Historical Evolution of the Ancient Silk Road

  • Pengfei NiEmail author
  • Marco Kamiya
  • Ruxi Ding



7.1 Development of the Ancient Silk Road

The Silk Road was first explored during the Western Han Dynasty (206BC–25ad), by Zhang Qian through a series travels across the Western Territories of China. At that time, China was the only producer of silk in the world. Prices were exorbitant and the product was easy to carry. Therefore, silk was the main commodity sold to the West. By the time of the Song and Yuan dynasties, maritime trade had reached its peak. As the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties did not exert control over the Western Territories, the main trade route to West Asia and Europe was via the seas. The main commodity that was traded between the East and the West also changed from silk to porcelain. This East–West route closely connected the Chinese Mainland and Western Territories to Arabia and Persia. After a few centuries of continual development and evolution, the Silk Road extended all the way to the Mediterraneans. The eastern end of the Silk Road roughly extended to South Korea and Japan, and the western end reached France and the Netherlands. The maritime route covered even Italy and Egypt, and it became a “road of friendship” of economic and cultural exchanges between Asia, Europe and Africa.

The main territories covered by the ancient Silk Road on land were mainly the inland areas that lay between China and Europe. This region has an unusually dry climate and rainfall is extremely scarce. The main way of transportation was animals like camels and horses and stops along the route were needed for transit and replenishment of food supplies. Therefore, settlements along the Silk Road gradually became centers where people and goods gather, merchandise was exchanged and merchants made their transactions; and gradually, this led to the formation of a great number of ancient Western Territories cities along the routes. Major cities for maritime trade were mainly situated close to estuaries (mainly river ports rather than sea ports) along navigated river courses as the ships in those days had small capacities and shallow drafts and river ports were more than enough to satisfy the requirements and safety needs. In addition, it was easier for ports located at estuaries to move the overseas supplies inland. In history, examples of strategically important Silk Road cities include Ningbo at the Yongjiang River, Quanzhou at the Jinjiang River inlet, and Guangzhou at the Pearl River Delta. The emergence of the ancient port cities of the Silk Road was not only the result of positive natural conditions, but also closely related to seaborne transportation and overseas trade.

7.2 Factors Influencing the Development of the Ancient Silk Road

A necessary guarantee for the development of the ancient Silk Road is political stability. A strong central government and its power to control areas along the Silk Road are what ensured the accessibility of the Silk Road and made it possible for Silk Road cities to develop and prosper. A stable and powerful central administration and its ability to have effective jurisdiction over the regions along the Silk Road ensures its smooth flow, thereby creating the necessary conditions for promoting the development and prosperity of the towns and cities along the route. Conversely, the pace and scale of development of the Silk Road towns and cities will be negatively impacted by inadequate control by the central government. Political and military factors have always been the main driving force promoting the development of towns and cities along the Silk Road. The developmental changes of the towns and cities are closely related to the development and operations of the central dynasty. With each rise and decline of the central dynasties, the setup changes according to the different scale of border expansion and the corresponding administrative system and cities that are strategic military strongholds. The developmental process of the towns and cities of this region also shows a lot of volatility.

Commerce and trade are the lifeblood of development for the ancient Silk Road. The rise and decline of towns and cities have a strong causal relationship to the rise and decline of trade along the Silk Road. Commerce is dependent upon the initiative of towns and cities, and the building of towns and cities is reliant on commercial interests. Along with the extension of the Silk Road and the development of trade along the Silk Road, market townships were formed in the areas with the most business activities. At the same time, the development of agriculture and animal husbandry made population agglomeration as well as handicraft industries and business travel supplies possible, enriching the variety of goods exchanged along the route, with agriculture and animal husbandry resources promoting the growth of many foodstuff trading and fur processing businesses in towns and cities. The ease of travelling on the Silk Road and trade activities along the route continued to develop, which led to the gathering of capital, goods and people at some of the better located towns and cities, hence driving the economic development of these towns and cities. Conversely, during times of trading decline along the Silk Road, trading also weakened in these towns and cities and the prosperity of the towns and cities along the Silk Road were definitely impacted.

Political necessity is the prerequisite for the formation of the Silk Road. The development and prosperity of the Silk Road is guaranteed by military strength. Once stability and peace in the Western Territories was under control and sustained, the economic and cultural interactions of China with the Western Territories and Europe would take place smoothly. If effective control over the Western Territories was lost, the Silk Road would be broken up. During Tang Dynasty, protectorate offices were established at Anxi and Beiting to provide military backing to the traffic routes to safeguard the close connection between the Chinese mainland and the Western Territories. The Silk Road continued to prosper and flourish during the Tang Dynasty. During the Song and Ming dynasties, as control over the Western Territories was lost, the routes gradually fell into disuse, and eventually, ceased to be used.

After the “An Lushan Rebellion” (755–762) during the Tang Dynasty, the country was greatly weakened and Tibetans occupied the Hexi Corridor and regions under the jurisdiction of the protectorates of Anxi and Beiting. The Silk Road was severed. At the same time, sea transportation grew popular and the economic center began moving towards the southeast. The Maritime Silk Road served as a replacement. In addition, the development of shipbuilding and navigation technology in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) also provided conditions for the opening-up and extension of routes to Southeast Asia, Straits of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, as well as navigation routes to Africa. The Maritime Silk Road finally replaced the land route to become the main channel through which ancient China interacted with foreign lands. Zheng He made seven voyages west (1405–1433) successively in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, marking the peak period of the Maritime Silk Road. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, with the implementation of haijin (maritime trade ban) and the decline of China’s navigation industry, the Maritime Silk Road, once a significant contributor to East–West exchanges, declined gradually as the maritime trade ban became increasingly stringent. Beginning in 1840, Western powers forced open the doors of China with powerful cannons. After two opium wars, China declined rapidly. Then, five countries in Central Asia became Russian territories. These two factors blocked China’s path and journey to the West. The ancient Silk Road declined and was out of use by the end of the 19th century.

