The Silk Road, International Trade, and Global Prosperity

How do goods, wealth, technology, and culture spread? What is gained or lost in the exchange? Does trade benefit all sides equally? Who sets the terms of international trade?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
China’s ancient capital of Xian became a cosmopolitan melting pot because its position as a crossroad of the Silk Road trading network, a home to Buddhists and Muslims, where almost anything that was for sale in the ancient world could be bought or sold. (Xian, China, 2015.)


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The Silk Road or Silk Route is an ancient network of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East by merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time.

Extending 6,000 kilometers (4,000 miles), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian.  The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their trade products and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route.

Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbors, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes across both land and sea, along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Maritime routes were an important part of this network, linking East and West by sea, and were used for the trade of spices in particular, thus becoming known as the Spice Routes.

Crowds still gather in Xian’s bustling street market to taste food both exotic and familiar. (Xian, China, 2015.)

These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities however: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.

Court Ladies of the Tang Dynasty Producing Silk.
Court Ladies of the Tang Dynasty Producing Silk.

Silk Production and the Silk Trade 

Silk is a textile of ancient Chinese origin, woven from the protein fibre produced by the silkworm to make its cocoon, and was developed, according to Chinese tradition, sometime around the year 2,700 BC. Regarded as an extremely high value product, it was reserved for the exclusive usage of the Chinese imperial court for the making of cloths, drapes, banners, and other items of prestige. Its production was kept a fiercely guarded secret within China for some 3,000 years, with imperial decrees sentencing to death anyone who revealed to a foreigner the process of its production. Tombs in the Hubei province dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC contain outstanding examples of silk work, including brocade, gauze and embroidered silk, and the first complete silk garments.

The Chinese monopoly on silk production however did not mean that the product was restricted to the Chinese Empire – on the contrary, silk was used as a diplomatic gift, and was also traded extensively, first of all with China’s immediate neighbours, and subsequently further afield, becoming one of China’s chief exports under the Han dynasty (206 BC –220 AD). Indeed, Chinese cloths from this period have been found in Egypt, in northern Mongolia, and elsewhere.

At some point during the 1st century BC, silk was introduced to the Roman Empire, where it was considered an exotic luxury and became extremely popular, with imperial edicts being issued to control prices. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages, with detailed Byzantine regulations for the manufacture of silk clothes, illustrating its importance as a quintessentially royal fabric and an important source of revenue for the crown. Additionally, the needs of the Byzantine Church for silk garments and hangings were substantial. This luxury item was thus one of the early impetuses in the development of trading routes from Europe to the Far East. 


Knowledge about silk production was very valuable and, despite the efforts of the Chinese emperor to keep it a closely guarded secret, it did eventually spread beyond China, first to India and Japan, then to the Persian Empire and finally to the west in the 6th century AD. This was described by the historian Procopius, writing in the 6th century:         >>>


“About the same time [ca. 550 AD] there came from India certain monks… They said that […] they learned perfectly the art of making silk. Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk… the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises of the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire.”


Beyond Silk; a diversity of routes and cargo

Statue of a Foreign Merchant, Tang Dynasty.
Statue of a Foreign Merchant, Tang Dynasty. (Xian, China, 2015.)

However, while the silk trade was one of the earliest catalysts for the trade routes across Central Asia, it was only one of a wide range of products that was traded between east and west, and which included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and much more. Indeed, the Silk Roads became more popular and increasingly well-traveled over the course of the Middle Ages, and were still in use in the 19th century, a testimony not only to their usefulness but also to their flexibility and adaptability to the changing demands of society. Nor did these trading paths follow any one trail – merchants had a wide choice of different routes crossing a variety of regions of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East, as well as the maritime routes, which transported goods from China and South East Asia through the Indian Ocean to Africa, India and the Near East.


