The Silk Road network linked Central Asia, India and China providing a vital pathway in trade and cultural awareness in ancient and classical times. As the world’s “oldest highway”, the Silk Road provided a cultural bridge between eastern and western empires allowing them to share knowledge, innovation, beliefs and trade. The direct benefits of this bridge allowed the central and eastern empires along its path to share technology and beliefs leading to increased trade and ultimately better economic conditions to fuel their growth. The Silk Road was the initial global trade system that helped these empires benefit economically and culturally by assimilating the best of other cultures along the route.
Current evidence shows that a portion of the famed Silk Road was in use even before Emperor Wudi’s Han Dynasty. Starting at about 2000 B.C.E., evidence suggests that the Silk Roads were already functioning as an exchange route and a means for the spread of languages by way of pastoralist (cattle herders) peoples. “In the second millennium B.C.E. Indo-European languages spread, also, into Persia, Mesopotamia, and northern India. Languages were spread mainly by migrations of pastoralist peoples” (Christian, 2000). Evidence suggests that copper, tin, gold, rubies, cotton and fur were already being traded along the steppes of Eurasia and Mongolia during this time.
The spread of religions were facilitated by cultural exchange through the Silk and other routes. The Silk Road was critical in the spread of Buddhism beginning in the second century BCE as nomads and missionaries travelled between India, Central Asia and China. The initial introduction of Buddhism from India to China found a receptive empire in the Han Dynasty. These missionaries and believers were aided by more notorious types who also adopted Buddhism and they travelled the Silk route. “While the Mongols were controlling the Silk Road, Kublai Khan clearly showed his preference for Buddhism even though most of the Mongol kingdoms converted to Islam” (Silkroad Foundation, 2000). The great Khan could have provided a great deal of influence as he conquered and raided along the route. Raids were frequent along the route and certainly were conducted in a large part by the nomads of Khan and others. It’s ironic that trade along the Silk Road could be negatively impacted by a group led by Khan while Khan may have been exhorting Buddhism on the very route he was raiding. Equally ironic is the effect of Buddhism on the culture of nomads so “that once a nomadic tribe adopted the Buddhist faith, they no longer possessed tough barbaric and soldierly qualities. Eventually they lost their nomadic identity and were absorbed by the civilized neighbors” (Silkroad Foundation, 2000).
While Kublai Khan and many others influenced the spread of Buddhism, most other Mongols spread their belief of Islam, most likely during their raiding campaigns on the Silk route and along the steppes. As Islam took hold in Central Asia, their intolerance of other faiths help slow the spread of Buddhism further west along the route. “Since Islam condemned the iconography, most of the Buddhist statues and wall-paintings were damaged or destroyed. Buddhist temples and stupas were abandoned and buried beneath the sand” (Silkroad Foundation, 2000). Overtime, most of Central Asia had been converted to Islam.
From the Zhou Dynasty until after the fall of the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road provided a global trade between eastern and western empires to quench the appetites of the ruling classes in fine art and exotic venues. In addition to silk, popular Chinese trade items included ironware, gold and platinum, bronze mirrors, ceramics, lacquer and bamboo wares, furs, medicinal herbs and drugs, farming and smelting technology, and the important Chinese inventions of gunpowder, papermaking and printing. Western items imported to China included Perfumes, ivory, jewels, glassware, Alfalfa, grapes, sesame, pomegranates, walnuts cucumbers, carrots, Lions, peacocks, elephants, camels, horses, Wines and spices. Any list of trade items along the Silk Road indicates the geography of the route and its effect on trade items. “Any list of the goods traded along the Silk Roads will show the presence of large amounts of steppeland or woodland products, while some of the goods produced in the agrarian world were made especially for export to the steppes” (Christian, 2000).
The Silk Road provided eastern and western societies an exchange of technologies “including the use of livestock power in agriculture, for transportation, and in war, and the use of hides and wool. In later periods new technologies, including the use of compound bows and crossbows, the use of armor in cavalry warfare, the stirrup, and techniques of siege warfare, as well as gunpowder, printing, and papermaking, all diffused throughout Afro-Eurasia” (Christian, 2000). The result of this technological diffusion as a basis for the growth of society to today’s world cannot be overstated. The spread of religions back and forth including Buddhism, Islam and Christianity has had a lasting affect both spiritually and politically throughout the Eurasian and Asian world.
Christian, D. (2000). Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History. Journal of World History, 11(1), 1-26. Retrieved from University of Maryland/University College.
Murphey, R. (2009). A History of Asia. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Silkroad Foundation. (2000). Buddhism and Its Spread Along the Silk Road. Retrieved from http://www.silk-road.com/art/buddhism.shtml.