Last Updated 06 Jan 2023

Why the ‘Silk Road’ Existed in a Particular Time in the History

Category Silk Road, Trading
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The term 'Silk Road' was first used by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen for the route through which the Roman used to buy the Chinese silk with their coins. In earlier days the main variables of the 'Silk Road' was thought to be silk and coins; later it was realized by the historians that there was enough evidence which showed the probability that the paper was actually one of the main variables and not the coins. On the basis of under what conditions the given source was produced, the evidence of archaeology can be classified into two subcategories: intentional sources and non- intentional sources.

Intentional sources here mean the sources produced by the historians with the intent of being preserved for the future (for example chronicle) and non-intentional sources are the sources that were made without any intention of historying. Both the sources have helped us in having a good understanding of why the 'Silk Road' existed in a particular time in the history.

While digging through history we find that the most have been written about the silk by the classical writer Pliny the Elder. In his writing we can clearly see him providing a different description of the silk in different places: for certain places, he describes silk as a product obtained from silkworms while in other places he calls them as a plant's byproduct. He had the negative opinions for the Roman trading silk and other luxurious items with the Chinese: he thought Romans were wrong in using a lot of their money to buy silk especially because it was a transparent thing.

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In contrary to this very opinion, there exist a couple of problems: the first one being that the Roman government did not collect the kind of trade statistic that would have proved Pliny's allegations correct; in similar way the second problem is that if the Pliny's opinion was right, there had to be a lot of Roman coins in China which in fact historians haven't been able to and the third one being that even though Chinese were first to use silk there were a lot of other places that were manufacturing silk very early so, there exists a probability that the silks that Pliny was complaining about were from other places rather than being from China. These all of the problems provide us a strong reason to believe that there had to be another major purpose of the 'Silk Road' rather than just being for the trade of Chinese Silk between Roman and Chinese.

The 'Silk Road' history can be divided into 4 major stages: Before and after the Common Era (Xuan Quan), 3rd and 4th centuries (Niya, Loulan, Sogdian Letters), 6th through 8th centuries (Turfan, Mount Mugh), Moshchevaia Balka (north of the Caspian sea) and 9th and 10th centuries (Dunhuang). At Xuan Quan, the archaeologist has been able to find a lot of evidence of writing material even before the paper came into existence. Many of these documents Xuanquan documents have recorded the movement of envoys— from Samarkand and Kushan Empire—but not merchants. And some of them had private horses mentioned on it which suggested that the primary purpose of the people traveling in the route might not be traded, however, some of them might be engaged at it.

Coming to the Second Stage, 3rd and 4th centuries (Niya, Loulan, Sogdian Letters), the kharosthi documents found at Niya had one use of the word 'merchant' which also suggest the same thing as earlier one. Some of these talks about the residents exchanging animals, rugs, and grain for livestock (cattle, horses, camels). Some of them have been written about the use of grain to make purchases and making use of pomegranates, cloth, grain, cattle, ghee, sacks, baskets, sheep, and wine to pay taxes. Similarly, evidence found by the archaeologist at Niya suggests that the most of the people making use of gold and silver coins or gold jewelry or bolts of silk were primarily emissaries from the king. Some of the documents talk about the silk, especially plain weave silk, functioned as the money form the 3rd to the 10th centuries. Silk was an alternative to coins. They used silk or coins to buy other items.

The third phase, 6th through 8th centuries (Turfan, Mount Mugh), Moshchevaia Balka (north of the Caspian sea), can be considered as a high point of the 'Silk Road' trade. Because the temperature at the Turfan is very high a lot of evidence is found to be preserved there. The paper clothings such as the paper hat, paper shoes, which were put upon the dead at the graveyard of the Turfan is a perfect example of the non-intentional sources. As a matter of fact that the recycled paper is cheaper than most of the material which can be used to make clothing,the paper clothing found at the graveyard were all made from the recycled paper with writing on it.

Some of the tombs contained the contract of money lending with it; it was so done because there is a belief in China that the contract that is not fulfilled in certain life will be carried into the next life by the person in doing so, so gets an opportunity to fulfill them in next life. The hands of the figurine that were found at Turfan had her arms made of recycled papers. When archaeologist dismantled such figurines they found the document containing records of loan transactions: the amount given as a loan, the name of person taking the loan, the dates, their age, and address, paid amount and remaining amount and crossed sign if the person was fully redeemed from the loan were found to be recorded.

One of the Chinese historians made a good study of the addresses recorded and figured out that all the people taking loan actually took the loan from the Chinese capital rather than from Turfan. With this evidence, we can clearly tell that the paper was the most preferred writing material and it was widespread in various places. If we read Turfan document we can see that in between 273-580s, local people used rugs, grain, and silk as money; in between 580s-700, local people used silver coins, primarily Sasanian or copies and after 700, local people shifted to Chinese coins.

The fourth phase, 9th and 10th centuries (Dunhuang), has the largest number of evidence sources: at least 40,000 documents were found in Dunhuang cave, 20,000 in Chinese and 20,000 in Tibetan. One of the most important documents found of the 'Silk Road' is about the shipment of silk that the central government sent to the region lying 700 km east of Dunhuang. This document has clearly shown the Tang government collecting taxes in silk. The textiles that were used in this phase was silks and cotton. In late 700s there was a complete disappearance of coins and grain or cloth in fixed measurements were used as it's replacement.

Even though the coins got completely disappeared, the use of paper was so widespread that it kept continuing. One particular document found at the Dunhuang records the sales of a peddler merchant. The sales start with 100 pieces of white and 19 of red wool raghzai cloth. He travels a triangle near Dunhuang to trade 3 pieces of undyed cloth for 2 dyed or 4 dyed pieces for a sheep. This record gives us the insight into how the economy worked in this phase even when there were no coins.

With all of these handfuls of archaeological evidence, it is most likely that the earlier idea about the Coins and Silk being the main variables of the 'Silk Road' was wrong; the main variables of the 'Silk Road' had to be the Paper and Silk. The 'Silk Road' had a lot of different kind of people traveling in it merchants, emissaries, missionaries, artist all of them traveled in the 'Silk Road' some of them traded in some of the times but it was not their primary purpose of traveling. The real significance of the 'Silk Road' [From the Chinese point of view] is that it was the first time that they learned about another society and really systematically learned about India because a lot of Chinese people were interested at Buddhism.

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