Yellow Emperor Establishes Middle Kingdom. Cultural Geography of Silk Road.
In 2597 BCE the Mythical hero Hung-di or the Yellow Emperor established the first Chinese Empire or the “Middle Kingdom” in the Yellow River basin. His lady Hsi – Ling – Shih invented seri culture and the silk loom. During this time Silk was used only by the Emperor, Empress and the Royal family. His immediate descendants developed the I-Ching or the book of change, which determined the “Dao” or“ the (right) way” through a unique system of divination. Thereafter Middle Kingdom was expanded towards the east coast in a north easterly and south easterly direction. They consolidated cultivable lands, established a monetary economy and lay the foundation for grandest of all the civilization.
North of Middle Kingdom consisting the Gobi Desert and Mongolian Steppe was inhabited by a wild nomadic tribe called “Xiongnu”. To the immediate west lay a rack of rugged and undulating highlands called “Hexi Corridor” serving as natural conduit to Lopnor depression and Takla Makan desert which lay beyond. The oasis of Lopnor and Taklamakan were inhabited by an agricultural tribe called the “Yuezhi” who were Caucasians.
The Lopnor and Takla Makan are a desert land lock fortified on all three sides by high mountains. The passes of Tian Shan Mountains to the north offer passages to Mongolian Steppes and an easy but distant, circumambulatory passage to the Western world via pastures of Farguna. After crossing dangerous heights and glaciers, the passes of mighty Pamir and Karakoram on the west leads directly to Bactria and India. Because of the vastness and ever frozen climatic condition, the passes of the Tibetan Plateau to the south of Taklamakan is a non – option even though it also leads to India.
2100 to 1600 BCE
Dynasties of Ancient Historical Period. Zhou proclaims The Mandate of Heaven.
After Yellow Emperor the Middle Kingdom witnesses’ two powerful dynasties, The Xia and The Shang, rise and fall before the mighty Zhou Dynasty took over in 1100 BCE. During this time Silk was used for making Tunics, Brocade, drapes and other forms of decorative; besides the Royal families and nobles, common people also used Silk as ceremonial attire.
About this time the primordial value system of the Chinese people known as the “Mandate of Heaven” was proclaimed by the Zhou. By virtue of the mandate the Emperor could rule Middle Kingdom as he or she deemed t. Since Heavenly Spirit gave the mandate, the Emperor is considered to be virtuous, righteous, benevolent and unchallengeable. However, the mandate also bestowed upon anyone in the Middle Kingdom to lead a rebellion. The Emperor’s “Dao” is to prove his mandate by crushing the rebellion. Losing to a rebellion meant the “Dao” is deled and the mandate is lost. Regardless of their background Mandate of Heaven is bestowed on anyone who succeeded in leading a rebellion and subdued other competing factions and established a new Dynasty.
770 BCE to 256 BCE
Spring and Autumn & the Warring States Period. Birth of Great Wall and Proclamation of The Mandate of Heaven. Confucius, Laozi and Sun Tsu.
Between 776 and 476 BCE the Zhou’s Mandate was challenged by their vassals, who raised fortification to set defenses against the “Xiongnu’s” and led their respective rebellion without external interference’s. In the process they gave birth to the Great Wall. In 476 BCE Zhou Dynasty lost their mandate and for the next two hundred- and fifty years Middle Kingdom is fragmented into seven warring states. They developed horse tracks into the Gobi to fight the hostile “Xiongny” and to build allies with the friendly“Yuezhi’s”. These developments can be considered as birth of the Chinese Silk Road. During this period the Chinese value system are cast in stone with the teachings of three great philosophers – Laozi’s Taoism, Confucius’s Confucianism and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The three philosophies together with I-Ching are the four corners stone of Chinese people’s fundamental belief and the values that manifest from it.
221 BCE to 206 BCE
Qin Dynasty: Shi Huang build Great Wall Terracotta Warriors.
In 221 BCE “Qin Shi Huang”, won the mandate. He consolidated the fragmented Middle Kingdom and established the Qin Dynasty. In a short span of 20 years he completed the biggest endeavor of mankind by fortifying the Middle Kingdom with a 5000 Kilometers wall. He cleared the desperate “Xiongnu” tribes from the Hexi Corridor to their homeland in Mongolian steppes where for the first time they confederate into a Kingdom. Thereafter Qin Shi Huans built a massive mausoleum for himself, filled it with thousands of terracotta warriors and died leaving his successors with a bankrupt economy and a peasant upraising.
206 BCE to 220 CE
Han Dynasty – Birth of Silk Road & Early Jade Trade. Yuezhis Leave Taklamakan and become Kushans in Bactria. Silk Trade begins with the western World. Buddhism comes to China. North and South Silk Road established.
