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The Silk Road in World History


Cultural Conceptions of Silk Road Trade and Merchant Activities in Medieval Eurasia

Donna Hamil




     Access to goods for subsistence purposes, status displays, and prestige all fueled trading activities along the Silk Roads of pre-modern Eurasia, but the spread of major world religions influenced conceptions of trade as an honorable or dishonorable profession. Buddhist offerings and support of monastic communities helped to stimulate trading activities and economic prosperity despite injunctions against greed and wealth. Similarly, the Arabo-Islamic conquests in Eurasia were intertwined with the desire to control trade in certain prosperous areas of Central Asia. Both Confucian criticisms of long-distance trade and notions of Sino-centric superiority led merchants and officials to veil trade as tribute. Eurasian pastoral nomads' conception of trade as a positive activity owes more to pastoralism and their own subsistence needs than to any particular religious or state prerogatives. Yet, political needs did decidedly promote merchant activities during periods of nomadic state formation, such as during the Mongol Empire period. The diverse societies that thrived and traded goods along the Silk Roads structured their values concerning trade according to distinct socio-religious and socio-cultural world views. In some instances, trade was promoted by religious practices, while in other instances trade was promoted to meet political goals. In any case, regardless of shifting cultural frontiers that both divided and brought together differing social groups, merchants were able to successfully navigate a variety of value systems to move goods along the Silk Roads. In the end, no cultural, religious or political frontier was so impermeable that it could completely stop the flow of goods. The diverse polities and value systems in existence along the Silk Roads required merchants to navigate a wider repertoire of cultural negotiations, to understand that trading with different cultural and religious groups sometimes required enacting a different cultural script. When teaching an introductory World History course it is important to emphasize cross-cultural cooperation and affinities. However, it is just as important to examine the zones of cross-cultural contention, to discuss the ways in which differences were overcome, and to find the points where bridges existed, even during periods of hostility or warfare. When discussing the political, religious, and cultural power-struggles that occurred along the Silk Roads of Eurasia, trade provides a prime example of such a bridge.

Globalization, Cultural Frontiers, and Trade as an Honorable Profession

     Scholarly examinations of Silk Road trade and economics abound. For example, in Before European Hegemony, Janet Abu-Lughod argues for the existence of multipolar and overlapping medieval economic systems that facilitated a pre-modern era of globalization and world trade.1 In examining the existence of pre-modern world systems it is also useful to ask what cultural factors may have facilitated the growth and success of these networks. Evaluating interactions and competition along the trade networks of the Silk Roads provides a prime starting point for considering the role of cultural commonalities and cultural frontiers, especially those that concerned trade and pre-modern economic motivations to control trade.

     In terms of 'cultural frontiers,' Thomas Barfield argues that Eurasian nomads' participation in raiding, trading, and conquering were part of a larger cycle of complex political and economic interactions. Economically fruitful interactions depended upon a strong and unified China, as well as a strong and unified nomadic confederation, to ensure optimum trading conditions.2 While Barfield does allude to a Eurasian "cultural ecology," he mainly explains the geography inhabited by steppe nomads, which delineated the borders between nomadic and sedentary Eurasian polities, creating frontier zones. 3 However, it is also important to consider the mobility of these cultural frontiers themselves, namely, as both sedentary and nomadic polities expanded their political zones of influence and brought their own cultural practices and values into new cultural milieu across a broader expanse of Eurasia, namely along the Silk Roads.

     On a larger scale, examining values concerning merchant activities and the exchange of goods as an honorable or dishonorable profession may help provide insight into cultural complexities that underpinned various Silk Road commercial activities. Such consideration may also contribute to a better understanding of the patterns of cross-cultural interaction, both peaceful and violent, amongst various Eurasian political, religious, and social communities. In terms of honor and shame, J.G. Persistany explains that these concepts may be found in all societies. While honor may be defined differently in various societies, most still divide themselves between those who have honor and those who do not. Persistany states, "This way of reasoning can only lead to the conclusion that as all societies evaluate conduct by comparing it to ideal standards of action, all societies have their own forms of honor and shame."4 In this case, the consideration of trade and merchant activities as honorable professions is quite useful. Within this framework, Confucian Chinese values were culturally anomalous in comparison to other Eurasian societies. Modern readers may take for granted the notion that trade and merchant activities have always been considered as honorable professions, but the case of Confucian China will provide a counterpoint to illustrate that this was not always the case. Despite the existence of myriad forms of cultural variation, some economic codes of honor persisted amongst differing groups, which served as a foundation for successful commercial activities even in the face of differences concerning cultural values and religious ideologies.

