Chinese History Lessons
The Silk Road
The Roman people learned of silk, a beautiful fabric that came from a mysterious place in the east. The fabric was soft and seemed to glow. Clothing made of silk was a source of pride and a sign of great wealth. Even the smallest pieces of silk would be displayed by wealthy Romans.
The Silk came from China, and the Chinese were careful to keep the secret of how they made the beautiful fiber. We know today that silk is made from a sticky substance produced by silkworms. The silkworms are not actually worms, but the tiny caterpillars of silkmoths. When silkworms hatch, they are fed mulberry leaves until they are big enough to spin cacoons. Silk makers boil the cacoons and extract the shimmering fibers that are woven into silk.
Silk traveled west to Rome and other parts of Europe on what historians would later call the Silk Road. The Silk Road was not an actual road, but a 4,000-mile long network of trade routes that connected China to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Very few people traveled the entire length of the Silk Road. Trade resembled a chain, with each trader and segment of the trade route representing a link in the chain.
In addition to silk, Chinese merchants sold tea, spices and jade. Jade is a hard, shiny stone used to create beautiful carvings. In exchange, the Chinese received gold, silver, precious stones, glass, ivory, horses, elephants and wool.
Many Europeans first became aware of China when the armies of Alexander the Great expanded his empire along the Silk Road into Central Asia. In 329BC, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria Eschate ("Alexandria the Furthest") about 400 miles west of the Chinese frontier. In the centuries that followed, trade grew between the Roman Empire in the west and the equally extraordinary Han Dynasty in China.
Travel was very dangerous along the Silk Road. Merchants who traveled the routes were often robbed and killed. In the thirteenth century, Mongol armies used the Silk Road to expand their empire. The first Mongol warriors were nomadic warriors who attacked and looted the markets along the trade routes, but in time, the Mongols developed their own efficient trade along the Silk Road.
In 1269, Marco Polo traveled from his home in Italy to China on the Silk Road. Marco Polo wrote a book about his adventures, but the stories of China were so amazing that many Europeans could not believe Polo's stories were true.
Ideas also traveled the Silk Road. Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han Dynasty by merchants from India. Over time, Buddhism lost much of its influence in India, but became very popular in China.
The Black Death was a devastating illness that took the lives of nearly half of the people of Europe between 1348 and 1350. Scientists believe the plague began as a bacterial disease in Central Asian rats. People on land were usually safe because the rats did not like the smell of their horses, but at the western of the Silk Road, goods were loaded into ships on the Black Sea. The ships transported goods to cities throughout Europe. In addition to sailors, the ships were home to rats and fleas. Fleas living on the blood of the rats bit the sailors on board. When the sailors returned to their homes in Europe, they carried the deadly, contagious disease.
The Silk Road lost its importance when the Mongols Empire disintegrated. The Mongols no longer policed the routes. The Silk Road became even more dangerous when bandits learned to make Chinese gunpowder. By the fifteenth century, Portuguese sailors learned to circumnavigate Africa in order to create sea routes that were faster and safer than the Silk Road.
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