In 206 BCE the heavens mandate is bestowed on the Han Dynasty. Sometime later the “Xiongnu’s” return to the Taklamakan with increased valour and organization. To counter them the Han extended the Silk Road and built walls and garrisons in the Oasis of Taklamakan. The friendly“Yuezhi’s” of the Oasis become the pioneers of Silk Road Trade by stockpiling Han garrisons with Jade in return for Silk. The Jade trade came to an cruel halt in 165 BCE when “Xiongnu” captured the “Yeuzhi” capital, beheaded their King and drank wine form the skull as was tradition.
Existential fear compels “Yuezhi” to abandon the city-states of Taklamakan and begin their 25 years westward migration along the Northern and Southern rim of the desert. Their journey leave trails of what eventually became the North and South Silk Road.
In 128 BC they crossed the Pamirs, bypassed Farguna valley and reached the land of present-day Samarkand, where a King of Greek origin was ruling a country called Bactria, one of the six Greek principalities that was created by Alexander the Great in the cross roads of India and Persia during his retreat. Bactria had a large population of nomads and traders including Sogdian Zoroastrians, Graco Romans, Tocharians and small population of Jews and Mauryan Buddhists. After winning confidence of its people, “Yuezhis” overthrow the Bactrian ruler, and establish the“Kushan” empire encompassing. All of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the whole of Northern India. Later, “Kushan’s” adopted Buddhism as their state religion and establish peaceful trade and cultural relations in Indo Roman trade corridor. Subsequently they moved their capital from Bactra to Taxila to Peshawar and Finally to Mathura in India. In the meanwhile, Wudi The Great inherits Han Dynasty at a time when Silk is no longer a luxury merchandise. it becomes a commodity that could be grown, harvested and traded like grains. When Wudi learn about the “Yuezhi’s” establishment he dispatched general Zheng Qian to bring back horses from Farguna with the help of “Yuezhi’s”. In return Han would commit to support “Yuezhi’s” to avenge their defeat by the “Xiongnu”. To the General’s surprise “Yuezhi’s” or “Kushan” are no longer interested in revenge. Instead they introduce the general to the western world and encourage them to expand the silk trade using“Kushan” as conduits.
Impressed by “Kushans” offer Wudi decided to prepare the Middle Kingdom for international trade. He decreed capital punishment for anyone who exported silk worms or knowledge of seri culture. He ordered full edged work to develop the silk road, built more bastions and beacon towers, deployed troops and integrated the city states of the Taklamakan into the Silk Road trade by allowing the newly settled local inhabitants to provide shelter and supplies for the trade caravans. Very soon the Silk Road became the world’s largest trade corridor bringing enormous wealth to China. Shortly thereafter Wudi dispatched a successful second mission to invite emissaries of Western nations to China. When an arrogant Greco Roman King of Farguna insulted him by killing his envoy, confiscating his gold and refusing to sell their horses he demonstrates the Han might in central Asia by dispatching 6000 horse men and 20000 warriors who brought back a thousand “Heavenly Horses” of Farguna and the severed head of the arrogant King. With the ever-growing increase in trade volume the political, social and cultural relations with “Kushans” had far reaching c o n s e q u e n c e s especially because t h e S o g d i a n a n d Jewish traders began settling in city-states of Taklamakan and integrating with the local communities. Besides, Buddhism began taking roots in the Silk road and China.
This resulted in dramatic growth and development of city states as intermediaries of Silk Road merchandise. Instead of plying the entire Silk Road traders could now sell their merchandise and caravans in an intermediary city that offered best prices, hire mercenaries for protection and return on a home bound caravan.
In first century CE word got around that Emperor Kanishka of “Kushan” supported reformation in Buddhism and dispatched missionary across the world. Emperor Ming of Han dispatched a delegation to India to bring back teachers and scriptures of Buddha. In 68 CE the delegation returns from India with two monks mounted on white horses and Buddhist scriptures. Impressed by this gesture Emperor Ming built the first Buddhist temple in Luoyang and named it the “White horse Temple”.
Considering that fourth Buddhist Council was held four years after this event, the White Horse Temple could very well be the first Mahayana Temple outside India. With the states support and the flexibility of the progressive order the translators could imbue Taoism and other Chinese spiritual elements to concoct a variation of Buddhism that suited China. About the same time Kanishka expanded his Empire to including many city states of Takla Makan including Hotan, Kashgar and Kuqa, and as a result Mahayana Buddhism became the dominant religion of Silk Road region and China.
220 CE to 581 CE
Warring Factions. Buddhist Grottos appear in Taklamakan. Faxian Travels to India. Bodhi Dharma comes to China. Uygurs migrate to Lopnor and Taklamakan.
