Authored by Jonathan Tao

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In 1877, German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen published his studies of China in his China Volume 1. Examining an east-to-west route used during the Han Dynasty, Richthofen coined the term “Seidenstrasse,” which translates into English as “Silk Road.” Despite what its name might suggest, the Silk Road was not a single predetermined trade route but a network of varying routes, meandering past mountain ranges and deserts, and adapting to sites of natural disasters and combat zones. Additionally, merchants of antiquity did not physically travel from one end to the other. Finally, silk was only one of the numerous commodities traded along these routes. Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Yale University, emphasizes the greater significance of other traded items, such as paper, which she argues was “surely a far greater contributor to human history than silk.” Although much research has been done to analyze the historical nature of the Silk Road and how it diverges from Richthofen’s misnomer, less scholarship has examined the factors behind the Silk Road’s creation and development. Current academia has accepted two primary motivations regarding the Han Dynasty’s expansion westward: firstly, the Silk Road’s economic potential with regard to exporting Chinese goods, and, secondly, the Silk Road’s geographic security potential against northern nomadic tribes. I argue that the Silk Road’s development stemmed primarily from the combined result of a Han Chinese military gambit to obtain Central Asian horses, and a Bactrian strategy to align commercial interests with political expediency during a period of dynastic decline.

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**This page was updated on December 1st, 2019.