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The Classical Silk Road: Trade and Connectivity across Central Asia, 100 BCE–1200 CE  

Valerie Hansen

The Silk Road refers to all the overland routes connecting the major oasis kingdoms of Central Asia including Dunhuang, Turfan, Khotan, and Samarkand to their neighbors: the Chinese landmass, the Mongolian grasslands, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. The best-known routes ran east-west, but the north-south routes to the nomadic states of the Asian grasslands were also important. In the popular view of the Silk Road, extensive camel caravans carried goods over long distances, but this was rarely the case. Usually peddlers carried mostly local goods short distances. Government shipments to provision armies profoundly affected the region’s economy, because they involved much larger quantities than in the peddler trade. Rulers regularly exchanged envoys who carried gifts, exchanges that continued even when private trade fell off. Whatever the reason for an individual’s trip, almost everyone—whether envoy, missionary, artist, craftsman, or refugee—bought and sold goods to pay for travel along the Silk Road. Silk was not the primary commodity traded on these routes. Goods traveling east included ammonium chloride, paper, silver, gold, glassware, and aromatics such as spices, incense, and fragrant woods. Goods traveling west out of China included bronze mirrors, other metal goods, and paper, in addition to silk. Between 300 and 1000 ce, the most important function of silk was as a currency, not as a trade good, although it remained an important export throughout the period. A vibrant series of cultural exchanges occurred alongside these commercial exchanges. Technologies, medicine, plants, music, and fashion all moved in both directions across Central Asia. Multiple religions also entered China during this time. The term Silk Road may not be the most accurate term for these commercial and cultural exchanges, but, despite its flaws, the term has secured a firm place in both scholarly works and the popular mind.


The Qara Khitai  

Michal Biran

The Qara Khitai or Western Liao dynasty (1124–1218) ruled in Central Asia in the period that preceded the rise of Chinggis Khan. Founded by Khitan refugees who escaped from north China when the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) vanquished their Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125), they soon carved out for themselves a multicultural empire in Central Asia that combined Chinese, nomadic, and Muslim elements. Vanquishing the Qarakhanids and the Seljuks and making the Khwārazm Shāhs, the Gaochang Uighurs, and various Mongolian tribes their vassals, at its height the Qara Khitai Empire stretched from the Oxus to the Altai Mountains (namely, from Uzbekistan to western Mongolia including most of Xinjiang, China). Their biggest victory in 1141 against the Seljuks even became the basis for the legend of Prester John. Practicing religious tolerance and mostly indirect rule—leaving local rulers largely intact apart from in their capital Balāsāghūn (Burana, Kyrgyzstan)—and, using their Chinese and nomadic cultural capital, the Sinicized Buddhist nomads ruled over their heterogeneous but mostly Muslim sedentary population in rare harmony. The aging dynasty, however, could not survive the repercussions of Chinggis Khan’s rise, which coincided with the bolstering of the Khwārazm Shāh’s power. In the early 13th century, after a Naiman prince who had escaped from Chinggis Khan usurped the Qara Khitai throne, the Mongols vanquished the Qara Khitai, incorporating most of their troops into the Mongol army and channeling their skilled subject population for imperial needs. A scion of the Qara Khitai established the Muslim Qutlughkhanid dynasty of Kirman (south Persia, 1222–1306) that ruled under Mongol and later Ilkhanid aegis.


The Role of Trade in Building the Mongol Empire  

Isenbike Togan

Perennial interest of the nomads in exchange and trade is known, but the transition from exchange to trade is not so well known. Exchange is a kind of barter, while trade entails traders and profits. Though both continued in war and peace, records are scarce for peacetime. Wartime activities are well documented and make it clear that once the transition from exchange to trade was accomplished, war and conquest facilitated the expansion of networks. Expansion, opening up new routes, and maintenance of the old were accomplished by conquest along these routes. The roads needed to be connected to provide safety, eliminate anxiety, and establish an environment of trust for commercial transactions. Muslim merchants were the active participants of these new commercial ventures, which had the protection of Chinggis Khan’s army of conquest. However, in building the empire, Chinggis Khan would first resort to a conciliatory attitude before taking any military measures. Trade and trade routes were the main arteries of the Mongol Empire. These networks were the agreement points among all contenders of power, merchants, warriors, and the commanding members of the ruling dynasty. It was this agreement on the importance of trade that secured the endurance of the empire.


The Uyghur Empire (744–840)  

Michael R. Drompp

The Uyghurs (Chinese Huihe迴 紇, Huihu回鶻) were a pastoral nomadic people living in the region of the Selenga and Orkhon river valleys in modern Mongolia; they spoke a Turkic language. The empire that they created on the steppe lasted for nearly a century (744–840) and played an important role, both politically and culturally, in East Asia. Centered on the Mongolian Plateau, the Uyghur Empire at its height controlled numerous other peoples within a territory that included lands to the north in the modern regions of Tuva and Buryatia, as well as some parts of the northern Tarim Basin and eastern Inner Mongolia.1 During its eventful history, the Uyghur Empire sent cavalry to help the Tang Dynasty put down the An Lushan rebellion, maintained strong political and economic ties with China, fought with the Tibetan Empire for control of important international trade routes, built cities on the steppe, celebrated its rulers’ achievements in stone stelae, and—uniquely in the world—adopted Manichaeism as its state religion. After their empire collapsed, the Uyghurs developed new polities in Gansu and the Tarim Basin that continued to exercise influence in Inner Asia.