Friday, November 21, 2008

The Silk Road, Back to The Future

Zhang Qian, Silk Road Pathfinder
Kingdoms visited by Zhang Qian
Zhang being received by Emperor Wu, on his return.

Route under taken by Zhang
New Trade on and Old Route 2008

One of my favorite topics in history is the role that trade routes played in connecting developing civilizations together. The result of these connections has led to previously isolated people becoming able to exchange goods, agriculture, technology, and ideas. Yesterday, I read an article in Business Week that I was going to write about. This morning, I found that Steve DeAngelis of Enterra Solutions had written an excellent post The New Silk Road, based on the same article I was reading.

Steve begins:

Business Week magazine recently published an "Emerging Market Report" that claims "historic bonds between the Middle East and Asia are being revitalized in a torrent of trade and investment in energy, infrastructure, and manufacturing" ["The New Silk Road," 18 November 2008 print edition]. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the development of the global economy. Even with oil prices hovering around $55/barrel, the national coffers of oil producing nations continue to fill and they are looking east to Asia (rather than to the West) for answers to the current recession. In effect, the article claims that the old silk road is being revitalized -- sort of.

The post is well stated, and supported excerpts from the Business Week article. It is worth reading.

As Steve notes:

The new silk road is likely to operate as long as the old one did. It's a virtual road that connects that connects wealth, resources, and opportunities. Companies that want to get in front of the money are going to have to travel that road and the sooner they get on it the better.

Putting my historian hat back on, I decided to offer some background to how the "Silk Road " a name first coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 1870's, came to be.

We know the origin of the founding of the silk road from the writings of Chinese historian,Sima Qian who wrote the Records of the Grand Historian while serving as a scribe for Emperor Wu of Han Dynasty. I had written a post about Qian, The World's Most Dedicated Historian who gave up his testicles in order to continue his life's work.

But I digress, the hero of this story is a little known officer in the palace guard of the Emperor Wu. The emperor sought an envoy to travel west across Central Asia to make an alliance against the Xiongnu nomadic turkic tribes also know as the "Huns." The envoy, Zhang Qian went on a quest that lasted thirteen years, including being captured twice by the Xiongnu, before returning to make a report to the emperor. After escaping the first time, Zhang continued on his journey and visited several kingdoms in Central Asia. On the return journey to China, Zhang was again captured and talked his way out of being killed, by agreeing to remain in the court of the leader of the Xiongnu. He soon was able to make his escape and returned to China with tales of the great horses, their food, alfalfa, along with seeds for grapes and cucumbers.

Zhang Qian's story is perhaps the greatest unknown adventure story today. Westerners know of Marco Polo, William of Rubruck, even Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta, but almost no one has ever heard of Zhang Qian, the pathfinder of the Silk Road.

Zhang's detailed report stimulated Emperor Wu's interest in the goods that existed on the other side of the known world. Within a few years, other expeditions opened the route and lined it with military posts. The Xiongnu were pushed back, and trade flourished under the umbrella of security and the Silk Road linked the great empires of the 1st century Common Era spreading goods, ideas along with the negatives, like disease's Antonine Plague, that today's medical historians see as possibly contributing to the downfall of the Roman and Han Dynasties.

Over the centuries the route fell out of use as dynasties in the west and east fell. the road began to flourish again under the Tang Dynasty 618–907 and continued for the next several centuries to be the main conduit between East and West, only to again fall out of use with the rise of sail and European naval dominance.

For more on the Silk Road.

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