During the reigns of Empress Gemmei and Emperor Shomu at the end of the 7th century, China, under the Tang Dynasty, was one of the most prosperous empires in world. Its territory reached as far as the edges of the Middle East, where there was flourishing trade exchanges between eastern and western cultures. The Persian and Hellenistic (Indo-Greek or Bactrian) Empires were China’s neighbours and together with China, these were the world’s leading civilizations, possessing the most advanced technologies in the world at the time.
With the expansions of the Macedonian general Alexander the Great, the Mediterranean became linked to the Indus and Fergana Valleys, the opening of the route across the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor to China began to bring the worlds of East and West together. This came about around 130 BC, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian (originally despatched to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu). After the defeat of the Xiongnu, however, Chinese armies established themselves in Central Asia, pacified lands in the vast western regions and opened the strategic Hexi corridor thus extending the famed “Silk Road” further eastwards all the way to the Chinese capital Changan and eventually the rest of East Asia.
China could not ignore the burgeoning Hellenistic world, in the same way that Japan was unable to resist the power and attractions of the Tang empire. It is thought that the Chinese Emperor Wu became interested in developing commercial relationships with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthian Empire:
“The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Dayuan “Great Ionians”) and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hsia) and Parthian Empire (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China” (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History).
The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses (named “Heavenly horses”) in the possession of the Dayuan, which were of capital importance in fighting the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. “Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]… As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.” (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). The Chinese campaigned in Central Asia on several occasions, and direct encounters between Han troops and Roman legionaries (probably captured or recruited as mercenaries by the Xiong Nu) are recorded…
The “Silk Road” essentially came into being from the 1st century BCE, following these efforts by China to consolidate a road to the Western world and India, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Dayuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west. The Han Dynasty Chinese army regularly policed the trade route against nomadic bandit forces generally identified as the Xiongnu/Huns. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 mounted infantry and light cavalry troops in the 1st century CE to secure the trade routes, reaching far west to the Tarim basin. Ban Chao expanded his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of Parthia. It was from here that the Han general dispatched envoy Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome).” — The Silk Road
Along with the establishment of the Tang Empire and a great prosperity in the economy, the Silk Road rose to its peak and experienced its ‘Golden Age’ flourishing until the Anshi Rebellion (755–762) brought about its decline.
That this long-enduring trade route reached its apex in the Tang Dynasty can be ascribed to many reasons. First, the Tang Dynasty was China’s most powerful in history, with the open trade of the Silk Road helping the economy to prosper; Changan became an international metropolis at that time with many foreign envoys, merchants and missionaries congregating and living in Changan. Second, the emperors paid special attention to the management and expansion of lands in the vast Western Regions. Third, the mighty countries to the west of the Tang Empire, such as Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), Persia and Arabian Empires kept relatively stable. These countries were willing to build good relations with China. All these factors led to trade prosperity along the Silk Road and to frequent cultural exchange between the West and the East, and the consequent influx of diverse foreign ideas, knowledge, arts and technology.
Merchants, monks and soldiers thronged the Silk Road. It was the path along which expensive silk brocades as well as raw silks, and the art of paper-making came to the West from China. The Silk Road stretched as far west as Italy and Spain and as far east as Japan, connecting cultures in between. See Richard Kurin’s article “The Silk Road: Connecting Peoples and Cultures” excerpted below:
“Evidence of trade in ancient Chinese silk has been found in archaeological excavations in Central Asian Bactria (currently the region around Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan) dating to about 500 B.C.E. Strands of silk have been found in ancient Egypt from about 1000 B.C.E., but these may be of Indian rather than Chinese origin. Alexander the Great, who ruled much of the known world from the Mediterranean to India in the late 4th century B.C.E., wore robes of deep purple-dyed silk. The silk was probably from China, which the Greeks knew as Seres — the place where serikos or silk was made — and made optimum use of the rare and expensive purple dye that was produced by the Phoenicians of Tyre from the secretions of sea snails. Yet, in the West, knowledge of silk and its trade were relatively limited. So, too, in the Far East. Sericulture was carried to Korea by Chinese immigrants in about 200 B.C.E. Though silk was extant in Japan at the turn of the millennium, sericulture was not widely known there until about the 3rd century C.E.
