertile soil of broad plains and terraced valleys. Geographically, North China is dominated by heavily eroded hills and valleys of loess soil in the northwest, and by the vast north-central flood plains of the Yellow River. The Yellow River has overflowed its banks many times throughout history, causing great damage to human settlements but also enriching the soil with a fresh layer of fertile silt. The northern frontier, site of the Great Wall of China, was long guarded against nomadic raiders, and people looked to the Silk Road and sea routes of the northeast for trade. Transportation in North China was landbased,
using pack animals and drawn carts. South China has a monsoonal climate. Its soils, leached by the heavy seasonal rains, require heavy fertilization, and the staple crop is rice. Transportation was often provided by riverboat or canal barge.
The strong geographical and agricultural differences between North China and South China tended to make the country fracture into northern and southern political entities during the periods of disunion.
Some trade routes in China historically fed into the Silk Road or distributed goods from it. Other trade routes competed with the Silk Road, including maritime trade from southeastern ports across the South China Sea, and a route from the mountainous southwest down the Red River to Hanoi and Haiphong in what is now Vietnam. In China, people were likely to look variously inland, toward Central Asia, or seaward for trade.
The Mediterranean is the western convergence point of the overland and the maritime trans-Eurasian trade routes. The Mediterranean channeled widespread distribution of Silk Road goods throughout western Eurasia—just as Northeast Asian sea routes distributed Silk Road goods onward to Korea and Japan. Chinese silk brocade that had come overland for thousands of miles on the Silk Road and Chinese porcelain that had made the trip by sea might eventually be loaded on the same ship in Tyre for shipment westward to Rome or Marseilles.
It is important to see the Mediterranean as a single region, uniting North Africa and southern Europe, and marking the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. Trading ships criss-crossed in every direction, from at least the early 1st millennium BCE. As early as 500 BCE, Phoenician mariners had likely passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and explored routes both down the Atlantic coast of Africa and up the Iberian coast to the Bay of Biscay.
A region with few firm physical boundaries, the Middle East is generally taken to include all of the territory between the eastern Mediterranean and the western reaches of Persia (modern Iran), extending from the Anatolian (Turkish) shores of the Black Sea in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south. It has close ties to the Mediterranean world, to Egypt and North Africa, and to the Silk Road networks of Persia and Central Asia.
Mesopotamia, the area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, was perhaps the world’s earliest cradle of civilization, part of the ”fertile crescent” that extends through southern Anatolia and down the eastern Mediterranean coast. Elsewhere, much of the Middle East is desert traversed by caravan routes linking scattered oasis cities, much as is the case along the Silk Road farther east. Silk Road traffic coming from Central Asia passed through the Middle East along many routes and with many destinations.
While in some sense the Middle East was an end-point for the Silk Road, it was perhaps more important a trans-shipment zone. The Middle East also marked the western terminus of the maritime trans-Eurasian trade, as Arab and Indian ships carried goods in both directions across the Arabian Sea. Westbound goods either passed through the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf en route to Baghdad and Damascus, or went to Aden for shipment up the overland route along the western edge of the Arabian Peninsula to Mediterranean ports.
India rides on a tectonic plate that has been drifting northward for millions of years. Slamming into Eurasia, India has plowed up the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, isolating South Asia from the rest of Eurasia behind a formidable barrier of mountains. In the northeastern borderlands between Burma, Bangladesh, and China, huge rivers— the Yangtse, Mekong, Irawaddy, Salween, and the Ganges—pour down from the mountains and the plateau, and then flow through deep parallel valleys, making direct overland contact between India and China extremely difficult. All along India’s northern frontier, caravans used passes through the Himalayan escarpment to transport salt to people of the Tibetan Plateau, bringing animal products, turquoise, and other local goods in return.
India’s principal route inland went through the Indus Valley of the northwest, then over the Khyber Pass or other passes into what is now Afghanistan. Spices, pearls, gemstones, cotton cloth, and other goods were added to the traffic of the Silk Road by this route, and Chinese, Persian, and other Silk Road goods flowed back to India in return. Eastern and western coastal cities of India served as intermediaries on sea routes linking East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and points beyond, trans-shipping goods in both directions and adding new goods as well.
This region encompasses the rocky Shandong and Liaodong Peninsulas of northeastern China, southern Manchuria, Korea, and Japan. Its coast is lined with many harbors, while peninsulas and islands enclose several seas—the Bohai, the Yellow Sea, and the East Sea/Sea of Japan. In ancient times this region was relatively isolated from the inland culture and political states of northern China, and formed part of an East Asian coastal culture that is still imperfectly understood.
Gradually, Northeast Asia came under an expanding Chinese cultural zone. Sea and overland traffic from Shandong and Liaodong to Korea, and trade to Japan either directly or via Korea, spread elements of Chinese culture to the northeast by around the 4th century BCE, and at an accelerating rate thereafter. Eventually, Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan by this route. Silk Road goods were also dispersed via these sea routes from as far away as Persia.
Europe is virtually just a peninsula on the western tip of the great Eurasian continental landmass. For much of history northern Europe was too remote, too sparsely settled, and too culturally “backward” to play more than a marginal role in long-distance trade across Eurasia. But, even in ancient times, trade routes within Europe connected the region to the Mediterranean and thus to the Silk Road. Goods were carried from the Black Sea, up the Danube, and down the Oder to the Baltic even before the Roman conquest of Gaul in the middle of the 1st century BCE.
In medieval times the growing prosperity of Europe led to an increasing appetite for the spices, gems, textiles, and other luxury goods of lands to the east. New trade routes were pioneered, such as, beginning around 1000 CE, the Viking route from the Baltic through the trading settlement of Rus (near modern Moscow) and down the Volga to the Caspian Sea. Eventually, the European search for direct access to the riches of India and China led to entirely new maritime routes around Africa and across the Atlantic, and a revolution in the distribution of political and economic power throughout the world.
The huge peninsula that today includes Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and mainland Malaysia is a land of fertile, rice-growing river valleys and coastal plains, and rugged, forested interior mountain ranges. The narrow Strait of Malacca, between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, is one of the few navigable routes between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a historic choke-point for long-distance Eurasian maritime trade, control of the strait was a rich prize, much fought over by local peoples and invaders over the course of the centuries.
Despite its proximity to China, mainland Southeast Asia as a whole was more strongly influenced by Indian culture. Indian merchants traded across the Bay of Bengal to the coast of mainland Southeast Asia, as well as to the western islands of Indonesia. These merchants brought Hinduism wherever they settled in trading communities, and brought as well Buddhism which spread rapidly among local populations. Today, mainland Southeast Asia remains largely Buddhist.
This vast zone of islands—stretching from Taiwan through the Philippines to Indonesia —was settled beginning probably around the early 1st millennium BCE by the most remarkable mariners of the ancient world. These people, known as Austronesians or Malayo-Polynesians, became expert seafarers, moving from their homeland on China’s southeastern coast first to Taiwan, then down through the Philippines to Borneo. From there they radiated in all directions in a process of exploration and settlement that paved the way for vigorous interisland and long-distance maritime trade that conveyed goods between southern China and India. In time, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and eventually European ships plied these waters.
