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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

The Silk Road:
Connecting People and Cultures

by Richard Kurin

The Silk Road spanned the Asian continent and represented a form of global economy when the known world was smaller but more difficult to traverse than nowadays. A network of mostly land but also sea trading routes, the Silk Road stretched from China to Korea and Japan in the east, and connected China through Central Asia to India in the south and to Turkey and Italy in the west. The Silk Road system has existed for over 2,000 years, with specific routes changing over time. For millennia, highly valued silk, cotton, wool, glass, jade, lapis lazuli, gold, silver, salt, spices, tea, herbal medicines, foods, fruits, flowers, horses, musical instruments, and architectural, philosophical, and religious ideas traveled those routes. The roads themselves were generally in poor condition. Travelers in caravans had to brave bleak deserts, high mountains, extreme heat and cold. They had to face bandits and raiders, imprisonment, starvation, and other forms of deprivation. Those going by sea braved the uncertainties of weather, poorly constructed ships, and pirates. Yet because the goods and ideas were in great demand and commanded high prices, courtly rewards, or spiritual benefits, they were worth the trouble of transporting great distances.

Since the concept of "Seidenstrassen" or "Silk Roads" was first invented by the German geologist and explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, the "Silk Road" has been used as a metaphor of European and Asian cultural interchange. While largely commercial, the Silk Road provided the vehicle for all sorts of creative exchange between tremendously diverse peoples and cultures.

Given the Silk Road's symbolic meaning of sharing and exchange, it is somewhat paradoxical that the desire to control its namesake commodity, silk, was so strong. The ancient Chinese guarded the secret of silk production for centuries. The Ottoman Turks and the Persians fought a war over it. The English and French competed to restrict its markets. But despite such attempts, silk moved across the planet with remarkable ease and was a vehicle of cultural creativity wherever it went. The degree of borrowings and choosing of techniques and patterns, the invention and discovery of uses and styles is incredible. Every culture that touched silk added to its adornment of humanity.

And silk turns up everywhere — aboard medieval Viking ships sailing out of Constantinople and as kerchiefs from India (bandannas, from bandhana) around the necks of cowboys in the American West. The terms used for silk reveal its history and influences. Damask silk, referring to the style of Damascus, Syria, is actually Chinese in origin. Silk chinoiserie is not Chinese but a European imitation of Chinese style. Martha Washington wore a dress of Virginia silk to her husband's inauguration, and Native Americans learned silk embroidery to decorate traditional apparel. In the 19th century Paterson, New Jersey, of all places, declared itself "Silk City."

What is so special about silk? How did it go around the globe, and connect diverse civilizations for millennia? And what is the current significance of the Silk Road?

Chinese Silk Cultivation

Silk cultivation and production is such an extraordinary process that it is easy to see why its invention was legendary and its discovery eluded many who sought its secrets. The original production of silk in China is often attributed to Fo Xi, the emperor who initiated the raising of silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees to feed them. Xi Lingshi, the wife of the Yellow Emperor whose reign is dated from 2677 to 2597 B.C.E., is regarded as the legendary Lady of the Silkworms for having developed the method for unraveling the cocoons and reeling the silk filament. Archaeological finds from this period include silk fabric from the southeast Zhejiang province dated to about 3000 B.C.E. and a silk cocoon from the Yellow River valley in northern China dated to about 2500 B.C.E. Yet silk cloth fragments and a cup carved with a silkworm design from the Yangzi Valley in southern China dated to about 4000­5000 B.C.E. suggest that sericulture, the process of making silk, may have an earlier origin than suggested by legend.