Buddhism and Silk Road Trade

     As previously mentioned, the spread of world religions often went hand in hand with the spread of trade goods. Along the Silk Roads, the spread of Buddhism was intrinsically linked to merchant activities along the Silk Roads of Eurasia, as the religion moved outwards from India through a variety of pathways, and as pilgrims and missionaries travelled alongside merchant caravans, bringing trade goods, new languages, and new ideas to distant territories. Beginning with the rise of Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire (322–183 BCE), we find the imperial promotion of Buddhism, as Ashoka supported missionary practices while also sponsoring a network of roads that would allow both goods and religious ideas to spread beyond their indigenous locations. As Xinru Liu explains, "By the first century CE, the Silk Road trade had created connections from China to the Mediterranean Sea."5 Liu also describes the rise of the Kushan Empire (30–375 CE) as a cosmopolitan trading empire whose royal house promoted Buddhism alongside trade, as evidenced by archeological finds, which include Buddhist coinage, artwork and stupas. Within the context of Kushan involvement with the Silk Road trade, Buddhism adapted to local and long distance goals, which promoted economic prosperity. As Buddhist ideals concerning simplicity became associated with monasteries, the prosperous laity became responsible for the upkeep of monasteries, with the end result that economic prosperity was decidedly necessary for the upkeep of monks, while it also contributed to the salvation of the laity. For example, "The Buddha himself advised merchants to accumulate wealth by making investments and working diligently like bees so that the Buddhism sangha could gain sufficient financial support from lay believers." 6 Jerry Bentley explains that the rise of Buddhism occurred during a period of social change, with the rise of new prosperous economic classes, which were no longer completely in line with Brahmin ideals concerning caste status. Bentley states:

During the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E., commerce and cash became increasingly important in an economy previously dominated by self-sufficient production and bartered exchange. Merchants found Buddhist moral and ethical teachings an attractive alternative to the esoteric rituals of the traditional Brahmin priesthood, which seemed to cater exclusively to Brahmin interests while ignoring those new and emerging social classes.7

In turn, Buddhist monks were attracted to wealthy urban centers where the sangha could be supported. In agreement with Bentley, Liu states, "The creation of wealth was not only beneficial to society to but also brought religious merit to the donor. This mutual dependence produced a natural alliance between the commercial communities and the Buddhist sangha."8 The result of these developments was that Buddhism became a religion that supported and grew in tandem with Silk Road trade, elevating the socio-religious significance of the merchant class. Furthermore, within the framework of Eurasian Silk Road trade, such developments inherently entailed the existence of cooperation between merchants across cultural, religious, and economic boundaries. In order for successful and profitable trade to occur interacting groups must have had some common ideologies concerning the exchange of goods. In this case, trade was deemed an honorable profession since it was associated with the upkeep of Buddhist monasteries, and the accumulation of wealth was essentially necessary for spiritual elevation, through the act of the redistributing wealth to monasteries. These socio-religious values inherently promoted travel, trade, interactions with 'others' and vigorous merchant activity, spreading both religion and trade goods along the same paths.

     In his discussion of religious conversions, Bentley argues that economic incentives were at least one prime factor that motivated people to adopt and syncretize newly introduced foreign practices. In terms of Buddhism, he states, "Especially in Northern China, traders found its [Buddhism's] universal ethnics an attractive alternative to traditional value systems arising from the foundation of intense loyalty to family and clan."9 Buddhism served as a conduit for prosperous merchants to navigate around social constraints of indigenous Indian religious practices, and it also offered the same opportunities for circumventing traditional Confucian ethics regarding trade as an inferior profession. Furthermore, the syncretism of Buddhist and Daoist terminology and practices facilitated the rising popularity of Buddhism as a new religion in China, albeit with less long-term success than in Central Asia.

