The Silk Route
For thousands of years the Silk Route, commonly referred to as the Silk Road, was the world's principle trade route linking Europe and China. The route passed from the shores of the Mediterranean through Bukhara and Samarkand to Dunhuang, and then on to Xian in central China.
Not only people and goods travelled along the Silk Route, but so did ideas, especially philosophical and religious ones, not to mention art and science. Some of the best examples of ancient Chinese Buddhist paintings and rare manuscripts were discovered amongst the monastic ruins near Dunhuang in north-west China.
In one of the many caves of Dunhuang, an oasis town situated at the edge of the Gobi desert, a great cache of Chinese manuscripts was discovered by a Christian priest at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the manuscripts were Buddhist in origin, generally dating from the period of the Tang dynasty, AD 618 to 907. The earliest dated scroll is from the fifth century AD, and the latest from the late tenth century. We know now, that by the fourth century after Christ, there was a growing Buddhist community at Dunhuang.
The unique character of Chinese Buddhism is indelibly recorded in the Dunhuang manuscript treasures, of which one, a book thought to be the oldest surviving printed book in the world, has gone on display at the British Library. The Diamond Sutra, bearing the date 868 AD, was discovered in a walled-up cave at the complex in 1907.
As intimated earlier, the Silk Route was a much-travelled series of ancient passageways that connected the civilizations of China, India, Persia, and Arabia with those from Greece and Rome, and thus promoted the interchange of trade and culture between East and West. The description of this route to the west as the `Silk Road' is somewhat misleading, because no single route was taken by all caravans. Crossing Central Asia, several different route branches developed, passing through different oasis settlements. The westbound trading routes all started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor, and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan.
One should also note that the 'Silk Road' was not a trade route that existed solely for the purpose of trading in silk. Many other desirable commodities were also traded. Trading caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, gem stones, and glass, which by the way, was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron were transported. Many of these trading commodities were bartered for others along the way, and often exchanged hands several times before reaching their final destinations.
Of all the precious goods moving up and down the trading routes, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the trading merchants of the West. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C, and came to realize that it could not have been produced by these relatively unsophisticated people. The Romans reputedly learnt from their Parthian prisoners, that silk came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they then referred to as the silk people or `Seres'.
Confucius said silk was discovered by a Chinese princess in 2640 BC. Chinese legend, however, attributes the discovery of silk to the goddess Lei Tsu, sometimes called Hsi Ling, wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor. When a cocoon from a mulberry tree accidentally dropped into the Empress's boiling hot tea, she unraveled a delicate silken strand, and by doing so, had unwittingly discovered the raw material that would later be spun into thread and woven into the luxurious natural textile known as silk.
There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Changan, nor Chinese merchants surfacing in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. This would obviously have been in the interests of the Parthians and other trader middlemen, who took as large a profit from the exchanging of hands as they possibly could. The height of the importance of the Silk Route was during the Tang period, although silk first appeared in Rome in 1 A.D., right around the time Buddhism began to spread from India into Central Asia and beyond.
* Special thanks to Oliver Wild for his material on the Silk Road, some of which I have paraphrased and appended.
Changan and the Tang Dynasty
The art and civilisation of the Silk Route achieved its highest point in the Tang Dynasty. Changan, as the starting point of the route, as well as the capital of the dynasty, developed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of the time.
By 742 A.D., Changan's population had reached almost two million, and the city itself covered almost the same area as present-day Xian, considerably more than within the present walls of the city. The 754 A.D. census showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the city: Turks, Iranians, Indians and others from along the Silk Route, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays from the east. Many foreigners were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims, but every other occupation was also represented.
Rare plants, medicines, spices and other goods from the west were to be found in the bazaars of the city. It is quite clear, however, despite the exotic imports, that the Chinese regarded all foreigners as barbarians. The gifts provided for the Emperors by foreign rulers were simply considered as tribute from vassal states.
After the collapse of the Tang dynasty, the traffic along the Silk Route subsided, along with the grotto building and art of the period. The Five Dynasties period did not maintain the internal stability of the Tang dynasty, and again neighbouring states started to plunder the caravans. China was partially unified again in the Song dynasty, but the Silk Route was not as important as it had been during the Tang period.
Note: Historians regard the Tang Dynasty, with its capital at Changan, as a high point in Chinese civilization, equal, if not superior to, the Han period. The Tang period was the golden age of Chinese literature and art.
* By the middle of the eight Century AD, Tang power and influence had ebbed, and with it the importance of the Silk Route. Economic instability, and a harsh military defeat in 751 by Arabs at Talas in Central Asia, marked the beginning of centuries of steady decline for the Chinese empire. Misrule, court intrigues, economic exploitation, and popular rebellions weakened the empire, making it possible for northern invaders to terminate Tang prominence in 907. The next half-century saw the fragmentation of China into five northern dynasties and ten southern kingdoms.
Influx of Buddhism
The greatest influx of Buddhism into China occurred during the Northern Wei dynasty, in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. This was at a time when China was divided into several different kingdoms, and the Northern Wei dynasty had its capital in Datong in present day Shanxi province. Wei rulers encouraged the development of Buddhism, and more missions were sent towards India to bring back sacred teachings and relics.
Buddhism, China's brand new religion, spread slowly eastwards through the oases surrounding the Taklimakan, encouraged by an increasing number of merchants, missionaries and pilgrims. Many of the local peoples, the Huihe included, adopted Buddhism as their own religion and way of life.
* Faxian, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim scholar also known as Fa-hsien or Fa-Hien, recorded religious life in the Kingdoms of Khotan and Kashgar in 399 A.D. in great detail. In his work, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, he describes the large number of monasteries that had been established at the time, as well as a large Buddhist festival that was held while he was there as a visitor/pilgrim.