Several times over the long history of the Silk Road, trade shifted to this maritime route when conditions made overland trade difficult. A strong and enduring Arab presence in island Southeast Asia led to the conversion of most of the region’s population to Islam beginning in the 13th century.
2. Historical Background
Since the Neolithic Revolution (8,000 to 4,000 BCE in Eurasia, and later elsewhere in the world), agriculturalists and pastoralists have always expanded into territories suitable for their own pursuits, in the process displacing, absorbing, or exterminating neighboring peoples who practice the older lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Agriculturalists and pastoralists then compete for marginal lands, the former seeking to expand the region under agricultural cultivation, the latter seeking to maintain unplowed and unsown grasslands to provide pasture for flocks and herds of animals.
The ability of agriculturalists to produce wealth in the form of surplus
calories that can support long-term population growth tends to out-compete
pastoralists wherever farming is made feasible by climate, soil, and available
technology. This agricultural way of life produced concomitant phenomena of
urbanization, class structure, the proliferation of material goods and the techniques
to make and improve them—in short, the full panoply of consequences
of food production and population growth that we refer to as civilization.
Tomb brick painted with herder and animals
Wei-Jin period (220–317). Excavated from tomb at Luotuocheng (Camel City), Gaotai District,Gansu.Clay with pigments. Height: 19.5 cm; length: 39 cm; thickness: 5 cm. Gaotai County Museum, Gansu.
The history of human settlement, migration, and cultural interaction in Eurasia is a history of displacement of hunter-gatherers by farmers and pastoralists, and then of a combination of both conflict and cooperation (including trade) between agrarian “civilization” and pastoral “barbarism.” The history of the Silk Road threads its way through the context of these large-scale cultural interactions. The Silk Road itself is a relatively late phenomenon, pioneered during the mid-1st millennium BCE and established as a regular trade route near the end of that millennium. The history of the Silk Road has its beginnings in the prior history of long-distance travel, trade, and population movements across the trans-Eurasian steppe belt.
While the agricultural revolution was underway in several different parts of Eurasia (earlier in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and later in China), hunting peoples in the steppe belt were learning to manage herds of wild horses. Horses, both as managed wild animals and in the early stages of domestication, were a significant element of the steppe diet long before they were used for transportation. Gradually, they came to be put in harness to draw the heavy-wheeled carts that became the first key to mobility on the steppe. Nomads of the steppes who followed their herds with wheeled vehicles—Scythians, Sarmatians, and others—formed part of a steppe culture that soon stretched all the way across Asia. The distinctive art of these steppe peoples, characterized by bronze weapons and ornamental goods decorated with depictions of stylized animals, is found everywhere from Europe near the Black Sea to northern China. This was not just the result of trade; peoples, too, were on the move.
As early as 2,000 BCE people who were genetically closely related to the Celtic peoples of Europe, and who spoke an Indo-European language, had moved into eastern Central Asia in regions that are now part of the Chinese territory of Xinjiang. We know this because their burial practices, combined with the dryness and saline soil of the region, preserved many of their dead as mummies that have yielded much valuable information through DNA studies, and because their textiles have shown close linkages to textile traditions of western Eurasia. We can further infer it because three innovations—a light, horse-drawn military chariot, wheat, and domestic sheep and goats —reached China through the intermediation of these people during the 13th century BCE.
Horseback riding, as opposed to the use of horses to draw wheeled vehicles, became common on the steppes during the second millennium BCE. This final step in the development of full-scale, pastoral nomadism in the steppelands further facilitated the long-range movement of peoples across the steppe belt. It also set up the dynamic of competition for land—for agriculture or pasture—on the borderlands of China. For hundreds, even thousands of years to come, the enduring problem of Chinese foreign policy would be how to deal with mounted nomads on its northern frontier. Eventually, the Chinese looked to the Gansu Corridor and the Silk Road as an alternative to leaving
their long-distance overland trade in the hands of steppe nomads.
Just as the domestication of the horse made steppe pastoralism possible, the domestication of the camel (around 800 BCE) made trade possible on the Silk Road. Deserts of Central Asia are impassable to carts and chariots, and horses are not hardy enough to carry pack cargo through the dryness, with lack of edible grass. With the domestication of the camel, generally used as a pack animal rather than for riding, caravan trade along these desert tracks began. Caravan trade offered China a shorter route to the oasis emporia of Central Asia and the Middle East. But the steppe trade never disappeared entirely.
Along both the steppe belt and the newly developing Silk Road, trade was still irregular and small-scale. It did succeed in carrying goods over long distances, however, as Chinese silk was known in the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt by the mid-1st millennium BCE. The Greeks, and the Romans who followed them, understood that it came from a land called Serica (“Land of Silk”), but nothing was known about that distant place. A later name for the same mysterious country was Sina, a name apparently derived from Qin, the name of the northwestern Chinese kingdom that engineered the unification of China under an imperial monarchy in 221 BCE.
Around the time of the Qin dynasty, a confederation of northern nomadic tribes, collectively known as the Xiongnu, greatly increased the political and military threat of the steppe peoples to China’s northern frontier. Under the Han dynasty (206 BCE–7 CE, and as the Latter Han, 25–220 CE), rulers dealt with the Xiongnu with a combination of military pressure and appeasement by bribes of silk, cash, and other goods, and by intermarriage with princess brides to Xiongnu chieftains.
In 138 BCE, the Han emperor sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, to what the Chinese called “the western regions” to scout out the territory and to form an anti-Xiongnu alliance with a western people, the Yuezhi. The latter goal failed, but Zhang Qian, who traveled for years and went as far as the Pamir Mountains, brought back much valuable intelligence about trade routes and local products, as well as military intelligence. The Chinese inflicted a severe military defeat on the Xiongnu in 121 BCE, and spent the next sixty years trying to consolidate control of the western regions. By 60 BCE, Chinese control extended far along the Silk Road to approach the Tarim Basin, and state-sponsored trade had begun on a regular basis. Thus began the first great era of trade along the
The Chinese government was especially eager to buy good horses for military use, and the best horses in the world, it was thought, were bred in the Ferghana Valley, just north of what is now Afghanistan. To obtain them, government procurement agents, traveling with military escorts, went as far as Ferghana on caravans laden with silk (silk was collected by the Chinese government from the peasantry, in payment of land taxes) via the Silk Road as far as Ferghana. The return trip was made as quickly as possible, yet even with fodder and water for the horses carried by camels, losses of horses were sometimes heavy. The security provided for the silk caravans inspired private merchants
to tag along, and both state and private Silk Road trade flourished. The Chinese exported mainly silk textiles, but also medicinal herbs, carved jade, and a wide variety of luxury goods; they imported not only horses, but also glassware, raw jade, gold and silver, and other luxury goods from the western regions of Eurasia. Anything that had a high value-to-weight-and-bulk ratio and would satisfy a craving for unusual and luxurious goods was fair game for the caravan trade.
