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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Xi'an Tower


Any trade route also becomes a route along which armies, diplomats, scholars, clerics, itinerant workers, and musicians travel. The Silk Road is probably one of the greatest such routes in history, culturally and politically linking major parts of the globe.

The Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang left Chang'an around 629 C.E. to find translations of Buddhist sutras (scriptures) and bring them back to China. Seeking a greater understanding of Buddhism, he knew that it would come best from reading the sutras themselves rather than relying on others' interpretations. His quest took him to Dunhuang, across the Takla Makan Desert to the Central Asian city of Samarkand, and then into the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. About 15 years later, he returned to Chang'an with an enormous collection of Buddhist sutras, which he promptly arranged to have translated from Sanskrit into Chinese.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • Music: The bowed fiddles and lutes used today in Chinese music and Chinese classical music ensembles most likely came to China along the Silk Road from Central Asia during the Tang dynasty. Musicians and dancers were also sent to China, often as a form of tribute by other governments.