Many insects from all over the world — and spiders as well — produce silk. One of the native Chinese varieties of silkworm with the scientific name Bombyx mori is uniquely suited to the production of superbly high-quality silk. This silkworm, which is actually a caterpillar, takes adult form as a blind, flightless moth that immediately mates, lays about 400 eggs in a four- to six-day period, and then abruptly dies. The eggs must be kept at a warm temperature for them to hatch as silkworms or caterpillars. When they do hatch, they are stacked in layers of trays and given chopped up leaves of the white mulberry to eat. They eat throughout the day for four or five weeks, growing to about 10,000 times their original weight. When large enough, a worm produces a liquid gel through its glands that dries into a threadlike filament, wrapping around the worm and forming a cocoon in the course of three or four days. The amazing feature of the Bombyx mori is that its filament, generally in the range of 300­1,000 yards — and sometimes a mile — long, is very strong and can be unwrapped. To do this, the cocoon is first boiled. This kills the pupae inside and dissolves the gum resin or seracin that holds the cocoon together. Cocoons may then be soaked in warm water and unwound or be dried for storage, sale, and shipment. Several filaments are combined to form a silk thread and wound onto a reel. One ounce of eggs produces worms that require a ton of leaves to eat, and results in about 12 pounds of raw silk. The silk threads may be spun together, often with other yarn, dyed, and woven on looms to make all sorts of products. It takes about 2,000­3,000 cocoons to make a pound of silk needed for a dress; about 150 cocoons are needed for a necktie. The Chinese traditionally incubated the eggs during the spring, timing their hatching as the mulberry trees come to leaf. Sericulture in China traditionally involved taboos and rituals designed for the health and abundance of the silkworms. Typically, silk production was women's work. Currently, some 10 million Chinese are involved in making raw silk, producing an estimated 60,000 tons annually — about half of the world's output. Silk is still relatively rare, and therefore expensive; consider that silk constitutes only 0.2 percent of the world's textile fabric.

There are other types of silkworms and of silk. Indian tussah silk dates back possibly to 2500 B.C.E. to the Indus Valley civilization and is still produced for domestic consumption and foreign trade in various forms. Since traditional Hindu and Jain production techniques do not allow for the killing of the pupae in the cocoon, moths are allowed to hatch, and the resultant filaments are shorter and coarser than the Chinese variety. The ancient Greeks, too, knew of a wild Mediterranean silk moth whose cocoon could be unraveled to form fiber. The process was tedious, however, and the result also not up to the quality of mulberry-fed Bombyx mori.

Silk has been long thought to be a special type of cloth; it keeps one cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is extremely absorbent, meaning it uses color dyes much more efficiently than cotton, wool, or linen. It shimmers. It drapes upon the body particularly well. Silk is strong enough to be used for surgical sutures — indeed, by weight it is stronger than steel and more flexible than nylon. It is also fire and rot resistant. All these natural characteristics make silk ideal as a form of adornment for people of importance, for kimonos in Japan and wedding saris in India, for religious ritual, for burial shrouds in China and to lay on the graves of Sufis in much of the Muslim world.

Early in Chinese history, silk was used to clothe the emperor, but eventually it was adopted widely through Chinese society. Silk proved to be valuable for fishing lines, for the making of paper, for musical instrument strings. Under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.­220 C.E.), silk became a great trade item, used for royal gifts and tribute. It also became a generalized medium of exchange, like gold or money. Chinese farmers paid their taxes in silk. Civil servants received their salary in silk.

Silk on the Road

Evidence of trade in ancient Chinese silk has been found in archaeological excavations in Central Asian Bactria (currently the region around Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan) dating to about 500 B.C.E. Strands of silk have been found in ancient Egypt from about 1000 B.C.E., but these may be of Indian rather than Chinese origin. Alexander the Great, who ruled much of the known world from the Mediterranean to India in the late 4th century B.C.E., wore robes of deep purple-dyed silk. The silk was probably from China, which the Greeks knew as Seres — the place where serikos or silk was made — and made optimum use of the rare and expensive purple dye that was produced by the Phoenicians of Tyre from the secretions of sea snails. Yet, in the West, knowledge of silk and its trade were relatively limited. So, too, in the Far East. Sericulture was carried to Korea by Chinese immigrants in about 200 B.C.E. Though silk was extant in Japan at the turn of the millennium, sericulture was not widely known there until about the 3rd century C.E.