The early trade on the Silk Road followed a pattern that was to hold throughout the era of caravan trade, which was that trade was carried out mainly by intermediaries, and goods changed hands several times during the course of a journey between China and the Middle East. Caravan drivers and their animals customarily traveled back and forth over one particular segment of the route, perhaps loading goods in one oasis and unloading them again at the next before heading back in the other direction with new goods. Each time an item changed hands its value rose, so that goods were very expensive indeed by the time they reached their final destination. The oasis merchants
who served as intermediaries in this down-the-line trade, as it is called, were careful to discourage longer-distance trade by exaggerating the distances and dangers involved, and they suppressed detailed accounts of distant lands, treating such information as trade secrets. One odd result of this is that the two greatest empires of the classical world, Rome and Han China, were in regular trade contact but were still almost entirely ignorant of each other. As far as we know, no Chinese merchant ever visited the Rome of the Caesars, and no Roman ever crossed the Silk Road to the Chinese capital at Chang’an. If there were any such, in either direction, they left no clear record of their feat, though during the Latter Han dynasty (25 CE–220 CE), two Middle Eastern merchants arrived in China via the maritime route, claiming to be envoys from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The period of political disunion that followed the fall of the Latter Han dynasty in 220 CE, lasting until the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty in 586 CE, mark a watershed in the history of China. During this period northern China was ruled by a succession of (sometimes overlapping) non-Chinese dynasties of various ethnic origins and affiliations. The breakdown of imperial rule had important consequences. No longer did rulers look solely to the historic “high culture” of China for models, but instead became more open to influences from outside. These influences were both secular and
sacred, as nomads, merchants, emissaries, and missionaries flooded into China, bringing new customs, purveying exotic wares, and propagating new religious beliefs. Foremost among these was Buddhism, born in India, but which now took root in China. Its influence on China was profound and pervasive, offering a new spirituality to both the elite and the poor, fostering the establishment of many temples, and inspiring the creation of new art forms.
The period from the Han defeat of the Xiongnu, in the 1st century BCE, through the post-Han period of disunion (usually known in Chinese history as the age of Northern and Southern Dynasties), marks the first great era of Silk Road trade. In part this contradicts the usual rule that Silk Road trade tended to decline during periods of political weakness and disunity in China. The reason for this exception to the rule is that during the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, northern China (ruled by non-Chinese “conquest dynasties”) was part of a great Central Asian and East Asian Buddhist cultural
zone that extended from the eastern margins of Persia to the East China Sea. Though the strong military protection of trade routes customarily provided at times of Chinese dynastic strength was lacking, this defect was more than overcome by the impulses for trade and cultural contact within this great area where Buddhism flourished, partly blurring or erasing political and military frontiers.
The next great era of Silk Road trade began not long after China was reunified under the short-lived Sui dynasty (586–618), and continued under its successor, the Tang (618–907). The Tang, often regarded as the most powerful and glorious dynasty in all of Chinese history, was also to some extent a “conquest dynasty” partly of non-Chinese descent, as some ancestors of the Tang ruling family were Turks. Tang power extended far into Central Asia, almost to the Pamirs, and that power was used to encourage and defend the Silk Road trade. Tang China was open to foreign goods and ideas to an unprecedented extent. Trade brought new fashions (tight, long-sleeved jackets for women), recreations (polo), music (many new instruments and new musical styles), furniture (chairs replaced floor mats), and many other innovations to China from Turkish and Persian culture areas.
Buddhism remained very important in China for most of the Tang period. Under the Tang, China’s most famous Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang, went to India in search of authentic copies of the Buddhist scriptures. After a trip filled with adventures and hardships, he returned to China and became a revered figure in Chinese Buddhism, and the subject of many later stories and legends.
Tang power in northwestern China waned abruptly after 751, when Chinese and Arab armies fought a battle at the Talas River in western Turkestan. This battle between expanding Arab-Islamic forces and Chinese troops (stretched thin at the end of a long supply line) ended in a sharp defeat and rapid military withdrawal for China. The situation worsened for the Tang when a military rebellion in 755 to 763 shook the dynasty to its roots. Even after the rebellion was put down, Tang power never recovered. The resulting political weakness and fragmentation led to a decline in trade along the Silk Road.
Ruling power in China eventually passed to the Song dynasty (Northern Song, 960–1127; Southern Song, 1127–1279). Having flourished exceedingly under the Tang, the Silk Road in Song times began to play a diminished role in Eurasian trade, as the Song state lost control over the Central Asian trade routes. Even northwestern and northeastern China were in non-Chinese hands.
During the time since the Silk Road had been established during the Han dynasty, the dynamics of trade had remained relatively stable. As a general rule, when large polities of the Silk Road—China, Persia, Byzantium, and later the Arab-Islamic world—were strong and stable, trade flourished. These great powers had far-flung influence that helped suppress banditry (in some sense, a manifestation of the old hostility between agriculturalists and mounted nomads who raided their settlements) and extortionate intermediary taxes and transit fees levied by rulers of oasis city-states along the way. When trade conditions were stable and the prospects of trade attractive, the oasis cities themselves prospered, becoming small kingdoms that expanded into the surrounding desert and further protected trade. In the oases, increasing wealth enabled agriculture to flourish as qanats, Persian-style underground irrigation systems, were maintained and extended. Some oases became famous among travelers for their excellent dates, grapes, and melons. Increasing wealth also enabled more trade goods to remain in the oasis cities rather than simply passing through, enhancing the lifestyles of the oasis-dwellers. Conversely, a decrease or collapse of trade left the oasis cities vulnerable to economic decline and turned once-prosperous trading centers into ghost towns.
Trade on the Silk Road declined after the early 12th century. The Song dynasty’s loss of North China to Ruzhen invaders from Manchuria led its rulers to concentrate long-distance trade on maritime routes. The conquest of most of Eurasia in the 13th century by Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) and his successors resulted in severe damage to a number of oasis cities. Mongol conquerors typically laid waste to any city that had the temerity to resist their attack. Thus although the end result of the Mongol conquest was an era of peace across much of Eurasia—the Pax Mongolica—and a temporary revival of trans-Eurasian trade, some infrastructure of the Silk Road was permanently damaged by the conquest.
Nevertheless, trade did flourish under the Mongols, ushering in the third great age of Silk Road trade. This was the era of the extraordinary trip of Marco Polo from Italy to China (and back by the maritime route), and many others who traversed the Silk Road from end to end. Envoys from France and from the Papal Palace at Rome came to Mongolia seeking an alliance with the successors of Chinggis Khan in a crusade against the Arabs in the Holy Land—an invitation the Mongols politely declined. A Nestorian Christian Turk from northeastern China named Rabban Sauma visited Paris as an ambassador of the Mongol Empire. Rabban Sauma’s journey was complicated. Kublai Khan financed the journey, but his mission to Paris was officially an embassy from the Mongol Ilkannate of Persia. The safety of both the steppe belt route and the Silk Road under the Pax Mongolica made them busy with trade.
The Mongol Empire began to collapse in disunity even before the generation of Chinggis’s grandsons had ended. In the 14th century, the conqueror Timur Leng (Tamerlane) re-established part of the empire, with its capital at the oasis city of Samarkand. His ferocious campaigns against other oasis cities completed, in many cases, the damage done by Chinggis Khan. Cities were depopulated, fields and orchards dried up, and the Silk Road trade never recovered.
