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The Early Silk Road(s)

Summary and Keywords

Much has been said and written about the “Silk Road” since Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen coined the phrase in 1877. Fostered by spectacular discoveries by so-called explorers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, and others, the Silk Road soon became the subject of countless articles, books, museum exhibitions, and even legends. In times when almost any location—virtual or real—is but one mouse click away, the catchphrase Silk Road has not lost any of its original appeal. On the contrary, the term is almost constantly present in all kinds of media. Yet, it is never quite clear what exactly the Silk Road concept really entails. When was it established? Was it even formally established? What was its purpose? Was there but one function? And, more importantly, how useful is it as an analytical concept in the first place?

These are the main questions this article seeks to answer. Its arguments are based on an analysis of the earliest available sources: archaeological finds from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, indigenous documents written in Kharosthi script, and early Chinese historiography. The article will argue that the history of the early Silk Road (and its so-called prehistory) was considerably more complex than generally claimed. For instance, we can certainly not pinpoint a fixed date on which the Silk Road was established; neither were the intercontinental land routes primarily traveled (and populated) by traders. China’s initial forays into Central Asia in the 2nd century bce were politically motivated and had little to do with silk trade. The exchange of the famed fabric was at best a corollary of political interactions between the Western and Eastern Han Empires and powerful steppe nomads such as the Xiongnu. The latter extorted copious amounts of luxury goods from the former and redistributed them throughout Central Asia and Eurasia. Thus, this article claims that the Silk Road as an analytical concept does not do justice to the intricacies of prehistorical and historical realities. It therefore introduces the concept of movement as a heuristic tool to analyze cross-cultural interactions.

Keywords: Silk Road, movement, Han dynasty, Xiongnu, Chinese foreign relations, archaeology, Central Asia, Tarim Basin, tributary system


As suggested by its title, this article seeks to explore the significance of the early Silk Road. The term “early” is quite vague, though, and a more precise definition seems desirable: When exactly did the Silk Road come into existence? Yet, what might demand a fairly simple answer in the form of a specific point in time at first glance is more complicated on closer inspection. Strictly speaking, there were two points of origin rather than a single one. It is important to distinguish the emergence of the Silk Road as a concept, on the one hand, and the interpretation of the historical processes that are associated with the Silk Road idea, on the other. This very distinction is, in fact, crucial as the inception of the Silk Road idea inextricably influences all interpretations of historical Silk Road processes. Ever since scholarship pinpointed silk as the main object of exchange between China and the West, interactions between both spheres have been solely defined in terms of trade.

The following analysis of both points of origin shall demonstrate that (a) neither silk nor trade was the driving force behind the purported formation of the Silk Road and (b) its traditionally accepted date of origin in the mid-Western Han period (206 bce–9 ce) must be discarded. As a consequence, the conventional understanding of the Silk Road as an analytical concept is basically obsolete. This might seem like an odd claim in a study that aims to elucidate the genesis of the Silk Road, but the opposite is true: a research-encyclopedia entry is the ideal format to discuss a new paradigm since its principal goal is to spawn new research itself. Thus, this article contends that the notion of movement ought to be the primary focus of any investigation of cross-cultural interactions.1 Catchphrases such as “silk,” “road,” and “trade” are, by their very nature, exclusive in the sense that they promote oversimplifying arguments, which redact any kind of interaction between two or more discrete social entities to the exchange of Chinese silk through mercantile activities that were organized on well-established infrastructure.

However, the idea of the Silk Road has long transcended such narrow interpretations. Over the past thirty-odd years, countless articles, books, and museum exhibitions in almost every corner of the world have emphasized the movement of objects (silk being only one among many kinds of goods), people (on their own volition and as slaves), animals, ideas (e.g., religions), technological knowledge, languages, and even pathogens and genes.2 Thus, I propose to focus on the idea of movement instead.3 In contrast to exclusive terms such as “silk,” “road,” or “trade,” it has the advantage of being inclusive in the sense that it encourages scholars and the general public alike to peer beyond the limits of material and economic exchanges. The concept of movement as an analytical tool has the capacity to open our minds to the fact that the flow of living beings, material culture, intellectual property, and genetic information among different locales was not necessarily linked to business ventures. More importantly, even if trade was the primary motivation to move commodities from point A to point B, making movement the main focus of one’s analysis will inevitably illustrate that it was not just the merchandise itself that travelled in the process; by association, the materials and techniques to produce goods also migrated through space and time, as did the people who were responsible for transporting such commodities. These human beings, in turn, were furthermore carriers of immaterial (cultural) values, genes, and sometimes diseases that inevitably left impressions on the native societies of the places they visited along their journeys. Applying the concept of movement to any instance of cross-cultural interaction forces us to develop a much deeper understanding of complex historical processes. The discussion below is going to highlight that it will no longer suffice to state, for instance, that certain items were sold from merchants of one cultural bent to merchants of a different cultural bent. Rather, we need to ask ourselves whether the actors involved in such scenarios, that is, movers of objects (and ideas), were indeed traders and the goods that changed hands were actually intended as merchandise.

The Two Beginnings of the Silk Road and Its Subsequent Perception

It has been well documented that the term “Silk Road” (Chin. Sichou zhi lu 絲綢之路‎ or Silu 絲路‎) was the brainchild of the German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr (Engl. Baron) von Richthofen. In 1877, he coined the phrases “Die Seidenstraßen” (The Silk Roads) and “Die Seidenstraße” (The Silk Road) while describing transcontinental routes that linked early imperial China with Western Asia.4 At the time of writing, the fact that silk once may have been transmitted along these paths was no more than a casual observation by Richthofen since he was mainly concerned with surveying Eurasian geography. Nonetheless, his famous neologism gave way to the second beginning of the Silk Road. As early as the 20th century, generations of scholars in his wake latched on to the notion of the Silk Road as a single mercantile highway, whose sole purpose was to supply the Mediterranean cultural sphere with Chinese silk.5 Based on the records in early Chinese historiographical works such as the Shi ji 史記‎ (Records of the Historian) by Sima Qian 司馬遷‎ (c. 145–86 bce) and Han shu 漢書‎ (Book of the [Western] Han) by Ban Gu 班固‎ (32–92 ce), the exact date of origin of the Silk Road was narrowed down to the reign of Emperor Wu 武‎ (or Wudi 武帝‎, r. 141–87 bce).

Although an increasing number of authors rightly aim to clarify that many different paths traversed the Eurasian continent from east to west and north to south in antiquity (Figure 1),6 the perception of the fledging Silk Road as a solitary road frequented by silk merchants prevails in academic and non-academic circles to this day. Admittedly, especially art historians and archaeologists are increasingly interested in reconstructing moments of cultural exchange;7 however, the underlying assumption remains: Cross-cultural interactions between China and the West were simply corollaries of commercial activities. For instance, the so-called “opening” of the Silk Road under Wudi was initiated by the court’s purported interest in the silk trade and Buddhism only piggybacked its way to early imperial China.8 Similar to the fixation on trade, even the most critical scholars of the underlying concept hold on to the idea that the Silk Road started at a fixed date. Victor Mair, for example, asserts that “even before the opening of the Silk Roads by Zhang Qian in the late 2nd century BC, there was an informal system of contact and exchange across the expanse of Eurasia.”9 Zhang Qian 張騫‎, the envoy, whom Mair credits with the inauguration of the Silk Road, was sent to Central Asia in order to seek allies against the Xiongnu 匈奴‎ in 139 BCE. By that time, the powerful nomad confederacy, who called the northern Eurasian steppes their home, had been raiding Chinese borders for at least over a century.10 Notwithstanding the fact that Zhang Qian’s mission failed, the Western Han had their eyes on the Central Asian Tarim Basin at the heart of today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the world beyond from this point onward (Figure 1).

