Exchanges between China and Central Asia along the ancient Silk Road

By LI ZHIPENG / 02-16-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Through the connection of ancient Silk Road, Chinese and Central Asian culture influenced each other.

As a bridge and bond of trade exchanges between the East and the West, Central Asia has played a crucial role in the history of trade exchanges along the ancient Silk Road, and maintained connection with China along the route. 

Trade exchanges 

Deep inland, Central Asia is distant from maritime civilizations. The harsh natural environment has isolated it from China, India, Iran and other civilizational countries. However, the ancient commercial routes in Central Asia provided a channel, connecting different civilizations in the vicinity. In addition, located in the pivot of the ancient Silk Road, strong commercial awareness was generated in Central Asia. Trans-regional commercial and economic activities thus began at an early time, which in turn also brought prosperity to the cities along the route. By the Middle Ages, handicrafts and other cultural attainments around the Oxus River (today called the Amu Darya), and the Syr Darya River were well developed. These regions hosted a large number of Muslim scholars, artists and craftsmen who are exquisite in and skilled at workmanship. 

There are many different routes for commercial trade in Central Asia, the most important of which is the one connecting China and the Western world. Caravans from Central Asia transported spices, gems, pearls and gold thread from India, and silk, porcelain and tea from China. These goods were exported far off to the trade markets in Europe and Asia.

Through the Silk Road trade in Central Asia, local products produced in West and Central Asia were introduced to China, and goods from China also spread to the Western world via Central Asia. With the help of the trade markets and exchanges in Central Asia, Chinese paper products and papermaking techniques spread Westward. The Silk Road also brought to Central Asia and the European world Chinese movable-type printing, techniques of iron smelting, water conservancy and irrigation, as well as various other skills and technologies such as lacquerware, porcelain, gunpowder, and the compass. In this way, Chinese culture has also influenced Central Asia, West Asia and Western countries. At the same time, science, technology, culture and art from Europe were also introduced into China. The cultural life of the countries along the route thus prospered.

Central Asia is a stage for the origin, migration and integration of the ancient ethnic groups. Archaeologists have confirmed that historical and cultural correlations existed between some tribes living in Central Asia during the Neolithic period and tribes living in the Xinjiang, China.

The nomadic tribes active in the Central Asian steppe constructed a steppe passageway running through the Eurasian continent. Closely connected with the Silk Road, these nomadic tribes became the envoys for conducting trade between the East and the West, thus prolonging the Bronze Road, and the Jade Road. After the Silk Road was blazed, it became a channel for exchanges and mutual learning between the East and the West. Ancient Greek and Roman culture, Islamic culture, ancient Indian culture and ancient Oriental culture intersected and influenced each other.

Coin circulation

The unique and important geographical advantage of Central Asia determined its position in the trade route connecting the East and the West. The currency that once circulated and was used in the markets of ancient Central Asia is the best witness of history. It is generally believed that there were four major monetary systems in use in the ancient world, and Central Asia was where they converged and interacted. 

Currency is a symbol of state power and a symbol of credit. The political stability of a country affected the variation of the type and quantity of currency circulation. Ancient Greece, Persia and the Seljuk Empire all once ruled Central Asia, which directly affected local economic life and currency circulation. Therefore, there had never been a unified tradition of currency circulation in Central Asia’s currency markets. All kinds of currencies were in circulation. The Chinese “Kaiyuan Tongbao” (the first imperial coin in the Tang Dynasty, a four-character inscription with the term tongbao, meaning “coin”) became quite popular in the trading markets of Central Asia. The Silk Road was not only a road of trade exchanges, but also that of coin circulation. As the Eastern and Western currencies converged and integrated in Central Asia, the earliest “international trade flow zone” was formed, which played a positive role in fostering economic exchanges between the East and the West.

The world today is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. As the prioritized targeted region for developing the Silk Road Economic Belt, Central Asia is of great strategic significance. The success or failure of the Silk Road Economic Belt in this region relates to the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and China’s neighborhood diplomacy. In the context of this historical opportunity, Central Asia studies is of great importance for advancing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), breaking regional trade barriers, and promoting the development of economic globalization. 

Li Zhipeng is an associate research fellow from the Central Asian Studies Center at Shaanxi Normal University. 

Edited by BAI LE