The Ottoman Empire, which took control of most of the Byzantine and Arab-Islamic worlds in the 15th century, did not succeed in extending its control into Central Asia. China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644) adopted a policy of appeasement toward the Mongol and other nomads of the northern frontier, and stressed maritime trade before turning its official back on foreign trade altogether. By the 16th century, long-distance trade between western and eastern Eurasia began to shift to maritime routes, which introduced new players in the game. European nations began taking that trade into their own hands, as they pioneered new maritime trade routes.
Decline and Transition
When thinking of the Silk Road, one must keep in mind that Silk Road trade was only part of a much larger network of trade routes that extended throughout Eurasia. Goods that came east on the Silk Road might continue on to Korea and Japan via the maritime trade in the seas of Northeast Asia. Silk from China brought to Byzantium might cross the Black Sea and travel up the Danube to northern Europe; Baltic amber purchased in trade for the silk might eventually find its way back to China. The port cities of the Levant dispatched Chinese and Central Asian goods westward throughout the Mediterranean world, and in turn collected goods from that world for trade to the east. And always the maritime route between the Mediterranean and East Asia, via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, was potentially available as a rival to or substitute for the Silk Road if overland travel became impaired.
It is essential to keep this larger picture in mind to understand how and why the European “Age of Exploration” began, and how long-distance trade between Europe and East Asia came to be concentrated in European hands. What was the impulse that led the emerging nation-states of Europe to pioneer these new trade routes?
The old maritime trade from East Asia to Europe was, like the Silk Road trade, handled by intermediaries—Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab seafarers, who usually carried goods for only part of the total journey. Aden, near the mouth of the Red Sea, usually marked the final stop on the maritime route. Some trade continued by boat up that narrow body of water. More often, goods were offloaded and taken by caravan (or, in ancient times, by ox-cart over well-maintained roads that were neglected after the decline of the Roman Empire) to a Mediterranean port, such as Acre or Antioch. Particularly after the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the burgeoning Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice acted as intermediaries to transport the goods from the eastern Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. By the time silk cloth, porcelain, sandalwood, and other luxury items reached their final destinations from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and India, they were extremely expensive.
Some western European monarchs, notably Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, understood that if they could find a direct sea route to the east, the cost of these same goods would be dramatically less, and the profits from the sale of those goods could be kept under the control of the owners of the ships that transported them. With this in mind, the Portuguese persevered in exploring a sea route around Africa in the 15th century, eventually succeeding in establishing direct routes to India and points east. That is why at the end of the century Spain employed Columbus to find a westward transoceanic route to the same destinations. Because he thought the world was much smaller than it really is, he believed to the end of his life that his ships had made it all the way to Asia.
It is often noted that the Portuguese missed by just three decades meeting Chinese ships coming across the Indian Ocean in the other direction. Technologically the Chinese ships were far more impressive than their Portuguese counterparts. China’s famous “treasure fleet” voyages between 1405 and 1433 reached India and even the eastern coast of Africa. As instruments of state policy designed to spread the prestige of the Ming, these voyages were not motivated by trade and economic gain, and they had few lasting consequences. The Ming soon abandoned the fleets as a useless extravagance, and suppressed maritime trade. The Portuguese, on the other hand, were motivated by a well-founded expectation of economic rewards rather than by imperial curiosity and egotism, and so it was the Portuguese and other Europeans who gained.
Spain, realizing finally that it had found a new world rather than an unknown part of the old one, took advantage of trans-Atlantic trade to develop a new route to Asia, sailing to Cuba, transporting goods across Mexico, and sailing on to Manila in their newly-conquered Spanish colony of the Philippines. England and the Netherlands, having failed to find an Arctic sea route to East Asia, challenged the Portuguese on their circum-African route. These powers contended for trading monopolies in India, Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Maritime commerce on the old route via Aden and the Levant dwindled. While the new maritime powers of western Europe prospered, Venice and Genoa lost much of their economic base, and the Silk Road was largely abandoned except for smaller-scale, limited-distance trade.
Opportunity to revive the Silk Road seemingly appeared when the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was established. Using both conquest and diplomacy, these invaders from Manchuria assembled an empire that went far beyond China’s borders. The empire included the northeast up to the Amur River (with Korea as a loyal subordinate state), Mongolia, Tibet (incorporated as a protectorate), and a large part of Central Asia. But while goods were carried far and wide by caravan, cart, and boat within this far-flung empire, the Silk Road could not be revived to compete with the newly established maritime routes.
The final chapter in the history of the Silk Road was not one of trade, but of a struggle for control of the region by newly expanding empires. By the 19th century, the Qing dynasty had to contend with ambitions of foreign powers. Russia and England became rivals in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia. England sought hegemony in Afghanistan and Tibet to protect its vital empire in India. Russia maneuvered to incorporate the Central Asian oases into its own expanding empire, as a way of curbing British and Chinese expansion or influence in the region, and in hopes of establishing land access through Persia to the Indian Ocean. European demands for trade concessions cost China its administrative control over many of its coastal cities during the 19th century. China also lost substantial territories to Russia, including the Ili Valley in the far northwest, and the trans-Amur and trans-Ussuri regions of Siberia in the far northeast. Russia, and its successor the Soviet Union, conquered and incorporated much of the Central Asian desert and oasis zone through which the Silk Road had passed. (Much of this territory is once again under local rule, as the post-Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan).
The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1905 turned the Boreal Forest—traditionally one of the least traversable Eurasian subregions, after the Arctic Littoral—into the principal route of overland travel between Europe and easternmost Eurasia. Long-distance trade across the steppe belt or by caravan along the Silk Road became a thing of the past. European explorers played a role in uncovering Silk Road history. The English explorer Sir Aurel Stein, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, the Swedish archaeologist Sven Hedin, and others rediscovered the Buddhist cave temples at Dunhuang and elsewhere, and explored evidence of caravan routes in places like Turfan and Loulan. The Europeans helped themselves to thousands of Buddhist manuscripts, works of art, and other cultural materials which they took back to museums and libraries. Europeans at the time thought nothing of taking such materials from their original locations; today we regard such action as theft, cultural vandalism, and imperialist arrogance. Faults aside, these explorers and scholars brought to light important aspects of the forgotten history of the Silk Road.
The Silk Road cannot disappear entirely. Peoples of the Silk Road today are heirs to a heritage of trade and exchange that still enriches their cultures. The caravans are gone forever. New issues of national identity, competing roles of religion and the secular state, regional and international relations, and fitting traditions together with modernity occupy the peoples of the Silk Road today.
3. Belief Systems
The religious beliefs of people along the Silk Road at the beginning of the 1st century BCE were very different from what they would later become. When China defeated the nomadic Xiongnu confederation and pushed Chinese military control northwest as far as the Tarim Basin (in the 2nd century BCE), Buddhism was known in Central Asia but was not yet widespread in China nor had it reached elsewhere in East Asia. Christianity was still more than a century in the future. Daoism, in the strict sense of that term, connoting an organized religion with an ordained clergy and an established body of doctrine, would not appear in China for another three centuries. Islam would be more than seven centuries in the future.
