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The Silk Road(s): A Short Introduction

The Silk Road(s): A Short Introduction

Defining the Silk Roads

Ferdinand von
(1833 - 1905)
The term Silk Road was coined in 1877 by the German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen. The singular “Die Seidenstraße” (Silk Road) or plural “Seidenstraßen” (Silk Roads) were first used by Richthofen in one of his lectures, but only in the twentieth century these terms became more commonly mentioned by scholars. Since then, the Silk Road has come to mean many things beyond its original usage. You can think of the Silk Road as the original globalisation before the rise of modern globalisation. It is, in a nutshell, the intercultural movement of goods and ideas.

Besides, the well-known overland silk road, there also exists a network of maritime routes, called the Maritime Silk Road. Sometimes referred to as “the Spice Routes” or “Ceramic Routes”, these maritime routes also played a major role in the intercultural interactions between regions in Eurasia. So actually, when we talk about silk roads, the plural form, we should consider both overland and maritime connections. We should also realize that these routes were interlinked and sometimes depended on each other.

Even for experts it is hard to agree on a definite beginning and end date for the Silk Roads. The constant influx of goods and people in the regions involving the Silk Roads brought about a great melting pot of ideas, beliefs, cultures, and knowledge. This process has profoundly influenced the history of many civilizations throughout the landmass of Eurasia, stretching all the way from Japan to Western Europe. We might consider globalisation as a modern phenomenon, but 2000 years it was already pretty common. For instance, a visiting foreign merchant in China would have been granted written passes (like a modern-day passport) and his movements would have been checked by government officials. In this way the Chinese bureaucracy tried to keep track of who was entering and leaving the country. Globalisation is nothing new.

Why Silk?

Silk was, as the name “Silk Road” infers, one of the main commodities traded. Why has silk captured our imagination so much? And why to such an extent as to yield its name to the Silk Road? To the naked eye, silk seems not a normal type of material, for all intents and purposes, it appears almost magical! It is extremely soft, yet fabulously strong and versatile. It keeps you cool on hot days and warm during cold nights. Silk making can be traced back to prehistoric times and in 2016, Chinese scientists found bio-molecular evidence of silk in 8,500-year-old burials in Henan province (Gong et al.). According to a famous Chinese legend, the wife of the Yellow Emperor named Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, first discovered the secret of silk making around 3000 BC. It is said that a silkworm cocoon accidentally dropped in her teacup and after unrolling it she held beautiful and shining threads in her hand. Next, she got the brilliant idea of weaving something out of the fabric. According to the story this was the first silk.

There are scholars who argue that the term Silk Road is misleading and can be problematic when dealing with the complicated histories and prehistories of the regions involved. For instance, Susan Whitfield has argued that the term Silk Road is “a romantic oversimplification of what was a complex economic system involving a network of trade routes” (2007, 203). To solve this problem there have been attempts at renaming parts of the traditional Silk Roads, for instance to spice route, cotton route, tea route etc., hereby emphasising the role of other valuable commodities that were traded. Some scholars believe the focus on silk as a commodity might be too Euro- or Sino-centric (Khodadad 2010; Whitfield 2007). After all, as is recorded by the roman author, Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79), it were the Romans, in particular, who yearned for silk desperately, and it is sometimes believed that the Romans through their spendthrift for silk plunged the whole economy in debt. Nonetheless, to some point the practice of using silk to name this long-distance and intercultural network of routes, is understandable. Silk was one of the most outstanding commodities distributed. Also, compared to other products, such as grains (which easily went rotten), bolts of raw silk were more suitable to be used as currency. Silk is also more of a practical type of currency, and unlike paper money, silk’s worth is more tangible and immediate. Thus, in the ancient world silk became both an international currency and a luxury product.

Main Routes of the Silk Road(s).
Red: Overland Silk Road   Blue: Maritime Silk Road

The Forgotten Route: The Maritime Silk Road

In the early twentieth century a French sinologist Édouard Chavannes (1865 - 1981) was the first one to add the adjective "maritime" to "silk road", hereby creating the term "Maritime Silk Road". His example was followed by a number of Japanese and Chinese scholars and is used up until today. In recent years, seeing the economic benefit of combining the overland and maritime routes, the 'One belt, One Road' policy of the Chinese government, has also stimulated a more widespread circulation of the term Maritime Silk Road. Some scholars, also prefer to use 'routes' instead of 'roads' because this term highlights the aspect of ‘transportation and exchange’, rather than overland connections (Beaujard 2010).

The maritime silk road can be divided into two routes: one that runs from China to the East China Sea linking Japan and the Korean Peninsula; and a second one, connecting the South China Sea with Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. Similar to the overland silk road there was not only the movement and exchange of goods, but also of ideas, cultures and religions. Different was the means of transport that was used. While the overland silk road is known for camels and caravans, maritime routes required special merchant ships that could sail long distances. The advantage of this was that greater volumes of goods could be transported. Finally long-distance maritime trade also relied heavily on technology for navigation. The routes that could be travelled were dependent on sea currents and monsoons. The ship crew also had to consider the risks of unpredictable weather, storms, dangerous straits and piracy.

  • Beaujard Philippe. 2010. From Three Possible Iron-Age World Systems to a Single Afro-Eurasian World-System. Journal of World History 21: 1-43.
  • Chavannes Edouard. 1903. Documents sur les Tou-kiue occidentaux (Documents on the Western Turks.
  • Gong Yuxuan, Li LI, Decai Gong, Hao Yin, Juzhong Zhang. 2016. Biomolecular Evidence of Silk from 8,500 Years Ago. PLoS ONE 11(12): e0168042.
  • Khodadad Rzakhani. 2010. The Road that never was: The Silk Road and Trans-Eurasian Exchange. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30 (3): 420-33.
  • Whitfield Susan. 2007. Was there a Silk Road? Asian Medicine 3: 201-213.

Further Reading 
  • Frankopan Peter. 2017. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Vintage.
  • Hansen Valerie. 2015. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford University Press.
  • Millward James A. 2013. The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
  • Liu Xinru. 2010. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford University Press.


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