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S: Silk Road

Trade along the Silk Road began to fade in the 15th century

Who came up with the Silk Road as a concept?

German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen is said to have first popularised the term in 1877. In fact, there were a number of ancient trading routes rather than a single road. But by titling them after one of China’s most sought-after exports, von Richthofen cemented the idea of China as a pivotal player in centuries of cultural and commercial exchange.

When did the Silk Road start?

Many historians believe trade along the Silk Road began under Han Wudi (he ruled from 141-87 BC; see W for Wudi of Han) who dispatched Zhang Qian, the commander of his guards, to the western border in search of allies to fight against the nomadic Xiongnu tribe.

Zhang’s 13-year adventure – during which he was enslaved before escaping back to China – conveyed valuable information about the peoples and lands beyond the Great Wall. His journey also opened the way for exchanges of envoys between the Han and the outposts of Hellenistic culture that had developed as a consequence of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia and invasion of northern India.

Through these influences, connections to the Roman Empire eventually led to intensifying trade with China (Roman glassware and silverware has been found in China; while the women of Rome had an insatiable desire for silk, according to Pliny the Elder).

In fact, silk was even used as a settlement currency for trade in other goods such as porcelain (see P for Porcelain). New ideas and new religions were also transported through the network of trade routes linking China with Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, reaching their apex in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), whose rulers possessed a sophisticated understanding of the outside world and a confidence in assimilating foreign ideas and practices. Great adventurers have left their footprints on the Silk Road too.

The monk Xuanzang, for example, departed Chang’an in the year 629 and walked to India. He returned 16 years later with a caravan carrying Buddhist sutras. He chronicled his journey in Records of the Western Regions and his feat later inspired one of China’s four great works of literature, Journey to the West.

During the Yuan Dynasty, a merchant from Venice also travelled along the Silk Road, arriving in the thirteenth century (China was then ruled by the Mongolian Khubilai Khan). Later, the Italian told of his experiences in The Travels of Marco Polo.

How did the Silk Road come to an end?

Commerce along the Silk Road began to fade in the fifteenth century when the Ottoman Empire blocked many of the overland routes. Another school of thought highlights the rise of maritime trade – driven by improved knowledge of the seas and the monsoon, the Chinese invention of the compass and the development of its shipbuilding industry.

Imperial China’s political and economic centre had also shifted from deeper in its interior (Xi’an, see C for Capital Cities) to more coastal cities. However, much of the seafaring trading also ground to a halt when later emperors imposed strict restrictions on trading with outsiders (until the Opium War, see U for Unequal Treaties).

A new Silk Road today

Today, the legacy of the Silk Road has been revived in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious drive to boost trade and investment with China’s partners in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. First proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the plan encompasses a “belt” of overland corridors and a “road” of shipping lanes. Phase one focused on upgrading the ports, roads and railways of many of the countries along the route. After that, the hope is that it will be much easier to trade across borders.

Beijing’s offer is to loan billions of dollars for infrastructure projects in 68 countries covering as much as 65% of the world’s population and a third of its GDP.
That said, the plan has also fostered criticism about China’s true intentions, notably in the US. Indeed, five years after the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was first unveiled, US Vice President Mike Pence highlighted how it might end up as a ‘debt trap’. Speaking to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November 2018, he warned: “We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt, we don’t coerce, compromise your independence. We do not offer a constricting belt or one-way road.”

But for some developing nations, the funding from China is often the only financing on offer. There is also the offer of expertise in large-scale infrastructure projects (honed by the Chinese over four decades of major construction within the nation’s own borders).

Back at home, the BRI has also given Xi Jinping the opportunity to position China as a champion of global trade and investment, especially at a time when the US has been scaling back its involvement in international trade agreements. In 2018, the BRI’s auspices were even extended into South America, the Caribbean and the Arctic – all some distance from the trade routes of Marco Polo’s time. And in 2019 Italy broke ranks among the Group of Seven nations, becoming the first of its kind to sign up for closer cooperation with the Chinese in BRI projects, brushing off warnings from its American and European allies.


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