The How and Why of the Overland Silk Road

Any serious discussion of the history of the Silk Road (Silk Road tours) route needs to address the question of how and why the Silk Road route originated in the first place. The "why" of the Silk Road route is a story in stages, the shortest explanation of which is that the trade aspect of this grand opening up of China over 2000 years ago to the outside world happened by accident, that is, the trade aspect was incidental to an entirely different aspect of what was going on in the China of the Qin (BCE 221-207) and Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty period...


The Xiongnu tribes (Turkic tribes, though the Xiongnu were later referred to as Huns, when they pushed/ migrated westward into first northern, then southern Europe, even sacking Rome in CE 451 under the leadership of Atilla (the Hun), aka the Scourge of God) of the north had moved into the region located immediately north of late 3rd century BCE China (note that whereas the 3rd century CE denotes the period CE 200-300, the 3rd century BCE obviously denotes the period BCE 300-200), driving out the Yuezhi tribes living there who had maintained friendly relations with their Han Chinese neighbors. The Xiongnu tribes, in contrast, were hostile toward their Han Chinese neighbors - very aggressively so, in fact - which is what prompted China's first emperor, Emperor Qin of the Qin Dynasty, to erect the first Great Wall in BCE 214. This wall, initially a makeshift wall that was constructed out of whatever scraps could be found locally, and which therefore had to be repaired constantly, was designed to keep out the bands of marauding Xiongnu that were plaguing the northernmost villages of China.


Eventually, Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty (learn more via China guide), who ruled from BCE 140-87, hatched a clever plan to unite the Han Chinese and the Da Yuezhi ("Great" Yuezhi, but most often written as Dayuezhi) - the latter of whom had not forgotten their enmity toward the Xiongnu - against the selfsame Xiongnu, but Emperor Wu Di's plans were much broader than a simple alliance between the Dayuezhi and the Chinese - he wished to form a picture for himself of the nature of the tribes that lived farther west, what form of society they lived under, what was their form of rule, what they produced, what they ate, what kind of houses they lived in, etc.


Accordingly, a cultivated diplomat, Zhang Qian, was sent westward south of the area controlled by the Xiongnu, partly with the aim of locating the Dayuezhi and partly to simply explore the region, to learn about how the different peoples lived, and to record all of this for the sake of the emperor. At the same time, Zhang Qian was to serve as a a Chinese "ambassador", or model representative of his country, toward his various hosts.


It was years, going on decades, before Zhang Qian returned to the court of Emperor Wu Di to present his "findings" (but the emperor reigned for many, many years, so he was there when his emissary returned). In the meantime, the emperor had lost interest in the alliance with the Dayuezhi, mainly because the Xiongnu problem had been contained with bigger and better fortifications along the new Beijing Great Wall (one well might advance the theory that the westward push/ migration of the Xiongnu cum Huns was owing to their eastern advance being blocked by the Great Wall).


But the emperor was highly interested in the things that his emissary could tell him about China's neighbors to the west (Central Asia) and to the southwest (India). More emissaries were sent out to these capitals bearing gifts, including silk, and slowly an interest in exotic goods from China was sparked in such faraway places as the Parthian capital of Nisa (situated near the city of Ashgabat in present-day Turkmenistan, near the border with present-day Iran) and Rome. The travel accounts - and "findings" - of Zhang Qian appear in the Early Han Dynasty historical chronicles, Records of the Grand Historian (aka Shiji) compiled by Sima Qian, the 1st century BCE "Grand Historian" himself, aka the Father of Chinese Historiography, whose chronicles sketched the ancient history of China from the earliest times - i.e., from the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor, aka the Father of China - to the time of Emperor Wu Di.


The "how" of the Silk Road route (how it came into being) is less complicated but is also inseparable from the "why" of the Silk Road route: the Chinese people, by the time of the Qin and Han Dynasties, had become master craftsmen, skilled in the art of weaving and in the art of silkworm husbandry, which in turn required the careful planting and nurturing of the mulberry tree (family Moraceae) - whose leaves was the food on which the silkworm larvae feed - leading to the creation of that most fantastic of fabrics, silk. But the Han Chinese were also master craftsmen in the use of precious metals, precious stones and ivory to be used in the fashioning of exquisite objects of art. In other words, once the kings of Europe and the princes of Parthia had set their eyes on silk, had discovered the exciting taste of spices, and had seen the exquisitely crafted Chinese works of art made of gold, silver, jade and ivory, they coveted these exotic things.


There are two other subsidiary factors that played a significant role in the opening of the overland Silk Road trade route: the fact that a near-complete route had already been opened from west to east by Alexander the Great, all the way to city of Alexandria Eschate ("Alexandria the Farthest"), aka Khujand in present-day Tajikistan, about 100 kilometers south-southwest of Tashkent in present-day Kyrgyzstan; and to the acquisition of larger horses.


Khujand lies at the western entrance to the Fergana Valley, which in turn lies just north of the narrow, east-west mountainous strip, the Alay Mountains, that divides the Fergana Valley from the Kyzyl Suu Valley, the latter of which, according to Herrmann (as we will see in the next section), is the site of one of the first routes of the overland Silk Road.


The other subsidiary factor that played a significant role in the opening of the overland Silk Road trade route was the fact that the Chinese traders in question, as indicated, had acquired larger horses, which they obtained from the Dayuan people who lived in the aforementioned Fergana Valley; while the Levantine trade caravans used camels, since they crossed vast deserts, their Chinese counterparts preferred horses.


The Dayuan were a large-specimen, fair-haired people who were neither of Turkic or of Chinese origin. This fact, plus the fact that they bred large horses, has convinced many historians that the Dayuan are the descendants of Alexander the Great, blended with the local Bactrians (hence the designation "Greco-Bactrian"), themselves Indo-European migrants who had entered parts of India (India at that time was much larger than present-day India) and the northeastern fringes of what eventually became part of the greater Persian Empire.


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  1. 2013/10/31(木) 12:46:11|
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