7.3 Development of Major Cities Along the Ancient Silk Road

During the development and evolution of the ancient Silk Road on land, a group of travelers’ inns and coastal ports emerged and thrived to become major cities along the route. The development and connection of these cities are reflective of the state of development of the ancient Silk Road on land.

7.3.1 Silk Road on Land: Kashgar, Tehran and Istanbul

Kashgar, situated in southwestern Xinjiang, is at the intersection of the north and south routes of the ancient Silk Road. With the Tianshan Mountain to its north, the Pamir Plateau to its west, and eight different neighboring countries including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, Kashgar has unique geographical advantages summed up by the saying, “five doorways to eight countries, one road between Europe and Asia”. This is the No. 1 city of the ancient Silk Road leading from Central Asia and South Asia into China. It is also the access doorway to West Asia and Europe on land. During the Han Dynasty, Kashgar was known as Shule. Zhang Qian was here during his travels to the Western Territories. Ban Chao of the Eastern Han Dynasty was the administrator of the Western Territories and Kashgar was where he set up base. During the Tang Dynasty, it was one of the four townships of Anxi. During the early days of the Qing Dynasty, it was where the “Overall Administrator of the Eight Cities” diplomatic official to Kashgar was stationed. Since the hundreds and thousands of years past, Kashgar continued to be well-known as the center of politics, economics, culture and traffic south of Tianshan, and is an important town and international trading port where Chinese and foreign merchants congregate along the ancient Silk Road.

Tehran is a city with a long history. In the early years of the 9th century, it became a residential location, a suburb of Rey, a well-known city in those days, and was a resting place for ancient Silk Road merchants on the move. In the 13th century, Rey was destroyed by strong invasion forces and its role was taken over by Tehran. As this was the intersection between the main East–West road in northern Iran and the main road leading to the south, Tehran became a medium-sized city and trade center within a short period of time.

Istanbul is a military stronghold along the ancient Silk Road. During the development of Silk Road cities more than 2,000 years ago, Istanbul was where the land and sea routes of the Silk Road met. Historically, Istanbul was once the capital city of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Latin Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey in its early days. The culture, language and religion of past rulers have been integrated into the city, and the thoughts, cultures and art of the people from the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa gathered here. Istanbul became an important meeting point of thoughts and culture from the East and the West, a shining treasure shared by Europe, Asia and Africa.

7.3.2 Silk Road by Sea: Fuzhou, Nairobi and Athens

Fuzhou is a famous historic city that goes hand in hand with the Maritime Silk Road. During the Tang Dynasty and the five Dynasties, there were frequent wars in the north and the land routes between China and the Western Territories were closed. The center of foreign economic and trade exchanges slowly shifted to the southeastern coasts. This situation created unprecedented opportunities that were favorable to the great development of cultural exchanges in Fuzhou and mainland China and overseas trade and transportation. Between the mid-Tang Dynasty and the five Dynasties, Fuzhou became an important port city and economic and cultural center of the Maritime Silk Road. During Song and Yuan dynasties, the shipping routes starting from Fuzhou reached Indochina, Malay Peninsula, Malay Archipelago and the Philippines in the south; various countries of South Asia and the countries and regions of India, Namburi, Guli, Arabia and Madagascar in West Asia and Africa. During the Ming Dynasty, Fuzhou was one of China’s major shipbuilding bases. In the 24th year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign during the Qing Dynasty (1844), Fuzhou became one of the five official trade ports of the country.

Nairobi is the capital of Kenya in East Africa, the farthest destination of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, and a major intersection city. Out of the seven voyages of Zheng He four led the great navigator to Kenya. As the transportation hub and economic leader of East Africa, Nairobi has developed into one of the four cities where a United Nations headquarters is located. It is the only city of a developing country with a UN headquarters and it also hosts UNEP and UN-Habitat.

Athens is the largest city and the economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural center of Greece. It is also one of the oldest cities in Europe and in the world. The ancient Greek Empire was a mighty and strong power for a period of time and its sphere of influence extended to the area around the Black Sea at one point, which opened up access to the supply of Chinese silk as well as resources from the East like furs and gold. As a core city in ancient Greece, Athens was the main point of intersection between the land and sea routes of the ancient Silk Road, already connected to China more than 2,000 years ago. Due to factors like flourishing trade and disruption by wars, Athens experienced many ups and downs in history.

7.4 Influence of the Ancient Silk Road

The ancient Silk Road paved the way for trade and communication between civilizations across the three major continents of Europe, Asia and Africa and brought together the cultures of ancient China, India, Greece and Persia. In addition to Chinese goods like silk and porcelain making their way to the West, techniques of silkworm-raising, gunpowder, compass, copper smelting, paper-making and printing. Also reached the lands of Central Asia, Iran and Rome one after another through the land and sea routes of the Silk Road. At the same time, goods and properties, astronomy, calendar, mathematics, medical science, music and arts etc. also flowed into China from Central Asia and the West via the Silk Road. The ancient Silk Road not only gave life to a few new cities and contributed to the continuous development of many existing cities along the route, it also promoted economic and social development of the countries and regions along the route through exchanges in goods, services, religion, culture and technology, thus putting in place significant historical foundation for the development of the present day Silk Road.

Copyright information

© China Social Sciences Press and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for City and CompetitivenessChinese Academy of Social SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.Urban Economy and Finance BranchUN HabitatNairobiKenya
  3. 3.School of Economics, Southwestern University of Finance and EconomicsNational Academy of Economic Strategy, CASSBeijingChina

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