Silk Route: Definition, History, and What Exists Now

What Is the Silk Route?

The Silk Route was a historic trade route that dated from the second century B.C. until the 14th century A.D. It stretched from Asia to the Mediterranean, traversing China, India, Persia, Arabia, Greece, and Italy.

It was dubbed the Silk Route because of the heavy silk trading that took place during that period. This valuable fabric originated in China, which initially had a monopoly on silk production until the secrets of its creation spread. In addition to silk, the route facilitated the trade of other fabrics, spices, grains, fruits and vegetables, animal hides, wood and metal work, precious stones, and other items of value.

In 2013, China announced plans it would revive the Silk Route, connecting it with more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Understanding the Silk Route

The Silk Route was a series of ancient trade networks that connected China and the Far East with countries in Europe and the Middle East. The route included a group of trading posts and markets that were used to help in the storage, transport, and exchange of goods. It was also known as the Silk Road.

Travelers used camel or horse caravans and stayed in guest houses or inns typically spaced one day’s travel apart. Travelers along the Silk Route’s maritime routes could stop at ports for fresh drinking water and trade opportunities. Archaeologists and geographers pursuing research of ancient sites have been the Silk Route’s most modern travelers.

The opening of the Silk Route brought many products that would have a big impact on the West. Many of these commodities had their roots in China and included gunpowder and paper. These became some of the most traded goods between China and its Western trading partners. Paper was especially important, as it eventually led to the invention of the printing press, which gave way to newspapers and books.

There has been a push by China to reopen the Silk Route to improve cooperation among countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

History of the Silk Route

The original Silk Route was established during the Han Dynasty by Zhang Quian, a Chinese official and diplomat. During a diplomatic mission, Quian was captured and detained for 13 years on his first expedition before escaping and pursuing other routes from China to Central Asia.

The Silk Route was popular during the Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907 A.D. Travelers could choose among a number of land and sea paths to reach their destination. The routes evolved along with territorial boundaries and changes in national leadership.

The Silk Route was a means to exchange goods and cultures. It also served in the development of science, technology, literature, the arts, and other fields of study.

The Silk Route also helped missions by Buddhist and European monks and was instrumental in spreading Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions throughout the regions served by the routes.

Reviving the Silk Route

In 2013, China began to officially restore the historic Silk Route under president Xi Jinping with a $900 billion strategy called “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). The project was a way to improve China’s interconnectivity with more than 60 other countries in Asia, Europe, and East Africa.

Also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it traverses numerous land and sea routes. The Silk Road Economic Belt is primarily land-based to connect China with Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe, while the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is sea-based, connecting China’s southern coast to the Mediterranean, Africa, South-East Asia, and Central Asia.

China views the venture as an important way to improve its domestic growth. It also serves as a way to open up new trade markets for Chinese goods, giving the country the cheapest and easiest way to export materials and goods.

Critics—including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad—say China is using the BRI to lend to countries who may default as a way of getting economic or political concessions.

China has passed several milestones related to the OBOR including the signing of hundreds of deals since 2016. In January 2017, a new rail service using the East Wind freight train was introduced from Beijing to London along the historic route, passing beneath the English Channel to reach London. The 16- to 18-day journey, travels nearly 7,500 miles and allows freight shippers an alternative to slow but relatively cheap water routes, and fast but relatively expensive air routes. Other key OBOR routes go from China to 14 major European cities.

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