Routes Followed by the First Silk Road

Episode 16: Silk Roads: Perils of Caravans and Camels

Foundations of Asian Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin

Film Review

Prior to the development of the Silk Road* trading networks, China played no part in Afro-Eurasian trade networks dating back to 1500 BC Phoenician traders.

During the Han dynasty, the Silk Road began at the capitol Changan and traveled west along the Great Wall to the Dunhuang oasis, where snow melt from mountains on three sides provided a steady supply of water. It was a prime example of caravan cities that sprung up all along the Silk Road to provide traders secure storage for their goods and food and water for themselves and their camels. The emperor stationed a military garrison there to search all pack camels for smuggled silk worms, pods and eggs.**

After Dunhuang the Silk Road split into northern and southern branches skirting the Taklamakan Desert. The separate routes rejoined at Kashgar and continued on to Samarkand, where goods were handed on to Kushan traders. The northern Silk Road continued through the Kushan and Parthian Empires. To reach the Mediterranean from the Parthian Empire, camel trains needed to cross the treacherous Zagros Mountains.

A southern Silk Road branch, leading to India, peeled off from the Kingdom of Khotan on the southern border of the Taklamakan Desert.

Without the domestication by steppes nomads of the Bactrian camel, there would have been no Silk Road. Native to Central Asia, the Bactrian camel has two humps (consisting entirely of fat), unlike the single-humped Arabian camel. The Bactrian species has two-toed webbed feet to give them good traction in sand and sealable nostrils to protect them against sand storms.**

The first Silk Road trade saw silk and Chinese inventions moving west and religious ideas, Western art and new foods moving east.

*The name “Silk Road” was first coined by the German explorer von Richtenhofer in the 19th century.

**To ensure their most valuable export, China had to ensure the West never learned the secret of silk production. The Romans believed silk fibers grew on trees. Archeological evidence suggests the Chinese domesticated silk worms as early as 5,000 BC.

***According to Benjamin, there are only 1,000 wild Bactrian camels left, though thousands are still used throughout Central Asia as pack animals.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Qin Dynasty - HISTORY

Episode 10: The Qin and the First Emperor of China

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

By 221 BC, the kingdom of Qin (pronounced Ch’in – source of the country name China) had sufficient military prowess* to defeat all rival kingdoms and declare their king (Qin Shi Huangdi)  the first Chinese emperor.

In his eleven years of rule, he enacted many reforms to further consolidate his power. He began by moving the nobility of the former rival kingdoms to the Qin and replacing their old fiefdoms with 36 provinces run by hand-picked administrators. Qin Shi Huangdi also abolished feudalism, allowing peasants to own their own land ensuring the legal code no longer favored the nobility.

In addition to harsh punishments for criminal acts (see Great Ideas of the Zhou: Legaism), there were also harsh penalties for possessing weapons, criticizing the emperor or expressing viewpoints that disagreed with Legalist principles (ie Confucianism or Daoism). In total, 460 Confucian and Daoist scholars were ultimately buried alive while multiple copies Confucian and Daoist texts were burned.

The first emperor also introduced Xiaozuan, a new style of writing, as well as new systems of weights, currency and measurement, declaring it an act of treason not to use them.

Despite being allowed to own property, the lives of peasants improved little, owing to forced conscription to work on the Great Wall** and the emperor’s tomb.

Qin Shi Huangdi’s tomb is best known for the thousands of life size terracotta warriors discovered inside. Tomb construction began 24 years before Qin declared himself emperor and ended with his death in 210 BC. In addition to roughly 700,000 men who died during its construction, all surviving laborers were killed to keep the location secret.

The Qin was the shortest dynasty in Chinese history. After the emperor’s death in 210 BC,*** a deadly civil war broke out in the Qin court. By 206 BC, the power struggle was complicated by a popular revolt. When a group of peasants conscripted to work on the Great Wall were delayed by rain, they became outlaws instead of facing likely execution. The tide turned when Qin generals defected to join growing numbers of peasants fed up with brutal conscription laws.

