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Luoyang: the eastern starting point of the Silk Road

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Threads of commerce connected Luoyang to the Middle East and Europe as far back as the 2nd century BC. At that time, the Han emperor Wu sent an emissary westward, not for trade but rather to seek allies to defend China against the Huns.From that time up until the 14th century, caravans carrying spices, fruits, and all manner of goods from the West routinely crossed the deserts in search of silk - thus transforming forever China's frontier towns into cosmopolitan trading centers.

Origin of the Silkroad

The Silkroad (or Silk Road; Chinese: Sichou zhi lu) or rather the "silkroads" is the most famous and longest trade route of human history. It refers to the major trade route linking China with Southwestern and Central Asia and India.

The name "silkroad" was first created by the German scholar Richthofen in 1877. From the beginning of the 20th century on archeologists like the Swede Sven Hedin started to rediscover the old trade routes that had stretched from the Chinese capital Chang'an (modern Xi'an/Shaanxi) to Persia and the Mediterranean Sea from the Han Dynasty to the end of the Tang period. From China's interior land, the route went west through Jincheng (today's Lanzhou, capital of western Gansu Province), Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang, four ancient cities along the Gansu Hexi Corridor to the ancient state of Loulan. The road did not stop at Loulan; it went on to the farther west through today's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to countries far away from China like Afghanistan, Iran and east of the Roman Empire.

Starting during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), this route was used to transport a variety of trade goods, of which silk was the most important. The Silk Road originates in the Chinese interior, passes through Northwestern China (Louyang - Lanzhou - Jiuquan? Dunhuang - Urumqi? Turfan? Kashi), and continues west across Asia. Providing links with ancient overland routes to Africa and Europe, the Silk Road paved the way for extensive political, economic, and cultural exchanges among widely separated regions and ethnic groups.

It served as a path not only for items and goods being transportated from east to west and vice versa, but also as a door for foreign ideas, foreign religions (Buddhism, Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism, Islam), foreign cultures, foreign knowledge (Indian and Arab astronomy and mathematics) and foreign arts (music, dance, painting, handicrafts) enriching China and for Chinese culture and knowledge leaving the motherland and spreading to the west. The most important good leaving China and wandering to the west was the silk, hence the name of the road(s), but Chinese knowledge also left China to wander to the west (bookprinting, moxibustion, rhubarb, paper making, compass, porcelain).

China was the first country in the ancient world to cultivate the mulberry plant, raise silkworms, and produce silk items. To the present day, silk remains one of China's greatest offerings to the peoples of the world, surpassing every other Chinese product in the scope of its distribution. Although trade in various other Chinese products was concentrated along roads known the "Jade Road," "Gem Road," "Buddhist Road," and "Porcelain Road," in actuality these routes represented only individual segments of the Silk Road. In the end, this great artery of commerce and exchange will always be known for its most important product, silk.

Luoyang, the Starting Point of the Silk Road

The Silk Road took on its shape today around the Han dynasties (BC 206-260 AD) with the West Han's capital Chang'an (today's Xi'an) or East Han's capital Luoyang (capital of the middle Henan Province) as its starting point.

The city of Luoyang sits not far from the Yellow River on the west end of Henan Province. Like Kaifeng in eastern Henan, Luoyang is one of China's ancient capital cities. It was the capital of the Xia Dynasty some 4000 (2200-1750BC) years ago; it was the first capital of a unified China under the Shang (1750-1040BC) and the Eastern Zhou (1100-256BC) dynasties. In all, 13 different dynasties used Luoyang as their capital for some period of time. The city has been inhabited for some 7000 years, back to China's Stone Age. Confucius spent time in the city. And Buddhism arrived in Luoyang by at least 68AD - much earlier than in most of China. Luoyang has about 1.5 million people, with another 5 million in the metro area.

The Role of Luoyang in the Introduction and Spreading of Buddhism

The most significant commodity carried along this route was not silk, but religion. Buddhism came to China from India this way, along the northern branch of the route. The greatest flux of Buddhism into China occurred during the Northern Wei dynasty, in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.. This was at a time when China was divided into several different kingdoms, and the Northern Wei dynasty had its capital in Datong in present day Shanxi province. The rulers encouraged the development of Buddhism, and more missions were sent towards India. The new religion spread slowly eastwards, through the oases surrounding the Taklimakan, encouraged by an increasing number of merchants, missionaries and pilgrims.

Some devotees were sufficiently inspired by the new ideas that they started to build monasteries, grottos and stupas. The development of the grotto is particularly interesting; the hills surrounding the desert are mostly of sandstone, with any streams or rivers carving cliffs that can be relatively easily dug into; there was also no shortage of funds for the work, particularly from wealthy merchants, anxious to invoke protection or give thanks for a safe desert crossing. By the time of the Sui-Tang period (581-907 AD), Buddhism was firmly established in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, and a number of distinctively Chinese Buddhist schools of thought had emerged. Famous Buddhist temples and grottoes can be seen throughout China, reflecting the influence and legacy of Buddhism in China.

The White Horse Temple, 12 km away from Luoyang, was started to build in the Dong Han Dynasty (AD.68) and has a history of over 1900 years. It's said that Liu Zhuang, one of emperors in the Eastern Han Dynasty, had dreamed of a God coming from the west flied around the temple in circles, so he dispatched 18 envoys to the Western Region to seek Buddha dharma. They met two India Buddhists at Da Yue Shi (a place closing to Afghan) and brought them to China. On the way back to Luoyang, some Buddhist Scriptures(the Sutra) and Statues were carried by a white horse and a temple was put up in the second year. So, the Temple was named after the white horse. White Horse Temple was regarded as the "originating court" and the "cradle of Chinese Buddhism" by the Buddhist disciples.