The Early Silk Road(s)Click to view larger

Figure 1. Several strands of the Central Asian part of the Silk Road (after Whitfield, The Silk Road, 8–9).

With the publication of Yü Ying-shih’s Trade and Expansion in Han China in 1967, it became almost universally accepted that the Han dynasty’s embrace of the outside world was fueled by economic motives. The Chinese elite had an insatiable hunger for exotic luxuries that was financed by the export of silk. More precisely, Yü adopted John Fairbank’s take on the so-called tributary system as a “cloak for trade.”11 This means that alien entities were only offering tribute because the Western Han reciprocated with lavish counter-gifts whose material value by far outweighed the value the goods presented to the Chinese government. This system supposedly worked because the court was content with the fact that its suzerainty was formally recognized by the submission of tribute by alien leaders. Accordingly, physical confirmation of the divine right to rule (tian ming 天命‎, or “heavenly mandate”) was more important to the Han emperors than fiscal consolidation as expenditures for counter-gifts regularly strained the imperial coffers. Following Yü’s argument, foreign powers were not inclined to defer to Chinese mandates in return. They treated tribute exchanges as mere business ventures, which were believed to have been copiously rewarded mainly in the form of silk.12

Early Chinese Diplomacy, Trade, and the Silk Road: A Revision

However, the common view of early Chinese foreign relations is severely flawed. First, the Western Han government was not at all pursuing economic profits from tributary relations. Rather, the imperial court was keenly interested in getting alien powers to actually accept Han suzerainty. The actual business interests of only a small number of states located far beyond the western limits of the Tarim Basin such as Kashmir (Jibin 罽賓‎) were indulged by the Chinese authorities. Second, and this is crucial, barely any of the foreign powers that approached the emperors of both Han dynasties with tribute were richly compensated.13 Later historical records indicate that the individual members of tributary missions were presented with some silk and other valuables.14 Nevertheless, the volumes of these gifts were insufficient to view such transactions as hugely lucrative. In fact, outrageous amounts of imperials gifts that had the capacity to yield a hefty profit if redistributed were the prerogatives of a selected few: formidable opponents such as the Xiongnu, or slightly later the Qiang 羌‎ tribes in modern-day Gansu province, that were powerful enough to pose a real threat to both Han Empires.15

It stands to reason, then, that several nomad groups as the recipients of vast sums of imperial merchandise were the true intercontinental silk traders and not the Chinese court itself. This claim is based on a comprehensive study of all the eligible historical sources at our disposal as well as analyses of the available archaeological evidence. As for the historical sources, scrutinizing every single tributary interaction between the Western and Eastern Han (23–220 ce) and various alien entities as recorded in the Shi ji, Han shu, and Fan Ye’s 范曄‎ (398–446 ce) Hou Han shu 後漢書‎ (Book of the Later [Eastern] Han), while paying close attention to the individual historical contexts of such exchanges, has shown that reciprocation of tributary offerings was, contrary to common beliefs, not the rule. Over the course of roughly four hundred years, imperial presents to foreign powers other than the Xiongnu or equally forceful enemies are mentioned on only four occasions. More importantly, not once were such gifts related to tribute offerings to the Chinese court. Instead, they were either occasioned by the inauguration of an alien leader into a Chinese government office, or given as dowries in the course of diplomatic marriages. It is clear that excessive presents to minor political players were always initiated by extraordinary circumstances and not by regular tribute offerings.16 Consequently, Yü Ying-shih’s “cloak for trade” argument is utterly inappropriate to explain the nature of China’s relations with politically inferior foreign polities such as smaller states in the Tarim Basin. Moreover, it clouds the true dynamics of the imperial contacts with more powerful opponents. Tens of thousands of silk bales along with myriads of other goods and foodstuffs that were extended toward different pastoral groups such as the Xiongnu and Qiang over the course of two and a half centuries were neither traded nor part of so-called gift exchanges. They were simply extorted by either the threat or execution of actual violence against the Western and Eastern Han Empires.17 In case the Chinese did not part with their riches, their borders were raided yet again.

To sum up, contrary to the common view of the origins of the Silk Road, both Han imperial governments never had any vested interest in establishing or sustaining long-distance trade.18 Besides, Han period (and later) officials were notoriously suspicious of merchants, and the court only engaged in large-scale trade if absolutely necessary.19 For instance, monopolies on products such as iron, salt, and alcohol were strictly enforced in times of financial crises and never exceeded the borders of the empire.20 This obvious bias against economic enterprises in early Chinese texts might render an analysis of the historical records less compelling. In general, it appears implausible that the court would allow official historians to cover imperial business pursuits when these were regarded as distasteful. Then again, the fact that the early standard histories recount extensive quantities of merchandise that were withdrawn from the imperial coffers in exceptional circumstances suggests that merely significant sums were deemed worthy of documentation. Apparently, the small numbers of presents bestowed upon delegations of minor tribute bearers were too modest to warrant recording. The costs of such gifts noticeably impacted neither imperial finances nor imperial policy and thus did not figure in official historiography.

This impression is also mirrored in excavated manuscripts. Over the past decades, tens of thousands of late 3rd-century bce through 1st-century ce imperial administrative records largely brushed on wood and bamboo slips emerged from settlement sites and tombs in central and northwestern China.21 Although intricately detailing the financial affairs of local offices, none of these documents indicates the court’s involvement in long-distance trade. The limited number of commercial exchanges that featured imperial and foreign agents mentioned in the texts were restricted to northwestern border areas. For example, some manuscripts unearthed at Xuanquan 懸泉‎ near Dunhuang 敦煌‎ in Gansu province speak of Central Asian merchants who sold camels to the local authorities.22 Acquiring beasts of burden in order to manage routine business at imperial outposts is a far cry from court-sponsored trade in luxury goods such as silk. In addition, the Xuanquan documents perfectly illustrate the actual organization of economic activities along the Eurasian transcontinental routes: “Silk Road trade was often local and small in scale,” to use Valerie Hansen’s words.23 In general, the bulk of the excavated administrative documents are preoccupied with issues of domestic policy, chief among which are population registration and tax collection. Records of commercial processes usually are restricted to the subsistence level. As was the case with the aforementioned camels, local officials bought cereals and livestock as provisions for troops and administrative staff.24 Moreover, some of the northwestern settlement sites brought to light manuscripts that directly reflect Han and Xiongnu interactions. None of these manuscripts refers to any kind of economic exchange between the Chinese and Xiongnu; they mainly recorded the day-to-day business of keeping the Xiongnu at bay.25