The peoples of the Silk Road in its early decades followed many different religions. In the Middle East, many people worshiped the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman pagan pantheon. Others were followers of the old religion of Egypt, especially the cult of Isis and Osiris. Jewish merchants and other settlers had spread beyond the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea and had established their own places of worship in towns and cities throughout the region. Elsewhere in the Middle East, and especially in Persia and Central Asia, many people were adherents of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Persian sage Zoroaster in the 6th century BCE. It posited a struggle between good and evil, light and darkness; its use of fire as the symbol of the purifying power of good was probably borrowed from the Brahmanic religion of ancient India. The Greek colonies of Central Asia that had been left behind after the collapse of the empire of Alexander II of Macedonia had, by the 1st century BCE, largely converted from Greco-Roman paganism to Buddhism, a religion that would soon use the Silk Road to spread far and wide. In India, on side routes of the Silk Road that crossed the passes to the Indus Valley and beyond, the older religion of Brahmanism had given way to Hinduism and Buddhism; the former never spread far beyond India and Southeast Asia, while the latter eventually became worldwide in extent.
Coming at last to China on our west-to-east survey of the ancient faith of the Silk Road, we find that rulers worshiped their own ancestors in great ancestral temples; they were joined by commoners in also worshiping deities of the earth, the four directions, mountains and rivers, and many others. There was, as yet, in China no official state cult of Confucius, no Buddhism, and no organized religious Daoism. The beliefs of Korea and Japan at that early period are largely lost in an unrecorded past, but they appear to have been ancestral to the later Japanese religion of Shinto, a polytheistic belief system that emphasizes worship of local gods and goddesses, the importance of ritual purity, and rule by a king of divine descent.
That the religious beliefs of the peoples of the Silk Road changed radically from what they had been when trans-Eurasian trade began to take place on a regular basis was largely due to the effects of travel and trade on the Silk Road itself. Over the centuries for two thousand years the Silk Road was a network of roads for the travel and dissemination of religious beliefs across Eurasia. Religious belief is often one of the most important and deeply held aspects of personal identity, and people are reluctant to go where they cannot practice their own faith. Traders who used the Silk Road regularly therefore built shrines and temples of their own faiths wherever they went, in order to maintain their own beliefs and practices of worship while they were far from home. Missionaries of many faiths accompanied caravans on the Silk Road, consciously trying to expand the reach of their own religious persuasion and make converts to their faith.
The dynamics of the spread of beliefs along the Silk Road involves a crucial, though little-remarked, difference between two fundamental types of religions. Generally speaking, religions are either proselytizing or non-proselytizing.
That is, they either actively seek to recruit new members to the faith from outside the current membership group, or they do not. In the former case, ethnicity, language, color, and other physical and cultural differences are taken to be of relatively small importance compared with the common humanity of all believers, and the availability of the faith (and its particular canons of belief, forms of worship, and promises of salvation) to all humans everywhere. In the latter case, that is, of non-proselytizing religions, membership in a religion often coincides with membership in an ethnic group, so that religious participation is a birthright and not a matter of conversion; conversion often occurs only when a person marries into the faith, and in extreme cases conversion is rejected as an impossibility. Examples of proselytizing faiths are Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; non-proselytizing faiths include Hinduism, Judaism, and Shinto. All of these were religions of the Silk Road; some spread along the trade routes to extend their spheres of faith enormously, while others did not travel from their native lands, or did so only to form enclaves of the faithful in foreign lands.
Buddhism was the first of the great missionary faiths to take advantage of the mobility provided by the Silk Road to extend its reach far beyond its native ground. From its origins in northeastern India, Buddhism had already spread into the lands that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan by the 1st century BCE. Buddhist merchants from those areas built temples and shrines along the Silk Road everywhere they went; the priests and monks who staffed those religious establishments preached to local populations and passing travelers, spreading the faith rapidly. Buddhism’s essential message—that earthly life is impermanent and full of suffering, but that the painful cycle of birth, death, and rebirth can be ended through Buddhist faith and practice—had wide appeal, and its universalism enabled it to cross boundaries of space, language, and ethnicity with ease.
The arrival of Buddhism in China was officially noted by the imperial court in the mid-1st century CE, and the faith spread in China thereafter, helped by both official and private support for the building of temples and monasteries. Buddhist missionaries from Central Asia began an active program of translating sacred texts into Chinese, and a number of Chinese priests and monks, over the centuries, traveled the Silk Road in search of doctrinal instruction in India.
Buddhism spread from China to Korea and Japan by the 6th century CE; it retained a dominant position in China until the decline of the Tang dynasty in the 9th century. Thereafter Buddhism remained important in China, but more as a private than an officially sponsored religion.
Buddhism also interacted in China with religious Daoism, especially from the 3rd century CE. Religious Daoism, in the form of several competing sects, absorbed many of the local religious temples and doctrines of ancient China. It offered believers immortality or reincarnation in a celestial pantheon, and amassed a canon of sacred texts rivaling that of Buddhism. Daoism spread westward into Central Asia along the Silk Road, providing, just as Buddhism had done, religious facilities for traveling believers; many of the important Buddhist temple complexes of Central Asia show Daoist influence or incorporate Daoist chapels. The Chinese Chan tradition of Buddhism (called “Zen” in Japanese) owes a great deal to Buddhist-Daoist syncretism.
Meanwhile, in the western reaches of the Silk Road, important changes were also taking place. Christianity was transformed, in the century or so after 50 CE, from a local phenomenon in the region now comprising Israel and Palestine to a rapidly expanding, proselytizing religion through the efforts of the major Christian apostles. Christianity thrived especially at the expense of classical paganism; in Christianity’s original homeland, Judaism remained the dominant but non-proselytizing religion even as it also evolved new traditions of study and practice.
Christianity spread eastward as well as westward, in the process evolving various differences from place to place in doctrine and forms of worship. The Christianity of the Silk Road was primarily the form known as Nestorianism, after the teachings of Nestorius, a 5th-century patriarch of Constantinople who soon outraged the Roman and Byzantine worlds with his unorthodox doctrines, such as taking from the Virgin her title “Mother of God.” Nestorian Christianity spread to Persia, India, and China, bringing with it the Syriac language and script (the basis of the writing systems of several Central Asian languages); a famous inscribed stela (standing stone tablet) in Xi’an, dated 781, commemorates the official arrival of Nestorian missionaries in China. By that time, Nestorian churches were to be found in cities all along the Silk Road, though there were undoubtedly many fewer Christians than Buddhists in Central Asia.
Another Middle Eastern faith that was important on the Silk Road for a time was Manichaeism, established by the Persian prophet Mani in the 3rd century CE. Mani arose from the Zoroastrian tradition, and consciously incorporated elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths into his own doctrines; he saw himself as the successor to Zoroaster, the historic Buddha, Jesus, and other great ancient religious teachers. Manichaeism, like Zoroastrianism, emphasized the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness; it offered salvation to the Elect, those who were deeply immersed in the faith’s teachings. Manichaeism became an important rival of Christianity in the Middle East and Mediterranean North Africa, and was known all along the Silk Road (though with little or no impact on China and East Asia), but its influence began to wane by the end of the 6th century.