These routes developed over time and according to shifting geopolitical contexts throughout history. For example, merchants from the Roman Empire would try to avoid crossing the territory of the Parthians, Rome’s enemies, and therefore took routes to the north, across the Caucasus region and over the Caspian Sea. Similarly, whilst extensive trade took place over the network of rivers that crossed the Central Asian steppes in the early Middle Ages, their water levels rose and fell, and sometimes dried up altogether, and trade routes shifted accordingly.
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Maritime trade was another extremely important branch of this global trade network. Most famously used for the transportation of spices, the maritime trade routes have also been known as the Spice Roads, supplying markets across the world with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmeg from the Moluccas islands in Indonesia (known as the Spice Islands), as well as a wide range of other goods. Textiles, woodwork, precious stones, metalwork, incense, timber, and saffron were all traded by the merchants travelling these routes, which stretched over 15,000 kilometers, from the west coast of Japan, past the Chinese coast, through South East Asia, and past India to reach the Middle East and so to the Mediterranean.


In the late 15th century, the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, navigated round the Cape of Good Hope, thereby connecting European sailors with these South East Asian maritime routes for the first time and initiating direct European involvement in this trade.  By the 16th and 17th centuries, these routes and their lucrative trade had become subject of fierce rivalries between the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. The conquest of ports along the maritime routes brought both wealth and security, as they effectively governed the passage of maritime trade and also allowed ruling powers to claim monopolies on these exotic and highly sought-after goods, as well as gathering the substantial taxes levied on merchant vessels.


Most often, individual merchant caravans would cover specific sections of the routes, pausing to rest and replenish supplies, or stopping altogether and selling on their cargos at points throughout the length of the roads, leading to the growth of lively trading cities and ports. The Silk Roads were dynamic and porous; goods were traded with local populations throughout, and local products were added into merchants’ cargos. This process enriched not only the merchants’ material wealth and the variety of their cargos, but also allowed for exchanges of culture, language and ideas to take place along the Silk Roads.
Modern street market in Xian, the traditional Chinese terminus of Silk Road Trade.
Modern street market in Xian, the traditional Chinese terminus of Silk Road Trade. (Xian, China, 2015.)

Trade of Ideas


Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Silk Roads has been their role in bringing cultures and peoples in contact with each other, and facilitating exchange between them. On a practical level, merchants had to learn the languages and customs of the countries they travelled through, in order to negotiate successfully. Cultural interaction was a vital aspect of material exchange. Moreover, many travellers ventured onto the Silk Roads in order to partake in this process of intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the routes. Knowledge about science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies was shared across the Silk Roads, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other. One of the most famous technical advances to have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Roads was the technique of making paper, as well as the development of printing press technology. Similarly, irrigation systems across Central Asia share features that were spread by travelers who not only carried their own cultural knowledge, but also absorbed that of the societies in which they found themselves.


Indeed, the man who is often credited with founding the Silk Roads by opening up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, General Zhang Qian, was on a diplomatic mission rather than a trading expedition. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor Wudi to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them. Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighboring peoples, establishing early routes from China to Central Asia. 

The Spread of Buddhism followed trade routes in the centuries after its foundation in India.
The spread of Buddhism followed trade routes in the centuries after its foundation in India.

Religion and a quest for knowledge were further inspirations to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654 AD) not only has an enormous historical value, but also inspired a comic novel in the sixteenth century, the ‘Pilgrimage to the West’, which has become one of the great Chinese classics. During the Middle Ages, European monks undertook diplomatic and religious missions to the east, notably Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a mission to the Mongols from 1245 to 1247, and William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by King Louis IX of France again to the Mongol hordes from 1253 to 1255. Perhaps the most famous was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292, and whose account of his experiences became extremely popular in Europe after his death.

Buddhism arrived from India along established trade routes, eventually becoming more popular in China than in the Buddha’s own homeland. (Dazu, China, 2015.)
This mosque in the heart of Xian is a lasting testament to the cultural exchanges that occurred along the Silk Road. (Xian, China, 2015.)

The routes were also fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism is one example of a religion that travelled the Silk Roads, with Buddhist art and shrines being found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread in the same way, as travellers absorbed the cultures they encountered and then carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Road merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from India and Arabia.

Caravanserai were roadside inns instrumental to the spread of culture and religions such as Buddhism and Islam along the Silk Road.
Caravanserai were roadside inns instrumental to the spread of culture and religions such as Buddhism and Islam along the Silk Road.