Of course, this does not mean that there was no long-distance trade to begin with. The key is to realize that early Chinese governments had no desire to seize foreign markets. Essentially, Wudi’s expansionist policies were imposed upon him by the political climate at the time. The Xiongnu and later inheritors of their territories dictated China’s degree of engagement in Central Asia. Early imperial forays into today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region were in no way intended to open or protect the Silk Road, but aimed at pacifying their most forceful enemies. All evidence points to the fact that the pastoralist from the northern steppes, in turn, depended on the redistribution of extorted Chinese merchandise. For instance, several studies based on archaeological evidence have demonstrated that the redistribution of wealth among the Xiongnu was not confined to their own people. More vitally, Chinese luxury goods such as silk, lacquerwares, and bronze mirrors were disseminated “beyond their territory within a framework of elite exchange and alliance-building measures.”26 It seems as if the Eurasian nomads did not keep the majority of the tens of thousands of silk bales they coerced from the Western and Eastern Han courts for themselves, but sold and bartered them in the Tarim Basin and perhaps even as far west as Palmyra in current Syria.27 For example, exquisite silk fabrics such as various multicolored warp-faced compound tabby weaves (Chin. jin 錦‎) yielded by tombs at Loulan (Lopnor) 樓蘭‎, Yingpan 營盤‎, Zhagunluke 札滾魯克‎ (Uyghur Charchan), and Niya 尼雅‎ (all located in the Tarim Basin; Figure 1),28 and Xiongnu burials at Noin Ula in Mongolia and Oglakty in Southern Siberia29 as well as Roman graves at Palmyra30 were all products of Chinese imperial workshops (Figure 2). During the Western Han period, wearing clothes tailored from these magnificent textiles was a statutory privilege reserved for members of the highest social strata.31 The only time the court parted with so-called jin-silks was when the threat of violence at the hands of nomadic steppe people left them no other choice. Or they gave them away voluntarily as part of dowries in marriage alliances or inauguration gifts, as described above.

The Early Silk Road(s)Click to view larger

Figure 2. Fragments of a silken polychrome patterned warp-faced compound tabby weave with inscription (deng gao 登高‎ “[May you] ascend [lofty] heights”) yielded by Tomb No. 95BYYM20 at Yingpan (after Zhao and Yu, Shamo wangzi yibao, 42, fig. 10).

In short, powerful nomad groups extorted enormous amounts of various kinds of silks from the Chinese and redistributed them across Eurasia. In this scenario, both Han Empires were at best involuntary and reluctant facilitators of the intercontinental silk trade. Judging from a Chinese perspective, economic considerations thus were in no way primary motives to open the Silk Road. Moreover, their indirect contributions to long-distance commerce began prior to Zhang Qian’s first mission to Central Asia as the early Western Han court had already been forced to send a considerable volume of silk along with alcohol and cereals to the Xiongnu in 198 bce (and likely even before that date).32 Since Chinese conflicts with pastoral people already arose in the pre-imperial age, it is very likely that similar deals had been well established by then. But even if one takes the year 198 bce to be the most conservative starting date of such arrangements, it predates the purported “opening of the Silk Road” by close to sixty years.33

The Concept of the Silk Road versus the Idea of Movement as Analytical Tools

If neither the perceived date of origin nor silk was a definitive feature of the Silk Road, one cannot help but wonder about its overall usefulness as an analytical concept. One might even be inclined to ask: What are the advantages of hanging on to it as a heuristic tool in the first place?

It seems as if there really are none. Whenever the phrase “Silk Road” is invoked, it conjures certain associations in people’s minds: the Western Han dynasty established a single transcontinental road that stretched from its capital Chang’an 長安‎ all the way to the Roman Empire in order to trade with silk. As has been shown above, this understanding glosses over the complexities of ancient exchange processes. At the very least, one needs to acknowledge that (a) numerous routes criss-crossed the Eurasian continent, (b) the governments of both Han dynasties were not heavily invested in long-distance commerce, and (c) silk was but one of many kinds of commodities that changed hands on local and supra-local levels.34 Another common misperception is linked to the way merchandise was traded. Instead of single individuals or large caravans that went all the way from China (or the northern steppes) to the Mediterranean, merchants usually travelled in fairly small groups from one oasis to the next and back again.35

But any concept that aims to replace the traditional Silk Road concept needs to operate on a deeper level. There can be little doubt that the essential allure of the Silk Road for scholars and the interested public alike are cross-cultural interactions that underpin the very idea itself. These were by no means restricted to trade and east–west contacts. Instead, they may have extended into every possible direction. For instance, it has been rightly argued that the Silk Road concept ought to encompass not only East Asia (primarily China, Korea, and Japan), Eurasia, India, and the Mediterranean, but also Southeast Asia and North and sub-Saharan Africa as well.36 Cross-cultural contacts may also have entailed the conscious or subconscious transmission of ideas, technologies, diseases, or genes in addition to material culture. Or, the process might have been the other way around, as John Kieschnick has so impressively illustrated. He shows that the spread of Buddhism in China was responsible for the introduction of the chair, sugar, and tea in Chinese society as a whole. All three items initially figured prominently among Buddhist monks, but soon gained audiences well beyond any religious congregation.37 Of course deconstructive views of the Silk Road concept have been proposed before, but they somewhat lack a clear theoretical guideline for studying cross-cultural interactions. David Christian, for instance, includes the “Afro-Eurasian landmass” in his analysis and contends that “the different regions of Afro-Eurasia – the regions of agrarian civilization, as well as those of pastoralism or woodland foraging cultures – exchanged ideas, languages, goods, cultural motifs, and perhaps also disease vectors, much more vigorously and for a much longer period than is usually appreciated.”38 Commendable as it may be to extend one’s chronological and geographical frame of reference to comprise periods prior to the purported beginning of the Silk Road and regions that exceed the traditional geographical limits to the east and west as Christian and others do, this does not go far enough since the specific objectives of respective inquiries are not explicitly articulated.39 For example, Christian nicely points out the timelines and directions of the flow “of ideas, technologies, good, languages, and customs” throughout the Inner Eurasian steppes during the “prehistory of the Silk Roads.”40 Yet, we are not given a discrete method with which to approach our sources.

Thus, I propose to make the concept of movement the primary object of investigation of all analyses of cross-cultural interactions since it fundamentally lies at the very core of every prominent aspect of conventional Silk Road exchanges. Focusing on movement processes ensures that inquiries stay on target. Moreover, concentrating on movement processes allows us to study a wide range of different contents, which eliminates the danger of superimposing predetermined answers on any given source material. The major benefit of the idea of movement as a heuristic tool is that it requires us to ask specific questions of our evidence: What exactly did move? Was it objects, humans, animals, techniques, ideas, genes, or pathogens? Was it just one such item at a time or a combination of several items? How exactly did any of such inanimate objects, creatures, or intellectual faculties move? Who exactly did move them? Were they consciously or subconsciously transferred? Where did they originally come from? Did raw materials or finished products move? Did they take on different meanings in the process?41 What was the actual timeline?42 Commencing (cultural) historical analyses by contemplating every facet of movement that may have been involved in any given cross-cultural interaction makes it much harder to fixate on isolated details such as “silk,” “trade,” or “road.” As has been discussed earlier, movement processes may have involved, for instance, actual artifacts, but these were not necessarily the only contents that traveled. The techniques and materials to produce and use them might have been transferred to a different cultural realm as well.

The Early Silk Road(s)Click to view larger

Figure 3. Detail of a silk taqueté fabric with imitations of Chinese characters yielded by Tomb No. 99BYYM8 at Yingpan (after Zhao Feng 趙豐‎, Fangzhipin kaogu xin faxian 紡織品考古‎ 新發現‎ [Hangzhou: Zhongguo sichou bowuguan, 2002], 59, fig. 59.1).