Lui Bagb, a minor local official from the Han kingdom (who became an outlaw to escape execution when prisoners he was escorting to work on the tomb escaped) ultimately declared himself the Han king. On assuming power, he renamed himself Gaozu and established the Han Dynasty.

*The Qin acquired major military advantage over their rivals through large stockpiles of iron weapons and trained horse archers (thanks to repeated confrontations with nomad horse archers – see Intertwined Role of Steppes Nomads and Early Chinese Civilization)

**Begun as rammed earth wall (to help prevent nomadic raids from the steppes) during the Zhou dynasty, under the Qin Dynasty was fortified with granite. The project took 10 years to complete and nearly one million men died during construction.

***Obsessed with his search for immortality, Qin Shi Huangdi most likely died of mercury poison from one of the tonics his doctors prescribed to help him live forever.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Turkmen Role in the Rise of China’s Tang Dynasty

The empire during the reign of Wu Zetian, circa 700

Episode 15: The Turks: Turkmen Khagans and Tang Emperors

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl begins this lecture by describing internal changes in China following the 220 AD collapse of the  Han dynasty collapse, and a mass population shift from the Yellow to the Yangtze River. Owing to better rainfall and more fertile soil, southern China provided better opportunities for cultivating rice and silk.

Simultaneously mainly Turkish speaking nomads migrated into northern China, carving out a new federation around the Yellow River. Prioritizing control of the Silk Road trade, these nomads garrisoned the Jade Gate and took the dynastic name of the former Wei kingdom (220-226 AD). They were great sponsors of Buddhism and helped it spread throughout China.

In 581 AD the Sui Dynasty reunified China, to be usurped in 618 AD by the Tang Dynasty. Under the latter, China was as large as it had ever been, relying on the Turkish Wei rulers to run northern China. Continuing the corvée* system of military construction initiated by the Han Dynasty, the formed required all males to engage in one year of construction for the emperor or one year of military service (followed by one year of garrison duty), Twenty percent of the Tang armies were nomadic cavalry and horse archers.

In 630 AD, the Tang emperor invaded the Eastern Gökturk Khanate and recruited prisoners they captured into the army. Through this process, they brought the entire Tarim Basin under Chinese control for the first time (see How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes ).

In 660 AD, the Tang army conquered the Western Gökturk Khanate, bringing it under Chinese control.

The Tang Empire invested heavily to stimulate development (mainly stock raising) in the Tarim Basin. They resettled native Chinese settlers to better oversee the Silk Road caravan cities and cast bronze coins to pay the Chinese garrisons that maintained order.

They also invested heavily in restoring Chinese border walls and canal building to move rice, silk and troops. The Grand Canal, stretching over 1400 miles between the Yellow and Yangtze River, was constructed during this period.

In 755-763 AD, there was a massive uprising against the heavy taxes imposed to pay for all this, led by a Gökturk (Uighur) general named An Loushan. The Tang emperor eventually put down the rebellion but lost control of the Tarim Basin to Tibet.

In 907 AD the Tang Dynasty collapsed, fragmenting into smaller kingdoms run by warlords.

*Corvée is a form of unpaid, forced labor (usually for a government ruler), which is intermittent in nature and which lasts limited periods of time.

Ancient China at War with the Xiongu Nomads and Collapse of the Han Dynasty

Episode 10: The Han Dynasty and the Xiongu at War

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture provides excellent background on early Chinese history they never teach in school.