Conventionally, historians refer to three periods of intense Silk Road trade: 1) from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., between the ancient Chinese Han dynasty and Central Asia, extending to Rome; 2) from about 618 to 907 C.E., between Tang dynasty China and Central Asia, Byzantium, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid empires, the Sasanian Persian Empire, and India, and coinciding with the expansion of Islam, Buddhism, Assyrian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and Judaism into Central Asia; and 3) during the 13th and 14th centuries, between China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and early modern Europe, made possible by Mongol control of most of the Silk Road. Some would add a modern Silk Road period, beginning in the 19th century with the “Great Game” — the competition between Russian and British colonial powers for influence over Central Asia — and extending through today.
From Han China to Rome
In 198 B.C.E., the Han dynasty concluded a treaty with a Central Asian people, the Xiongnu. The emperor agreed to give his daughter to the Xiongnu ruler and pay an annual gift in gold and silk. By the 1st century B.C.E. silk reached Rome, initiating the first “Silk Road.” Pliny, writing about silk, thought it was made from the down of trees in Seres. It was very popular among the Romans. People wore rare strips of silk on their clothing and sought more; they spent increasing amounts of gold and silver, leading to a shortage in precious metals. Coinciding with the development of ruling elites and the beginnings of empire, silk was associated with wealth and power — Julius Caesar entered Rome in triumph under silk canopies. Over the next three centuries, silk imports increased, especially with the Pax Romana of the early emperors, which opened up trade routes in Asia Minor and the Middle East. As silk came westward, newly invented blown glass, asbestos, amber, and red coral moved eastward. Despite some warnings about the silk trade’s deleterious consequences, it became a medium of exchange and tribute, and when in 408 C.E. Alaric the Visigoth besieged Rome, he demanded and received as ransom 5,000 pounds of gold and 4,000 tunics of silk.
The Tang Silk Road: Connecting Cultures
Silk continued to be popular in the Mediterranean region even as Rome declined. In Byzantium, the eastern successor of the Roman state, silk purchases accounted for a large drain on the treasury. In 552 C.E., legend has it that two Assyrian Christian monks who visited China learned the secret of silk production and smuggled out silkworms and mulberry seeds in their walking sticks. They returned to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and provided the impetus for the growth of a local silk industry. Under Emperor Justinian I, Constantinople’s silks were used throughout Europe for religious vestments, rituals, and aristocratic dress. The Persians, too, acquired knowledge of silk production; and Damascus became a silk center under Arab rulers. By the time the second Silk Road developed under the Tang dynasty (618907 C.E.) in China, Central Asians had also learned silk cultivation and developed the famed abr technique of silk resist dying generally known today by the Indonesian term ikat. Chinese silks, though, were still in demand for their exceptionally high quality. The Tang rulers needed horses for their military. The best horses were in the west, held by the Turkic Uyghurs and the peoples of the Fergana Valley. The Tang traded silk for horses, 40 bolts for each pony in the 8th century.
Not only did silk move, but so did designs and motifs as well as techniques for weaving and embroidering it. The Tang Chinese developed a satin silk, readily adopted elsewhere. Chinese silk weaving was influenced by Sogdian (Central Asian), Persian Sasanian, and Indian patterns and styles. For example, Chinese weavers adapted the Assyrian tree of life, beaded roundels, and bearded horsemen on winged horses from the Sasanians, and the use of gold-wrapped thread, the conch shell, lotus, and endless-knot designs from the Indians. Byzantines were also influenced by the Persians, weaving the Tree of Life into designs for European royalty and adopting the Assyrian two-headed eagle as their symbol. The Egyptian draw loom, adapted for silk weaving, was brought to Syria, then to Iran and beyond. Japanese weavers in Nara developed tie-dye and resist processes for kimonos. In some cases, weavers were uprooted from one city and settled in another; for example, after the Battle of Talas in 751, Chinese weavers were taken as prisoners of war to Iran and Mesopotamia. During the Tang dynasty, cultural exchange based upon silk reached its apex. Discoveries of the silk stowed in the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in about 1015 C.E. reveal the tremendous richness of silk work of the time, as well as an archaeology of shared styles of silk weaving and motifs.