Let us contemplate a concrete example: Figure 2 depicts a Chinese silk warp-faced compound tabby weave (jin) yielded by the 2nd to 3rd century ce Tomb No. 95BYYM20 at Yingpan, whereas Figure 3 shows a Western Asian silk weft-faced compound tabby weave (taqueté) from the roughly contemporary Tomb No. 99BYYM8 at the same cemetery.43 From an iconographic point of view, the latter is emulating the former. Both fabrics share roughly comparable cloudlike landscape motifs and woven Chinese characters. The two textiles demonstrate that, by the late 2nd to 3rd century ce, idiosyncratic Han-period iconography not only had moved as far west as the Tarim Basin, but left a lasting impression on the local population. The allure of the exotic material and imagery of Chinese originals had prompted Western Asian or Central Asian weavers—given the information at hand, it is impossible to determine where exactly the taqueté fabric was produced—to weave their own versions of them. The same is true for silk as a raw material and the necessary techniques to produce it. By the time Western Asian or Central Asian artisans fashioned such copies, they had obviously already adopted silk as material. Concomitantly, the local weavers acquired the expertise to reel the up to 985-yard-long unbroken silk threads, knowledge that previously was unique to China. The same holds true for the cultivation of White Mulberry trees (Morus alba), rearing of silkworms (Bombyx mori), and killing of the larvae before they hatched by boiling the silkworm cocoons in water. The latter step prevented the fully developed moths from eating through the long, continuous thread that made up the cocoon and thus breaking it into short fibers.44 Furthermore, chemical analyses of silk and wool textiles from other Yingpan burials highlight that even features as seemingly intangible as dyestuffs have the capacity to disclose movement between geographical and cultural regions. Many of the natural dyes detected in the fabrics originally came from either the Middle East or Western Asia.45

The traditional understanding of the early Silk Road almost exclusively emphasizes silk trade between the Western Han and the West. However, turning to movement as an analytical concept has helped to unfold a more nuanced narrative. Tracing the flow of imperial “gifts” to foreign leaders in early Chinese historiography has shown that the court did not attempt to open new markets for Chinese silk. Instead, it was forced to send vast quantities of the coveted textiles to pastoralists, who redistributed them across Eurasia. Thus, the Chinese warp-faced compound tabby weave in Figure 2 and similar fabrics most likely did not come from the hands of the Chinese emperor, as is often argued, but found their way to the Tarim Basin via the Eurasian steppes.46 It needs to be pointed out that Chinese silk merchants emerge from a single document written in Kharosthi script yielded by the Niya settlement site.47 Although these traders are said to come from China, it is uncertain exactly what kinds of silk they might have sold. Presumably, they dealt in simple tabby weaves that were to some extent used as currency and as payment of Chinese officials at the time and thus fairly easily available.48 There is no reason to believe that these vendors were Chinese imperial agents with easy access to the most exquisite textiles available at the time. More plausibly, they were independent entrepreneurs similar to the Central Asian camel merchants mentioned above, who operated close the borders of the empire. Even if they might have occasionally sold extravagant jin-silks and technologically almost equally complex monochrome patterned, damask-like weaves (qi 綺‎; so-called Han damask), they probably had to purchase them from nomad redistributors first. Regardless of whether pastoralist nomads or private Chinese retailers imported various silk textiles to the Tarim Basin, the effect remained the same: production techniques and iconography along with the finished product eventually moved to a different cultural realm.

Consequences of the New Movement Paradigm

Placing movement at the center of any investigation of cross-cultural interactions highlights that the established chronological and geographical limits of the Silk Road are more harmful than helpful. For instance, considerable effort has been devoted to reveal the “prehistory” of the Silk Road.49 Time and again, scholars find themselves arguing against a concept whose defining parameters were somewhat arbitrarily chosen in the first place. As has been stated numerous times, the Western Han Empire did not actively create a transcontinental commercial network that facilitated the sale of silk. People, and with them genes, pathogens, ideas, objects, and animals, moved through space long before Zhang Qian’s mission to Central Asia. Admittedly, the phases of Chinese dominion over the Tarim Basin during both Han (and later especially) Tang periods allowed living creatures, things, and thoughts to flow more easily, but the differences in movement processes were quantitative not qualitative in nature. Maintaining that the Silk Road was intentionally opened by the Western Han to create revenue or acquire exotic luxuries evidently misses the point. As the subsequent examples will highlight, earlier cross-cultural interactions deserve our attention just as much as later ones.

In recent years, the natural sciences have greatly contributed to our knowledge of ancient movement processes throughout Eurasia. For instance, the DNA of skeletons unearthed from early- to mid-2nd-millennium bce burials in southern Siberia exhibited largely European traits.50 These and comparable results suggest that linguistic theories about the migration of Indo-Europeans to East Asia during the Bronze Age might indeed have been apt.51 In contrast, mitochondrial DNA samples from Xiaohe cemetery (date c. 1650–1450 bce) located at the northern rim of the Tarim Basin represented a roughly even mixture of western and eastern Eurasian biological traits.52 Yet, scientific analyses are not only useful for the reconstruction of dispersal patterns of human genes, but also the elucidation of the movement of foodstuffs. Wheat, for example, was introduced to northwestern and northern China from Western Asia as early as the mid-5th millennium bce.53 Asian millets (Panicum miliaceum and Setaria italica), in contrast, were first domesticated in China during early 8th millennium BCE and reached Greece by the 3rd millennium bce.54

Chariots were another early cultural adaptation from Western Asia that reached China via the Eurasian steppes at around 1200 bce. Unlike in the Near East, where chariots fulfilled an essential role in warfare, the earliest Chinese chariots primarily served as status symbols and transportation on hunting excursions for the political elite of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1045? bce). However, it has been argued that the victory of the succeeding Western Zhou dynasty (1045?–771 bce) was in large part due to their effective use of battle chariots.55 It is clear that the very idea behind such vehicles in addition to the actual knowledge to build and utilize them migrated eastward. Furthermore, the so-called Animal Style seen in southern Siberian bronze weapons is mirrored in some bronze weapons and other artifacts excavated at Anyang 安陽‎ in Henan province, the last capital of the Shang period.56 In this case, the form and function of daggers were transferred to China, where animal iconography was appropriated in different media. Ultimately, the proliferation of this particular ornamental style did not stop in northern China but spread throughout the vast expanses of Eurasia.57 Closely related to chariot warfare and bronze weaponry was the invention of trousers. This nowadays familiar kind of clothing was initially tailor made for the needs of mounted warriors, who required legwear that allowed maximum mobility on the back of a horse and simultaneously protected their thighs against the rough horse skin. The earliest finds known so far stem from two 13th- to 10th-century bce tombs at Yanghai 洋海‎ cemetery in the Tarim Basin. The idea behind these two pairs of woolen pants was almost certainly conceived by mobile pastoralists in the Eurasian steppes.58 The impact of this new kind of garment on numerous cultures is vital to our discussion. Sooner rather than later, equestrians throughout the Eurasian continent wore riding trousers.

