Everything Old Is New Again: China's Revives the Silk Route

December 9, 2016

Tags: The New Silk Road, the Maritime Silk Road, South China Sea, Khubilai Khan, Fall of Tang Dynasty

The Asia Society Museum has just announced a new show called "Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia "

The show will open in March of 2017 at the Park Avenue address.

The Asia Society describes the show as a celebration of the flourishing exchange of goods, ideas and culture among Medieval China, Southeast Asia and the Islamic Middle East.

The show is important because it shows the foreign trade of the Tang Dynasty, the most cosmopolitan dynasty in Chinese history, one that was international in character, and the Golden Age of China in the arts and literature.

This is of particular interest because Chinese president Xi Jinping has announced the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, a revival and expansion of the old trade routes.

(The map to the left illustrates the historical trade routes. The map beneath it shows the planned "Belt and Road" expansion upon the historical routes.)



This was China at the height of being the Central Country. The dynasty was characterized by its dominance by the feudal culture of northern China, including its military culture.

It is true that the trade expanded out into Southeast Asia, long before the arrival of Europeans. The trade was conducted in part by Arab traders who were not ocean-going sailors but who sailed the coastlines and traded from the shores of India throughout Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. This was the maritime Silk Road.

The overland Silk Road traversed the twin roads on the north and south side of the Taklamakan Desert and crossed Central Asia before the Arab conquests when a large part of the world was Buddhist.

The Museum has said that globalization was a feature of the Chinese empire before the arrival of the Europeans but this is not exactly accurate. The trade routes traversed vast distances, but there was diplomatic contact between the Chinese government and the trading partners, many of whom came to court to pay tribute. There was no concept of a global body and global trade.

The dynasty had to protect its northern border from incursion from the mounted horsemen of the North, the nomad cavalry of the Xiung-nu or Huns, who invaded the Tang and sacked the capital, bringing the Golden Age to an end.

When the Tang fell, Northern China was conquered by invading armies of so-called barbarians, meaning people who were pastoralists and not within the Confucian world-view. China remained divided, under foreign dynasties in the North, for four hundred year. Then the Mongol Army of Chinggis Khan rode south and conquered North China. These were the most powerful of the barbarians.

They ruled North China for two generations until the time of Khubilai Khan, Chinggis Khan's grandson. Under Khubilai Khan, the Yuan Imperial Army rode south and unified China under the Mongol Dynasty.

Chinggis Khan was an even greater promoter of trade than the Tang, and the roads opened between China and Europe for the first time since Chinese silks covered the Roman Coliseum. This is the story of trade.

The story of the Mongol reunification of China for the first time in 400 years is the subject of my forthcoming book, "Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea."

If you think the present crisis in the South China sea is the first time China troubled its neighbors, think again. Khubilai Khan became obsessed with Japan submitting to the Dragon Throne. He invaded twice and failed both times. The third time, his son prevailed upon him to desist.

For excellent maps of the disputes in the South China Sea and the East China sea, please see the previous blog post.