In 130 BC, a network of trading routes that would later become known as the Silk Road was opened.
During the second century B.C., when the Han Dynasty ruled China, they officially opened trade with the West.
Travelling long distances in short timespans is one of the greatest perks of the modern world. Imagine time-travelling here from the 17th century where the camel, the horse-and-carriage and sailboats were the only means of travelling and seeing not only cargo ships, cars and trains, but airplanes and spaceships. Never in history has it been so easy and simple to travel and transport goods over vast distances. And most of this happens behind the scenes of course. Most of us simply have to go to our local supermarket at the corner of the block for access to a far wider variety of foods and goods than almost anyone enjoyed who lived more than 150 years ago.
For most of human history, however, the world didn’t have massive cargo ships and airplanes which can simply constantly travel back and forth between Asia and Europe to ensure that everyone has almost immediate access to these products. In the past, intercontinental trade had to take place by land and by means of animals such as mules and horses.
During the second century B.C., when the Han Dynasty ruled China, they officially opened trade with the West. This followed China setting itself up as a major player in the Middle East and Central Asia due to its victories over Greek territories established by Alexander the Great in the region. Chinese armies who established themselves in Central Asia built roads to the West order to transport goods. And so, in 130 BC, a network of trading routes that would later become known as the Silk Road was opened. It was actually an intercontinental connection of various different trading routes leading to a wide variety of places. The Han Dynasty was particularly interested in using it to bring back strong horses from Central Asia, as the soil in China lacked Selenium, which meant reduced growth in their native-bred horses. Chinese horses at the time were actually too weak to carry the average Chinese soldier.
Additionally, from the West the Chinese also imported armour, grapevine and grapes, domestic and exotic animals, furs and skins, honey, fruits, glassware, textiles as well as gold and silver. Europe likewise immensely benefited from the establishment of this intercontinental trade route—the world’s first at the time. Not only could it now export to the East, but along the same route it imported silk, tea, dyes, precious stones, ivory, perfumes, rice, China plates, bowls, cups and vases as well as porcelain and spices. The routes were quickly expanded to stretch over 7000 kilometres and connected a number of regions in the ancient world, including not only China and Europe, but also India and Egypt. Its furthermost western point even reached Great Britain.
The first infrastructure for this network of trade routes had already been established 300 years before the rise of the Han Dynasty in China, when the Persian empire, at around 400 B.C., established what would become known as the Persian Royal Road from northern Persia (modern-day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea in modern day Turkey. They also established a series of postal stations along the way with fresh horses to speed up deliveries across the empire. When the Silk Road was opened, it largely used and expanded upon the existing Persian infrastructure.
This network of trade routes that would eventually become known as the Silk Road were used for over 15 centuries, during which time it had been the most important international trade route in the world. In 1453, in a standoff with Europe, the Ottoman empire boycotted trade with the West and finally closed the routes. By this time, Europeans had become accustomed to goods from the East and their merchants needed to find new trade routes to meet demand. Consequently, the age of discovery or the age of exploration was initiated, with European explorers taking to sea and charting new water routes to replace over-land trade.
But it was not only goods that were traded along the Silk Road. Ideas and, sadly, diseases were too. As a result of the interaction through trade, Buddhism made its way to China from India. Traders were instrumental in translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Mandarin, thereby contributing to the spread of the Buddhist faith among the Chinese people. Unfortunately, the trade route also meant an increased spread of plagues, which caused to many deaths over the centuries.
Of course, the Silk Road derived its name from the precious commodity transported by merchants along the route. Already by the first century A.D. silk had become a highly sought-after luxury item in the Roman empire. It remained as such for many centuries as the Chinese wisely kept the method of producing silk secret.
Merchants who desired their silk supply to last longer, would cut and rewove their fabric into thinner garments. This led some ancient writers, like Seneca the Younger, to complain about people wearing silk, noting that “wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.”
However, during all the ages in which the Silk Road was in use, it was never actually known as such. The term was coined in the 19th century, over 500 years after the Silk Road had been closed down, when it was popularized by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.
The Silk Road has remained closed for nearly 600 years, but there is currently a bold initiative, led by China, aimed at re-opening this great network of trade routes. In 2015, China announced a £ 600 billion plan to rebuild and open the New Silk Road. The initiative is expected to contribute immensely to economic development not only in the poorer, western regions of China, but also to the greater Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent in general.
Paul Russell is co-founder of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national training company with offices in London, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise exclusively in the luxury industry and deliver training in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across the globe.
Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles within luxury hospitality. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.