     While traditional Buddhist scriptures did not necessarily promote any particular code of economic conduct over another, the fulfillment of the eight-fold path, and its emphasis on 'right livelihood' did not express any prohibition against trading as long as merchant activity does not harm others. Yet, Buddhist scriptures noted the importance of donations from patrons. For example, "the Brahma Net Bodhisattva Precept Sutra says: 'Whoever violates the proper moral precepts must not be allowed to receive any offerings from danapatipatrons].'"10 Since pre-modern Buddhist archaeological sites are often found along trade routes, and the activity of merchants supported monasteries, trading could rightly be viewed as an honorable profession, not in terms of the accumulation of wealth, but since such wealth was used to attain higher spiritual purposes for those lay practitioners who supported Buddhist monasteries.11 In the end, successful Buddhist monasteries and the donations of lay practitioners represented their own symbiotic economic system of exchange, where spiritual gifts were routinely exchanged for material gifts.12

Islam and Silk Road Trade

     Economic concerns also played a large role in the Arab conquests and the expansion of Islam throughout Central Asia. But even before the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE, the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires struggled over economic supremacy in the frontier regions of their territories that linked both of them to the wealth of Silk Road traffic. According to Fred Donner:

Rivalry over trade was a significant component of this contest. Chinese silk, Indian cotton, pepper and other spices, South Arabian incense, leather (heavily in demand by the imperial armies), and other commodities bad been important items of trade. . . A recurring feature of Byzantine –Sasanian peace agreements was the establishment of official customs stations where goods were required to cross the border. Frequently, the two empires grew impatient with diplomacy and engaged in a long series of wars that were very costly to both sides.13

As the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires drained each other through continued warfare, the armies of the Prophet Muhammad served to fill the power vacuum left by these militarily depleted polities. Rising against the background of imperial conflicts, which included conflicts over economic control of trade routes, the religion of Islam promoted the notion that trade was an honorable profession. Such ideas were rooted in the earliest history of the development of Islam, as well as in the socio-economic milieu of the Hijaz, out of which Islam had taken root. For example, the city of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, was one of the major urban trading centers in Arabia. The city depended on its status as a pre-Islamic pilgrimage center to attract merchants and caravan traffic from a myriad of far-flung locations. Muhammad's own family, as part of the Quraysh tribe, were known as one of the leading merchant families in the city. It is also worth noting that before becoming a prophet, Muhammad's own occupation was that of managing the caravans for his employer, the wealthy widow Khadijah who became his first wife. Within this context, it is no wonder that trade was considered to be an honorable profession in the Islamic world. In fact, the Quran states: "Believers, do not consume your wealth among yourselves in vanity, but rather trade with it by mutual consent."14 With the explicit religious promotion of trade in the expanding Arabo-Islamic world, economic and religious interests converged along Silk Road trade routes. Xinru Liu explains that it is quite possible that one of the primary goals of Islamic expansion was to control the Silk Roads of Central Asia, in order to put Sogdian merchants to good use, in the service of the Umayyad Caliphate.15 Additionally, it is important to note that Arabs also played other roles in trade. Namely, they transported goods obtained overland by sea, particularly using Red Sea-Indian Ocean trade routes. It is thought that the Arab Umayyads inherited these sea routes from the Persian Sassanids, who travelled as far as China on trading missions, with routes running from the Persian Gulf to Canton, or Guangzhou.16

     With the spread of Islam, economic issues were often intertwined with religious concerns. One common notion concerning conversion to Islam is that it offered economic advantages for conquered peoples who belonged to other religious groups. Ideally, conversion to Islam negated one's obligation to pay the jizya tax and to participate more freely in the governance and military service of the new Arabo-Islamic government. However, this is a bit of a simplification since the early era of Arab military conquests did not necessarily seek to immediately incorporate conquered peoples through religious conversions. Moreover, it was also problematic to incorporate outsiders into a governing system based on Arabian tribal affiliation. The result was that many early converts were still required to pay the jizya until they could be incorporated fully as mawali, attaining tribal 'client' status. 17 This demonstrates that the early Arab conquests were as much about maintaining tax bases and controlling trade routes, and desirable economic privileges, as they were about the transmission of a new world religion.