Conventionally, historians refer to three periods of intense Silk Road trade: 1) from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., between the ancient Chinese Han dynasty and Central Asia, extending to Rome; 2) from about 618 to 907 C.E., between Tang dynasty China and Central Asia, Byzantium, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid empires, the Sasanian Persian Empire, and India, and coinciding with the expansion of Islam, Buddhism, Assyrian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and Judaism into Central Asia; and 3) during the 13th and 14th centuries, between China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and early modern Europe, made possible by Mongol control of most of the Silk Road. Some would add a modern Silk Road period, beginning in the 19th century with the "Great Game" — the competition between Russian and British colonial powers for influence over Central Asia — and extending through today.

From Han China to Rome

In 198 B.C.E., the Han dynasty concluded a treaty with a Central Asian people, the Xiongnu. The emperor agreed to give his daughter to the Xiongnu ruler and pay an annual gift in gold and silk. By the 1st century B.C.E. silk reached Rome, initiating the first "Silk Road." Pliny, writing about silk, thought it was made from the down of trees in Seres. It was very popular among the Romans. People wore rare strips of silk on their clothing and sought more; they spent increasing amounts of gold and silver, leading to a shortage in precious metals. Coinciding with the development of ruling elites and the beginnings of empire, silk was associated with wealth and power — Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph under silk canopies. Over the next three centuries, silk imports increased, especially with the Pax Romana of the early emperors, which opened up trade routes in Asia Minor and the Middle East. As silk came westward, newly invented blown glass, asbestos, amber, and red coral moved eastward. Despite some warnings about the silk trade's deleterious consequences, it became a medium of exchange and tribute, and when in 408 C.E. Alaric the Visigoth besieged Rome, he demanded and received as ransom 5,000 pounds of gold and 4,000 tunics of silk.

The Tang Silk Road: Connecting Cultures

Silk continued to be popular in the Mediterranean region even as Rome declined. In Byzantium, the eastern successor of the Roman state, silk purchases accounted for a large drain on the treasury. In 552 C.E., legend has it that two Assyrian Christian monks who visited China learned the secret of silk production and smuggled out silkworms and mulberry seeds in their walking sticks. They returned to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and provided the impetus for the growth of a local silk industry. Under Emperor Justinian I, Constantinople's silks were used throughout Europe for religious vestments, rituals, and aristocratic dress. The Persians, too, acquired knowledge of silk production; and Damascus became a silk center under Arab rulers. By the time the second Silk Road developed under the Tang dynasty (618­907 C.E.) in China, Central Asians had also learned silk cultivation and developed the famed abr technique of silk resist dying generally known today by the Indonesian term ikat. Chinese silks, though, were still in demand for their exceptionally high quality. The Tang rulers needed horses for their military. The best horses were in the west, held by the Turkic Uyghurs and the peoples of the Fergana Valley. The Tang traded silk for horses, 40 bolts for each pony in the 8th century.

Not only did silk move, but so did designs and motifs as well as techniques for weaving and embroidering it. The Tang Chinese developed a satin silk, readily adopted elsewhere. Chinese silk weaving was influenced by Sogdian (Central Asian), Persian Sasanian, and Indian patterns and styles. For example, Chinese weavers adapted the Assyrian tree of life, beaded roundels, and bearded horsemen on winged horses from the Sasanians, and the use of gold-wrapped thread, the conch shell, lotus, and endless-knot designs from the Indians. Byzantines were also influenced by the Persians, weaving the Tree of Life into designs for European royalty and adopting the Assyrian two-headed eagle as their symbol. The Egyptian draw loom, adapted for silk weaving, was brought to Syria, then to Iran and beyond. Japanese weavers in Nara developed tie-dye and resist processes for kimonos. In some cases, weavers were uprooted from one city and settled in another; for example, after the Battle of Talas in 751, Chinese weavers were taken as prisoners of war to Iran and Mesopotamia. During the Tang dynasty, cultural exchange based upon silk reached its apex. Discoveries of the silk stowed in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in about 1015 C.E. reveal the tremendous richness of silk work of the time, as well as an archaeology of shared styles of silk weaving and motifs.