Silk Road faiths from the Middle East to the northwestern reaches of China were challenged and, in time, displaced by the spread of Islam, which is at present the faith of the majority of people in the countries spanned by the old Silk Road.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born around 570 CE. At the age of 40, according to Muslim tradition, he became the recipient of a series of revelations, recorded in the Quran, which is for Muslims a faithful recording of the entire revelation of God sent through Muhammad. The basic teachings of the Quran were belief in One God, unique and compassionate; the necessity of faith, compassion, and morality in human affairs; accountability of human actions; and the recognition that the same God had sent Prophets and Revelations to other societies, which Islam affirmed while regarding the Quran as the final message and Muhammad as the last of the divine messengers.
Although the initial spread of Muslim rule and authority to neighboring regions, which took place after the death of the Prophet in 632, was a result of conquest, the actual process of converting the peoples in these regions to Islam took a long time. It was effected primarily through the work of Muslim preachers, traders, and rulers. On the whole, the process of conversion to Islam, with a few exceptions, was a peaceful one. Most Muslims followed the Quranic injunction “There is no compulsion in religion” (Ch.2:256) and spread their faith more by example than by coercion.
In the Silk Road context, a good example of this process are the Sufis, devotees committed to spiritual life and unity among traditions, whose teachings of Islam exist in all the vernaculars and cultures of Silk Road peoples. The full diversity of Muslim traditions, schools of thought, and civilizing influences have flourished along the Silk Road. These include the development of philosophy and science; law and history; literature and the arts; and the expressions in music and dance of the devotional and creative spirit of Islam. That pluralism still defines the life of most Muslims living along the old Silk Road. At present, at least 560 million Muslims live in Asia, almost half of the total number of Muslims in the world.
4. Arts of the Silk Road
The travel of artistic motifs, styles, and techniques along the Silk Road is closely bound up with the larger context of the travel of beliefs, ideas, and technology. For example, the art of the Silk Road includes the devotional art of Buddhism and Islam, the ideas behind certain styles of art such as narrative murals, and the technology to produce various works of art, including gigantic statuary and printed pictures. Religion is an important inspiration for art everywhere, and much of the art of the Silk Road was religious in origin. This includes not only the extravagant visual art of Buddhism, which created a legacy of thousands of statues, murals, and illustrated texts across much of Central and East Asia, but also the glazed tilework of Islamic mosques, which stresses calligraphic, geometric, and other nonrepresentational artistic motifs. Though much of the art of the Silk Road was created to encourage religious devotion, today we value it also as a source of precious historical information. Buddhist cave murals often, for example, yield a wealth of incidental information about ancient clothing and architectural styles, pastoral and agricultural practices, and much more. Similarly, many of the figurines produced in Tang China for burial in tombs as grave-goods for the use of the dead are of great historical interest today because they depict “exotic” foreign visitors from Silk Road countries.
By far the best-known art of the Silk Road is the Buddhist art of murals and statuary in temples and grottoes across Central Asia and into northwestern China. But as justly famous as this Buddhist art is, it is only one of many types of art that have flourished or been transported along the Silk Road over the centuries. Artistic artifacts and influences of many cultures, in many media and in many styles have traveled in both directions along the Silk Road, and have exerted their influences over surprisingly long distances. In addition to sculpture and pictorial art, the art of the Silk Road includes textiles, ceramics, metalwork, glass, and a wide variety of decorative techniques applied to objects of beauty and utility.
In this section we will consider only a few examples that illustrate the range and complexity of the arts of the Silk Road.
Objects and new styles were traveling across Asia at the beginning of the Common Era. A mirror from India with an ivory handle carved in the shape of a female fertility deity was buried under volcanic ash at Pompeii in 79 CE. Among the first images of Buddhist deities in human form were those carved in the province of Gandhara (present-day Pakistan) in the 2nd century CE. Unlike anthropomorphic Buddhist images carved farther south in India, these Gandharan figures, which were based on provincial Roman models, wear heavy, toga-like robes and have wavy hair. The figural tradition of Buddhist art spread through Central and East Asia and also to Southeast Asia, taking on local and
Chinese landscape painting has part of its roots in Buddhist pictorial art as well, notably the background settings created by Buddhist muralists and wood-block printers for picture-stories of the life of the Buddha. The polychrome conventions that originated in Buddhist pictorial art merged with the indigenous Chinese landscape vocabulary of Daoist paradise painters also. Chinese landscape motifs made their way west along the Silk Road to Persia, where the landscape backgrounds, showing a layered-plane treatment of mountains with hard outlines and the trees silhouetted on mountain ridges, became prominent features of Persian miniatures.
Textile motifs traveled rapidly in both directions on the Silk Road. The typical Persian roundel figure (often featuring two animals face-to-face inside a circle of dots, a motif that itself is a legacy of the animal style art of the steppe tribes) on printed or woven textiles was taken up by Chinese weavers during the Tang period, both to cater to the export market and because it became stylish in China as well. Ikat weaving, a technique that produces a pattern in cloth by dyeing the warp and/or the weft threads before they are woven into cloth, originated in India and traveled both to Persia and western China. The ikat weavers of the large Jewish community in Bukhara practiced their difficult craft until very recent times, and attempts have been made to revive it today.
The ancient Chinese were adept at a great many applied and decorative arts, but inevitably some were emphasized more than others. The Chinese had almost no tradition of glass-working, and glassware (a specialty of Egypt and the Arab cities of the Middle East) found an enthusiastic market in China. But the heaviness and breakability of glass made it difficult to transport overland on the Silk Road; not very much ever made it to China, and it was very expensive when it reached the Chinese market. Gold and silver metalwork, another Middle Eastern specialty, was imported into China in great quantities, especially during the Tang period. Many gold and silver cups, bowls, jugs, and other fancy utensils have been excavated from Chinese tombs, and often they are Decorated with typical Middle Eastern motifs such as griffins, deer, carnivorous beasts, and other animal-style art. Later indigenous Chinese metalwork often showed stylistic influences from these earlier imported pieces.
Yet another example of an artistic tradition that traveled the Silk Road is blue-and-white porcelain, which was produced in China from about the 13th century CE onward. Islamic potters decorated early (post-8th century) tin-glazed vessels with cobalt. Muslim merchants in Chinese coastal cities introduced the Islamic cobalt-decorated ware to China. In the late 13th century potters in South China began decorating white porcelain vessels with cobalt blue. Until the 15th century most of the Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was exported to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, where it was copied, although not in porcelain. In the 15th century the Chinese court embraced blue-and-white porcelain, encouraging domestic use. There were reciprocal elements in this trade as well, both because Chinese manufacturers often decorated export blue-and-white Porcelain with tulips, pomegranates, Arabic script, and other motifs designed to appeal to a Middle Eastern clientele, and because the best cobalt-bearing pebbles for producing the blue glaze—the deep blue tint called “Mohammadan blue”—came from rivers in Central Asia, and were transported by caravan to China for processing and use
Good ideas travel easily and far along trade routes, and the Silk Road was no exception to that rule. A famous example of a Chinese invention that helped to transform the world is paper. Paper was invented during the Han dynasty, probably just at the time the Silk Road trade was beginning to flourish. (Many accounts ascribe the invention of paper to a Latter Han official at the beginning of the 2nd century CE, but actual paper at least two centuries older than that has been archaeologically excavated from Han tombs.) Far superior to the narrow wooden strips or hard-to-handle rolls of silk that the Chinese had previously used for writing, paper soon became the writing material of choice throughout China and East Asia. It was found also in the Buddhist temples of China’s northwest, but seemed not to make inroads beyond that for a long time, perhaps in part because the Chinese tried to protect the secret of its manufacture, and perhaps in part also because other writing materials, such as parchment and papyrus, were well established in the west.
