A History of Travelers

The history of the Silk Road is a history of movement and exchange. It is a history of a traffic in which enterprising merchants moved goods from one large market town to another. It is not the history of an actual road made of bricks and pavement like those for which Rome was famous. Instead, the Silk Road was a general drift of movement across a series of connected routes. Together these routes formed a vague artery of exchange through the heart of Asia. The Silk Road was more of a pattern of movement than a particular track. The pattern was composed of the chain of individuals who traveled, primarily for trade, short links of the total route.

Silks moved from China to the Mediterranean. Purple dyes returned. Ideas and technologies such as Christianity and the paper-making process also traveled the length of the route. But few people journeyed the entire distance. Those few who did provide us with rare glimpses of the workings of exchange across Asia. From these travelers' accounts, we can see the market towns and the landscape between them. We can read descriptions of the peoples along the Silk Road and the kingdoms, tribes and empires that controlled its sections. The travelers tell us how caravans were equipped for the journey and what merchants expected along the way. They also tell us what was strange and wonderful to them; what they had never seen before and what they believed impossible.

Even though long-distance travelers were unusual in the history of the Silk Road, the small number of travelers who journeyed the whole length of the route provided us with unique cross-sections of each era of the Silk Road. By examining the travelers as a group we can traces changes in the methods of travel, the dangers of travel, the goods exchanged and the destinations. We can see how political control over the routes changed and how these changes affected traffic along the route. So although travelers of the full length of the Silk Road were unusual compared to the chain of merchants traversing only short links of the geography, each traveler’s account provides an invaluable link in the chronological chain of the history of the Silk Road.

The Travelers:
In this project, students will work in pairs to compile a history of one of the long-distance travelers of the Silk Road. Each of the travelers gives us evidence of one era of Silk Road history. Taken together, the travelers’ histories give us a broad understanding of the Silk Road from its initiation to its fading.

1. Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien), 139-115 BCE: a Han dynasty general whose misadventures in Central Asia led to the Han expansion into the Tarim Basin and the initiation of trade along the route.

2. Fa Xian (Fa Hsien), 399-414 CE: a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled west to find more accurate Buddhist texts, eventually arriving in India. Along the way he recorded much of what he saw in one of the first written accounts of the peoples and places along the Silk Road.

3. Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang), 629-645 CE: perhaps the most famous Chinese traveler of the Silk Road. Xuanzang, like Fa Xian, was a Buddhist monk in search of the true texts of Buddhism. His travels to India brought him into many adventures. These adventures were recorded and became a basic document of Chinese foreign policy for many centuries to come. Later his story became the basis for one of the most famous of Chinese novels, Journey to the West.

4. Ennin, 842-845 CE: Ennin was a Japanese Buddhist monk who visited Tang era China for the same reasons that Fa Xian and Xuanzang traveled to India: to gain better understanding of his religion from people closer to the original sources. In the process, he helped cement Japan’s bond to Tang era China. In fact today, the best examples of Tang dynasty architecture are to be found in Kyoto, the old Japanese capital modeled on Chang’an.

5. Marco Polo, 1244-1323 CE: the record written by this most famous European traveler of the Silk Road formed much of Europe’s impression of East Asia for most of the last millennium.

6. Ibn Batutta, 1325-1354 CE: this irrepressible Muslim traveler turned his hajj into one of the most impressive solo treks of human history. Over the course of many years he traveled from the far west of Africa to China and back, stopping in many countries along the way. He left wonderful accounts of his travels and of the places which he visited.

7. Zheng He (Cheng Ho), 1405-1433 CE: China’s most renowned mariner makes clear that the age of the grand overland travel was coming to a close as the safety of the seas increased. His fleet’s expeditions to Africa are awe-inspiring to this day.

8. Aurel Stein, 1900-1914 CE: Stein was one of the famous archaeologists and treasure seekers who reopened the Silk Road in the imaginations of the Euro-Americans in the 20th century. His accounts allow us to see the remains of the days of glory as well as the gritty but real continuation of trade and travel across the old route.

The Assignment:
For each part of the assignment, compose a thorough response in a minimum of an extensive paragraph.

A. Summarize the traveler’s adventure.

B. Describe the political/historical context of the Silk Road in the traveler’s time.

C. Explain the motivation for the journey. Was it encouraged by the state to which the traveler belonged? Why or why not? What was the individual’s motivation?

D. Describe the mode of travel in the traveler’s era.

E. Describe what the traveler found strange and wonderful along their route.

F. Describe what barriers to movement the traveler encountered, be they political, geographic or mythologic.

G. Conclude whether this era was one of openness to cultural exchange or not.

Additional materials:
H. Produce a map of the journey. Include political entities of the era, the major trade routes, the traveler’s path, important dates of the journey and geographic features.

I. Create an image file of ten images specifically about your traveler. Include citations for the photographers.

J. Compose a bibliography of seven sources.

Email Conference Posting:
Each pair’s research will form a small link in our total history of the Silk Road. For us as a group to grasp the story from its initiation to its fading, we must read each of the travelers’ histories. For this, we will use our email conference to post parts of each traveler’s story, making them available to the whole group.

L. Sections A, B, C and G will be submitted, corrected, revised and posted. Also, the maps of each traveler’s journey will be displayed in the classroom.

M. From the posted materials students will produce a timeline noting the major events of Silk Road history.

N. Compare your traveler’s experience to one other. Write a one page response noting the changes in modes of travel, routes, equipment, motivations, beliefs and political context.

O. The email conference will serve as the site for a electronic graded discussion and evaluation to take place over the course of several days. The question for discussion will be provided at that time.

Core Readings:
Be sure to read the appropriate sections of each of these texts for their information on your traveler and time period:

  • Franck & Brownstone, The Silk Road
  • Fairbank, China: a New History
  • Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization
  • Groussett, Empires of the Steppes

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