Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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The Silk Road

In ancient times there was a transportation and commerce route traversing the Asian continent, which was and is called the Silk Road. Who was it, then that first opened up the Silk Road? And how many countries and regions did it go through?

During the Han Dynasty, the Huns in the north were a serious menace, often harassing the frontiers of Han. When Emperor Wu Di learned that a country called Dayuezhi was at enmity with the Huns, he decided to take this opportunity to enter into an alliance with Dayuezhi in the Western Regions so that the two countries could join hands in fighting against the Huns and keeping the frontiers eternally safe.

Therefore, Emperor Wu Di issued an edict calling for volunteers who were courageous and capable enough to be Han emissaries in negotiating with Dayuezhi. At that time, nobody knew exactly where this country was, even less about how far away it was from Changan. Hence the apprehension was that this would be a trip of no return. There was, however, a young official named Zhang Qian, who thought it a meaningful undertaking and he became the first person to sign up. With Zhang Qian taking the lead, over 100 courageous young men immediately entered their names as well. Meanwhile, Tangyifu, an expatriate Hun living in Changan, had also expressed his willingness to join Zhang Qian's expedition in the search for Dayuezhi.

In the year of 138 B.C., Emperor Wu Di ordered Zhang Qian with over 100 brave men in his charge to leave Changan and try to establish contact with the country of Dayuezhi. However, hardly had they stepped across the boundary when they were taken prisoner by a troop of Hun cavalrymen. They had been held in captivity for ten years when Tangyifu and Zhang Qian, being kept in the same place, managed to escape when the Huns were off guard.

For many days on end, they kept on walking in a westerly direction despite tremendous hardships. Still they were not successful in their attempt to find the country of Dayuezhi. Instead, they fund themselves in a country called Dayuan whose sovereign had heard that the Han Dynasty was powerful state and wanted very much to develop friendly relations with it. So the king was very happy when he saw Zhang Qian and he gave the envoy from the Han a warm reception. Later, he sent guides and interpreters to escort Zhang Qian and Tangyifu to a country called Kangju, via which they eventually reached Dayuezhi.

The King of Dayuezhi received the envoy from the Han Dynasty warmly. However, when Zhang Qian made his intentions clear, the king declined to join up with the Han Dynasty in an attack on the Huns to avenge his country for the simple reason that the long distance between the two countries made it impossible for either to give direct and immediate aid to the other. Besides, Dayuezhi had already acquired a vast stretch of land and the people were enjoying rich and happy life. Zhang and Tang stayed in the country for over a year. Still they were unable to accomplish the mission and so they decided to return home. Unfortunately, on the journey back they once again fell into the hands of the Huns. And it was more than a year later when infighting occurred among the Huns that they got a chance to escape. 13 years had elapsed before Zhang and Tang finally arrived back at Changan.

After listening to his tales, Emperor Wu Di praised Zhang highly for his quick wit, courage and fortitude. A new understanding of the many countries in the Western Regions made the emperor attach even greater importance to strengthening ties with them. In 115 B.C., the emperor decided to send  Zhang on a second journey to the Western Regions - this time to the country of Wusun. Zhang had under his command 300 brave men and they took with them gold, money, silk, goods, cotton cloth, and over 10,000 heads of cattle and sheep.

Zhang and several other emissaries arrived in Wusun first. Later, the others went separately to establish contact with such countries as Dayuan , Kangju, Dayuezhi, Yutian and Daxia. This time Zhang and his colleagues visited total of 36 countries, and were cordially received everywhere since those western countries al desired to establish ties with the powerful Han Dynasty. From then on, many envoys had been dispatched from those countries to Changan bringing with them many precious gifts. As a result, it was during the Han Dynasty that many hitherto unknown things were successively introduced into China, such as grapes, green onion, walnut, carrot, alfalfa, fine race horses from Dayuan, and music and dances from various countries in that region. Buddhism and Indian philosophy and art also came to China by way of the Western Regions. In turn, he Western Regions came to know such Han handicrafts as silk, lacquerware, jade carvings and copper utensils along with the techniques of raising silkworm, sinking wells, and smelting iron. This kind of exchange greatly enriched the material and cultural life of the various nationalities involved. In order to promote commerce and friendly relations with the countries in the Western Regions and Central Asia, the Han court set up many check-points along this trade route, which was protected by Han garrisons. Envoys and merchants travelling on the Silk Road were provided with all kinds of conveniences.

As early as in the Warring States Period, Chinese silk had become world-famous. During the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., China was called "the Silk Country" in ancient Greece. Following the opening of this route to the Western Regions, traffic between China and other countries in silk good witnessed a big increase. Hence the name "Silk Road" was used. But he route also served as link for friendly contacts between China and other countries in the promotion of economic and cultural exchange.


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