But under the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a group of Chinese workmen set up a papermaking establishment in Samarkand. Their product quickly spread by trade and imitation, and paper soon supplanted other writing materials in most of western Eurasia.
5. Travel of Ideas and Techniques
In China, the invention of paper stimulated the invention of printing, sometime during the 6th century CE—a development energetically supported by Buddhism, according to which the duplication of sacred texts was an act of religious merit. The re-invention of printing in Europe centuries later did not employ East Asian-style printing technology, but it may have been stimulated by accounts of Chinese printing that could have circulated in the Middle East.
Another invention that spread entirely across Eurasia was the noria, or irrigation waterwheel. This simple, ingenious device, invented in Roman Syria, consists of a vertical waterwheel to the rim of which are attached a series of pots or tubes. As the current of a river rotates the wheel, the pots fill with water at the bottom of the cycle and empty into a chute at the top; a large noria can lift water as much as forty feet with no input of human or animal energy. This inspired invention was obviously a good idea, and rapidly spread along the Silk Road and its tributaries. There is a famous example in Toledo, Spain, others along the upper reaches of the Yellow River in China, and many
more in between.
Foodstuffs also count in this category of the travel of ideas and techniques Apples spread, in prehistoric times via the steppe belt, in both directions from the region of modern-day Kazakhstan; oranges went (via the maritime route) from China to the Mediterranean world; grapes went from the western reaches of the Silk Road to China.
These examples and dozens more that could be mentioned make the point clear: ideas, inventions, devices and techniques spread readily and far along the Silk Road, and the traffic was very much a two way, or perhaps one should say a multi-way, street. In the process the Silk Road enriched not just the merchants who carried and exchanged goods, but the people of countries and cultures all across Eurasia.
It is perhaps worth noting, however, that long-distance trade can have unexpectedly bad side effects as well as direct beneficial effects. For example, the Black Death plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century is believed to have come via the Silk Road from Central Asia, where plague is endemic among local rodents. One theory holds that a load of marmot pelts (destined to be used on fur-trimmed garments), contaminated with plague-bearing flea eggs, was brought from somewhere in Central Asia to a Middle Eastern port. There the eggs hatched into fleas that infested some local rats; some of the rats eventually went on shipboard and were carried to port cities in Italy. There the plague spread, via fleas, to other rats, and then to people; and a disaster was in the making.
6. Music of the Silk Road
Religion has been one of the most important cultural forces to promote the dissemination of music along the Silk Road. Members of Islamic Sufi orders, who have traditionally welcomed the use of music, chant, and sacred dance as elements of prayer, were instrumental in spreading spiritual songs among their adherents. Wandering dervishes, holy men, and religious storytellers used song and chant as a means of proselytizing the moral values of Islam to audiences that gathered to hear them in bazaars, caravansarais, and tea houses. Buddhist monks also brought forms of sacred chant from part of Asia to another. And Jewish musicians in the great Silk Road city of Bukhara were typically engaged to perform in the court of the Muslim emir, thus serving as a bridge between Jewish and Muslim musical traditions.
The appreciation of new music follows from the deeply human characteristics of curiosity and attraction to novelty, the same qualities that promote the spread from one culture to another of art, ideas and technology. Enjoying one kind of music does not generally involve giving up another. Moreover, some musical instruments are readily adaptable to a variety of musical styles and genres, for example, the violin, which is commonly used in music as disparate as South India raga, Celtic dance tunes, and jazz. Other instruments, for example, the plucked zither—a horizontal soundboard or enclosed box with multiple strings running over a set of bridges—may take on variant but related forms in contiguous culture regions. For example, plucked zithers are played in Japan (koto), China (qin), Korea (kayagum), Mongolia (yatkha), and South Siberia (chatkhan or chatagan).
Highly flexible, instruments that traveled the Silk Road lent themselves to many kinds of music besides that of the culture of their origin. This flexibility can readily be seen, for example, in the worldwide spread of string or wind instruments like the hammer dulcimer, violin, and flute.
Other instruments also illustrate the spread of musical culture along the Silk Road. The sheng, or Chinese reed-pipe mouth organ is thought to have originated in southern China, perhaps even among non-Chinese tribal peoples of the far southwest. It was incorporated into Chinese orchestral music by the 5th century BCE (examples of actual instruments have been excavated from tombs in south-central China). The sheng came to be associated with Buddhist liturgical music in China, and spread to Buddhist congregations as far east as Korea and Japan, and as far west as the Buddhist oasis temples of Central Asia.
The Buddhist cave-temple murals at Dunhuang show many scenes of angelic beings hovering over Buddhist sacred sites, playing musical instruments, often including the sheng. Musical traditions are portable, but they are also durable, and stubbornly take root in the lands where they were born. One of the most powerfully surviving features of the old Silk Road today is the variety of music performed, on instruments old and new, indigenous and imported, everywhere from the
shores of the Mediterranean to the shores of the Pacific. This living musical heritage allows us to feel a link to thousands of years of trade and exchange among the peoples of the Silk Road.
Following is an instrument glossary featuring photos and definitions of the musical instruments from the Silk Road. Students and teachers can find out more about these instruments by listening to the enclosed Audio Sampler which includes additional explanatory information about the instruments, as well as performance excerpts.
6. Music of Silk Road
Musical Instrument Glossary
Shakuhachi [SHA koo ha chee]
The shakuhachi is made from the base of a bamboo stalk. A hole is drilled down the center of the stalk and finger and thumb holes are drilled into the side. The shakuhachi is played by blowing air across the beveled edge at the top end of the instrument while covering and uncovering the holes with fingertips. The shakuhachi has been used since the 15th century in Japan to create music for Zen Buddhist meditation. The sounds produced by the shakuhachi range from feather-soft whispers to strong piercing tones. They are intended to reflect sounds from nature such as bird calls, wind, and water. Today the shakuhachi is also played in jazz, orchestral, and popular music ensembles.
Iran, Turkey, Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa
Instruments called ney or nai include endblown and side-blown flutes. The end-blown ney of Turkey and Iran is made from the stem of a bamboo plant, and is played using a unique technique. The player rests the end
of the instrument against his teeth at the side of his mouth and blows across the top.
His teeth and tongue shape the sound. Side-blown neys are played by blowing over a hole in the side of the instrument. They may be made from wood, brass, or copper. The ney is often used to create religious music in the Islamic tradition of Sufism. The music helps to induce a meditative state. Sufi musicians aim to create heavenly sounds through abstract rhythms and patterns of notes, in contrast to the shakuhachi, which typically mimics sounds from nature. The rich, airy sound of the ney has also made it a favorite instrument for folk and classical music.
