Connected Histories

'Transnational Connections on the Old Silk Road' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This selection on the Old Silk Road provides background on trade and travel for Stewart Gordon's When Asia Was the World. The excerpt by Dru C. Gladney from "Central Asia and China" is reprinted from the The Oxford History of Islam in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Transnational Connections on the Old Silk Road

Although scholars once believed that the early civilizations of the Eurasian continent were fairly isolated from each other, recent archaeological, textual, and historical evidence suggests that the civilizations of Europe and China were linked transnationally since the dawn of time. Not only have several Neolithic sites been linked to early African migrations and DNA evidence used to suggest descent from a common “Eve,” but scholars such as William Watson have traced the origin of the bronze-socketed ax that arrived in Europe from China in the Late Bronze Age, and Victor Mair has recently reported that the “mummies of Xinjiang” found naturally preserved as desiccated corpses in the Taklimakan Desert, are possibly more than four thousand years old and originated in the Caucasus. The extensive trade in silks and other precious commodities that flourished between the Roman and Han empires from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. followed well-worn tracks that only became labeled as the Silk Road in the late nineteenth-century heyday of European orientalism by the German scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. Indeed, the term could not be more misleading because the roads and caravan tracks that crisscrossed the region were legion, and they carried much more than just silk. They were also complemented by the southern maritime route that linked Africa and South Asia with China through southeast Asia, a route that rose in importance as the overland trade declined.

Furthermore, the term central Asia, which presumes an “outer” Asia and a large gap between Europe and Asia, between East and West, is also a product of orientalist scholarship, a tradition that Edward Said says is as misleading as it is informative about different cultural practices and is often politically motivated. China, as the late Joseph Fletcher said, was never as closed off from the outside world as Western scholarship portrayed. This is demonstrated by the importance of the central Asian and European trade to the various empires of China and its being subject to the same flows of ideas and commodities that influenced much of the history of the region, including its transformation by such world religious traditions as Buddhism and Islam. Indeed, even the Greek historian Herodotus did not speak in terms of the migrations of isolated “ethnic” groups (although the Greek term ethnos was certainly known to him) but rather of a “cultural continuum” that flowed across the Pontic steppes to the far east. This chapter suggests that current thinking about isolated “ethnic” and “national” groups is a product of the rise of the nation-state and the writing of nationalist histories. Indeed, the region now known as central Asia is perhaps the best example there is of intermingled and interconnected peoples, places, and political processes.

Herodotus himself wondered why the old world in his day was already divided into three places, Asia, Europe, and Africa: “Why three names . . . should ever have been given to a tract of land which is in reality one?” In his masterful introduction to the concept of central Asia in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (1990), Denis Sinor has suggested that a more appropriate term for the region would be central Eurasia. The region developed not on the so-called periphery but at the core intersections of civilizations that included Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast and East Asia. Because all of the great civilizations of central Asia flourished before the middle of the first millennium, and no single civilization occupied all and only that particular region (the Mongols controlled nearly the entire continent, from Europe to east and southeast Asia), the term central or inner Asia was always relational and never stable. It was known as inner Asia to include Pannonia (a province including territory now mostly in Hungary), and the Greek territories in Asia Minor (Anatoha) by the Romans, then by the Huns (fifth century) and the Seljuk Turks (eleventh century). Northern China was considered to be inner Asia once it was occupied by the Khitan, the Jürchen, the Mongols, and the Manchus. Except for the periphery of the Eurasian continent, the surface features of the land prevented dense populations with agrarian empires. At the core of inner Asia, one finds “agricultural alternatives” that involved pastoralist and other highly adaptive technologies, none of which supported large populations. Cultural continuities developed between the sedentary civilizations, and transitory or nomadic civilizations often became the mediators and brokers for much more than just material commodities. To mention perhaps the greatest examples, Buddhism and Islam thus became dramatically transformed in their migration eastward from the south and west. One might suggest that globalization had its beginnings in the region now known as central Asia. Certainly, transnationalism and the flow of goods and ideas between innumerable peoples was never new to the area. The horse and perhaps the cart were the only material commodities that linked the entire region with its peripheral kingdoms.

China's direct relations with central Asia date to one century before the common era, when the Han dynasty general Zhang Qian returned to the capital of Changan (modern Xian) from a mission in 138 B.C.E. to form an alliance against the Huns. This was one among many military missions to central Asian capitals as far as Samarqand, Bukhara, Andkhui, Herat, Shiraz, and Isfahan. These missions solicited alliances and “tribute” (gong), which Joseph Fletcher said only indicated an exchange of gifts and never clearly established political submission. There were times when Chinese military control extended into central Asia, such as in the Han (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and Tang (618-9097) dynasties, but it was just as frequently controlled by inner Asian empires, such as the Jin, Liao, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. The region today known as Xinjiang (meaning “new dominion”) received that label in 1759, when the region was finally brought under the control of the Qing, a dynasty established by the inner Asian Manchus to rid the region of continued Mongolian (Zungharian) control. Even Manchu control was short-lived in the region, disrupted by Taiping and Uighur rebellions, Russian influence, and finally its own collapse in 1911.