The growth of silk as a trade item both stimulated and characterized other types of exchanges during the era. Curative herbs, ideas of astronomy, and even religion also moved along the Silk Road network. Arabs traveled to India and China, Chinese to Central Asia, India, and Iran. Buddhism itself was carried along these roads from India through Central Asia to Tibet, China, and Japan. Islam was carried by Sufi teachers, and by armies, moving across the continent from Western Asia into Iran, Central Asia, and into China and India. Martial arts, sacred arts like calligraphy, tile making, and painting also traversed these roads. The Tang capital city of Chang'an, present-day Xi'an, became a cosmopolitan city — the largest on earth at the time, peopled with traders from all along the Silk Road, as well as monks, missionaries, and emissaries from across the continent.

The Mongol Silk Road and Marco Polo

Though some new silk styles such as silk tapestry made their way eastward from Iran to Uyghur Central Asia to China, the transcontinental exchange of the Silk Road diminished in the later Middle Ages and through the period of the Christian Crusades in the Holy Land from 1096 to the mid-1200s. Yet Crusaders, returning home with Byzantine silks, tapestries, and other spoils, rekindled European interest in trade with Asia. Moorish influence in Spain also had an enormous impact. It was through Arab scholars that Europeans gained access to Indian and Chinese advances in medicine, chemistry, and mathematics, and also to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations that had survived in Arabic translations and commentaries. This flow of knowledge eventually helped to fuel the Renaissance.

With the Mongol descendants of Genghis (Chinghis) Khan in control of Asia from the Black Sea to the Pacific, a third Silk Road flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. The emissary of King Louis IX of France, Willem van Rubruck, visited the court of the Mongol ruler in 1253, and, seeing the wealth of silks, realized that Cathay, or China, was the legendary Seres of Roman times. The Venetian Marco Polo followed.

Setting out with his uncles in 1271, Polo traveled across Asia by land and sea over a period of 24 years. The tales of his travels, narrated while a prisoner in a Genoa jail cell, spurred broad European interest in the Silk Road region. He told of the Mongols, who under Genghis and then Kublai Khan had taken over China and expanded their dominion across Asia into Central Asia, India, Iran, and Asia Minor. Polo related fantastic tales of the lands he had visited, the great sites he had seen, and the vast treasures of Asia.

The 13th and 14th centuries were characterized by considerable political, commercial, and religious competition between kingdoms, markets, and religious groups across Eurasia. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus vied for adherents and institutional support. Conflict between and among the Mongols, European kingdoms, Arab rulers, the Mamluk Turks, Hindu chiefdoms, and others made for unstable states, diplomatic jockeying, alliances, and wars. Yet the Mongols, with their vast Asian empire skirting the edge of Russia and Eastern Europe, were, through a mixture of hegemony and brutality, able to assure a measure of peace within their domains, a Pax Mongolica. They were also pragmatic and quite tolerant in several spheres, among them arts and religion. Their Mongolian capital of Karakorum hosted, for example, 12 Buddhist temples, two mosques, and a church. The Mongols developed continental postal and travelers' rest house systems. Kublai Khan welcomed European, Chinese, Persian, and Arab astronomers and established an Institute of Muslim Astronomy. He also founded an Imperial Academy of Medicine, including Indian, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Chinese physicians. European, Persian, Chinese, Arab, Armenian, and Russian traders and missionaries traveled the Silk Road, and in 1335 a Mongol mission to the pope at Avignon suggested increased trade and cultural contacts.

During this "third" Silk Road, silk, while still a highly valued Chinese export, was no longer the primary commodity. Europeans wanted pearls and gems, spices, precious metals, medicines, ceramics, carpets, other fabrics, and lacquerware. All kingdoms needed horses, weapons, and armaments. Besides, silk production already was known in the Arab world and had spread to southern Europe. Silk weavers and traders — Arabs, "Saracens," Jews, and Greeks from Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean — relocated to new commercial centers in northern Italy. Italian silk-making eventually became a stellar Renaissance art in Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Lucca in the 14th and 15th centuries. New stylistic techniques were added, like alto-e-basso for velvets and brocades, while old motifs, like the stylized Central Asian pomegranate, took on new life.

