18 The Silk Road

Establishment of the Silk Road

Through southern and western conquests, the Han Dynasty of China (206 BCE-220 CE) made contact with the Indian cultural sphere. Emperor Wu repelled the invading barbarians (the Xiongnu, or Huns, a nomadic-pastoralist warrior people from the Eurasian steppe) and roughly doubled the size of the empire, claiming lands that included Korea, Manchuria, and even part of Turkistan. As China pushed its borders further, trade contacts were established with lands to the west, most notably via the Silk Road.

Map of Silk Road
Map of Silk Road. In this map of the Silk Road, red shows the land route and blue shows the maritime route.

The Silk Road was a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction between the West and East. Silk was certainly the major trade item from China, but many other goods were traded as well. These routes enabled strong trade relationships to develop with Persia, India, and the Roman Empire.

Woven Silk Textile
Example of Woven Silk Textile. This woven silk textile from the Western Han era was found at Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province.

Chinese Control of the Silk Road

This expanded western territory became particularly important because of the silk routes. By this century, the Chinese had become very active in the silk trade, though until the Hans provided sufficient protection, the Silk Road had not functioned well because of nomad pirates. Expansion by the Han took place around 114 BCE, led mainly by imperial envoy Zhang Qian. The Great Wall of China was expanded to provide extra protection.

The Tang Dynasty reopened the route in 639 CE, but then lost it to the Tibetans in 678 CE. Control of the Silk Road would shuttle between China and Tibet until 737 CE. This second Pax Sinica helped the Silk Road reach its golden age. China was open to foreign cultures, and its urban areas could be quite cosmopolitan. The Silk Road helped to integrate cultures, but also exposed tribal and pastoral societies to new developments, sometimes causing them to become skilled warriors.

The Mongolian Empire and the Disintegration of the Silk Road

The Mongol Empire, and Pax Mongolica, strengthened and re-established the Silk Road between 1207 and 1360 CE. However, as the Mongol Empire disintegrated, so did the Silk Road. Gunpowder hastened the failing integration, and the Silk Road stopped being a shipping route for silk around 1453 CE. A lasting effect of this was to inspire Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia for trade, including Christopher Columbus’ famous overseas voyage in 1492.

Questions to Consider: What is the impact of the Silk Road on the development of the west? How was western civilization changed as a result of the Silk Road? In addition to trade, what else did the Silk Road contribute? Discovery is always about more than finding new land and new trading partners. In this sense, discovery leads to both positive and negative outcomes. When you think of the discoveries in this module, what positive and negative outcomes can you identify?


Adapted from “The Silk Road” by Boundless is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


The Silk Road and Ancient Trade: Crash Course World History #9.” YouTube, uploaded by Crash Course, 22 Mar. 2012.


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