Historians agree that cultures in China changed drastically during the Silk Road era, especially in terms of religion, arts, and architecture. Although the connection between India and China is the most established in historical literature, it is worth noting that the Silk Road system involved several societies interacting with each other. Also, despite the use of the term ‘silk road,’ the system involved various routes rather than a single road1. Therefore, there was substantial contact between the Chinese and the people living along these routes. All these cultures experienced a significant impact on the interactions. While the Europeans, Indians and other Asians obtained materials commodities such as silk, utensils, and medicine, the Chinese obtain both material and immaterial objects from the trade2.
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Nevertheless, the most important impact of the Silk Road system experienced in China is the art culture. Arguably, the Chinese art and architecture borrow a lot from the other cultures involved in the Silk Road system. This information provides evidence that Chinese culture and societies were the major beneficiaries of the system.
A brief history of the Silk Road network
Historians agree that the origins of the Silk Road trade network can be traced back to the Han dynasty. According to historians, after replacing the Qin dynasty, the Han rulers allowed a significant degree of democracy and freedom in their territories3. For instance, they allowed new territories into their kingdoms, encouraging them to retain their traditions and cultures. Also, Han rulers encouraged trade and commerce between territories. Historians argue that this system aimed to ensure that the new territories find comfort and desire to remain as part of the kingdom. With this technique, the Han rulers wanted to build a strong empire to outdo their strong neighbors.
The desire to achieve strong allies led to the establishment of the Silk Road system. Around 119 BC, Wudi, the Han Emperor, sent Zhang Qian to the west in search of a strong ally4. The king had heard of a strong empire in the west and hoped to establish a strong treaty. However, Qian and his entourage were captured by the Hun tribe and held captives for about a decade. Nevertheless, he escaped and continued to the west. Historians still debate about the possibility of Qian proceeding with the expedition even after losing contact with Wud’s office for a decade. However, it is clear that the power of the emperors in ancient Chinese societies was absolute. It was necessary for the task or face extradition. Also, historians doubt why Wud did not send a second envoy in pursuit of Qian, even after losing him for ten years5.
However, history indicates that Qian and his men reached India. Qian found a kingdom and thought that he had reached the empire he had been pursuing6. However, the Indian ruler did not find it necessary to form a defensive alliance with Wud due to the distance involved. On his return to China, Qian was sent again with a larger delegation and trade objects, especially silk and art pieces7. He came back to China with ideas on religion, culture, architecture, food crops, and animals. This marked the beginning of the Silk Road system.
Impact of the Silk Road system on the Chinese art and art culture
After Qian’s expeditions, the trade routes between China and western societies advanced in the subsequent centuries. They passed through India and the Middle East and eventually reached Italy, North Africa and the east coast of Africa. The interaction between the Chinese and their partners in Indian, Persia, Arabia, and other Asian regions had a profound impact on the Chinese culture. Art and architecture are some of the most significant products of the Silk Road interaction8.
Gold was one of the artistic materials introduced to China from Asia. It was introduced from central Asia, where it was mainly used as a means of trade and measure of value or wealth. However, it was not used in its natural form. Rather, it was used for carving artistic products, which were used as money or utensils9. Scythian art is well represented in China by the advancement and introduction of gold. Jade carvers started using gold in their work. The made various products depicting “animal militaries locked in combat” on utensils and ornaments. History argues that the Scythian, a nomadic group located along the Silk Road, was the origin of the idea of depicting animal art of steppes. Quite evidently, the Chinese culture had little regard to animals because the people mainly depended on food crops10.
Secondly, the Silk Road system introduced the Hellenistic art culture in China. The Greek empire, supported by the Bactrian kingdoms in central Asia, had advanced deep into the central Asian regions11. Like the Asians and Indians, the Greeks found Chinese items, especially silk, very attractive, and valuable. They consolidated both direct and indirect trade with the Chinese groups. In return, the Greco-Bactrian had a major influence on Chinese culture. For instance, the Chinese, especially the Han society, adopted the idea of designing art with rosette flowers, glass inlays as well as geometric shapes, which were aspects of European and Asian arts. These aspects were inherited from early Egypt. Hellenistic art culture in China is found in bronze mirrors developed during the Han dynasty.
Also, Buddhist culture and religion brought several new ideas that changed Chinese art. The image of Buddha is an important example of the influence that Greco-Buddhist cultures left in Chinese art. Buddha’s first images were established through sculptures in the 1st century in areas such as Gandhara and Mathura, Northern India12. Through trade and interaction between communities, the image was progressively adopted in the interior parts of central Asia. With the coming of the Silk Road system, the Chinese envoys and traders eventually introduced the religion in China alongside the image of Buddha. Eventually, the Buddhist religion and artwork reached Japan through China.
Although the initial aim of the Han dynasty to establish defensive allies with the western kingdoms in Asia, the results of the expeditions from the Han Empire led to the establishment of the Silk Road. The Silk Road system connected communities between the west and the east, allowing them to exchange ideas, goods, and cultures. This analysis indicates that Chinese art experienced the largest impact of the system. The coming of gold and bronze from Europe and Asia brought new arts cultures such as Scythian, Hellenistic, and Buddhist.
Bentley, Jerry. Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times. London: Oxford University Press, 1993
Boardman, John. The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Foltz, Richard. Religions of the Silk Road. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
- Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times (London: Oxford University Press, 1993), 57.
- Bentley, 69
- Bentley, 187
- Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 42.
- Bentley, 251
- Foltz, 58
- Foltz, 97
- John Boardman, The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 73.
- Foltz, 213
- Bentley, 393
- Boardman, 172
- Boardman, 349