Travelling the Silk Roads



Some stretches of the Silk Road crossed remote or treacherous countryside – beautiful, but at times beyond the protection of any government authority and susceptible to poor weather conditions.  This was no Sunday drive. (Huashan, China, 2015.)

The process of travelling the Silk Roads developed along with the roads themselves. In the Middle Ages, caravans consisting of horses or camels were the standard means of transporting goods across land. Caravanserais, large guest houses or inns designed to welcome travelling merchants, played a vital role in facilitating the passage of people and goods along these routes. Found along the Silk Roads from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with local markets and buy local products, and to meet other merchant travellers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserais became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserais that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, many of which still stand today.

Caravanserais were ideally positioned within a day’s journey of each other, so as to prevent merchants (and more particularly, their precious cargos) from spending days or nights exposed to the dangers of the road. On average, this resulted in a caravanserai every 30 to 40 kilometres in well-maintained areas.

Camel caravans were one of the most effective ways to move goods overland; without this animal, hearty and capable of covering large distances under extreme conditions, there would likely have been no Silk Road as we know it. (Xian, China, 2015.)

Maritime traders had different challenges to face on their lengthy journeys. The development of sailing technology, and in particular of ship-building knowledge, increased the safety of sea travel throughout the Middle Ages. Ports grew up on coasts along these maritime trading routes, providing vital opportunities for merchants not only to trade and disembark, but also to take on fresh water supplies, with one of the greatest threats to sailors in the Middle Ages being a lack of drinking water. Pirates were another risk faced by all merchant ships along the maritime Silk Roads, as their lucrative cargos made them attractive targets. 


Text adapted in part (and with permission) from UNESCO’s Silk Road Online Platform – a great resource to expand your learning on this subject.


The Bottom Line

  1. Create a travel guide for an ancient trader on the Silk Road circa 800 AD. Include a route map with major civilizations and their products, major cities, caravanserais, and specific hazards a trader may face along the way. Be sure to also answer questions like, what ideas – novel technologies, customs, and religions – are moving between these civilizations.
  2. Design a chart that lists the items in the room around you by their locations of manufacture.  Check labels on the items themselves or, when all else fails, ask Google.
  3. Speculate/Research: Choose one of the items that you use every day.  Who physically made this item – were they rich or poor, young or old, male or female?  Under what conditions do they live and work?  Was this item cheap or expensive – why?  Who got most of the money that you or your parents paid – the worker or the corporation whose logo appears on the item?  Consider yourself, the worker, and the corporation – who are the economic winners and losers in this system?  How would your life and the lives of Chinese workers be different if this trade connection did not exist?
  4. Research: What are the primary exports of U.S. to China and the rest of the world?  What are China’s primary exports to the U.S.?   What is the estimated value of trade in both directions?  What kind of modern cultural exchange might accompany this economic exchange?  (Consider examining Hollywood’s relationship with China or the US export of recycling waste to China.)
  5. Use to examine cargo shipping around the globe.  What patterns do you notice?  Where are the ships most densely clustered?  Find a large port near your hometown – where are these ships coming from and going to?  Can you determine roughly how long it takes for a ship to travel between China and the US?  Choose several ships and check back in on them over the coming days or weeks – do you notice a route or a pattern for this specific ship, how long it takes to complete this pattern, and so on?
  6. Compare and contrast trade along the Silk Road with modern trade networks.  How have changes in technology changed both how goods are traded – and what is traded?  Does more or less international trade happen now?  Does more or less cultural exchange happen now?  Is trade a force for good or ill in the world?
  7. For Discussion: What kind of resources are involved in the manufacture and transportation of new goods?  Are there more responsible ways to consume?   Ways to avoid consumption all together?


China’s rugged countryside might be more enjoyable on a modern hike, rather than on a life-or-death, do-or-die Silk Road merchant run. (Heishan Valley, China, 2015.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume One – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.

Transmissions from the Emperor’s Heavenly Ford Volume Two – A diary of my time teaching English in China, originally published as a zine in 2011.