As far as the movement of ideas is concerned, religions have garnered by far the most attention, and Buddhism certainly figures most prominently in scholarship.59 Although the exact timeline of the spread of Buddhism from northern India via Central Asia to China is still contested, archaeological finds at Niya attest that it reached the Tarim Basin by at least the late 2nd to early 3rd century ce (but likely earlier than that). The ruins of a monastery featuring a stupa are testament to the existence of a Buddhist community at the Niya settlement, as are Kharosthi documents unearthed from several of the residential houses at the site.60 Some of the latter explain that Buddhist monks lived a relatively secular life by modern standards. They owned houses, had wives, and apparently every once in a while had physical altercations with each other. Such scuffles did not go unpunished as the culprits were fined to pay between five to fifteen bales of tabby silk to the abbot.61 However, the expansion of Buddhism has been amply covered in secondary literature, and there is no need to dwell on it here.62 It is more interesting to consider the possibility that secular rather than religious ideas moved in the opposite direction as well. For instance, the Hou Han shu reports that prior to becoming king of Suoju 莎車‎ (Yarkand), a man named Yan 延‎ served as a hostage at the court of the Western Han Emperor Yuan (48–33 bce). Contrary to what modern-day observers might expect, Yan did not resent his hosts in the slightest, as he is said to have “yearned for the joys of [living] in China” after returning to his native country. Even more strikingly, upon assuming the throne of Yarkand, he implemented Chinese laws. Yan’s case serves very well to highlight that intellectual faculties could easily transfer into another realm without there being an active agenda. King Yan pursued a Chinese way of living and ruling on his own volition. More importantly, he raised his own sons in accordance with his adopted lifestyle and thus left a deep impression on the local population.63


Many comparable instances of cross-cultural interactions that are not covered by the umbrella of the traditional Silk Road concept could be added to the few examples discussed in the preceding section. It is not the case that most of these issues have not been raised before, but they were treated as part of a separate discussion. Not fitting the framework of the traditional Silk Road concept in terms of content, chronology, and geography made it seem as if such transmission processes were unconnected to the underlying Silk Road idea. This could not be further from the truth. The flow of material and immaterial contents represents its very essence. The notion of movement as a heuristic tool, then, transcends the subjective boundaries created by the erstwhile concept. Since movement as a concept emphasizes the most crucial element of cross-cultural contacts—the transfer of things, knowledge, living beings, and so on—it is sufficiently specific to encourage us to ask the important questions: What moved where, when, and why? Yet, at the same time, it is sufficiently vague so that we are forced to ask more precise questions. For instance, when people moved, did they only transfer material culture, or did they transmit immaterial contents such as ideologies, diseases, and genes as well? Similarly, were the objects they transported the only things that moved, or were the technical skills and ideologies associated with goods transferred as well? Moreover, the inherent vagueness of the idea of movement inevitably demands that we pay more attention to the direction of historical processes: Did humans, objects, and so on only move in one direction, or did something move in return? If so, what exactly came the other way, and what was the timeline?

In short, movement as an analytical concept is universally applicable. It helps to explain movement processes of any time period and geographic location. By focusing on the movement of living creatures, material culture, ideologies, pathogens, and genes, distinctions among “prehistoric,” “historic,” “early,” or “maritime” Silk Roads will no longer be necessary. Modern commentators simply have to define chronological eras and geographical areas of interest and apply a catalogue of specific questions to the sources at their disposal. Their explanations will be infinitely more nuanced than reductionist catchphrases such as “trade,” “silk,” and “road” that still define the modern understanding of the “Silk Roads.”

Primary Sources

The primary sources that inform the traditional understanding of the early Silk Road are the Shi ji, Han shu, and Hou Han shu. However, these early Chinese official histories are deeply biased against steppe nomads such as the Xiongnu or Qiang, whom they consider culturally inferior “barbarians.” In addition, they are somewhat indifferent to geopolitically less significant actors such as the Central Asian city-states in the Tarim Basin. Data on the latter are generally scarce; the little historiographical information that is indeed available is mainly concerned with conveying the contents of Chinese political interests in the region. Nevertheless, the chapters that cover interactions with foreign entities do, in fact, contain some ethnographic data such as population numbers and a list of indigenous products. Consequently, the main sources to reconstruct movement processes are archaeological records. Excavated evidence in the form of architectural remains (religious and secular), material culture (religious and secular), paintings (mostly religious murals, some secular motifs), and manuscripts (largely administrative documents written in Chinese and Kharosthi) stems from tombs and settlement sites throughout the Chinese mainland, Tarim Basin, and Eurasian steppe, but also the Middle East, and Mediterranean. Finds and features yielded by archaeological sites not only help to counterbalance historiographical biases, but add many different layers of previously unknown information on ancient societies.

Further Reading

Barfield, T. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.Find this resource:

    Barfield, T. “Steppe Empires, China, and the Silk Route: Nomads as a Force in International Trade and Politics.” In Nomads in the Sedentary World. Edited by A. M. Khazanov and A. Wink, 234–249. London: Taylor and Francis, 2001.Find this resource:

      Bentley, J. H. “Cross-cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996): 749–770.Find this resource:

        Christian, D. “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History.” Journal of World History 11, no. 1 (2000): 1–26.Find this resource:

          di Cosmo, N. “Ancient City-States of the Tarim Basin.” In A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures: An Investigation Conducted by the Copenhagen Polis Center. Edited by M. H. Hansen, 393–407. Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels Forlag, 2000.Find this resource:

            di Cosmo, N. Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

              Hansen, V. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                Hill, J. E., Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. An Annotated Translation of the Chronicle on the ‘Western Regions’ in the Hou Hanshu. n.c.: Booksurge, 2009.Find this resource:

                  Honeychurch, W. “From Steppe Roads to Silk Roads: Inner Asian Nomads and Early Interregional Exchange.” In Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors. Edited by R. Amitai and M. Biran, 50–87. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                    Honeychurch, W. Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire: Archaeology, Mobility, and Culture-Contact. New York: Springer, 2015.Find this resource:

                      Hulsewé, A. F. P. China in Central Asia, the Early Stage, 125 B.C.–A.D. 23: An Annotated Translation of Chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1979.Find this resource:

                        Kieschnick, J. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                          Liu X. R. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                            Manning P. “The Problem of Interactions in World History.” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996): 771–782.Find this resource:

                              Millward, J. A. The Silk Road: A Very Short History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                Selbitschka, A. Prestigegüter entlang der Seidenstraße? Archäologische und historische Untersuchungen zu Chinas Beziehungen zu Kulturen des Tarimbeckens vom zweiten bis frühen fünften Jahrhundert nach Christus. Asiatische Forschungen 154. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010.Find this resource:

                                  Selbitschka, A. “Early Chinese Diplomacy: Realpolitik vs. the so-called Tributary System.” Asia Major 28, no. 1 (2015): 61–114.Find this resource:

                                    Yu, T. S. “A Study of the History of the Relationship between the Western and Eastern Han, Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Western Regions.” Sino-Platonic Papers 179 (2006): 1–166.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) Although one might not fully agree with the heuristic value of introducing discrete periods in world history that were defined by differing levels of cross-cultural interaction, Jerry H. Bentley’s broad view on various kinds of historical movement processes over a long period of time and almost all continents has certainly informed the present study. See his “Cross-cultural Interaction and Periodization in World History,” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996): 749–770. Also see Patrick Manning, “The Problem of Interactions in World History,” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996): 771–782.

                                      (2.) See, for instance, Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Thomas O. Höllmann, Die Seidenstraße (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2004); Annette L. Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, eds., Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th–7th Century (New York: Harry N. Abrams and The Asia Society, 2001); Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Parables, Hymns and Prayers from Central Asia (San Francisco: Harper, 1993); Dieter Kuhn, ed., Chinas Goldenes Zeitalter: Die Tang-Dynastie (618–907 n. Chr.) und das kulturelle Erbe der Seidenstraße (Heidelberg: Edition Braus, 1993); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed., Along the Ancient Silk Road: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museum (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982); James A. Millward, The Silk Road: A Very Short History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Wilfried Seipel, Weihrauch und Seide: Alte Kulturen and der Seidenstraße (Milan: Edition Skira, 1996). On slave trade in Central Asia, see Jonathan Karam Skaff, Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, forthcoming, 2018).

