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6 - Silk Road Trade and Foreign Economic Influences

from Part I - Before 1000

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 February 2022

Debin Ma
Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo
Richard von Glahn
University of California, Los Angeles
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The Silk Road trade, which involved mostly prestige goods, started from the Han dynasty, around the second century bce, under the protection of Han imperial expansion into Central Asia. The economy of the Han Empire was mainly based on agriculture. Taxes in the form of agricultural products – such as food grains, silk yarn and floss, and bast-weave cloths such as ramie and hemp – in addition to corvée labor provided the major revenue for the state. Although commerce flourished in cities and connected both rural and urban residents into a nationwide market, traders held the lowest status in the social hierarchy. The impetus for trade with foreign countries, therefore, was initiated by the Han ruling elite, who, like aristocrats in ancient regimes around the world, had always been looking for rare and expensive goods to mark their distinguished status. Meanwhile, the Han Empire engaged in warfare with pastoral nomads of the Central Asian steppe grasslands from the founding of the dynasty. The perennial wars with the Xiongnu nomad confederation extended the horizon of the Han rulers, north to the steppe and west to Central and South Asia, reaching as far as the Mediterranean.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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Further Reading

Barfield, Thomas J., The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 bc to ad 1757 (Cambridge, MA, Blackwell, 1989).Google Scholar
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Hansen, Valerie, Silk Road: A New History (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012).Google Scholar
Hildebrandt, Berit (ed.), Silk: Trade and Exchange along the Silk Roads between Rome and China in Antiquity (Oxford, Oxbow Books, 2017).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Zhang, Xiaogui 张小贵, San yijiao yanjiu 三夷教研究 (Lanzhou, Lanzhou daxue chubanshe, 2014).Google Scholar

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