Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

Interesting Facts & Trivia

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21 - QUESTION:  Which dynasty in China is credited with opening up the Silk Road?

Answer:  Han Dynasty.

The Han Dynasty in China is credited with opening the Silk Road largely through the missions and explorations of General Zhang Qian (Chang Ch'ien), who can be considered the “Father of the Silk Road.” But credit must also be given to Emperor Wudi (Wu Di) of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220), for it can be said that his outward vision was responsible for the birth of the Silk Road. In 138 BCE, the Emperor sent the imperial emissary Qian out as a scout. He traveled for years, gathering intelligence and trying to forge alliances for the Emperor. Qian went as far as the Pamir Mountains (in present-day Tajikistan), and upon his return provided reports about the peoples, and the magnificent Central Asian horses, he had seen on his journey. Other travelers followed in his footsteps and the Silk Routes began to thrive. Wudi's desire for making peace with the Western regions, and the two missions of General Qian (the first between 138-125 AD; and the second 119-115 AD) are known to have led to the establishment of not only diplomatic contacts and economic relations, but also to cultural exchanges between East and West. After the reports given to Wudi by Gen. Qian, concerning products and kingdoms in the West (such as the previously unknown kingdoms of Ferghana, Smarkand, and Bokhara), Wudi sought to develop further contact. Some items from the West that were brought back to China included Ferghana horses and furs. Later, kingdoms in Central Asia also sent their own emissaries to Chang'an in China.

King Mu of Zhou (Mu Wang), the West Chou king, is the earliest reputed Silk Road traveler (the dates of his reign are c. 976-922). His travels provide insight on China’s relationship with Inner Asia before the famous 138 BCE journey of Zhang Qian. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, was written sometime in the 5th - 4th century BC, and is the first known travel book on the Silk Road.

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