                                      (3.) In her introduction of the Silk Road concept, E[lena] E[fimovna] Kuzmina briefly touches upon the idea of movement as well: “This was the Road that for many centuries saw the movement of people, objects, and ideas” (emphases in the original). However, she does not develop the idea into an analytical concept. See her The Prehistory of the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 1.

                                      (4.) Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, China: Ergebnisse eigener Reisen und darauf gegründeter Studien (Berlin: Verlag von Dietrich Reimer, 1877). See also Tamara Chin, “The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877,” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 1 (2013): 194–219; Hansen, The Silk Road, 6–8; Daniel C. Waugh, “Richthofen’s ‘Silk Roads’: Toward the Archaeology of a Concept,” The Silk Road Newsletter 5, no. 1 (2007): 1–10; and Susan Whitfield, “Was There a Silk Road?” Asian Medicine 3, no. 2 (2007): 201–213, here 201.

                                      (5.) See, for instance, Chin, “Invention of the Silk Road,” 197, fig. 1; and Waugh, “Richthofen’s ‘Silk Roads’,” 5–8.

                                      (6.) See, for instance, Hansen, The Silk Road, 9; Höllmann, Die Seidenstrasse, 20–22; and Liu Xinru, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 10. See also n. 25, below.

                                      (7.) See, for instance, Susan Whitfield, ed., The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith (Chicago: Serindia Publications Inc., 2004); Alfried Wieczorek and Christoph Lind, eds., Ursprünge der Seidenstraße: Sensationelle Neufunde aus Xinjiang, China (Mannheim: Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen; Stuttgart: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2007); Victor Mair, ed., Secrets of the Silk Road: An Exhibition of Discoveries from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China (Santa Ana, CA: Bowers Museum, 2010); and Li Jian, ed., The Glory of the Silk Road: Art from Ancient China (Dayton, OH: The Dayton Art Institute, 2003). See also n. 2, above.

                                      (8.) See, for instance, Sieglinde Dietz, “Buddhism in Gandhāra,” in The Spread of Buddhism, eds. Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (Boston: Brill, 2007), 49–74, here 57; Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, 27; Marylin Martin Rhie, Early Buddhist Art of China and Central Asia, vol. 1: Later Han, Three Kingdoms and Western Chin in China and Bactria to Shan-shan in Central Asia (Boston: Brill, 1999), 22; Tansen Sen, Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600–1400 (Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies; University of Hawai’i Press, 2003), 3; and E[rik]. Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China, 3d ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), 25.

                                      (9.) Victor H. Mair, “Introduction: Reconfiguring the Silk Roads,” in Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East–West Exchange in Antiquity, eds. Victor H. Mair and Jane Hickman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), 1–4, here 2.

                                      (10.) On the Xiongnu’s relation with China, see, for instance, Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). For more information on Zhang Qian, see Michael Loewe, A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Periods (221 BC–AD 24) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 687–689.

                                      (11.) Yü Ying-shih, Trade and Expansion in Han China: A Study in the Structure of Sino-Barbarian Economic Relations (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 59, 144; J. K. Fairbank, “Tributary Trade and China’s Relations with the West,” Far Eastern Quarterly 1, no. 2 (1942): 129–149, here 138–139. Also see J. K. Fairbank and S. Y. Teng, “On the Ch’ing Tributary System,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 6, no. 2 (1941): 135–246.

                                      (12.) Yü, Trade and Expansion; Armin Selbitschka, “Early Chinese Diplomacy: Realpolitik vs. the so-called Tributary System,” Asia Major 28, no. 1 (2015): 61–114, here 63–58.

                                      (13.) For a critique of Yü Ying-shih’s arguments, see Selbitschka, “Early Chinese Diplomacy.”

                                      (14.) See, for instance, Wang Zhenping, Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China–Japan Relations in the Han–Tang Period (Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies; University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 103.

                                      (15.) On the Qiang and similar powerful successors of the Xiongnu, see, for instance, Rafe de Crespigny, Northern Frontier: The Policies and Strategy of the Later Han Empire (Canberra: Australian National University, Faculty of Asian Studies, 1984).

                                      (16.) Armin Selbitschka, Prestigegüter entlang der Seidenstraße? Archäologische und historische Untersuchungen zu Chinas Beziehungen zu Kulturen des Tarimbeckens vom zweiten bis frühen fünften Jahrhundert nach Christus (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 14–47; also see Selbitschka, “Early Chinese Diplomacy.”

                                      (17.) Also see di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies, 169.

                                      (18.) Also see Manfred G. Raschke, “New Studies in Roman Commerce with the East,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der Neueren Forschung II, vol. 9.2: Principat, ed. Hildegard Temporini (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1978), 604–1361, here 622.

                                      (19.) See, for instance, Anthony Barbieri-Low, Artisans in Early Imperial China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 36–38, 136–138; and Nishijima Sadao, “The Social and Economic History of Former Han,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 1: The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, eds. Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), here 545–607, 576–577.

                                      (20.) The Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantie lun 鹽鐵論‎), for instance, are an idealized account of a debate on iron and salt monopolies that was held at the Western Han court in 81 bce. See Wang Liqi 王利器‎, Yantie lun jiaozhu 鹽鐵論校注‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1992); Esson M. Gale, Discourses on Salt and Iron: A Debate on State Control of Commerce and Industry in Ancient China, Chapters I–XXVIII, Translated from the Chinese of Huan K’uan with Introduction and Notes (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1931). On the textual history and nature of the debate, see Michael Loewe, “Yen t’ieh lun,” in Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. Michael Loewe (Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China, 1993), 477–482; and Michael Loewe, Crisis and Conflict in Han China, 104 B.C. to A.D. 9 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974), 91–112.

                                      (21.) See, for instance, Hunan sheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo 湖南省文物考古研究所‎, ed., Liye Qin jian (yi) 里耶秦簡‎ (壹‎) (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2012); Robin D. S. Yates, “The Qin Slips and Boards from Well No. 1, Liye, Hunan: A Brief Introduction to the Qin Qianling County Archives,” Early China 35 (2013): 291–329; Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo 中國社會科學‎ 院考古研究所‎, ed., Juyan Han jian, jiayi bian, xia ce 居延漢簡‎, 甲乙編‎, 下冊‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980); Michael Loewe, Records of Han Administration, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967); and Hu Pingsheng 胡平生‎ and Zhang Defang 張德芳‎, Dunhuang Xuanquan Han jian shicui 敦煌懸泉漢簡釋粹‎ (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2001).

                                      (22.) Jidong Yang, “Transportation, Boarding, Lodging, and Trade along the Early Silk Road: A Preliminary Study of the Xuanquan Manuscripts,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 135, no. 3 (2015): 421–432, here 429–430.

                                      (23.) Hansen, The Silk Road, 238. Also see Raschke, “New Studies in Roman Commerce,” 621–622, and n. 35, below.

                                      (24.) See, for instance, Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo, Juyan Han jian, 103 (slip no. 146.74); and Hu and Zhang, Dunhuang Xuanquan Han jian shicui, 78 (slip 125).

