Ancient routes network carries symbols of Chinese civilization

By CHE XIANGQIAN and HU WEIHUA / 03-01-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of the Yumen Pass, a critical site of the “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor” Photo: TUCHONG

Historical sites witness the progress of human civilization and are vehicles of ethnic cultures. These sites are crucial to highlighting symbols of Chinese civilization shared by all ethnic groups, shaping the image of the Chinese nation, and building a human community with a shared future. The “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor” is a web of routes connecting Chang’an, modern-day Xi’an in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, where the ancient Silk Roads originated, to the region of the Tianshan Mountain, from the 2nd century BCE to the 16th century CE. In 2014, the routes network was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, and it now serves as a timeless example of cross-border long-distance cultural exchanges, communication, and human integration. 

The network of trade routes extended some 8,700 kilometers and spanned China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, converging at the core of the ancient Silk Roads and leaving a wealth of material and intellectual cultural heritage over the long history. 

Shared historical memories

The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor encompassed 33 central towns, commercial and trade cities, transport facilities, and religious sites. Many of the sites still carry multiethnic cultural memories, a strong national ethos, as well as rich cross-cultural connotations, which can be crystallized into potent symbols of Chinese civilization. Examples of these symbols include “Zhang Qian” of the tomb of famed Western Han (206 BCE–8 CE) diplomat Zhang Qian; the “Oriental Smile” of Buddha statues in the cliffside caves of the Maijishan Grottoes; the site of the Yumen Pass, the gateway to the northern section of the Silk Roads; and the Ak Beshim site (Suyab) in Kyrgyzstan. These civilizational symbols have immense value and important cultural implications. 

Sites along the Routes Network of the Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor were all strategically important stations of the ancient Silk Roads. They bore witness to endless streams of caravans and lively exchanges of envoys. Abundant resources and numerous historical figures, venues, and artifacts, alongside related stories, in historical materials, are shared cultural symbols. 

Take the Ak Beshim site as an example. In the 1980s, a Buddhist sculpture was unearthed in Kyrgyzstan with the sculpture’s base bearing a Chinese inscription that included the word “碎叶” (Suyab). This information confirmed the location of the Suyab city in the Tang Dynasty (618–907), which was the modern-day Ak Beshim site in Kyrgyzstan. 

An ideal hub for the Tang court to stretch into Central Asia, Suyab sat at the intersection of two major arteries along the silk routes. It mingled various ethnic cultures, including the civilized Han and tough, free Hu (foreign or non-Han) cultures of Xiyu, the Western Regions. 

More symbolically, key figures of the Tang Dynasty, such as renowned poet Li Bai and eminent monk Xuan Zang were closely related to Suyab and contributed common cultural memories to both China and Kyrgyzstan. Li Bai’s birthplace in Suyab has been widely recognized. The great poet’s distinctive family background, which integrated both Han and foreign cultures of the Western Regions, cultivated his open mind.

Xuan Zang also stayed in Suyab for some time in his journey to the west to collect sacred Buddhist scriptures. In 628, Xuan Zang travelled more than 500 li northwestward along the Issyk-Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan, when Tong Yabghu Qaghan, Khagan of the Western Turkic Khaganate, welcomed him warmly. This event was documented in the Tang monk’s Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty, evidencing exchanges between China and the Western Regions back then. 

Emblematic of national ethos

Civilizational symbols internalize the history of ethnic groups and epitomize their thoughts, standing for common life attitudes, affective modes, aesthetic tastes, thinking patterns, and values, and fostering cultural identity and a sense of national belonging. Symbols from the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor carry a strong humanistic spirit, a myriad of personal ideals, and far-reaching moral philosophies. Reflecting the unique ethos of Chinese civilization, they have profoundly influenced the formation of Chinese culture in its perceptions, cultural identification, emotional resonance, and sense of belonging. 

More than 2,100 years ago, well-known Western Han diplomat and explorer Zhang Qian led a delegation on a diplomatic mission from Chang’an to the Western Regions. Via the Hexi (Hosi) Corridor, he forged the world-famous Silk Roads, overcoming many twists and turns and thus opening a significant gate for China to exchange, communicate, and integrate with countries in Central Asia. 

