Silk Road History


China's vast western region is accessible to travelers along the classic Silk Road, although historically, the trade route was never called such until a German geographer gave it that romantic name in the late 1800s. In AD 200, this transcontinental route linked the Roman Empire in the west with the imperial court of China. Trade along the route was carried on by foreign traders who belonged to neither of the two old empires.

Before the discovery of the sea route to India, the Silk Road was the most important connection between the East and West. It experienced its last great era during the time of the Mongol Empire. This ancient trade route starts in the old capitals of Luoyang and Xian (then called Chang'an), reaches the Yellow River at Lanzhou, then skirts westward along deserts and mountains before dividing into three routes at the oasis of Dunhuang. The great part of the Silk Road threads its way through Xinjiang. Ancient travelers left behind many historical records and invaluable relics.


Named in the middle of the 19th century by the German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, the Silk Road, which is regarded as the greatest East-West trade route, was first traveled by Zhang Qian when he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Western Regions in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The Silk Road was the information super highway of its age, serving as the conduit not only for goods but also for the transmission of knowledge and ideas between east and west.

The Rise of the Silk Road
The Silk Road originated in the 2nd century BC from a desire for military and political purpose instead of for trade. In order to seek allies to against Xiongnu repeated invasion, a court official named Zhang Qian was sent by Han Wudi to the Western Regions. However, on the way to the Western Regions, the Xiongnu captured Zhang and detained him for ten years. Escaped from Xiongnu's detention, Zhang Qian continued his journey to the Central Asia. While at that time, the local rulers were satisfied with their status and refused to ally with Han Empire. Although the mission failed in its original purpose, the information Zhang Qian conveyed to China about Central Asia, and vice versa, made people in each area desire goods produced in the other. Silk that was favored by Persians and Romans, inaugurated the trade along the Silk Road.

While when the Silk Road was first established, silk was not the chief commodity. Han dynasty made very little profit from it until the Romans were fanatic about silk that the large profits came in. The Roams love silk so much that they even exchanged silk for its weight in gold. During the Tang dynasty, thirty percent of the trade on the Silk Road was comprised of silk.

Prosperous as it was, the operation of the Silk Road always be influenced by the political developments. A stable state could ensure the smooth trade on this road, while the troublous one would hurt. When Zhang Qian opened this road, the Han dynasty and the empire of Parthia in Persia just achieved their golden ages, which give a favorite financial support to the smooth development of this route.

The Height of the Silk Road
The fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century once caused Silk Road trade to decline. However, the rise of the Tang dynasty in the 7th century revived this commerce and by the mid 8th century, the route reached its height.

The prosperity of this road should owe to many reasons. Based on the breakdown of earlier dynasties, the Tang dynasty especially thought well of the internal stability and economic development. Many favorable policies were carried out to stimulate and encourage the trade between the east and west, leading to the enlargement of the market and quick development of the trade on this road.At the same time, with the spreading of various religions in the world range, more and more missionaries reached to the east in succession by this road. With the Silk Road acting as an information superhighway, the exchange of ideas grew to a larger scale than ever before. And as a result, the Tang dynasty fortunately experienced the best flourishing period of the Silk Road. 

The Decline of the Silk Road
The fall of the Tang in the early 10th century gave a deathblow to the trade on the Silk Road. The trade on the road declined sharply till in the 13th century, when the conquests of the Mongols ushered in an era of frequent and extended contacts between East and West. This increased contact created a demand for Asian goods in Europe, a demand that eventually inspired the search for a sea route to Asia.
The discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia in the late 15th century dealt a damaging blow to the Silk Road trade again. With less cost, harassment and danger, many goods and materials that the Silk Road could not transfer were conveyed through the sea route. Besides, the Persians had mastered the art of sericulture and the import of the silk from the East was reduced.
Since then, the prosperous Silk Road was on its downhill. The bustling streets, wealthy cities and solid ramparts now were submerged in the vast desert, and today, people can only trace their splendid history in the endless ruined and dilapidated remains.