     For example, a contentious political climate emerged during the period of the early Arab attempts at conquest in the Sogdian territory of Khurasan. With the death of the Caliph Yazid I in 683 C.E. chaos broke out amongst contenders for power. According to Hugh Kennedy, "All the rivalries of tribal Arabia during the j_hiliya period reappeared in this distant outpost of the Muslim world, given added intensity by the competition for the wealth of the conquered lands. These seventh century conquistadors began to slug it out amongst themselves."18 Conquest concerned control of key Silk Road urban oases, with the Sogdian territory of Transoxiana being a key location for access to wealth and the tax revenues brought by Silk Road trade. Despite friction between competing Arabo-Islamic factions, local Sogdian merchants also played a role in the outcome of warfare in Khurasan. Sogdian merchants lent money to supply Arab troops and many local prosperous elites remained in control of lands and tax collection.19 Kennedy argues that, "This frontier world was a complex environment where alliances and allegiances shifted rapidly, where Muslims and non-Muslims made alliances against other Muslims and non-Muslims and where the jihad took second place to personal ambition and the desire for wealth and power."20 This should not serve to denigrate the motives of any of those who fought out of true religious conviction, but to underscore the context of such battles for local control of economic resources, especially the highly profitable trade centers and territories along the Silk Roads. Even though Islam eventually became predominant in the region, this was only the case after local elites were incorporated into the new power structure. Islam triumphed over other diverse and indigenous religious practices, such as Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism. This outcome was likely related to the fact the conquering Arab populations in Central Asia recognized the absolute necessity of incorporating prosperous trading families into their new socio-religious hierarchy of elites. Conversion and cooperation kept avenues open for financial prosperity. In short, Islam's social program, as one that respected the status of traders and merchants, also offered spiritual sanction for control of the lucrative Silk Road territories of Central Asia.

Pastoral-Nomads and Silk Road Trade

     Concerning pastoral-nomadic groups who operated along the fringes of Silk Road trade routes, the key to their relationship with sedentary societies was that it represented a longstanding tradition of symbiotic relationships, rather than a clash of civilizations that always hinged on violence or raiding. Inter-cultural relationships that centered on trade and trade relations were likely the most marked form of interaction between Central Asian pastoralists and urbanites along the Silk Routes. Ibn Fadlan's tenth century travel writings shed light on these relationships, while also serving as the earliest known account of Turkic peoples written by an Arab author, as he travelled from Khwarazm to the Bulghar and Khazar Khanates as an emissary of the Abbasid Caliph. Ibn Fadlan's writings are much less fantastical than those of later travel writers, such as Marco Polo. While many of Ibn Fadlan's descriptions of Turkic peoples and 'barbarians' emphasize the exotic, describing unfamiliar cultural practices in terms of food, gender norms, and dress, the author does provides a good deal of evidence for thriving trade, even in seemingly peripheral areas of Northern Eurasia. In doing so, he sheds light on the fact that Silk Road trade was not always oriented on an East-West axis or primarily focused on the exchange of luxury goods. Overall, his account highlights the symbiotic relationships that existed between nomadic and sedentary communities, which included the exchange of luxury goods but also included the exchange of subsistence goods. He explains, "There are many merchants among them who go to the lands of the Turks and bring back sheep, and to a land called Wisu, from which they bring the skins of sable and black foxes."21 Furthermore, Ibn Fadlan notes the presence of bustling market towns along the Volga River: "On this river [the Itil River] is the site of a great market which is held frequently and where all kinds of precious merchandise is to be had."22

     The reference to the availability of precious goods, as well as a merchant town being situated along a river, demonstrates the diversity of Silk Road trade. The Silk Roads included river ways as well as land routes and depended on the presence of precious goods like slaves, jewelry, and furs, while other more mundane goods such as local foods and livestock were also traded. Perhaps the most interesting facet of this account is the variety of cultural and ethnic groups described by the author, who lived and traded in close proximity to each other, including Oghuz Turks, Khazars, Bulghars, and the Rus. In terms of religious diversity, Ibn Fadlan notes the presence of Muslims, Jews, Nordic pagans, and those who worshipped Tenggri. It is also worth noting that regardless of cultural and religious differences, thieves were punished with death sentences and payment for trade goods was taken seriously. While conflicts and power struggles were not uncommon between all of the abovementioned groups, the importance of trade appeared to be a unifying factor that, at the very least, promoted intensive small scale interactions between disparate socio-religious groups. While Ibn Fadlan does not indicate any overt discussions of ethical codes of conduct among merchants, much less any discussion of honor concerning the profession of trade, it is fair to assume that a common code did exist. Otherwise, trade could not peaceably take place –there would only be warfare, raiding, and tribute payments. It appears that mutual understandings concerning the prohibition of theft, the ensurement of payments, and the necessity of symbiotic relationships for survival purposes fueled intercultural interactions amongst merchants and traders.

