Cultural diffusion, or the spread of ideas and customs from one society to another, occurs in a variety of ways including migration, war and trade among diverse societies. The Silk Road of ancient China is an example of cultural diffusion occurring as a result of trade. Although the route began in about 138 B.C. as a means for China to export silk fabric -- a rare and valuable commodity -- trade along the Silk Road greatly promoted the exchange of products, ideas and practices between Oriental and Western civilizations.
Silk Road Origins
The particular route of the Silk Road changed over two millennia, but the general path began in China and connected Japan and Korea in the east, Central Asia and India in the south and Turkey and Italy in the west. The route included travel over both land and sea. The term "Silk Road" comes from a concept originated by explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century to describe global highways of commercial trade that also led to cultural trade.
Exchange of Cultural Motifs
As trade along the Silk Road grew, Chinese weavers sought to design silks that would appeal to other cultures. The style of the Persians was reflected in Chinese weavers' Tree of Life design, featuring scenes of saddled horsemen, and the roundel animal symbol. The use of gold-wrapped thread and intricate knots was influenced by the culture of India. The Byzantines, who developed silk production in Constantinople after two monks smuggled silkworms and mulberry leaves out of China, used the Assyrian two-headed eagle symbol in their silk designs. The Egyptian draw loom method of weaving silk made its way along the Silk Road to Syria and Iran.
Exchange of Artistic Culture
The use of glassware was unknown in China before the introduction of high-quality blown glass from Egypt and Middle Eastern Arab cities. Chinese landscape painting was heavily influenced by India's Buddhist muralists and the Chinese in turn influenced the layered-plane treatment in Persian landscape art. Gold and silver pieces with Middle Eastern themes have been excavated from Chinese tombs. Islamic merchants are credited with introducing cobalt blue-and-white tin-glazed ware to China. The Chinese later applied this treatment to porcelain and exported it to the Middle East bearing decorations of tulips, pomegranates and even Arabic script.
Diffusion of Ideas
Technological advancements were also carried by travelers of the Silk Road. Inventions, such as paper, originated in China in the first century and eventually came into use throughout Eurasia. The water wheel originated in Roman Syria and examples can be found in China as well as Spain. Ideas that moved along the Silk Road include the use of herbs for medicinal purposes and theories about astronomy. The Buddhist religion moved from India through Central Asia to Tibet, China and Japan. Sufi teachers brought Islam from Western Asia into Central Asia, Iran, China and India.
Deadly Silk Road Stowaway
The Silk Road likely was the conduit for the spread of bubonic plague that caused widespread death throughout Europe in the 14th century. Rodents in Central Asia had been known to carry the disease. It's believed that fur pelts bearing contaminated flea-eggs were transported from Central Asia to a Middle Eastern port. The eggs hatched and infested local rats which then made their way on board ships bound for Italy. Before long, the fatal disease spread from rats to people, creating an epidemic that became known as the plague.
- The University of Alabama: Department of Anthropology: Anthropoligical Theories: Diffusionism and Acculturation
- Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education: Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: Arts of The Silk Road
- Asia Society: Silk Road: Spreading Ideas and Innovations