3000 B.C.
Silk first produced in China
1500 B.C.
Semi-nomadic stockbreeding tribes inhabit steppes
753 B.C.
Rome founded
500 B.C.
Chinese adopt nomadic style, wear trousers and ride horses
551 - 479 B.C.
Confucius born in China
400 B.C.
Greek culture spread into Central Asia
300 B.C.
Roman expansion begins
Qin dynasty unites the entire China for the first time
Qin Great Wall completed
Han dynasty overthrows the Qin and develops its vast empire
Buddhism begins to spread north
Paper first made in China
200 B.C.
The Xiongnu (Huns) rise to power in Central Asia and invade Chinese western border regions
Zhangqian travels the Western Regions and opens the route west
100 B.C.
Rome becomes to an empire
1 A.D.
Silk first seen in Rome
Buddhism begins to spread from India into Central Asia
Xiongnu controls the Tarim region
Christianity begins to spread in the world
General Ban Chao of the Han dynasty defeats Xiongnu and keeps the peace in the Tarim Basin
The first attempt from China to Rome fails
100 A.D.
Roman empire at its largest
The first Roman envoy arrives in China
Buddhism reaches China
200 A.D.
Han dynasty falls and the China breaks up
300 A.D.
Skill of sericulture begins to spread west along the Silk Road
Xiongnu invades China and China further dissolved into fragments
500 A.D.
Silkworm breeding appears in Europe
Nestorian Christians reach China
Sui dynasty reunites China
600 A.D.
Tang dynasty rules in China
The Silk Road reaches its golden age
Xuan Zang's pilgrimage to India
700 A.D.
Tang dynasty begins to decline, and with it, the Silk Road drops into a valley
800 A.D.
First porcelain made in China
Gunpowder invented in China
Compass begins to be used by Chinese
900 A.D.
Tang dynasty ends
After short abruption, the Song dynasty reunites China
1100 A.D.
China divided into Northern Sung and Southern Sung
Genghis Khan unites Mongols
Silk production and weaving established in Italy
1200 A.D.
Kublai Khan establishes the Yuan dynasty in China
Silk road trade prospers again
Marco Polo leaves for the East
1300 A.D.
Third Silk Road route appears in the north
Yuan dynasty ends and Ming dynasty begins
1400 A.D.
China closes the door to foreigners
Threatened by strong Uigur power, Ming dynasty greatly reduces the trade along the Silk Road
1600 A.D.
Manchus invades the central plains of China and establish the Qing dynasty
1700 A.D.
The Manchus control the Gobi and Altai districts
1800 A.D.
German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen firstly names this route as "Silk Road"
Manchus take over the Tarim Basin, and Xinjiang province established under Qing dynasty
Lost cities unearthed along the old Silk Road
1900 A.D.
Chinese revolution - end of Chinese feudal dynasties
Europeans begin to travel in the Silk Road
Karakoram highway from Islamabad to Kashgar built by China and Pakistan


The Han-dynasty Silk Road began at the manigicent capital city of Chang'an ( today's Xian). The route took traders westwards into Gansu Province through Lanzhou, Tianshui, Zhangye, Jiuquan along the Hexi Corridor reached Jiayuguan - the giant barrier of the Great Wall and the first key point of the route- Dunhuang. Dunhuang is in the west end of the Hexi Corridor of Gansu Province. It is one of the well-known Chinese historical and cultural cities, and the bright pearl on the ancient Silk Road.

When the ancient Silk Road came out of the Hexi Corridor into Xinjiang, it broke into three main routes. The southern route ran west along the northern foot of Kunlun Mountains, via Charkhilk ( Ruoqiang), Cherchen ( Quemo), Minfeng ( Niya), and Hetian ( Hotan), then reached Kashgar - another key point on the Silk Road, afterwards went over the Pamirs, and reached India or passed through Afghanistan and Russian Central Asia to reach the coast of the Mediterranean or Arabia. The central route meandered west along the southern foot of the Tianshan Mountains dotted by Loulan, Korla, Chucha, and Aksu, then crossed the Pamirs and led to Mari in Russia. The northern route rambled along the northern foot of the Tianshan Mountains, starting at Hami wound through Turpan, Urumqi, westward reached the Ili River Valley, and led to area as near the Black Sea.

Map of the ancient Silk Road

The three routes of the Silk Road ran between mountain ranges and long edges of deserts, going through oases inhabited by ancient tribes. These tribes also opened some branch roads across mountain passes to join the three routes together.

The ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang traversed desolate desert areas and wound over snow-capped peaks. It was full of difficulties and obstacles and more dangerous and fascinating than other sections of the road. It was the only way for China to get in touch with the West between the second century B.C. and the 10th century A.D. Various ancient cultures of the West and East, including some lost cultures, have left traces of themselves in Xinjiang. Although sections of the Silk Road have been buried by sand in deserts, the local dry climate has miraculously preserved sites and relics several thousand years old. Some relics are as good as they were centuries ago.

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