The so-called Silk Road was one of several routes that Zhang Qian traveled again in 126 B.C.E. in search, not of silk, but of the famous Ferghana horses that “sweated blood,” which the Han emperor had hoped to use against the nomadic Huns. In addition to silk and horses, there were innumerable commodities traded along the way, and rarely did one person or group travel the entire route. Chinese merchants were never sighted in Rome, and Romans were not found in Changan. Even later, Europeans rarely traveled overland to China, and scholarly doubt regarding the great Marco Polo expedition has been popularized. China-bound caravans carried gold and other precious metals, wool and linen, ivory, amber, coral, jade and other rare stones, asbestos, and glass, which was not produced in China until the fifth century. Outbound caravans carried a wide variety of bronze weapons and tools, iron, furs, pottery, ceramics, cinnamon, and rhubarb. From the China side the famous collection of tracks across the Eurasian steppe started from Changan, passing the famous Hexi corridor in Gansu in the northwest, to Dunhuang on the fringe of the Gobi Desert. From Dunhuang the route passed through the famous Jade Gate (Yumen guan, where the Chinese collected taxes on jade, among other things, entering China from Central Asia) and then divided into a northerly and southerly route, skirting the impassable Taklimakan Desert, following glacial-fed oases at the base of the Tian Shan mountains in the north and the Himalayan escarpments and great Pamirs in the south. Once reconnecting in Kashgar, the main route continued westward through Kokhand, Samarqand, Bukhara, Merv, Persia, and Iraq to the Mediterranean, while southern and northern routes wound their way to India and Russia. Lesser spurs intersected these routes and formed a network of intermittent communications, although travel between the nodes was lengthy and was hampered by political and economic ruptures.

Along these routes Buddhism and then Islam found their ways into China. In central Asia and the oasis cities around the Taklimakan Buddhism was transformed into its current “Serindian” form, which in the ancient city of Gandhara gave the image of the Buddha his physical and Greco-Indian and even Chinese features. These features included a physical body with Hellenic features (a chiseled nose and forehead, wavy hair, and classical lips), adorned in a toga-like robe. Buddhist art as found in the cave library at Dunhuang and the Chinese capitals of Changan and Loyang took on decidedly east Asian features, as well as absorbing Chinese and even Taoist notions of the afterlife and the way of suffering, contributing to the rise of the new Pure Land and Chan (or Zen) schools of Buddhism. Nestorianism and Manichaeanism also found their ways into China along these transnational tracks, transforming Christian and Persian teachings into new hybrid forms, as the Nestorian monument in the Xian provincial museum indicates. The religion is remembered in China by this stele, which depicts a Nestorian cross on a lotus flower base, dating to the mid-seventh century when a Nestorian church was officially established in Changan. Indeed, during the heyday of the Tang dynasty, its capital was a truly transnational city, with an official population of five thousand foreigners, including Hindus, Jews, Manichaeans, Nestorians, and Zoroastrians, and peoples described as Arabs, Armenians, Indians, Iranians, Japanese, Koreans, Malays, Mongolians, Sogdians, and Turks. Dwarfs from all over Europe were particularly sought out as entertainers, accompanied by exotic animals from throughout the world.

With the decline of the Tang dynasty, the Silk Road also declined. This process was heralded by the gradual retreat of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age, and the drying up of the glacier-fed streams that made life on the fringe of the Taklimakan possible for several smaller oasis cities, including such prominent cultural centers as Lou Lan, Lop Nor, Niya, and Yotkan, now known only as sand-buried cities. More important, the arrival of Islam signaled the beginning of a new transnationalization of central Asia, with its roots not in Europe, China, or south Asia but in the Middle East. The rapid Islamization of central Asia, beginning as early as the mid-seventh century and reaching Balkh (in northern Afghanistan), across the Pamirs from Kashgar by 699, led to the cultural, political, and social transformation of the entire region, superseding its earlier transnationalization but certainly not displacing it. Interestingly enough, although Islam reached the Pamir borders of China by the end of the seventh century, not unlike Alexander the Great, it was almost prevented from going any further. Islamization did not take place in Kashgar until the eleventh century, and it took nearly four hundred years to travel across the Taklimakan to the eastern oases of Turpan and Hami, where people who called themselves Uighurs continued to practice Buddhism until the sixteenth century. As Islam penetrated China by land across the Taklimakan and by sea along the southeastern coast, the people known as the Hui emerged, and the Uighurs disappeared, only to reappear again in the early twentieth century.


Gladney, Dru C. . "Central Asia and China." In The Oxford History of Islam edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #262: 'Transnational Connections on the Old Silk Road' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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