By 220 CE both Kushan and Han become history. With no one having the heaven’s mandate in the Middle Kingdom coupled with void of the “Kushans” exit the Silk Road trade was impacted severely for the next 370 years. China is once again split into many Kingdoms who send missions after missions to India, including Faxian a pilgrim who left detailed account of his land expedition. Religion replaces trade as main purpose of Silk Road. Some of the city states of Takla Makan become fully developed Kingdoms, including Khotan and Turfan.
Buddhist Monks wandering in Silk Road from India take shelter in the rock caves of Taklamakan and dig out small Grottos (Caves) to meditate. As Buddhist spreads its influence the ruling Kings donate generously to hire Indian and Central Asian artisans and build temples with enough room for devotees to worship and conduct rituals. Walls and pillars are adorned with sculptures and colourful visual art to serve as illustration for recitals of sutras and depicting scenes from Buddha’s life. Jataka Stories are carefully picked to ensure that the message and thought are aligned with Confucianism, thereby preserving the Chinese culture. End of this period sees three major developments in the Takla Makan and Lopnor region.
First, foreign influence in Buddhist cave art declines and conveys that Chinese Buddhist institution with elements of Confucius and Taoist philosophy is complete. Second, Buddhist Uygurs of Atlai Mountains in Mongolia migrate and integrate with the city-states. Third, a Buddhist monk from South of India by name Bodhi Dharma walks the Silk Road, settles in hills of Denfeng. He establishes the Shaolin Temple and fathers Chan Buddhism or Zen and a primordial eight stance martial art form which eventually manifests as Kung-Fu.
581 CE to 618 CE
Sui Dynasty: Rebuilding Silk Road Trade. Gigantic Buddha Temples of Luoyang Grotto built. begins. Privileges for Donors and Traders.
In 581 CE Wendi a warlord of one of the warring factions gets the Heaven’s Mandate and establishes the Sui Dynasty. Sui’s begin rebuilding China, by reconstructing the Great Wall, developing the largest and most sophisticated army of the period and restructuring bureaucracy, civil services and monetary system. They revive Silk Road trade not only with the new monetary system, but by also offering privileges for traders who donate for Buddhist religion. As a result many existing grottos are expanded and new temples were build including the gigantic statues of Luoyang Grotto. Like the Qin, the Sui Dynasty achieves great heights in a very short span of 30 years and stretch themselves to bankruptcy and leave a grand legacy behind.
618 CE to 970 CE
Tang Dynasty: Tang Dynasty revive silk road trade. Third Corridor around Tian Shan mountains. Foreigners settle in Xian. Uygurs migrate from Atlai to Taklamakan. Islamisation of Taklamakan begins.
In 618 CE the Tang Dynasty succeeds the Sui Dynasty. The second Tang Emperor Tai-Tsung, was familiar with the ways of desert nomads since he was raised in Hexi Corridor. Eager to accelerate the Silk Road trade he decides to develop an alternative route that will circumvent the Tian Shan, Pamirs and Karakoram and reach central Asia via present day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In preparation for its he launched a massive campaign into Mongolia, subdued the nomads and cleared the passage. His successor, an Empress called “Wu Zetian” defeated the Turks of Mongolian steppes and drives them deep into west Asia where after many centuries they overthrown they become the Ottoman’s of Eurasia. After this campaign Silk Road flourishes like never before because Tang rulers established 25 permanent missions in west and South Asian countries to promote trade through the Silk Road. Three different options of Silk Road were made available to the merchant caravans when they enter the Tang territory. Prosperous towns inhabited by resident Uygurs and Sogdians merchants adorned the three roads. Merchants could hire animal stables, warehouses, auctioneers. They could stay in inns and socialize in eateries, bars and brothels. Caravans of all the three roads would culminate in gates of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan and commence on a grand parade of the Hexi Corridor until they enter the city walls of Xi’an. In a few years China reaches its “Golden Age” an era of incredible opulence and prosperity. In 742 CE Xi’an grew to be city of 2 million people. Due to the cosmopolitan culture and the liberal policies of the Tang rulers thousands of Indians, Jews, Persians, Turks, Uygurs, Malays and Japanese immigrated as business men, missionaries, artists and traders.
About this time the secret of silk production is leaked to the western nations and therefore Silk is no longer a Chinese monopoly. However, the drop in silk exports is compensated by many other Chinese innovations that commanded very high prices in the western world. The list included ceramic sculptures and bone china table ware, tea and lacquer. Imported goods included gem stones from Byzantine, Medicine and spices from India, rare plants and animals form Central Asia. During this period Huan Tsang, walked the North Silk Road from Xian to Nalanda in India and returned via the South Silk Road making detailed account of his experiences in India.