The Mongol Empire and Silk Road Trade

     By the thirteenth century, most of these same territories visited by Ibn Fadlan had fallen to the Mongols. William of Rubruck's travel account shows that although the political players had changed a great deal, trade still thrived. He received travel advice and guidance from merchants who hailed from Constantinople and were active along the Mongol-sponsored Black Sea trade routes that connected to the Silk Routes crisscrossing Asia.23 William of Rubruck's account of Mongol dress provides a prime illustration of the consumption of luxury goods by Eurasian elites. He explains:

As regards their clothing and appearance, you should know that cloth of silk, of gold and of cotton reaches them from Cataia and other regions in the east, and from Persia and other southern parts in addition and these they wear in the summer. From Russia, the Moxel, Great Bulgaria, Pascatu (namely Greater Hungary) and the Kerkis –all of them regions in the north and heavily forested –and from many other northerly tracts which are subject to them, they are brought many kinds of valuable furs which I have never seen in our part of the world, and which they don in winter.24

In this instance, Friar William confirms that the Mongols received trade goods from all over Eurasia, highlighting the luxury fabrics from China and Persia, particularly. Furthermore, just as evidenced in Ibn Fadlan's account, trade likely prospered since large scale theft was punishable by death.25 But not all trade was large scale and not all commodities were consumed by elites. While the sources are relatively sparse concerning the day to day activities of common traders and non-elites, Marco Polo does shed some light on these matters. In describing the "Tartars" he tells readers: "It is the women who attend to their trading concerns, who buy and sell, and provide everything necessary for their husbands and families; the time of the men being devoted to hunting and hawking, and matters that relate to military life."26 Marco Polo also speaks of the role of women as embroiderers who produced the highly coveted gold textiles woven in Kirman.27 In this way, his account provides glimpses into the activities of not only common traders but also the commodity producers who labored under Mongol rule.

     Concerning Silk Road trade during the era of Mongol rule, it is generally accepted that the Pax Mongolica allowed trade to thrive, in uniting large swathes of territory, in providing safety for travelers and merchants, as well as providing uniformity in taxation and protection fees. In addition to these conditions, it is also significant that the Mongols epitomized a governing polity that was hungry for luxury goods, which were useful for displaying imperial status, as well as for rewarding imperial service, and distributing gifts to envoys. Thomas Allsen asserts this point as he explains: "Luxuries were a form of political currency" and that for rising political powers "the creation of a following required a sustained system of what might be called conspicuous redistribution."28 Furthermore, Allsen elaborates on this topic by clarifying that it was not simply the Pax Mongolica that fostered and facilitated trade, but that nomadic state formation itself created a demand for luxury goods which were used for political purposes, particularly the luxury fabrics preferred by the Mongols.29

     In similar fashion to the Buddhist communities which once fueled the Silk Road trade in luxury goods, Mongol political needs fostered trade as well. Yet, in contrast to both Buddhist and Islamic societies where Qur'anic verses and the example of the Prophet Muhammad made trade an officially honorable profession in the Islamic world, Mongol elites did not necessarily rely on any particular religious tradition to promote trade. While in all of these previously mentioned societies trade supported state needs, the Mongols simply did not base their notion of trade as an honorable profession within the context of any religious canon. Just as Buddhist and Muslim merchants before them had traded and interacted with cultural and religious 'others' in order to meet their economic needs, the Mongols employed a wide variety of merchants who embodied the diversity of their Empire. Their general promotion of trade, and the fact that merchants oftentimes filled high status positions as imperial advisors and cultural liaisons, illustrates that merchants held a place of honor within the Mongol hierarchy of status, as valuable individuals, if nothing else.

     Notably, merchants were often involved in ortoghs, or merchant associations, which served to promote trade by sharing both risk and profit. The Mongol state sponsored a great deal of this type of commercial activity. This practice was longstanding, dating back to the foundation of the Mongol Empire by Chinghis Khan. Mahmud Yalvach was a prime example of the ways in which merchants rose to positions of power. The Secret History of the Mongols records that, "Because. . . Yalavači [sic] and Masqut were adept in the laws and customs of cities, Činggis Qa'an [sic] appointed them, with our resident commissioners, putting them in charge of the Kitat people."30 Aside from their roles as commercial agents, merchants were also conduits for information and acted as governmental liaisons. Nevertheless, during this period merchants faced criticism for corruption, which lowered their status somewhat. Thomas Allsen notes that commoners suffered the most from abuses of power, as merchants exploited them via extortion, usury and tax farming.31 Juvaini explains that attempts were made to rectify this situation, so that during the reign of Möngke Khan many merchant privileges were reformed in order to create more distance between them and appointed court officials: "In former times. . . important ortaqs sic] had had yarlighs and paizas and no class of men enjoyed greater respect and authority. Some had ulaghs and were exempt from casual levies."32 These reforms shed light on the high status and privileges held by merchants in the Mongol Empire. They also show that merchants were, at one point, exempt from taxation and had special travel privileges, which were, at times, abused.

