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Silk Road in Medieval Times

China History Map - Silk RoadIvory, apes, peacocks, silks, medicines, and gums were transported, both by the dangerous sea route, and the more dangerous land route, in the early Christian centuries. A little later a trade developed with Arabia, Greece, and Constantinople. The extent to which the foreign sea commerce in China grew in those ancient times, may be inferred from a statement made by an Arab writer that, at the sacking of Kan fu, a seaport of southern China to which all Arabian traffic was directed, no less than one hundred and twenty thousand Mohammedans, Jews, Christians, and Parsees, all merchants engaged in the foreign trade, lost their lives. The destruction of this city took place about AD 877.

While the international trade, destroyed during the Mongol incursions, and short-lived dynasty, appears to have never been renewed, a considerable amount of communication and intercourse was kept up by travelers. Special embassies were also sent from various parts of Europe to the Chinese Emperor. Thus the Pope, in 1241, sent two monks to the Mongol ruler to urge him to the exercise of greater humanity to his European captives. They carried no presents to the sovereign, as was then the invariable custom, and in consequence were roughly treated, barely escaping with their lives. Louis XI of France, having heard that a Chinese general, then holding command upon the western frontier of the Empire, was a Christian, sent a mission to him in 1253.

The trade missions from Rome, Constantinople, and Arabia continued down to about AD 1000. Marco Polo, the Venetian wanderer who visited China in AD 1260, told of the rich realm ruled over by the Great Khan. His provinces covered southern and eastern Asia, including the great island of Cipango—Japan. "At the city of Cambalu (now Peking), on the northeast of Cathay, where the Khan resided for three winter months, his palace was of marble with a roof of gold, so blazoned in many colors that nothing but gold and imagery met the eye. ... In another city, the Khan made his residence for three of the summer months, and there also was a marvelous palace of marble and other stones' in an inclosure of sixteen miles. So large was the banquet hall of this royal residence, that the Khan's table in the center was eighty yards high. . . . "

Envoys from Ceylon were also frequent. In 1266 the King of Ceylon, then an independent ruler, had Chinese soldiers in his service. In 1406, the Emperor of China sent a fleet to Ceylon, by which the King, his family, and ministers were captured and carried as prisoners to Peking, where they remained in durance for five years. The little kingdom thereafter paid tribute to China until 1459. In Persia, Chinese engineers were employed upon public works in that empire in AD 1275, and before that date, Chinese physicians and astrologers healed the sick and foretold the future in Tabriz, then the Persian capital.

The Christians were driven back by the Muslims inch by inch, in spite of the Crusades, even from the Holy Land, the place of its birth, up into the northwest corner of Europe; and both in lands and people was outnumbered six to one by the followers of Mohammed. For seven hundred years the fairest provinces of Spain acknowledged the sway of the Moors, and the Mediterranean from Jaffa to the Gates of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar), was under their control. India beyond the Ganges, from the days of Moses, Alexander, and Aristotle, was deemed the land of promise, the abode of luxury, the source of wealth, and the home of the spices; but the routes of commerce thither were one by one being closed to the Christians. The commercial cities of Europe had taken part in the movements against the oriental rulers who were cutting western commerce off from the resources of India and Persia. Since the 11h century, the Mediterranean cities had tried to capture the eastern ports, such as Alexandria, Jaffa, Tyre, Constantinople, and to control the land routes to India across Asia Minor. But the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 settled the question of the control of these ports and routes in favor of the Turks. Finally, in 1453, Constantinople, the Christian city of Constantine, fell into the hands of the Turks, and with it the commerce of the Black Sea and the Bosporus, the last of the old trading routes from the East to the West. Cut off from the land route to the East, the trading class naturally turned their thoughts to the open sea in the West.

Prior to the year 1500 AD the entire foreign relations of China, whether of an official or commercial character, had been with the nations and peoples of Asia and southeastern Europe. And it cannot be too clearly pointed out and understood that, up to that time, excepting only the period of the Mongol invasion, there were no signs of any policy of exclusion and non-intercourse. The Empire was open and free to all foreigners of every calling and profession, subject only to those restrictions and limitations which were usual in all countries in those days. The people of modern Europe had not made their appearance upon the Chinese borders, and were quite unknown to the natives of that Empire.

By the middle of the fifteenth century the rising nations of Western Europe were all eager to gain control of oriental trade. A nation's wealth was then counted in the gold, silver, jewels, silks, and fine robes of the sovereign and his court. Palaces for the nobles were grand things; but nobody thought of comfortable homes for laborers. A spice island was a far greater prize than a valley that would yield wheat. All riches were to be sought for in the distant East.

The Mediterranean nations were destined to forfeit their natural advantages. In 1498 the Cape of Good Hope route to India was discovered. In 1515 the Turks fell on Egypt and blocked the only remaining land route to the East. The latter event was almost as important as the former, since it stimulated the development of the sea route to India. The position of natural advantage in relation to the new route was enjoyed by Spain and Portugal. A period of exploration, exploitation, plunder, and piracy, set in among the nations which bordered upon the Atlantic, and deeds were done — and are admired to-day — which if done to-day would cause the perpetrators of them to be swung from the yardarms of their ships.

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:11 ZULU