Duduk [doo DOOK]
Caucasus (particularly Armenia and Azerbaijan), northern Iran, north-east Iraq
The duduk is a tube of wood attached to a double reed, two pieces of cane fastened together. It is played by holding the double reed between the lips and blowing while covering and uncovering the holes with the fingers. It is known by several names including balaban in Azerbaijan. The duduk’s velvety sound and wide dynamic range have made it popular for a variety of musical genres. Traditionally it is played in small ensembles, often in duet with frame drums such as the daf (see below), in lyric songs and dances. Today it is also played in larger professional ensembles and in urban clubs. Recordings by innovative musicians such as Djivan Gasparian feature the duduk in musical genres not previously associated with the instrument such as jazz. Gasparian has collaborated with famous classical ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet and with other musicians including Peter Gabriel. He has also been featured on the soundtracks of major films including The Crow.
The sheng is a mouth organ. Its body is a bowl made of metal, wood, or a gourd. It has a blowpipe and seventeen or more bamboo or metal pipes that extend from the top of the bowl. The elegant symmetrical arrangement of the pipes represents the two folded wings
of the mythical phoenix bird. Each pipe has, inside the bowl, a side hole covered by a metal tongue that interrupts the air current. The sheng produces a strikingly clear, metallic sound. Western harmonicas, reed organs, and concertinas use the same basic acoustical principles as the sheng. Mouth organs similar to the sheng are first mentioned in Chinese texts dating from the 14th to 12th century BCE. Today the sheng is mainly used to play Chinese classical music in small and large ensembles with other Chinese instruments such as the pipa and erhu (see below). However, innovative musicians such as Wu Tong, of the successful Chinese hard rock band Again, also use the sheng in
Tabla [TAH blah]
The tabla is a pair of small drums. The treble drum called the tabla or dahina (“right” in Hindi) sits on the floor in front of the player. To the left of the dahina sits a bass kettledrum called the bayan (“left” in Hindi) made of clay or copper. The player hits the center of the skin on the top of each drum with his fingers while pressing down to alter the pitch of the sound. A virtuoso player may produce so many different sounds and inflections from the tabla that the instrument seems to speak.
In India, the process of learning to play the tabla begins when a master adopts a six or seven-year-old child as his student. The student will study with the master every day for a decade or more. The pairing of drums called the tabla was first used in India in the 1700s. Today it is used with all varieties of North Indian instrumental music and is the primary accompanying instrument for the kathak dance style.
Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East,North Africa and Iran
Frame drums known as daira, daf, riq, and other names consists of a thin membrane of animal skin stretched and glued over a wooden hoop. Metal jingles such as rings, coins or pairs of cymbals are usually attached to the hoop. The daira is held in one hand and is struck with the fingers, thumb, palm or heel of the other hand.
The pitch is tuned by tightening the skin with heat or loosening it with water. Singers of maqam, the challenging genre of classical music of the Islamic world, use frame drums like the daira to accompany themselves as they create songs based on religious poetic texts. The daira is also played solo or in small ensembles to accompany dances and ritual processions at important events.
The pipa is a short-necked plucked wooden lute. The head of the pipa is usually carved in a symbolic form such as a bat’s head, often used because the word for “bat” in Chinese sounds similar to the word for “luck.” The strings, once made of twisted silk, are now usually synthetic.
The first text reference to the pipa is in a third-century Chinese encyclopedia, which notes that it originally arose “among barbarians,” who played it while riding horseback. Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), the pipa has been one of the most popular instruments in China.
The playing technique is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and by virtuosic effects including rolls and percussive slaps. Pipa repertoire includes extensive tone poems vividly describing famous battles and other exciting stories.
Kamancheh [ke MAHN cheh]
Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia
The kemancheh is a spike fiddle. It has a small round wooden body with a spike protruding from the base, a sound table made of animal skin, and a cone-shaped neck. The kemancheh rests on the player’s knee or on the ground and the instrument is twisted on the spike to meet a bow.
The kemancheh is played in the tradition of improvised music known as maqam. The elegant, warm sound of the kemancheh calls to mind the sound of a human voice.
Therefore the instrument lends itself to solo virtuoso playing. It is usually played alone or in small ensembles. The first known written reference to the kemancheh dates from the 12th century CE. For centuries the kemancheh has been revered as an exceptional instrument for use in courtly, folk, religious and secular settings.
Morin Khuur [MOO rin HOOR]
The Mongolian words morin khuur translate literally to mean “horse fiddle” and the instrument is instantly recognizable by the distinctive pegbox carved in the shape of a horse’s head. The tuning pegs on either side of the scroll are known as the “horse’s ears.”
The strings of the instrument and its bow are traditionally made of horsehair, although they are now often made of synthetic material. The morin khuur plays a prominent role in Mongolian music and culture. It is used to accompany folk singers and less frequently as a solo instrument and in small ensembles.
Traditionally the people of Mongolia are nomadic herders and their love of the horse is an important aspect of Mongolian national identity. The horse on the scroll of the morin khuur and the instrument’s ability to imitate the galloping sounds of horses reflect this love.
1. Erhu [AR hoo]
The erhu is a spike fiddle with two strings. It has a long neck and a round hexagonal, octagonal or tubular body made of wood. The face of the body is usually covered by the skin of a python or other snake. The bow used to play the erhu is made of horsehair on a stick of bamboo. In performance, the erhu is supported on the left thigh of the player and held with the left hand while the right hand moves the bow. The fine, lyrically expressive sound of the erhu has lead to its use as a solo instrument in small folk and classical ensembles and in Chinese orchestras.
The erhu is part of a group of Chinese bowed instruments known as huqin, which translates to mean “foreign string instrument”, suggesting that these types of instruments
were introduced to China. Instruments similar to the eerhu have been prevalent in Chinese music since the 12th century CE.
2. Qanun [KAH noon]
Middle East, Caucasus
The qanun is a plucked zither with a flat trapezoid-shaped body. It has 75 strings arranged so that three strings are plucked at the same time to make each pitch. The player uses the right hand to pluck the strings with a plectrum that resembles a thimble with a metal barb on one end. The left hand manipulates a set of switches that pull the strings to change the pitch. Qanun players use these switches to create beautifully ornamented melodies that mimic the sound of the human voice.
The qanun is a classical instrument of the Arab world, widely described in both oral and written traditions. In Turkey it is called the kanun. Like other instruments of the Islamic world, including the ney and daira (see above), it is played in the improvisatory musical tradition known as maqam.
3. Santur [SAN toor]
The santur is a struck zither, also known as a hammer dulcimer. It has a flat trapezoidshaped body with seventy-two strings arranged so that three strings are struck at the same time to make each pitch. The player strikes the strings with two delicate felt-covered hammers called mezrab. The virtuoso santur player produces light, glistening tones by striking the instrument with blinding speed and precision.
The earliest predecessors of the modern santur may date back to 1600 BCE and it is one of the main instruments of Iranian music. It is played solo and in ensembles in the improvisatory musical tradition of maqam.
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