     Regardless of these problems, the central role of merchants within the Mongol Empire was tied to the fact that maintenance of trade and commercial activities along the Silk Road underpinned the financial stability of the Empire. Ibn Battuta attests to the favorable conditions for merchants in Mongol controlled territories as he described conditions in the Yuan Khanate. He stated: "China is the safest and best country for the traveler. A man may travel for nine months alone with great wealth and have nothing to fear."33 Ibn Battuta attributes this safety to the existence of postal stations and caravanserais to meet the needs of travelers and merchants, institutions that underpinned the financial prosperity of the Empire. In contrast with Confucian traditions, the Mongols continued to vigorously promote trade and merchant activities. In particular, state sponsored trade endeavors were primarily overseen by Central Asians, with Muslim ortogh agents also highly active in Yuan Khanate based in China.34 Yet, the status of ortogh agents was considerably lowered by the era of the Yuan Dynasty due to abuses of power.35 In any event, the presence of so many Central Asian Muslim merchants provides a prime example of the intersection of at least some root commonalities concerning the primacy and importance of trade, as a factor that brought diverse social actors together, to cooperate despite the existence of marked socio-religious differences.

China, Confucianism, and Trade

     Before and after the hegemony of the Yuan Dynasty in China (1271–1368 C.E.), Confucian values influenced Han Chinese attitudes toward traders and merchants. Most notably, merchants were traditionally viewed in a negative light, as holding less social status than even those peasants who engaged in agriculture, which was deemed to be a truly productive and honorable profession. The Analects provided the foundation for Confucian values, and most interpretations assert that Confucius found greed and monetary profit to be distasteful goals. In his discussion of personal profit in The Analects, E. Bruce Brooks asserts that "The text as a whole thus seems to disapprove of the profit motive, and allows it as valid, if ever, only for the lower strata of society. On the Analects evidence, then, "The Master" might thus be said to have seldom spoken of profit because he disapproved of it."36 While The Analects do not specifically refer to merchant activities, they do discuss personal profit in derogatory terms several times. For example, "The Master said, if one is guided by profit in one's actions, one will incur much ill will."37 Clearly, Confucian Han-Chinese society could not operate successfully in complete economic isolation, especially as a major exporter of silk. Merchants were necessary, but due to cultural reverence for Confucian teachings, which delineated ideals for social behavior, merchant activities were considered to be reserved for those of lower social status. Due to their association with profit-seeking behavior, those engaged in trade simply did not accrue social status, or honor, in the same fashion as merchants from other societies. Sechen Jagchid and Van J. Symons summarize the Confucian position on trade with the following explanation:

There was an intellectual bias against trade. The Confucian philosophy of the Chinese state relegated merchants to the bottom rung of the social ladder on the grounds that merchants did not produce essential goods, such as grain provided by peasants, or secondary products like those provided by artisans. It was suggested that merchants enriched themselves at the expense of others and independently produced little of value to the state.38

Still, this did not mean that the state did not engage in trade. Oftentimes, trade was disguised as tribute, with envoys presenting gifts at court, thereby receiving gifts or trading privileges in return. Furthermore, a good deal of state sponsored economic activity concerned interactions with peripheral nomadic polities. Tribute centered rhetoric helped to underscore an ethnocentric notion of Chinese superiority in relation to other polities, especially those considered to be barbarians –a designation that encompassed any non-Han, non-sedentary group. In reality, trade relations oftentimes determined whether or not China was at peace or at war with its Northern frontier neighbors. If trade relations with frontier nomads broke down, warfare and raiding broke out, while peaceful relations were maintained through the guise of tribute, in exchange for intermarriages, gifts/goods, and the stabilization of trading privileges at frontier markets. These attitudes toward trade epitomzied longstanding Confucian values that were evident even into the modern era. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty, which supplanted the Yuan Khanate, the practice of tribute-trade continued. Kenneth Pomeranz and Stephen Topik emphasize the role of Chinese silk in the Sino-Confucian tribute system in particular and Eurasian economy in general, with the following explanation:

Until roughly 1600 . . . Ming rulers often used a substantial portion of . . . silk to buy peace with the Mongols and other potential invaders. So the tribute system –which so clearly subordinated economic gain to other priorities –at the same time helped define a vast common market, giving it its currencies, defining tastes that helped create markets worth producing for, and creating the standards (both of fashion and behavior) by which its elites recognized in each other the people they could deal with without either lowering themselves or running too much risk of default.39

     Considering Confucian philosophical aversion to trade, it is ironic that the modern scholars term the major Eurasian trading networks as 'The Silk Road(s),' giving, at least, rhetorical primacy to the significance of China's most famous export good, as one which was highly coveted by elites for centuries, from China to Europe. In comparison to socio-religiously sanctioned trade spurred by both the spread of Buddhism and the Arabo-Islamic conquests, and trade which was spurred by the political needs associated with nomadic state formation, Sino-Confucian values concerning trade may oftentimes be viewed as an outlier. This is especially true in terms of more common Eurasian economic values that viewed trade as an honorable profession and state involvement as an overt necessity. In this case, cultural and philosophical differences did not really halt or hamper trade but they did ensure that trade and exchange of goods were couched in very different terms. The cultural enactment of Confucian values, by placing trade under the guise of tribute, helped to uphold ethnocentric values of Han superiority when dealing with outsiders and 'others.' This represents a somewhat anomalous cultural value within the larger context of Eurasian Silk Road trading societies. This is not to say that other socio-religious, cultural, or political groups did not view themselves as superior, but simply that they did not find it significant to enforce their superiority through more complex trade relations. In addition, this begs the question as to why this would be the case, leaving much room for further analysis and comparisons to be made in future research.


     A diverse array of groups facilitated trade along the Silk Routes during the ancient and medieval eras, and some common values are evident concerning the role of merchants and trade in these diverse societies. Most commonly, trade was viewed as an honorable profession, as one that could give merchants elevated social status, as well as one which could promote religious ideals, as in the cases of Buddhism and Islam. Honor and the high status of traders may also be linked to their primary roles in supplementing and moving subsistence goods along a vast and diverse geographic and ecological continuum where no one city or group could supply all of its daily needs. This was especially true for pastoral groups who actively traded and raided their sedentary neighbors in order to meet their needs for survival. However, it is also true of urban oasis town along the Silk Routes, which actively traded with each other to obtain specialized products from other nearby areas, crossing cultural and religious frontiers in their quest for optimum subsistence, as well as for profit in continuing to move such goods along to others.

     While common values concerning the importance and necessity of trade between diverse cultural groups and the high status of merchant elites surely existed, the desire to monopolize trade and access to goods also existed, concurrently. As various Eurasian polities formed and promoted their own world views, new religions and cultural ideologies took root. Certain goods took precedence over others, such as silks, fabrics woven with gold. As political players changed, merchant groups with ties to hegemonic polities took over predominant roles in trade, as new actors entered new territories, and as indigenous merchants declared new alliances, converted to new religions, and entered into new community relations as primary facilitators of goods. Yet, the important role of merchants remained continuous, as political changes led to changing allegiances to specific states/empires, altering the cultural forms and purposes of trade to better suit the needs of newly formed states and religious communities.

     Over a broad time span, this situation exemplifies the prolonged existence of a cross-cultural need for cooperation and interaction across cultural frontiers in order to meet subsistence needs. It also illustrates that state sponsored consumerism was not necessarily stifled by identity politics or religious/cultural exclusions when dealing with the 'other' as a trading partner, even in the case of Chinese tribute-trade. Still, competition over control, profits, and political power along the financially lucrative pathways of the Silk Routes did lead to conflict and conquest. Cultural frontiers were altered as state powers, state sponsored religions, and predominant culture groups shifted their boundaries along the Silk Routes. Such changes altered many cultural rules surrounding the enactment, distance, and preferred goods that were traded, but these changes did not ever completely halt trade, especially in a more localized sense. Lastly, no hegemonic state power or state religious preference ever truly ever cemented an unbridgeable cultural frontier over which trade goods could not travel.