The first version of the Chinese Sutra of Forty-two Sections was produced within the temple. The temple then increased in importance as Buddhism grew within China, and spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The introduction of Buddhism in China was also a significant influence on Chinese morals, thought and ethics.

Surviving Buddhist grottoes in the area of the Silk Road are of particular significance. Famous sites such as the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, the Yulin Grottoes at Anxi, Mt. Tianshui's Maiji Grottoes, the Yungong Grottoes at Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang all represent the merging of Eastern and Indian art forms and Buddhist spirituality. In? 493 AD the Northern Wei Dynasty moved its capital from Datong to Luoyang and started the construction of the artificial Longmen Caves. More than 30,000 Buddhist statues from the time of this dynasty have been found in the caves.

The Longmen Grottoes, located in the south of Luoyang City, contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese art of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907).The sculptures of the Longmen Grottoes are an outstanding manifestation of human artistic creativity and illustrate the perfection of a long-established art form which was to play a highly significant role in the cultural evolution of this region of Asia. The high cultural level and sophisticated society of Tang Dynasty China is encapsulated in the exceptional stone carvings of the Longmen Grottoes. These artifacts attest to the process of cultural exchange and assimilation that took place along the Silk Road. The dissemination of Buddhism in China had deep and far-ranging effects on Chinese culture and spiritual life, opening the door for foreign cultural influences to enter China.

After the victories over the Huns, Gen. Ban Chao proved to us that never before and never since, has a Chinese army encamped almost on the frontiers of Europe. More than 50 Iranian and Tocharian "kings" acknowledged Chinese overlordship and sent their heirs as hostages to Luoyang. Encamped on the Caspian shore (modern Turkmenistan), Ban Chao dispatched his envoy, Gan Ying, to enquire into the nature and state of the western world. Since ambassodor Zhang Qian visited Iran, many changes have occured in Iran and the Roman Empires. The Han history (Hou Han Shu) contains an account of the western countries.General Ban Chao was one of my childhood heroes and he was a Chinese hero.?

His body and his son's (also a general) body are reported to buried in Xinjiang.The local people still remember this Chinese general.

According to a Chinese saying Ban Chao was one of the most prominent actors in the expansion of China to the west, on a level with Zhang Qian:

"In the time of the Western Han there was Zhang Qian,

In the Eastern Han there was Ban Chao."

Other quotations of Ban Chao:

"If you don't enter the tiger's den, how can you catch the tiger's cub "Clear water can not harbor big fish, clean politics (or strict enforcement of regulations) can not foster harmony among the general public".

"Throw away your writing brush and join the military!"? "Clear water harbors no fish."

The Exoticism in Tang Dynasty Preserved in Luoyang

A unified country, a strong central government, efficient communications and wide economic and cultural contats made the Tang dynasty one of the most brilliant epochs in Chinese history. Tang welcomed other cultures and other people. Chinese life and art had been touched by strong foreign influences during the Tang dynasty. One would pass people from almost everywhere in the streets. Merchants from Central Asia, with thick beards, sold wine from goatskin bags. Blond women shopped in the market. Religious pilgrims from Central Asia or India wandered the streets in sandals. Settling into the life of Luoyang,the visitor would discover a culture as sophisticated as that in a modern global center like New York or Paris.

Foreign trade kept up a heavy demand on China's production of art goods. Metalwork of bronze, gold and silver flourished with Persian designs. Pottery and porcelain became more and more beautiful. One aspect of the figurines which has attracted much interest is the frequency of foreign faces among them. The artists of Tang loved to show the gods and saints of foreign lands and the sculptors loved horses and alien faces. The exoticism in the arts showed the foreigners were widely active in Chinese life. Foreign activities in fields such as the Palace Guard, entertainment and commerce are frequently reflected in the figurines.

Luoyang Tang San Cai

Tang San Cai, also called Tricolor Glazed Pottery and a gem of ancient Chinese art, is a kind of handmade glazed ware of exquisite craftsmanship created in the Northern and Southern Dynasty (386-589) about 1,400 years ago.During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the production of Tang San Cai reached its peak, which is part of the reason the pottery got the name of Tang San Cai. And most of unearthed Tang San Cai was found in Luoyang.

The railway connecting Lanzhou to Urumchi has been extended to the border with Kazakhstan, where on 12th September 1990 it was finally joined to the former Soviet railway system, providing an important route to the new republics and beyond.


From its birth before Christ, through the heights of the Tang dynasty, until its slow demise six to seven hundred years ago, the Silk Road has had a unique role in foreign trade and political relations, stretching far beyond the bounds of Asia itself. It has left its mark on the development of civilisations on both sides of the continent.

As the estern starting point of the Silk Road, since China's first dynasty-the Xia Dynasty set up its capital here, Luoyang was made the capital city at different times by 13 dynasties in China's history, including the Xia, Shang, Eastern Zhou, Eastern Han, Cao Wei, Western Jin, Northern Wei, Sui and Tang, over a period of 1,529 years. Under the influnces brought about by the renowned Silk Road, it gradually became an international Metropolis during the period of the East Han Dynasty. History has left behind rich historic heritage in Luoyang, including ruined sites of ancient capital cities, temples, grottoes, tombs and inscribed stone tablets. Of these historic relics, the state-grade protected key historic relics unit-the ruined sites of the 5 ancient capitals of the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Han-Wei and Sui-Tang Dynasties are invaluable rare treasures of the whole world.

(Credit: Luoyang Tourism Official Website. Click here for further information.)

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