The Silk Road in China

Natascha in the Taklamakan desert near Dunhuang

„Silk Road“ – that evokes images of oriental cities and caravans laden with huge bundles of silk, making their way through endless deserts and over rough mountain passes. While the term “Silk Road” was only coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870s, the original Silk Road from China to the West is of course much older. It was established around the middle of the first century BC. By then, camels had been domesticated for the first time. That was important as horses wouldn’t survive the long desert stages. Caravans then started to transport silk, which was highly in demand in ancient Rome, on the direct route from Asia to Europe.

Silk was not the only commodity on the Silk Road, however. The traders also brought spices, carved jade, and medical rhubarb (against constipation) from China to the West. In the opposite direction they transported horses, glassware, gold and silver goods.

Apart from commodities, religions (most prominently Buddhism, but also Manichaeism and Nestorianism), fashion, music, and life style traveled on the Silk Road. This was how Polo, imported from Persia, became a popular recreational sport. Western chairs replaced the Asian floor mats during China’s Tang Dynasty. In the opposite direction the Chinese noodle found its way to Italy.

Terracotta warriors in Xian

A network of trading roads from China to the West

Entrance to the desert and the ancient silk: Jiayuguan Fortress

Just as the Silk Road was not only a road for trading silk, it was also not a single road. In fact it was a whole network of roads. All of them originated from Xian. Beyond Dunhuang the vast Taklamakan desert begins. Its name originally means “go and you will not come out.”

Thus, the road splits into a more direct and dangerous Southern route (Loulan – Hotan – Kashgar) and a Northern route that circumnavigates the desert along the course of today’s railway line, passing the oasis towns of Hami, Turfan, and Kucha. Both routes meet in Kashgar, only to split again. Traders could move over the Pamirs towards Pakistan and India or westwards to Samarkand, Bukhara, and Merv, continuing via Persia to Turkey and Europe.

The trade along the Silk Road reached its peak during political stability of the Tang Dynasty, which was briefly resumed under Mongol rule (under Kublai Khan) in the 13th century. But with the discovery of new sea routes (Cape of Good Hope) the Silk Road lost its importance.

What remains of the Silk Road

Today, not that much is left of the glorious past. In the early 20th century, Western and Japanese archeologists competed in digging out as many relics as they could, taking away the best-preserved statues, frescoes and manuscripts. The most beautiful artifacts of the Silk Road are now in London, Berlin, Tokyo and Washington. From today’s perspective it does look like theft and vandalism, and indeed official notices in some of the empty caves accuse the foreigners of imperialist arrogance.

Fresco from the Kizil grottoes on the Chinese silk road
This Silk Road fresco is now in a Berlin museum

But seeing the current state of the sights changed our point of view somewhat. The Western archeologists (who acted in a legal framework) all regretted in their expedition diaries that they could only take a small part of the beautiful artwork. But today almost none of the remaining frescoes are intact. Many of the defacements are apparently caused by Fanatic Muslims and Red Guards in the 20th century. Ignorant Chinese tourists have left countless graffittis in the caves. As we mentioned before, the restoration work undertaken by the Chinese often seems to lack scholarly and/ or scientific backing. Thus, the “stolen” artifacts in Western museums are much better preserved and protected than those the explorers had left behind.

Mao statue Kashgar, China

For further information on the (Chinese) Silk Road we recommend:

Peter Hopkirk: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. (The story of the foreign archaeologists’ race for Silk Road artifacts)

Mildred Cable and Francisca French: The Gobi Desert. (Life in the Gobi desert as observed by three travelling missionaries in the 1910s to 1930s, unfortunately out of print)

Berlin: Museum für Indische Kunst (Some of the most famous frescoes were lost in WWII, but there is still a lot to see)

Tokyo: 東京国立博物館 (not quite as good, but they do display a number of their Silk Road items)

In the British Museum in London, almost none of Sir Aurel Stein’s finds are displayed.

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