The New Silk Roads: East Asia and World Textile Markets (Trade and Development)

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During that period trade also expanded considerably to Southeast Asia and to China through what are now Malaysia and Cambodia. After Spain and Portugal , in the 15th century, became interested in discovering a direct sea route to Asia—an interest that led to the European discovery of the Western Hemisphere—the era of the great circumnavigators arrived in the 16th century. Portugal was one of the first countries to attempt to establish a monopoly over the lucrative spice trade with the East, and it founded a network of trading outposts in Asia.

The Spanish, meanwhile, established control over the Philippines.

About the Silk Road

The Dutch and the British started similar enterprises at the beginning of the 17th century, each country establishing its own East India company. The British began by centring their activities on the Indian subcontinent and extended their control to Burma now Myanmar , Ceylon now Sri Lanka , and Malaysia. The Dutch first concentrated on Ceylon but later expanded into and concentrated on Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.

The French were able to establish only minor footholds on the Indian subcontinent, but their 19th-century penetration of the Indochinese Peninsula was more successful. Over time these European trading companies developed into colonial empires. The East India companies of Europe came seeking the exotic products of Asia: silks, cottons, and precious commodities such as spices and aromatic products.

The Belt and Road Initiative: Country Profiles

These products required the skilled labour of weavers and farmers or soil and climatic conditions unique to the region. As the East India companies developed and imposed colonial rule, a new pattern of trade emerged. Generally speaking, the colonial countries became the exporters of raw materials and imported the finished products from their colonial rulers. For example, Britain ceased importing finished cotton goods from India and instead imported raw cotton to be spun and woven in the new industrial mills.

Cotton cloth was then exported back to India, where indigenous weavers lost their employment. Steel products from cutlery to railway locomotives were exported to Asian countries from Europe. During that period tea and tobacco also entered into international trade , and jute became a monopoly product of the Indian subcontinent. After the British went to war with China to block Chinese efforts to ban opium imports, opium was traded legally by British merchants from India to China and was a source of tax revenue for the government of India.

From the 17th to the second half of the 19th century, Japan had limited trading relations primarily with Korea and China and prohibited trade with Western countries apart from a small Dutch trading post in southern Japan. The latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th constituted the heyday of colonial rule. By the first decade of the 20th century, Japan had emerged as a major military and naval power, and it gradually developed into an important trading partner with the rest of the world. Less than two decades after the end of the war, the great British, French, and Dutch empires had virtually ceased to exist in Asia.

One of the most famous technical advances to have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Roads was the technique of making paper, as well as the development of printing press technology. Similarly, irrigation systems across Central Asia share features that were spread by travelers who not only carried their own cultural knowledge, but also absorbed that of the societies in which they found themselves.

Towards a Central Asia and Caucasus Trade Bloc for Belt and Road

Indeed, the man who is often credited with founding the Silk Roads by opening up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, General Zhang Qian, was on a diplomatic mission rather than a trading expedition. Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China.

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Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in BC to visit several neighboring peoples, establishing early routes from China to Central Asia. Religion and a quest for knowledge were further inspirations to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. Perhaps the most famous was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between and , and whose account of his experiences became extremely popular in Europe after his death.

The routes were also fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism is one example of a religion that travelled the Silk Roads, with Buddhist art and shrines being found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia.


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Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread in the same way, as travellers absorbed the cultures they encountered and then carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Road merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from India and Arabia. The process of travelling the Silk Roads developed along with the roads themselves.

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In the Middle Ages, caravans consisting of horses or camels were the standard means of transporting goods across land. Caravanserais, large guest houses or inns designed to welcome travelling merchants, played a vital role in facilitating the passage of people and goods along these routes.


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Found along the Silk Roads from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with local markets and buy local products, and to meet other merchant travellers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas. As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserais became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, and continued until as late as the 19th century.

This resulted in a network of caravanserais that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, many of which still stand today. On average, this resulted in a caravanserai every 30 to 40 kilometres in well-maintained areas. Maritime traders had different challenges to face on their lengthy journeys. The development of sailing technology, and in particular of ship-building knowledge, increased the safety of sea travel throughout the Middle Ages.

Ports grew up on coasts along these maritime trading routes, providing vital opportunities for merchants not only to trade and disembark, but also to take on fresh water supplies, with one of the greatest threats to sailors in the Middle Ages being a lack of drinking water. Pirates were another risk faced by all merchant ships along the maritime Silk Roads, as their lucrative cargos made them attractive targets. Skip to content June 25, July 14, Thomas Kenning.

The Silk Road (article) | Khan Academy

How do goods, wealth, technology, and culture spread? What is gained or lost in the exchange? Does trade benefit all sides equally? Table and figure illustrated. Subject: Textile industry - East Asia. Textile industry - China. Bookseller: MW Books Ltd. Ships with Tracking Number! May not contain Access Codes or Supplements.


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