The Southern Silk Road, linking southwest China to India and Central Asia, is perhaps less well-known than the Oasis Silk Road and the Steppe Silk Road in north China. But it is probably older than the latter two, with significance that can never be ignored.

The Southern Silk Road extends from the prosperous Chengdu Plain, crosses the province of Yunnan and reaches Myanmar from where it leads further to India and Central Asia. The starting point is Chengdu, where the Road bisects into two routes to reach Dali. One route passes Yibin, Zhaotong, Qujing, Kunming, Chuxiong, and Nanhua, while the other goes through Qionglai, Ya’an, Lingguan, Xichang, and Yao’an. The two routes converge at Dali, and then runs westwards past Yangbi, Yongping, Baoshan and Tengchong, where China borders Myanmar.

Silk, Sichuan cloth, bamboo walking sticks, ironware as well as other handicrafts were the major goods China exported via the Southern Silk Road. In exchange, merchants brought back into China coloured glaze, glass beads, jewels, emerald, etc. Sichuan, one of the production bases of silk in China, was the main source of silk on the Southern Silk Road.

The Southern Silk Road was the earliest bond that ties the two ancient civilizations of China and India, and contributed greatly to the cultural exchanges between them. An ancient Indian book dated the 4th century BC mentions “bundles of silk from China”. It is clear, then, that silk had been introduced to India early in, or before, the 4th century BC. When Zhang Qian (?~114 BC), the Han Empire’s envoy who was credited for opening the Oasis Silk Road, reached Afghanistan, he found, to his amazement, bamboo walking sticks and cloth that were made in China’s Sichuan areas and then were brought to Afghanistan by Indian merchants. Excavations of Guanghan Sanxingdui Archeological Site (of the Bronze Age), not far from Chengdu, include toothed shellfish that was proved to have come from the warm coasts of India or Myanmar.

Obviously, communications between southwest China and the Indian Subcontinent existed very early, and anonymous explorers had already opened the southwestern passage linking China to South and Central Asia.

Like the Oasis Silk Road and the Steppe Silk Road in the north, the Southern Silk Road was subject to the political circumstances along the way, too. The Han Empire lost control of west Yunnan, and hostility and peace alternated in this region over the following millennium, until the Mongols conquered it again in the 13th century. However, by that time, maritime trade between China and Central & West Asia has superseded trade overland, and the importance of the Southern Silk Road gradually kept slipping.

Yet, the Road was never forgotten, as trade, migration, spread of culture and religion, as well as military actions via the Southern Silk Road never stopped. During W.W.II, the Chinese government built the Yunnan-Myanmar Highway along the main path of the Southern Silk Road, which served as China’s only international communications line.
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