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... ut northern China, as well as the parts of the Silk Road under Chinese control or cultural influence. The second great era of the Silk Road trade began not long after China was reunified under the short-lived Sui dynasty and continued under its successor, the Tang(618-907). The Tang, often regarded as the most powerful and glorious dynasty in all of Chinese history, was also a 'conquest dynasty' partly of non-Chinese descent; some of the ancestors of the ruling family of the Tang were Turks. Tang power extended far out into Central Asia, almost to the Pamirs, 5and that power was used to encourage and defend the Silk Road trade. Tang China was open to foreign goods and ideas to an unprecedented extent; trade brought new fashions (tight, long sleeved jackets for women), recreations (polo), music (many new instruments and new musical styles), furniture (chairs replaced floor mats), and many other innovations from Turkish and Persian culture areas to China's west.
After Tang power in northwestern China declined after 751, and a military rebellion in 755-763 shook the dynasty to its roots, Tang power never rose again to its former heights. Political fragmentation and weakness led to a decline in the trade along the Silk Road. Eventually, power in China passed to the Song dynasty, but the Song state lost control over the Central Asian trade routes and the Silk Road began to play a diminished role in Eurasian trade. Once the Silk Road had been established during the Han dynasty, the dynamics of the trade remained relatively stable over the centuries. However, during the periods when a decrease or collapse of trade occurred, the oasis city-states declined, and the desert was full of ghost towns that were once prosperous trading centers. Trade on the Silk Road declined after the early twelfth century because of the Song dynasty's loss of north China to Ruzhen invaders from Manchuria led the Chinese to concentrate their long-distance trade on maritime routes from the central and southern Chinese coasts. The conquest of most of Eurasia in the thirteenth century by Chinggis Khan and his successors resulted in severe damage to a number of oasis cities. Nevertheless, trade did flourish under the Mongols, ushering the third great age of the Silk Road trade.
This was the era of the extraordinary trip of Marco Polo from Italy to China; many other travelers also made trips from one end of the Silk Road to the other. Envoys from France and from the Papal Palace at Rome came to Mongolia seeking an alliance with the successors of 6Chinggis Khan in a crusade against the Arabs in the Holy Land, however, the Mongols declined. The Mongol Empire began to collapse in disunity even before the generation of Chinggis's grandsons had ended. In the fourteenth century a new and even more ferocious conqueror, Timur Ling, re-established part of the empire, with its capital in the oasis city of Samarkand. His kill-and-destroy campaigns against other oasis cities completed the damage done by Chinggis Khan, and only partly repaired thereafter. Cities were depopulated, fields and orchards dried up, and the Silk Road trade never recovered. The Ottoman Empire, which took control of most of the Byzantine and Arab-Islamic worlds in the fifteenth century, did not succeed in extending its control into Central Asia.
Ming dynasty China adopted of policy of appeasement towards the Mongol and other nomads of the northern frontier, and stressed maritime trade in the early fifteenth century, before turning its back on foreign trade altogether after the middle of that century. Opportunity to revive the Silk Road seemingly appeared when the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was established. Using both conquest and diplomacy, these invaders from Manchuria assembled an empire that went far beyond China's borders. The empire included the northeast up to the Amur River, Mongolia, Tibet, and a large part of Central Asia. But while goods were carried far and wide by caravan, cart and boat within this far-reaching empire, the Silk Road could not be revived to compete with the newly established maritime routes. Long-distance trade between western and eastern Eurasia began to shift decisively to maritime routes, and into the hands of entirely new players in the game. When thinking of the Silk Road, one must keep in mind that Silk Road trade was only part of a much larger network of trade routes that extended throughout Eurasia. Goods that came east on the Silk Road might continue on to Korea and Japan via the maritime trade in the seas of 7Northeast Asia.
Silk from China brought to Byzantium might cross the Black Sea and travel up the Danube to northern Europe. Baltic amber purchased in trade for the silk might eventually find its way back to China. The port cities of the Levant dispatched Chinese and Central Asia goods westward throughout the Mediterranean world, and in turn collected goods from that world for trade to the east. And always, the maritime route between the Mediterranean and East Asia, via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia was potentially available as a rival to, or substitute for the Silk Road if overland travel became impaired. It is essential to keep this larger picture in mind to understand how and why the European 'Age of Exploration' began, and how long-distance trade between Europe and East Asia came to be concentrated in European hands. The final chapter in the history of the Silk Road was not one of trade, but of a struggle for control of the region by newly expanding empires.
By the 19th century, the Quing dynasty had to contend with the ambitions of foreign powers. Russia and England became rivals for control of Central Asia. England sought supremacy in Afghanistan and Tibet to protect its vital empire in India. Russia maneuvered to incorporate the Central Asian oases into its own expanding empire, as a way of curbing British and Chinese expansion or influence in the region, and in hopes of establishing land access through Persia to the Indian Ocean. European demands for trade concessions cost China its administrative control over many of its coastal cities during the 19th century. China also lost territories to Russia, and in turn Russia and successor the Soviet Union conquered and incorporated much of the Central Asian desert and oasis zone through which the Silk Road had passed. The completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1905 turned the Boreal Forest- traditionally one of the least traversable Eurasian subregions, into the principal route of overland 8travel between Europe and easternmost Eurasia.
Long distance trade across the steppe belt or by caravan along the Silk Road became a thing of the past. European explorers played a role in uncovering Silk Road history. The English explorer Sir Aurel Stein, the French scholar Paul Pelliot, the Swedish archeologist Sven Hedin, and others rediscovered the Buddhist cave temples at Dunhuang and elsewhere, and explored evidence of caravan routes in places like Turfan and Loulan. The Europeans helped themselves to thousands of Buddhist manuscripts, works of art, and other cultural materials which they took back to museums and libraries. Europeans at the time thought nothing of taking such materials from their original locations. Today, such actions would be considered acts of cultural vandalism.
Faults aside, these explorers and scholars brought to light important aspects of the forgotten history of the Silk Road. The People of the Silk Road today are heir to a heritage of trade and exchange that still enriches their cultures. The Silk Road, after a long period of hibernation, has been increasing in importance again recently. Interest has been growing in this ancient trade route. Books written by Stein, Hedin, and others have brought the perceived oriental mystery of the route into western common knowledge. A rapidly increasing number of people, with the romantic ideals as following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, have been interested in visiting the desolate places once part of the Silk Road. Since China opened its doors to foreign tourists at the end of the 1970's, the tourism trade has encouraged the authorities to do their best to protect the remaining sites of the original zone, and restoration of many of the sites is presently underway.
The caravans are gone forever, replaced with new issues of national identity, regional and international relations, competing roles of religion and the secular state, and most intriguing, the task of fitting traditions together with the modern-day life of the peoples of the Silk Road today. 9 Works CitedBeers, Burton F. (1988). World History Patterns of Civilization. New Jersey: Prentice-HallClyde, Paul H., Beers, Burton F. (1971) The Far East: A History of the Western Impact and the Eastern Response. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.Goodrich, L.
Carrington (1959). A Short History Of The Chinese People. New York: Harper & Row. The Great Silk Road. (Retrieved November 11, 2004) from http://www.lotossutra.at/english/seidentstr.ht. The Silk Road (Retrieved November 10, 2004) from http://www.imperialtours.net/silk road.htmThe Silk Road. (Retrieved November 11, 2004) from http://www.ess.uci.edu/%7Eoliver/silk.htmWelcome to the Silk Road (Retrieved November 12, 2004) from http://www.silkroad.com.
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