The Taklimakan desert, which has little to no rainfall, has stymied travelers throughout history. The desert serves as a sort of separation between China and Western Asia. In ancient times, trade caravans moved through the oases located along the edge of the desert.
To further illustrate the harshness of the region, the Gobi desert borders Taklimakan to the northeast. The Himalaya, Kunlun and Karakorum mountain ranges lie to the south. Green climbs lie to the north and west with Tianshan and Pamir mountain ranges. Therefore, the easiest way through the region was via the “Gansu Corridor.” This area runs along the bottom of the Qilian mountains.
To the west of the route, Alexander the Great conquered the Persians around 330 BCE. By this time, Persia had become a cultural crossroads in Asia with influences from India and the Greeks. Over time this region, just south of Karakorum’s ranges, was conquered by various armies, including those from Syria and Parthia. Soon, the Yuezhi, from the northern border of the Taklimakan desert, arrived after being driven out of their home by the Xiongnu, who came to be known as the Huns. The Yuezhi came as converts to Buddhism.
These people became known as the Kushan and their culture was referred to as the Gandhara. Their culture adopted not only the Buddhism of the Peshawar region but also the introduced Greek culture brought by Alexander’s army. Notably, the Kushan were the first Buddhists to depict the Buddha in human form.
To the east of the route, Qin Shi Huangdi unified China to found the Qin Dynasty. Although the Qin seemed to introduce brutal reforms, the Chinese language began to become standardized. This unified empire’s capital was Changan.
Prior to the Qin unification, the Xiongnu invaded from the north more frequently. The northern Chinese states attempted to thwart these invasions by constructing walls. Post unification, the Qin worked to fill the gaps in the various sections of the walls. This build up signifies the beginnings of the Great Wall of China.
The Qin Dynasty lasted a mere fifteen years and was succeeded by the Han Dynasty. The Han continued construction of the Great Wall. During this time, the Han became aware that the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi even further west. A recognizance mission was arranged by the Han in the hope of an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu.
Zhang Qian headed this mission in 138 BCE. He returned home with tales about other places in the west previously unknown as well as a bigger type of horse that would help the Han army’s cavalry. However, after being held captive for ten years by the Xiongnu, Zhang Qian found the Yuezhi had no desire to ally with the Han. Still, once home, Zhang Qian captivated the emperor’s curiosity with what the mission had seen and encountered. The emperor continued to send out delegations to the west, possibly as far as Persia.
The Han delegations returned home with different objects and artwork, especially religious art of the Gandhara. Even then, some Chinese silk and other goods were slowly reaching the Roman-conquered Greeks. Most likely these goods were passed through the hands of individual merchants.
Although trade between East and West was termed the “Silk Road” in the nineteenth century by German scholar Ferdinand von Richtofen, the route actually had many branches. These routes started in Changan and went through the Gansu corridor. In the north, the route crossed part of the Gobi desert. In the south, the route went along the edges of the desert. Other routes branched off of these main arteries. Kashgar was important center that led to Samarkand, the Caspian Sea and India.
The Silk Road did not exclusively deal in silk. Many goods were traded along the routes. Ivory, gold, animals and plants were among other commodities. Of course, silk was what amazed those in the West. Silk naturally absorbs dye so much so that the colors come out vivid and deep.
Eastward headed caravans brought gold, ivory and precious stones and metals to China. Westward caravans carried ceramics, jade, bronze and iron. Most of these materials did not follow a direct route. They were often traded repeatedly between different posts until they reached their destinations. The middleman controlled each small market along the way, so that, by the time goods reached their destination, the price was exorbitant.
Inevitably, where money can be made, nefarious activity will develop. The Han soon found problems occurring along the trade routes. Bandits took to ransacking caravans as they passed along the Gansu corridor. Defending their goods caused merchants extra cost.
As the caravans moved further from the center of the capital, the Han faced the difficulty of protecting its goods. Forts and walls helped to bridge this security gap. Portions of the Great Wall were constructed on the north side of the Gansu corridor in an attempt to hold back the Xiongnu.
The Great Wall’s importance to the protection and evolution of the Silk Road helped to maintain Chinese presence throughout the region. It also helped to serve the transmigration of ideas, religion and art. Buddhism came to China from Gandhara along the Silk Road.
Buddhist artwork inspired by these interactions dating from the second century CE has turned up in Sichuan. By the seventh century CE, Buddhism reached central China and the Tibetan plateau. Cave paintings have been uncovered that depict various ethnic groups that help to back up this interaction and influence. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, different practices and groups emerged. Among these sects developed the Chan, now known as Zen Buddhism, which has flourished in Japan.
Christianity even saw an early growth along the Silk Road. A sect known as the Nestorians was driven out of the Roman Church in the fifth century CE. Its adherents settled in Persia. Within two centuries, their faith spread to Changan. It survived until the fourteenth century.
The Silk Road trade routes tied together thought, art and innovation of the East and the West. It helped spawn the European age of exploration and the growth of Chinese culture.The trade on the Silk Road also saw the massive construction of the Great Wall. In addition to holding back invasions, the purpose of the Great Wall of China was to help protect trade along the Silk Road.
As history and archaeology are uncovered, more information is learned about the importance of the Great Wall and the Silk Road. The role of both continues as historians uncover more about them. The region remains vital to the ongoing history of civilization.