The Silk Road

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Silk Roads
All (silk) roads lead to China The extend of the Silk Route goes as far as Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central Asia until it reaches China. The land routes are red and the water routes are blue

The length of the historic Silk Road was 8,000 kilometers or roughly the distance from Manila to Abu Dhabi. Travelling that distance via Airbuses in modern times requires only an eighthour flight. But back when travellers did not have the luxury of transatlantic jumbo jets, the best anyone could do was traverse the distance by horse or on foot—along the Taklamakan Desert, considered one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Needless to say, any journey west of China was not considered a sightseeing trip.

The Silk Road or Silk Route is actually a misnomer. First, no single route was taken. It was a series of trade routes that connected Chang’an (the Chinese capital during the Han Dynasty), with Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Second, more than silk was being traded at the time. Gold, silver, ivory, and even plants and animals were commonly traded commodities. Silk was just considered the most valuable because it was only produced in China.

No one actually thought of establishing a trade route, much less naming it such. It was farthest from the minds of the rulers then. Rather, the Silk Road traces its accidental beginnings from a military expedition that sought to defeat China’s enemies.

Origin of the Silk Road
During the Han Dynasty, Emperor Han Wudi called on volunteers to undertake a critical mission: to form an allegiance with the recently defeated Yueshi and wage war against the Xiongnu (the Huns). A brave soul heeded the emperor’s call. An imperial official by the name of Zhang Qian took on the chal lenge and led a convoy of soldiers more than a hun dred strong in 138 B.C.

Unfortunately for them, they were captured be fore they could even reach their destination. They spent the next 10 years as prisoners of the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian managed to escape after being captive for so long. But his luck was shortlived as it turns out. The people of Yueshi refused to fight anymore, hav ing settled down peacefully and abandoned their for mer nomadic life. Zhang Qian had no other recourse but to go back home.

Zhang Qian’s journey, which took him 13 years, was not a total failure. Emperor Wudi, learning of the route and other kingdoms such as Ferghana, Smarkand, Bokhara, and others in the West Asian region from Zhang, was excited to form political ties with them.

With the intent of forming alliances with the other kingdoms, Zhang Qian once again travelled westward. This time, his journey proved to be a suc cess. He was able to form diplomatic ties with another nomadic tribe, Wusun. From Wusun, Zhang Qian sent envoys to nearby kingdoms including Parthia and India. In turn, these kingdoms also sent their own emissaries to Chang’an. Diplomatic relations prospered.

Celestial Horses
Horses have been favorite subjects in Chinese paintings and sculptures. The reason can be traced back to Zhang Qian’s discovery of a different breed of steeds. The horses he discovered in Ferghana (Dayu an) were unparalleled in terms of strength and endur ance, and were unlike the ones they had back home.

Regarded as the finest in the world, they were called ‘Celestial Horses’ or ‘Heavenly Horses.’ Emper or Wudi thought these horses could prove advanta geous in their campaign against the Xiongnu. Subse quent military expeditions allowed the Han Dynasty to obtain these horses and transform their cavalry.

The horses became a classic theme in Chinese art. Artisans were known to have drawn inspiration from the Celestial Horses. The best example would be the small bronze ‘flying horse’ found at Wuwei in the Gansu Province. It was regarded as the finest artwork of the Celestial Horse.

Journey to the West
While silk was considered as the most valuable commodity then, the greatest legacy of the Silk Road was religion. Buddhism reached China through the northern route. The second Han Emperor Mingdi was said to have sent representatives to India to learn more about Buddhism. Subsequent missions success fully brought back scriptures and Indian priests, and Buddhism spread throughout China.

At the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Xuan Zhuang crossed the Silk Road to obtain Buddhist scriptures in India. He started through the northern route and returned via the south.

Upon returning, he built a Great Goose Pagoda in Chang’an to house the 600 scriptures he brought back. His journey, which took him 17 long years, was the inspiration for Journey to the West, one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels.

Since its discovery 2,000 years ago, the Silk Road has fostered a crosscultural exchange between the East and West. It also paved way for the development of foreign trade relations. No matter its purpose (trade in the past, tourism in the present), the Silk Road has left many legacies not just for the Chinese but for the entire world.

print ed: 07/11

 

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