                                      (25.) See, for instance, Zhongguo Shehui Kexueyuan Kaogu Yanjiusuo, Juyan Han jian, 113 (slip no. 163.4), 207 (slip 288.7), 232 (slip 251.5); Sun Jiazhou 孫家洲‎, Ejina Han jian shiwen jiaoben 额‎ 濟納漢簡釋文校本‎ (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 2007), 76 (slip 2000ES9SF3:1), 95 (slip 2000ES9S:9). Also see Enno Giele, “Evidence for the Xiongnu in Chinese Wooden Documents from the Han Period,” in Xiongnu Archaeology: Multidisciplinary Perspectives of the First Steppe Empire in Inner Asia, eds. Ursula Brosseder and Bryan K. Miller (Bonn: Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, 2011), 49–75.

                                      (26.) William Honeychurch, “From Steppe Roads to Silk Roads: Inner Asian Nomads and Early Interregional Exchange,” in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors, eds. Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 50–87, here 55.

                                      (27.) Honeychurch, “From Steppe Roads to Silk Roads;” Barfield, The Perilous Frontier, 45–60; Thomas Barfield, “Steppe Empires, China, and the Silk Route: Nomads as a Force in International Trade and Politics,” in Nomads in the Sedentary World, eds. Anatoly M. Khazanov and Andre Wink (London: Taylor and Francis, 2001), 234–249; Ursula B. Brosseder, “A Study of the Complexity and Dynamics of Interaction and Exchange in Late Iron Age Eurasia,” in Complexity of Interaction Along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millennium CE, eds. Jan Bemmann and Michael Schmauder (Bonn: Vor- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, 2015), 199–332; and David Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History,” Journal of World History 11, no. 1 (2000): 1–26, esp. 17.

                                      (28.) See, for instance, Selbitschka, Prestigegüter entlang der Seidenstraße, 153–158.

                                      (29.) See, for instance, S. I. Rudenko, Die Kultur der Hsiung-nu und die Hügelgräber von Noin Ula (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt Verlag, 1969), esp. 36–41; Elena Karpova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Victor Mamatyuk, Natalia Polosmak, and Lyudmila Kundo, “Xiongnu Burial Complex: A Study of Ancient Textiles from the 22nd Noin-Ula Barrow (Mongolia, First Century AD),” Journal of Archaeological Science 70 (2016): 15–22; Krishnā Riboud, “Les soieries Han, Pt. I: Aspects nouveaux dans l’étude des soieries de l’Asie Centrale,” Arts Asiatiques 17 (1968): 93–116; Gabriel Vial, “Les soieries Han, Pt. II: Analyse technique sur un spécimen de Noin Oula,” Arts Asiatiques 17 (1968): 117–141; Krishnā Riboud and E. Loubo-Lesnichenko, “Nouvelles découvertes soviétiques à Oglakty et leur analogie avec les soies façonnées polychromes de Leou-Lan-Dynastie Han,” Arts Asiatiques 28 (1973): 139–164; and Krishnā Riboud, “Some Remarks on Strikingly Similar Han Figured Silks Found in Recent Years in Diverse Sites,” Archives of Asian Art 26 (1972–1973): 12–25.

                                      (30.) See, for instance, Andreas Schmidt-Colinet, Annemarie Stauffer, and Khaled Al As’ad, Die Textilien aus Palmyra: Neue und alte Funde (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2000); Lothar von Falkenhausen, “Die Seiden mit chinesischen Inschriften,” in Die Textilien aus Palmyra, eds. Schmidt-Colinet et al., 58–81; and Lothar von Falkenhausen, “Inconsequential Incomprehensions: Some Instances of Chinese Writing in Alien Contexts,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 35 (1999): 42–69.

                                      (31.) See, for instance, Ban Gu 班固‎, Han shu 漢書‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 1.65; Han shu 24B.1153; and Nancy Lee Swann, Food and Money in Ancient China: The Earliest Economic History of China to A.D. 25. Han shu 24 with related Texts, Han shu 91 and Shi-chi 129 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 231.

                                      (32.) Sima Qian 司馬遷‎, Shi ji 史記‎ (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 110.2895; Han shu, 94A.3756. For a thorough discussion of the first so-called heqin 和親‎ treaty of 198 bce, see di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies, 189–195.

                                      (33.) On the possibility of earlier payments to the Xiongnu, also see Honeychurch, “From Steppe Roads to Silk Roads,” 57.

                                      (34.) Bentley, “Cross-cultural Interaction.” For an overview of goods, raw materials, humans, and animals that reached China in the Tang period (618–907 ce), see Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963).

                                      (35.) See, for instance, Hansen, The Silk Road, 82; also see n. 23, above.

                                      (36.) See, for instance, Bentley, “Cross-cultural Interaction;” Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads?”; Hansen, The Silk Road; Liu, The Silk Road in World History 93, 104; and Whitfield, “Was There a Silk Road?”

                                      (37.) John Kieschnick, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), esp. 222–280.

                                      (38.) Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads?,” 22.

                                      (39.) Also see, for instance, Hermann Parzinger, “The ‘Silk Roads’ Concept Reconsidered: About Transfers, Transportation and Transcontinental Interactions in Prehistory,” The Silk Road Newsletter 5.3 (2008): 7–15; and Khodadad Rezakhani, “The Road That Never Was: The Silk Road and Trans-Eurasian Exchange,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30, no. 3 (2010): 420–433; and n. 26, above.

                                      (40.) Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads?,” 10–14 (quotations on pp. 10 and 11).

                                      (41.) On the changing meanings of objects in the course of exchange processes, see, for instance, von Falkenhausen. “Inconsequential Incomprehensions,” esp. 42–52; Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall, “The Cultural Biography of Objects,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (1999): 169–178; and Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in a Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–91.

                                      (42.) Patrick Manning is equally aware of the necessity for nuances in one’s analysis of cross-cultural interactions; see his “The Problem of Interactions in World History,” esp. 780–782.

                                      (43.) Xinjiang Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo 新疆文物考古研究所‎, “Xinjiang Yuli xian Yingpan mudi 1995 nian fajue jianbao” 新疆尉犁縣營盤墓地‎ 1995 年發掘簡報‎, Wenwu 文物‎ 6 (2002): 4–45, here 33; and Xinjiang Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo, “Xinjiang Yuli xian Yingpan mudi 1999 nian fajue jianbao” 新疆尉犁縣營盤墓地‎ 1999 年發掘簡報‎, Kaogu 考古‎ 6 (2002): 58–74, here 67.

                                      (44.) Dieter Kuhn, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part 9: Textile Technology, Spinning and Reeling (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 289, 303, 346.

                                      (45.) Jian Liu, Danhua Guo, Yang Zhou, Ziying Wu, Wenying Li, Feng Zhao, and Xuming Zheng, “Identification of Ancient Textiles from Yingpan, Xinjiang, by Multiple Analytical Techniques,” Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (2011): 1763–1770; also see Karpova et al., “Xiongnu Burial Complex”; and Xian Zhang, Irene Good, and Richard Laursen, “Characterization of Dyestuffs in Ancient Textiles from Xinjiang,” Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008): 1095–1103.