     Despite the fact that medieval Eurasian cultural interactions were often blighted by power struggles motivated by differing political, religious, and cultural ideologies, the importance of trans-Eurasian trade relations, and the value placed on the role of merchants, ensured that a bridge for facilitating inter-cultural contacts and negotiations existed. In the end, the complex interactions that comprised medieval Silk Road trade do not necessarily indicate the existence of a longstanding unified/globalized socio-economic system. However, they do indicate that the perpetual need for access to goods by both local merchants and large-scale state actors fueled multiple forms of cultural interaction in order to meet subsistence and state needs, some more complicated than others. Furthermore, such interactions oftentimes transcended religious, political, and cultural divides, so that functional systems of trade very often emerged with the rise of new political powers, despite a general lack of unified economic or cultural goals amongst the competing groups who vied for power and control of trade across medieval Eurasia.

Donna Hamil is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her dissertation, "Honor and Shame: Cultural Frontiers in Medieval Central and Southwest Asia Under Mongol Rule,"examines the roles of imperial women in connection to gendered access to political power in the Mongol Empire. Her research interests include political, religious, cultural, and gender history of the Mongol Empire and the medieval Middle East. She can be reached at


1 Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 12501500 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

2 Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to ADD 1757 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992): 297–98.

3 Barfield, The Perilous Frontier, 16–17.

4 J.G. Persistany, Honor and Shame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966): 10.

5 Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010): 47.

6 Liu, The Silk Road In World History, 51.

7 Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters, Cross Cultural Contacts and Exchange in Premodern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): 43.

8 Liu, The Silk Road in World History, 51.

9 Bentley, Old World Encounters, 83.

10 "Causing the Buddha's Dharma to Abide Forever," in Buddhist Scriptures, ed. Donald S. Lopez (New York: Penguin Classics, 2004): 321.

11 Jason Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (Boston: Brill, 2011): 19–20.

12 Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks, 17–18.

13 Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010): 23–24.

14 "The Women," in The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text, trans. by N.J. Dawood (New York: Penguin Books, 2000): 82.

15 Xinru Liu, "A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam," Journal of World History, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2011): 65.

16 George Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995): 61.

17 Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 6001800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 77.

18 Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007): 238.

19 Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, 242.

20 Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests, 244.

21 Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, trans. by Paul Lunde (New York: Penguin Books, 2012): 39

22 Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Fadlan, 40.

23 William of Rubruck, His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 12531255, trans. by Peter Jackson with introduction, notes and appendices by Peter Jackson and David Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009):66–68.

24 William of Rubruck, His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 86–87.

25 William of Rubruck, His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 93.

26 Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, ed. by Edward Rhys (New York: J.D. Dent, Ltd., 1908): 124.

27 Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, 57.

28 Thomas Allsen, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 104.

29 Allsen, Commodity and Exchange, 104.

30 The Secret History of the Mongols, vol. 1, 194–195.

31 Thomas Allsen, "Mongolian Princes and Their Merchant Partners, 1200–1260," Asia Major vol. 2, no. 2 (1989): 97.

32 Juvaini, Genghis Khan: History of the World Conqueror, 605–606. Also see Elizabeth Endicott-West, "Merchant Associations in Yuan China: 'The Ortoy'," Asia Major Vol. 2, No. 2 (1989): 141.

33 Ibn Battutah, The Travels of Ibn Battutah, ed. and trans. by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (London: Picador, 2002): 264.

34 Juvaini, Genghis Khan: History of the World Conqueror, 606. Also see Elizabeth Endicott-West, "Merchant Associations in Yuan China: 'The Ortoy'," Asia Major Vol. 2, No. 2 (1989): 122–124.

35 Nicola di Cosmo, "Black Sea Emporia and the Mongol Empire: A Reassessment of the Pax Mongolica," Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010): 90.

36 E. Bruce Brooks and Taeko Brooks, "Word Philology and Text Philology in Analects," in Confucius and the Analects: New Essays ed. by Bryan Van Norden (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 165.

37 Confucius, The Analects, trans. D. C. Lau. (New York: Penguin, 1979): 73.

38 Sechen Jagchid and Van Jay Symons, Peace, War and Trade Along the Great Wall: Chinese-Nomadic Interaction Through Two Millennia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989): 3–4.

39 Kenneth Pomeranz and Stephen Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, 2nd edition (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006): 13–14.

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