China: From Ancient Silk Road to the Modern One Belt Road
by Andrew Sia

Introducing the Silk Road

The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes that was used for the communication of trade, culture and religion. On land it connected the Asian continent from the Korean Peninsula and Japan, with the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and Persia, and Europe. The sea route began in the South China Sea, through the Malacca Strait into the Sea of Java, the Bengal Sea, Indian Ocean, Gulf and the eastern sea coast of the African continent.

It began during the Han dynasty, from 207 BC to 220 AD, with the many expeditions of the famous Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian.

The term, Silk Road was first used by a German, Ferdinand von Richthofen, who participated on several expeditions from 1868 to 1872, and its original name in German was Seidenstraße. Silk Road in its early days was used to link China to places as far reaching as the Roman Empire. The total length was 6,400 km or 4,000 miles.

As time went on, the Silk Road provided the means by which numerous delegations were able to carry out the lucrative business of the silk and horse trades. Keeping out the Hsiung-nu, who were entering from the north and robbing the trade delegations became a priority for the Han army that regularly patrolled the trade route to protect the merchants from nomadic bandits. The Great Wall also functioned as a protection for the trade delegations.

Throughout the Roman Empire, regular communication and trade took place between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The trading of spices, glassware, perfume, china and silk brought prosperity to the Empire as a whole, with artifacts having been found along the route.

Roman artisans began to replace the cotton yarn they took from Egypt with the silk cloths of the East, and wealthy Roman women took up the fashion immediately. The Roman Senate tried to prohibit the wearing of silk on economic and moral grounds but failed. The importation of Chinese silk proved costly as increasing amounts of gold flowed out of the Empire to satisfy the constant demand for more and more of the sophisticated Asian products, leading to the crumbling of their economy around the 5th century.

During the Byzantine Empire, Christian monks travelled to China to learn the secrets of silk production and stole the silkworm eggs that made it all possible. Soon production began in medieval Europe.

The Silk Road remained the most important pre-modern Eurasian trade route, reaching its golden age during the Tang Dynasty, 618 BC to 907 BC and establishing a strong Chinese maritime with Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and all the way to the Horn of Africa…

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