                                      (46.) Wang Binghua 王炳華‎, Lü Enguo 呂恩國‎, Yu Zhiyong 於志勇‎, Ruan Qiurong 阮秋榮‎, and Wang Zonglei 王宗磊‎, “95MN1 hao mudi de diaocha 95MN1” 號墓地的調查‎, in Zhong-Ri Ri-Zhong gongtong Niya yiji xueshu diaocha baogaoshu 中日日中共同尼雅遺址學術調查報告書‎, Di er quan 第二卷‎: Benwen bian 本文編‎, eds. Zhong-Ri Ri-Zhong Gongtong Niya Yiji Xueshu Kaochadui 中日日中共同尼雅遺跡學術考察隊‎ (Kyoto: Zhong-Ri Ri-Zhong Gongtong Niya Yiji Xueshu Kaochadui, 1999), 88–132, here 108; David W. Pankenier, “Popular Astrology and Border Affairs in Early China: An Archaeological Confirmation,” Sino-Platonic Papers 104 (2000): 1–19, here 2, n. 3; Qian Boquan 錢伯泉‎, “’Wang hou he hun’ jin, ‘wu xing chu dong fang’ jin de niandai he chandi” ‘王侯合昏’錦, ‘五星出東方’錦的年代和產地‎, Tulufanxue yanjiu 吐魯番學研究‎ 2 (2002): 70–77, here 72; and Yu Weichao 俞偉超‎, “Liang Han Jingjue wang: Niya yi hao mudi zhuren shenfen kao” 兩漢精絕王: 尼雅一號墓地主人身份考‎, in Shamo wangzi yibao: Sichou zhi lu Niya yizhi chutu wenwu 沙漠王子遺寶: 絲綢之路尼雅遺址出土文物‎, eds. Zhao Feng 趙豐‎ and Yu Zhiyong 於志勇‎ (Hangzhou: Zhongguo Sichou Bowuguan, 2000), 18–21, here 19–20.

                                      (47.) Thomas Burrow, A Translation of the Kharosthi Documents from Chinese Turkestan (London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1940), 9 (no. 35); also see Hansen, The Silk Road, 49–50. The Kharosthi script was used to transcribe the northern Indian Prakrit dialect spoken at Loulan, Yingpan, and Niya. See, for instance, Richard G. Salomon, “Brahmi and Kharosthi,” in The World’s Writing Systems, eds. Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 373–383.

                                      (48.) Helen Wang, “How Much for a Camel? A New Understanding of Money on the Silk Road before AD 800,” in The Silk Road, ed. Whitfield, 24–33, here 30–32. Also see Hansen, The Silk Road, 49.

                                      (49.) See, for instance, Kuzmina, The Prehistory of the Silk Road; Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads?,” 10–14; and Parzinger, “The ‘Silk Roads’ Concept Reconsidered.”

                                      (50.) Christine Keyser, Caroline Bouakaze, Eric Crubézy, Valery G. Nikolaev, Daniel Montagnon, Tatiana Reis, and Bertrand Ludes, “Ancient DNA Provides New Insights into the History of South Siberian Kurgan People,” Human Genetics 126 (2009): 395–410.

                                      (51.) T. Kivisild, M. J. Bamshad, K. Kaldma, M. Metspalu, E. Metspalu, M. Reidla, S. Laos, J. Parik, W. S. Watkins, M. E. Dixon, S. S. Papiha, S. S. Mastana, M. R. Mir, V. Ferak, and R. Villems, “Deep Common Ancestry of Indian and Western-Eurasian Mitochondrial DNA Lineages,” Current Biology 9 (1999): 1331–1334; and Colin Renfrew, “Time Depth, Convergence Theory, and Innovation in Proto-Indo-European: ‘Old Europe’ as a PIE linguistic Area,” Journal of Indo-European Studies 27 (1999): 257–293.

                                      (52.) Chunxiang Li, Hongjie Li, Yinqiu Cui, Chengzhi Xie, Dawei Cai, Wenying Li, Victor H Mair, Zhi Xu, Quanchao Zhang, Idelisi Abuduresule, Li Jin, Hong Zhu, and Hui Zhou, “Evidence that a West-East Admixed Population Lived in the Tarim Basin as Early as the Early Bronze Age,” BMC Biology 8 (2010).

                                      (53.) Zhao Zhijun, “Eastward Spread of Wheat into China: New Data and New Issues,” Chinese Archaeology 9.1 (2009): 1–9; also see Chunxiang Li, Diane L. Lister, Hongjie Li, Yue Xu, Yinqiu Cui, Mim A. Bower, Martin K. Jones, and Hui Zhou, “Ancient DNA Analysis of Desiccated Wheat Grains Excavated from a Bronze Age Cemetery in Xinjiang,” Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (2011): 115–119.

                                      (54.) Sheahan Bestel, Gary W Crawford, Li Liu, Jinming Shi, Yanhua Song, and Xingcan Chen, “The Evolution of Millet Domestication, Middle Yellow River Region, North China: Evidence from Charred Seeds at the late Upper Paleolithic Shizitan Locality 9 Site,” The Holocene 24, no. 3 (2014): 261–265; and Emma Lightfoot, Xinyi Liu, and Martin K. Jones, “Why Move Starchy Cereals? A Review of the Isotopic Evidence for Prehistoric Millet Consumption across Eurasia,” World Archaeology 45, no. 4 (2013): 574–623, esp. 591.

                                      (55.) Edward L. Shaughnessy, “Historical Perspectives on the Introduction of the Chariot into China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48, no. 1 (1988): 189–237, esp. 228. On the transmission of the chariot via the Eurasian steppes, see, for instance, Andrej Epimachov and Ludmila Kurjakova, “Streitwagen der eurasischen Steppe in der Bronzezeit: Das Wolga-Uralgebiet und Kasachstan,” in Rad und Wagen: Der Ursprung einer Innovation. Wagen im Vorderen Orient und Europa, ed. Stefan Burmeister (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2004), 221–236; and Kuzmina, Prehistory of the Silk Road, 49–59.

                                      (56.) Max Loehr, “Weapons and Tools from Anyang, and Siberian Analogies,” American Journal of Archaeology 53, no. 2 (1949): 126–144; see also Gideon Shelach-Lavi, “Steppe Land Interactions and Their Effects on Chinese Cultures during the Second and Early First Millennia bce,” in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change, eds. Amitai and Biran, 10–31.

                                      (57.) See, for instance, Karl Jettmar, “Ausbreitungsweg und sozialer Hintergrund des eurasiatischen Tierstils,” Mitteilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft Wien 92 (1962): 176–191.

                                      (58.) Ulrike Beck, Mayke Wagner, Xiao Li, Desmond Durkin-Meisterernst, and Pavel E. Tarasov, “The Invention of Trousers and its likely Affiliation with Horseback Riding and Mobility: A Case Study of Late 2nd millennium bc Finds from Turfan in Eastern Central Asia,” Quarternary International 348 (2014): 224–235.

                                      (59.) See, for instance, Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999); for some sources on the spread of Buddhism, see n. 7, above.

                                      (60.) See, for instance, Yang Xiaoneng, “Niya Site at Minfeng, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region,” in New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century, vol. 2: Major Archaeological Discoveries in Twentieth-Century China, ed. Yang Xiaoneng (London: Yale University Press, 2004), 296–300; and Hansen, The Silk Road, 52–53.

                                      (61.) Burrow, Translation of the Kharosthi Documents 95 (no. 489). On traces of Buddhism in the Kharosthi documents from Niya and Loulan, also see Hansen, The Silk Road, 51–52.

                                      (62.) See n. 7, above.

                                      (63.) Hou Han shu, 88.2923.