Harl describes how Wudi, the first Han emperor (141 – 87 BC), weary of sending tribute to the Xiongu steppes nomads,* undertook military action against them. A strong advocate of Confucian imperial expansion, Wudi also aspired to gain control of the Gansu Corridor between the steppes and the Tibetan plateau and the Tarim Basin with its rich caravan cities.**

As the Chinese infantry with their chariots and crossbows was no match for Xiongu mounted archers with composite bows, he hired Xiongu mercenaries from rebel tribes.

in 127 BC, Wudi launched the first of seven years of campaigns. He attacked the Xiongnu settlements (tent cities) centered around the trade routes to the north of China, driving the Xiongnu north into Mongolia. He then launched one campaign into the Gansu corridor and the Tarim Basin (which ultimately became the present Uighur Autonomous Area). Harl maintains the outcome fell short of true military occupation. Although the caravan cities submitted to the presence of a few Chinese garrisons and paid tribute, there was no real Chinese presence in the region for many centuries.

Wudi also made two expeditions to Ferghana (modern day Tajikistan) on the other side of the Tarim Basin, as well as exploiting a civil war between two Xiongnu brothers. This resulted in a formal Chinese alliance with the southern Xiongu tribes.

These final campaigns bankrupted the Han Empire, resulting in its collapse in 9 AD.

Wudi’s successor, an interloper named Wang Mang (9 – 25 AD), lost control of the Tarim Basin and Gansu Corridor. Han descendant Gurangwu overthrew him in 25 AD restoring the Han dynasty until 220 AD. The latter launched military campaigns into Korea, Vietnam; resumed military control of the Gansu Corridor and Tarim Basin and decimated the northern Xiongnu confederacy.

In 250 AD, Han military adventurism would cause a final collapse of the dynasty into three warring states: Wei, Shu and Wu. Wei, a strong military state owing to their regular confrontation with Xiongu nomads, would eventually reunite China. Shu was the main, seat of silk, Confucianism and power.

*Unable to conquer them militarily, previous Han emperors had prevented Xiongu raids by sending them tribute and royal brides. See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

**A caravan city is a city located on and deriving its prosperity from its location on a major trans-desert trade route.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

Episode 3 Early Nomads and China

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Jade burial ornaments imported from the Tarim Basin* are the earliest evidence of contact between steppes nomads and the Xua (2205-1766 BC) and Shang (1766-1122 BC) Dynasty. The discovery of spoked wheels and light chariots from this period also suggests contact with steppes nomads. Harl supports the theory that copper and bronze technology spread from Mesopotamia to China via steppes nomads.

Following the invention of the composite bow around 1000 BC, steppes nomads made repeated raids on China’s settled cities to seize luxury goods and other booty. As early as 600 BC, the independent Chinese kingdoms began building walls to discourage nomad incursions.

With the unification of the Xiongnu confederacy under the first major steppe conqueror Modu Chanyu (234-174 BC), the first Qin dynasty emperor Shi Huangdi 221-210 BC undertook the first serious military campaign against the Xiongu nomads. After leading an expedition driving the Xiongu into the Gobi Desert, General Mang Tieng successfully claimed a handful of frontier territories for the emperor. However lacking horses strong enough to pursue nomad horsemen further north, the Chinese settled for strengthen their frontier fortification (with more walls).

The first Han emperor Gaozu (202 – 195 BC) was the first to pursue an (unsuccessful) campaign to capture nomad territory for the Chinese. In the end, he resorted to the so-called “Five Baits” strategy. This involved a system  of elaborate gifts

  • Fine food “to corrupt their mouths”
  • Clothes and carriages “to corrupt their eyes”
  • Music and women “to corrupt their ears
  • Lofting buildings, granaries and slaves “to corrupt their stomach
  • Wine and food “to corrupt their mind”

According to Harl, the actual gifts mainly consisted of silks, gold and Chinese princesses for the Xiongnu to marry.

The Chinese benefited from this trade through the horses they received from the Xiongnu and collaboration with the nomads on developing the Silk Road trade.

After the Xiongu escalated their demands and escalated their raids, a later Han emperor launched a new series of military campaigns against them (140 -87 BC).

*The Tarim Basin, also known as the Taklaman Desert, is currently part of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was formally annexed by China in the 18th century.

The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.