Commercial trade and competition was of great importance by the 15th century with the growth of European cities, guilds, and royal states. With the decline of Mongol power, control over trade routes was vital. The motivation behind Portuguese explorations of a sea route to India was to secure safer and cheaper passage of trade goods than by land caravans, which were subject to either exorbitant protection fees or raiding by enemies. Indeed, it was the search for this sea route to the East that led Columbus westward to the "New World." When Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India and other Europeans subsequently opened direct shipping links with China, contact with Central Asia decreased dramatically.

The Modern Era

Trade in silks helped fuel the mercantile transformation of Western Europe. French King Charles VII, the dukes of Burgundy, and their successors participated vigorously through markets in Bruges, Amsterdam, Lyon, and other towns. The practice of emulating Asian silk styles was institutionalized in Lyon, France, with the development of imitative Chinese and Turkish motifs, chinoiserie and turqueserie respectively. A steady stream of European travelers and adventurous merchants moved luxury goods between Europe, the Middle East, Iran, India, and China. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605­98), who traversed parts of the Silk Road on six journeys and witnessed the building of Versailles, Isfahan, and the Taj Mahal, traded in diamonds and pearls, was awarded "Oriental" silk robes of honor by the Shah of Iran and a barony by Louis XIV (for the sale of what later became the Hope Diamond). The English developed their own silk industry and tried silk cultivation in Ireland, and even in the New World. Mulberry trees and silkworms went with settlers to Jamestown in the early 1600s. Silk cultivation was successful but only for a time; other attempts followed later in Georgia, among the 19th-century Harmonists in Pennsylvania, and even among the Shakers in Kentucky. Still, imported silks showed the long reach of an international trade.

Silk styles and fashions were led, in Europe, by royalty, but soon extended to a wealthy merchant class, and were broadened further as a result of new manufacturing techniques. Silk production became industrialized in 1804 with the Jacquard loom. This loom relied upon punched cards to program the complex orchestration of threads into wonderful patterns; the cards later inspired the computer punch cards of the mid-20th century. Throughout the 19th century, chemists developed synthetic dyes. Designers, who could create one-of-a-kind items for the elite but also develop mass-produced lines of clothing, furnishings, and other silk products, set up shop in Paris. Asia was the subject of romantic allure and fascination by elites of the period. In the early 1800s, England's George IV built his Brighton palace in an Indo-Persian style, decorated it with Chinese furniture, and wore silk garments, thereby setting a trend, with his friend Beau Brummel, for men's formal fashion. Declared Empress of India in 1858, Queen Victoria was feted with grand celebrations and a diamond jubilee that included "Oriental" durbars or courtly convocations, replete with marching elephants and parades of Asian troops adorned in native dress. Parisians held costumed balls, dressed up as sultans and Asian royalty. Kashmiri and Chinese silk scarves were a big hit. Jewelers Cartier and Tiffany used Asian gemstones and imitated Asian decorative styles. Tiffany and Lalique were designing silk sashes, scarves, and other items. New silk textiles like chiffons and crepes were developed in France, and silk cultivation centers sent raw silk to design houses and production factories to meet demand. This demand extended to the United States, and raw silk was imported from Japan and dyed using the soft waters of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson became the U.S. headquarters of silk supply, design, and furnishing companies.

