While the word "road" implies a single path, the Silk Road actually encompasses several trade routes across north, central and southern Eurasia that linked the diverse cultures of the continent. From its official beginnings in 139 B.C., Chinese traders used these established land routes to exchange many commodities, as well as ideas and beliefs, with the outside world.

Draped in Luxury

The trade routes between East and West became known as the Silk Road because silk was probably the most valuable item transported from China to Western Europe. As early as the 2nd century B.C., wealthy upper class Roman citizens were enthralled with the smooth, colorful fabric. Indians used imported Chinese silk for banners and tapestries, as well as clothing. Medieval Europeans valued silk so highly that it was used as a form of currency, and many traders preferred to receive payment in silk rather than in silver or gold coins.

Writing it Down

As trade flourished, so too did the exchange of cultural beliefs and ideas. The Chinese invention of paper led to the development of printing techniques and made the exchange of knowledge and information easier. Religious and philosophical ideas were shared by traders as they bartered their wares, which resulted in the spread of Buddhism, Islam and other beliefs throughout the world. Ideas of Western astronomy and the Western calendar also spread from Europe to China over the Silk Road. By the 17th century, the Chinese had replaced their own methods with Western instrumentation and calendar systems. Musicians and dancers also were exchanged, and Western stories and plays became popular with Chinese nobility.

From the Field to the Table

Many plants and fruits were exchanged on the Silk Road, bringing golden and silver peaches to China from the West and dates from Persia. China introduced apples and oranges to Western traders. Herbs and spices used for medicinal purposes also were traded, along with information about their uses. For example, the Chinese used nutmeg to aid digestion, and Chinese cardamoms for breathing problems. Domestic animals such as horses, mules and camels traveled the Silk Road. The Syrian invention of a water wheel to irrigate crops was shared and spread throughout Eurasia as a way to move water without human or animal labor.

Porcelain and Precious Jewels

Valuable jewels including jade, coral and pearls were traded on the Silk Road, along with ivory and lapis lazuli. However, Western European demand for Chinese porcelain nearly rivaled the demand for silk. For porcelain and other goods, Chinese traders often received Western silver and gold. The word "porcelain" comes from the Italian word "porcellana," which refers to colorful, smooth seashells. Marco Polo used this word in the 13th century to describe the Chinese pottery he saw. The glass became so common in Europe that people began calling all fine ceramic pieces "china."