The growth of silk as a trade item both stimulated and characterized other types of exchanges during the era. Curative herbs, ideas of astronomy, and even religion also moved along the Silk Road network. Arabs traveled to India and China, Chinese to Central Asia, India, and Iran. Buddhism itself was carried along these roads from India through Central Asia to Tibet, China, and Japan. Islam was carried by Sufi teachers, and by armies, moving across the continent from Western Asia into Iran, Central Asia, and into China and India. Martial arts, sacred arts like calligraphy, tile making, and painting also traversed these roads. The Tang capital city of Chang’an, present-day Xi’an, became a cosmopolitan city — the largest on earth at the time, peopled with traders from all along the Silk Road, as well as monks, missionaries, and emissaries from across the continent.”
From the 8th century to 9th century, Japan was greatly influenced by China and its cosmopolitan civilization at Changan and Luoyang. At this time, Japan already had in place a sophisticated centralized bureaucracy and legal system. The imperial government had in the previous era established the legal Taiho Ritsuryo or the Taiho Code.
When Empress Gemmei decided to move her capital to Nara in 710, the city was designed and planned using Chang-an, the Tang Dynasty capital, as their model. Between 710 and 784, when the Japanese capital was located at Nara, the period was called the Tempyo Period or Nara Period. Read more about how the Tang empire’s city of Changan was designed to be cosmically aligned with the heavens (A. Aveni, Bringing the Sky Down to Earth) and how this cosmic worldview was inherited by Japan during the Nara period.
Nara’s many surviving historic monuments and art treasures have received UNESCO status as a World Heritage in recognition of the impact of Tang Chiinese influences upon Japan:
“Japan is one of the major countries in the eastern terminus of the historical Silk Roads that is well-known throughout the ages for its traditions, wealth and stunning art while it was far from the foreign visitors’ access.
However, goods and travelers from the Silk Roads certainly made their way there and Buddhism was perhaps one of the most influential imports brought to Japan along these old trade routes. For instance, the city of Nara, the ancient capital of Japan that is considered as a significant center of Japanese culture, is abundant in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Many valuable pieces from the Silk Roads period are housed in Nara’s Shosoin Treasure Repository of the Emperor.
With all these Silk Roads connections, it is appropriate that Nara contains all the country’s primary Silk Road sites and has also been the home of the acclaimed Research Centre for Silk Road Studies.
Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. During this period the framework of national government was consolidated and Nara enjoyed great prosperity, emerging as the fountainhead of Japanese culture. The city’s historic monuments – Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace – provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change
The historic monuments of ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art as a result of cultural links with China and Korea which were to have a profound influence on future developments. The flowering of Japanese culture during the period when Nara was the capital is uniquely demonstrated by its architectural heritage. The layout of the Imperial Palace and the design of the surviving monuments in Nara are outstanding examples of the architecture and planning of early Asian capital cities. The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines of Nara demonstrate the continuing spiritual power and influence of these religions in an exceptional manner”. Read more at the UNESCO World Heritage Website
The corpus of knowledge, ideas, arts and technology was transmitted to Japan, not just by direct missions between the two countries, but also by trade and cultural conduits from the royal and elite factions of Korean peninsula and incoming migrants from the peninsular and continent.
“Although Silla (57 BCE–935 CE) imported many ideas and materials which had traveled along the Silk Road, it also served as a conduit to the Japanese archipelago for the same concepts and goods, particularly during the Unified Silla period (668–935).
Buddhism was transmitted via the Silk Road from China to Korea and then to Japan. Its transmission was a byproduct of diplomatic activities among the three countries. Buddhism was introduced first to Koguryo (37 BCE–668 CE) from China in 372 and via Koguryo to Paekche (18 BCE–660 CE) in 384 and to Silla in 527. The Paekche court sent Buddhist monks and books to Japan starting in 552.” — “Silla Korea and the Silk Road: Golden Age, Golden Threads“
To read more about why and how the Tang China influenced Japan of the Nara period, follow these links:
- Nara Court and Ceremony and the flowering of the Tempyo Culture
- Prince Nagaya: The life of a nobleman of the Nara Period
- Imperial envoys made perilous passages on kentoshi-sen ships to Tang China
- Ganjin & Gyoki: Monks on a Mission
- In the news: Kentoshi ships to reenact ancient voyages
- In the news: The lasting impact of the monk Ganjin’s voyage on Japan
- In the news: Silk road Islamic ceramic fragments excavated from Nara’s Saidaiji site are oldest finds in Japan
- In the news: Nara celebrates 1,300th Heijyokyo anniversary
- In the news: Heijokyo to be recreated in ongoing Nara commemorative project