It was during this Orientalist period that the idea of the Silk Road as a way of connecting European and Asian culture, history, and art, was articulated by Baron von Richthofen. In 1786 William Jones had found the links between Sanskrit and Latin, devising the idea of an Indo-European family of languages. Throughout the 19th century, European philologists were working on the relationships between European and Asian languages, positing such "families" as Uralic and Altaic. European scholars found common roots in religions and symbols spanning Eurasia and relating Hinduism and Buddhism to ancient Greco-Roman mythology, and with Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Archaeologists had begun to find links between widely dispersed civilizations of Egypt, the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Iran, India, and Central Asia. Cultural diffusion, particularly strong in German and later English social science, became an explanatory model for the similarities found in widely separated societies, and an alternative to cultural evolutionary theories. These connections across cultures, history, and geography still intrigue us today. Consider, for example, the names of a number of stringed instruments with the root tar ("string" in Persian), from the tar itself to the dotar, dutar, lotar, setar, sitar, qitar, guitarra, and the guitar.

Silk became both a component and a symbol of this cultural diffusion. It was seen as a valuable index of civilization with regard to religious ritual, kingship, artistic production, and commercial activity. Silk stood for the higher things in life. It was a valuable, traded commodity, as well as a historical medium of exchange. Silk both epitomized and played a major role in the early development of what we now characterize as a global economic and cultural system. Europeans of the 19th century saw this new globalism not just as an interesting historical occurrence, but also as something that resonated with the growing distribution of silk use and manufacturing of the time.

Central Asia and the Silk Road Today

In formulating the idea of the Silk Road, Richthofen saw Central Asia as not only the land bridge between distant civilizations, but as a source of cultural creativity in its own right. He also saw it as disputed territory, a region that had served as the crossroads of political and military influence. Indeed, control over the Silk Road, particularly its Central Asian link, was serious business for 18th- century colonial powers playing the "Great Game." Both the Russians and the British vied for control over Afghanistan at the limit of their territorial aspirations. Rudyard Kipling, the English colonial writer, set the fictional tale of Kim against this backdrop, with the hero traveling one of the historical trade routes along what is now the Afghan-Pakistan frontier and partaking of what we might today call a multicultural adventure.

Though eclipsed in trade volume by sea routes for several centuries, Central Asia has in recent times and particularly after September 11 resumed its historical importance. Its geopolitical significance has grown as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union, the need to achieve stable political states in light of competing interests, and the need to find an appropriate role for religion, particularly Islam, in civic life. Most recently, the entry of the United States in Central Asia, fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, using bases in Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and being drawn into disputes over sovereignty in Kashmir, democracy in Iran, rights for ethnic minorities in western China, and freedom in Kazakhstan, mark a new development in the contemporary jockeying for political influence and control.

The nations of the region are trying to build their own post-Soviet and contemporary economies. They are struggling to develop local markets, industries, and infrastructures, while at the same time participating in an increasingly globalized world economy. Some local entrepreneurs seek to rebuild economies based upon a traditional repertoire of deeply ingrained Silk Road commercial skills. Among emerging markets are those for recently discovered oil in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and western China. Pipelines are being planned and constructed, constituting new pathways for moving a valuable commodity across the region to the rest of the world.

New social institutions are being built — universities, hospitals, and financial systems. Some leaders like the Aga Khan are encouraging a contemporary renaissance of traditional knowledge, architecture, and artistry embedded in Central Asian history that will allow local citizens the opportunity to flourish. Famed and beautiful Uzbek ikat weavings are returning to the world marketplace. Designers from the region are creating their own distinctive fashions. Ancient musics performed by contemporary artists are making their way onto world stages. Historical sites are being restored.

Given the needs in the region, the work to build politically stable nations that are economically healthy, socially secure, and culturally confident is of immense scope, and the prognosis far from certain. But it does seem clear that people in the region stand the best chance of bettering their lives and those of their children by reclaiming their place in a transnational, transcultural flow of goods and ideas exemplified by the historical Silk Road. It is better to connect to the peoples and cultures around them and to participate in the commerce of nations than to withdraw from such interchange. By reclaiming the heritage of the Silk Road, the region may, once again, play an important role in the cultural and economic life of the global community.

Richard Kurin is the Director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and first worked on the Festival in 1976. He is a cultural anthropologist who has done much of his fieldwork in India and Pakistan. He is also the author of Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian.