The term “Silk Road” (Seidenstrassen, in German) was first coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 as the collective name given to the network of trade routes linking China to Central & West Asia, the Mediterranean as well as India. Silk was the most influential, though by no means the only, product traded on these routes, hence its name Silk Road. China is the first country to produce silk, which has been one of its most important contributions to the world.

In its common, narrow sense, Silk Road refers to the portion of land routes traversing northwest China’s Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang Provinces to reach Central Asia. Zhang Qian (?~114BC), the Han Dynasty imperial envoy to the Western Regions (xiyu 西域) is credited for having officially opened the Silk Road with his two diplomatic missions to the states in Central Asia. And the military victories and influence of the Chinese empire against the Huns guaranteed the fluent passage for merchants on these trade routes. Official administrative establishments known as Western Regions Frontier Command Office (Han Dynasty), Anxi Frontier Command Office and Beiting Frontier Command Office (Tang Dynasty) were set up by regimes of inland China to enforce order in the area. Trade boomed. Goods from China, like silk, tea, and porcelain, were carried by merchants via the routes to Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean regions. Chinese-made silk became a most sought-after upper-class fashion in Rome. In return, the Silk Road transmitted a wider range of imports from exotic cultures to China, for instance, music, Buddhist religion, astronomy, grapes, horses, cotton, tobacco, etc.

Disruptions of the Silk Road were constant over history, due to the changing political & military situations in the northwestern regions of China. In spite of that, the Silk Road continued to flourish thanks to the collective efforts of the working peoples along the routes, and witnessed the peak of Sino-foreign exchanges in the first half of Tang Dynasty. Afterwards, as the Chinese regimes lost control of the northwestern regions, the Silk Road went on the decline, and, albeit with a short revival in Yuan Dynasty when the Mongols unified almost the entire Eurasian Continent, gradually fell into disuse with the changes in the geo-climatic conditions of the grand desert regions which made this region uninhabitable.

The broader-sense Silk Road consists of all the routes connecting China to overseas: the Oasis Silk Road, the Steppe Silk Road, the Maritime Silk Road, and the Southern Silk Road, composing a grand complex system of communication lines for China. All these routes have a long history, though the importance of each route changed and varied over time. The Southern Silk Road silently serviced the trade between southwest China and the South Asia Subcontinent for around two millennia. And even in the Qing Dynasty, the Steppe Silk Road still continued to serve the silk-fur trade between inland China and Kyakhta, Russia. While the land routes were never forgotten, the Maritime Silk Road became increasingly popular in China’s foreign communications, and surpassed all the other routes starting from late Tang Dynasty. And, following a series of great maritime geographic discoveries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, almost all links between Asia and Europe relied on the seaways.

The history of the Silk Road was the history of China’s communications with foreign countries. Travelers ranging from diplomatic envoys, armies, monks & missionaries, friendship princesses, artists & poets, to businessmen kept leaving their footprints on the Silk Road. The Road is dotted with cultural heritage and historical sites here and there. The travelers are at once the carrier of civilization and culture of various peoples on the Silk Road. The East-West exchanges greatly influenced, helped shape, and benefited the Chinese civilization as well as all other cultures along the route.