On several occasions, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized Zhang Qian’s significant contributions as a bond of East-West cultural exchanges and a bridge of peace. For example, in his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2014, he said, “In 138 and 119, Envoy Zhang Qian of the Han Dynasty made two trips to those regions [the Western Regions], disseminating Chinese culture and bringing into China grapes, alfalfa, pomegranates, flax, sesame and other products.” 

Respected Chinese scholar Liang Qichao referred to Zhang Qian as “a legendary man of perseverance and uprightness, and the first person to inaugurate world history.” Zhang Qian’s pioneering spirit, loyalty to his home country, fortitude, righteousness, and inclusive mind are vital components of the Chinese nation’s spirit. 

Moreover, Zhang Qian even advised the Empower Wu of Han on how to win over neighboring countries and regions with virtues instead of war, which is also indicative of the Chinese nation and culture’s principle of upholding peace, cooperation, and harmony among all nations, while not seeking hegemony despite China’s strength. 

Zhang Qian’s mission to the Western Regions is directly concerned with the formation of the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor and marks a milestone in the history of human civilizational and cultural exchanges on the Eurasian continent. 

As President Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, “these pioneers won their place in history not as conquerors with warships, guns, or swords. Rather, they are remembered as friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing treasure-loaded ships.”

The Maijishan Grottoes, hailed as the “Oriental Sculpture Gallery,” is another case in point. During the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties (220–589) characterized by political turmoil and dramatic cultural changes, grotto art was introduced to China along with Buddhism, converging and clashing with traditional Chinese culture. Amid two-way and diversity-oriented religious art communication, Buddhist sculptures evolved from the early Central Asian style to elegant shapes and delicate features typical of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589). This also mirrors Chinese civilization’s inclusiveness and originality in cultural inheritance. 

Contemporary relevance

President Xi Jinping has suggested drawing wisdom and strength from the ancient silk routes. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), consisting of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, evokes the historical and cultural memories shared by countries who participated in the construction of the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor, and it endows the ancient web of trade routes with contemporary implications. 

Amid global changes of a magnitude not seen in a century and in the epochal context of building a human community with a shared future, the routes network has transcended time and space to display its contemporary value and great potential for innovative development. 

Civilizational symbols from the routes network can provide ample historical proof for continuously deepening BRI cooperation, for enriching the community for the Chinese nation and the discourse system of the human community with a shared future, and for telling Chinese stories well. 

For example, the Xuanquanzhi ruins discovered along the Hexi Corridor are so far the largest and best-preserved posthouse with the most unearthed cultural relics from the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Jin (266–420) dynasties. Located between Guazhou County, the west end of the Hexi Corridor, and Dunhuang, the post office was installed to deliver government documents and correspondences, send military messages, and receive passing officials and Chinese and foreign ambassadors, serving as strong backing for the thriving of the ancient Silk Roads. 

Tens of thousands of bamboo slips, material remains, and pottery fragments unearthed from the site kept track of political, economic, military, and cultural dynamics on the northwestern borderland of the Han Empire and recorded the history of cultural exchanges such as the introduction of Buddhism to the East and the westward transmission of Confucian classics. 

Notably, more than 35,000 wooden and bamboo slips which were recovered at the site represent real-time archives and original records of the Silk Roads at the time. These materials are symbols that can be used to interpret the Han civilization and contextualize the prosperity of the Silk Roads. 

The Xuanquanzhi relic site witnessed how the Central Plains exchanged with the Western Regions, Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, and ancient countries along the Mediterranean within the Han postal system. This provides hard historical evidence for telling stories related to the Silk Road Economic Belt of maintaining neighborly friendships and building mutually beneficial, cooperative, and inclusive cultural ties. 

Delving deep into the connotations and significance of these civilizational symbols is conducive to understanding the development course of Chinese history more comprehensively, strengthening cultural confidence, and showcasing to the world the distinct charm of Chinese civilization. The symbols of the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor should be fully integrated into different image systems, like images of the Silk Road culture, of related regions, of Chinese culture, and of the cultural community for Central Asia. The dissemination of these symbols can bolster the protection and development of cultural heritage, promote people-to-people bonds among participating countries of the Silk Roads, and contribute unique value of Chinese civilization to the world amid exchanges and mutual learning. 

Che Xiangqian is an associate professor from the School of Foreign Studies at Northwestern Polytechnical University. Hu Weihua is a professor from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Xi’an Polytechnical University.