Towards the latter half of Tang Dynasty, Islam’s expansion into Persia and Central Asia impacts the Silk Road trade. The reason being the influence of Sogdian’s, the Zoroastrian enablers of trade are curtailed as their counterparts in central Asia flee from Mohammedan prosecution. Shortly thereafter Muslim traders immigrate in to China in big numbers; they integrate with the Chinese, revive the trade and replace of Sogdians in the Silk Road.
970 CE to 1368 CE
Failure of the Five Dynasties. Song Dynasty settle Jews in China. Genjis Khan’s westward expansion. Kublai Khan becomes the first Mongol Emperor of China. Complete Islamisation of Taklamakan and Lopnor.
230 years of continuous prosperity comes to an end in 907 CE when Tang loses the mandate and China plunges into chaos once again. The Five succeeding contending Dynasties were unable to revive the trade but like the warring kingdoms of the past they make rich additions to Buddhist grottos. One of the ruling clans regarded Buddhism as means of stability and expanded the caves to gigantic proportions. They also set up an art academy to develop artisans. Despite all these efforts they could not innovate anything new other than including donors in the murals and making some minor improvements to the grottos.
The Song Dynasty, which wins the Mandate in 960 CE, does very little to Silk Road because they get busy with ship building and introducing maritime trade. Large population of Jews leave the city states of Takla Makan and integrate with Chinese community and settle forever in the Middle Kingdom.
In 1206 CE several nomadic factions of the Mongolian steppes consolidate into a united force under the leadership of Genghis Khan. They destroy many city-states of the Silk Road, including Jiaohe, Gochang, Subashini and Kucha as they go storming into Eurasia. His grandson Kublai Khan turns his attention to China, wins the Mandate of Heaven in 1279 and establishes the Yuan Dynasty. Trade is restored once again and traffic show considerable increase because Silk Road becomes the main means of communication to western frontiers of Khans Empire. Under Khans patronage new caves are dug and adorned with ritual art of Tibetan Buddhism.
Towards the end of Yuan Dynasty Islam engulfs the whole of Taklamakan and Lopnor because the entire Uygur population converts in to Islam. The rise of Ottoman Empire in the far west, spread of Islam in Central Asia dominance of Muslim traders in Silk Road integration of many Muslim Kingdoms into the Mongolian empire, conversion of Ugyurs and the increase in ethnic Muslim population leads to dramatic rise in Muslim population of China. Muslim occupy powerful positions in the Yuan Empire.
1398 CE to 1911 CE
Ming Dynasty Extend Great Wall. Increase in Maritime trade effects Silk Road Trade. Non-Muslims evacuate Taklamakan. Manchu Dynasty change in trade policy.
The Ming Dynasty wins the Mandate of Heaven in 1368 and inherits many Muslims in its bureaucracy, council of ministers and army. They reinforce and extend the Great Wall as we see it today, but show little interest in the Silk Road trade. The nomads retreat to the Steppes of Mongolia because on one hand the Ming Walls are impenetrable and on the other hand there are no more caravans plying the desert. With complete Islamisation of Taklamakan the Sogdians, Christians and Jews migrate to Xian leaving the Uygurs behind. Ming Emperor Yongle t akes Chinas sea trade to historical heights. He dispatched admiral Zheng- He on seven consecutive maritime expeditions to Malaya, Burma, Indonesia, Srilanka, India, Arabia and East Africa. Expeditions were dispatched with a large fleet of 62 treasure ships. Each treasure ship had four stories, eleven masts and measured 450 feet in length and 210 feet in breath and displaced 30,000 tons. The treasure ships were surrounded with 200 smaller vessels of various sizes, the smallest being three times the size of “Santa Maria” which sailed to America two decades later. The advent of maritime trade of such gigantic proportion marked the beginning of the end of Silk Road.
1911 CE to 2015 CE
Silk Road lost and found.
With the balance of payment abnormally favoring China the Manchu Dynasty who take over from the Ming, proclaimed a strange policy which discouraged and prevented Chinese merchants from venturing into the Ocean. The Manchus believed that owing to the superiority of Chinese products, merchant ships from other countries could come to their shores to source goods.
As a result, the entire economic activity of the Middle Kingdom shifts to coastal China. Subsequent developments: European intrusion, advent of free trade, colonialism of India and Far East, Opium wars, the Xnihai Revolution, end of Imperial rule, civil war, and the struggle of modern China had no role for the Silk Road.
Hence it was lost forever; physically engulfed by the sand dunes of Taklamakan and erased from human memory.