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The Han Dynasty part 1: During the Western Han dynasty (207 BC-9 AD), north and west China were threatened by raids from nomadic Mongol and Turkic tribes, in particular a tribe the Chinese called the Xiongnu (later known in Europe as the Huns). In order to protect themselves from these raiders, the Chinese needed horses. At this period, the only horses the Chinese possessed were a small, ponylike breed, but they had begun to hear reports of a new kind of horse. This was large and strong, and capable of carrying armor-clad men into battle. They are named 'Heavenly Horses' or 'Celestial Horses'.

The Han Emperor Wu-ti attempted to send an expedition to Fergana to find these horses. He chose a man called Chang Ch'ien and 100 men as his expedition force. Chang and his men passed the western end of the Great Wall, and went forth toward the notorious Takla Makan desert and finally passed over the Tien Shan Mountains to Fergana. It was through Chang that China discovered the potential for trade with the west. Later, Wu-ti wanted to trade the celetial horses with gold coins, but he was rejected by the king of Fergana. Later Wu-ti marched two military campaigns towards Fergana and successfully besieged the capital of Fergana. They returned to China with almost 3000 male and female horses. Since then the celetial horses were bred in China. They became status symbols for rich men and government officials.

This bronze statuette of a celetial horse is imported from Fergana during Wu-ti expeditions in Central Asia. It is now considered to be one of the finest known works of Han art. Its head and tail raised high in a proudly untrammelled gallop. Also there are many by-products of the Xiongnu campaigns and the exploration by Chang Ch'ien was the opening of the eastern routes of the silk route.


The Han Dynasty Part 2: After Wu-ti's expedition to Fergana, the Xiongnu were driven from north western China, and the Chinese power spread across the entire Tarim Basin. From then on, merchants could travel through the silk route safely, and they began to explore this new route in order to carry silk from China. The traders traveled to the west along the silk route, and they discovered that silk was considered to be very precious material in the west. Therefore, they decided to open up the silk route to the west.

Merchants from the west brought horses, cattle, furs, hides and luxuries such as ivory and jade. The picture on the left is a jade burial suit. Hundred pieces of jade were sewed together by gold wire. Jade was considered a highly valued material to the Chinese like gold. The west silk route gave them access of a rich deposit of jade in the mountains of the Tarim Basin. Moreover, traders also introduced new goods to the Chinese such as Cucumber, walnut, sesame, figs, alfalfa and pomegranate, and new skills such as using grapes to make wine.


The first emperor of the Tang dynasty, Tai-tsung (597 - 649 A.D.), united China under his royal family. Tai-tsung was very open-minded, brave and intelligent. Under his powerful leadership, China was entering another great period, and Chinese control again reached over Central Asia. As in the Han dynasty, goods and ideas flowed across the silk route during the Tang dynasty.

Being cosmopolitan and tolerant, Tang dynasty was confident in itself and curious about the world. Foreign visitors were welcomed to trade with the Tang Chinese. At the time many foreign merchants came to China, and the art in China was greatly influenced by foreign art. In order to keep on trading with foreign merchants, The Chinese kept on producing art works such as ceramic, pottery and porcelain. As a matter of fact foreigners were often depicted in the art of that period.

One example is this ceramic statue of a camel carrying a troupe of musicians reflects the Tang fascination with the Turkic cultures of Central Asia. The two musicians with beard are Central Asian, and the rest are Tang Chinese. The motif of the musicians on the back of the camel is very popular in Tang dynasty. Foreigners were always depicted in Chinese art as great nose and hairy faces. The statue reveals a new interest in nationalism, an important trend in both painting and sculpture. Compared to the rigid, staring ceramic soldiers of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, the Tang Chinese in ceramics have lively gestures and expressions. Ceramic statues like this had shown a gorgeous variety of Tang life. Also, there is another Tang ceramic technique of using a three-color-glaze, which is also a specialty of Tang ceramists. This technique somehow symbolizes the cosmopolitan and colorful life of Tang Chinese.


The first of these mounted nomads in Eurasia to attract the attention of historians were the Scythians. In history, the Scythians were first recorded in the 7th century B.C. The Scythians have their unique animal art and love of the horse. One striking feature of the Scythians is the enormous amount of gold they wore and used. This gold undoubtedly came from the rich fields in the Altai district. They sewn gold plates to their clothes and put them into their weapons. The archaeologists are consistently amazed by the amount of gold offerings deposited in the great burial- mounds of the Scythian kings.

Another feature of the Scythians is the fact that they were very good at riding horses. They were considered among the earliest of those who domesticate the horses. Mounted soldiers also made them success in war. When they penetrated into Asia, the technique of riding was rapidly adopted and mastered throughout the entire Middle Eastern area. The art they produced could also carry out a sense of stunning force and vitality.

It is difficult for archaeologists to track the date of origin for the Scythians since they did not develop their distinctive art style until the 6th century B.C. During that period, many rich and extraordinary finds were excavated from Scythian tombs and graves such as Pazyryk site in the Altai Mountain of south-central Siberia, Kul Oba in the Kuban basin of the northern Black Seaart. Also art of pattern and ornament with naturalistic motifs based on animals. The favorite animals in their art are stag, horse, ibex, boar, bear, wolf, felines, eagle and fish. Their animal art style was adopted by all the mounted nomads in places as far as the borders of China by the end of the 10th century B.C.


After Chang Ch'ien's journey to Fergana during the Han Dynasty, there were many other ambassadors sent by the Chinese emperor to the west. One of them went to Parthia from 115 to 105 B.C., Parthian was an ancient kingdom located in the country which is today's Iraq. The Parthians are an Iranian tribe from southeast of the Caspian Sea. They had a well-established empire stretching from the Pamirs to the Syrian desert by the beginning of the 1st century B.C. When this ambassador went back to China he brought a Parthian ambassador and many Parthian goods along with him. This meeting established the trade relations between China and Persia.

The newly opened silk route passed through this area, and the Pathians soon began to prosper. They would collect taxes on the caravans passing through their territory. Also their traders would buy goods from the incoming caravans and resell them at a profit to other caravans passing through their territory.

This stone relief of Parthian warriors shows their military power at that time. The Parthians defeated the Romans and took control of the silk route around the Iranian region. From their trousers we can see that these warriors were horsemen.


At the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. the province of Fars in southwestern Persia came under the control by a local dynasty called the Sassanid. Starting from the year 224 A.D. the first Sassanid ruler Ardashir (211-241 A.D.) defeated the Parthians and took control of Persia. With the help of his son Shapur I (241-272 A.D.), Ardashir began a new era for the Sasanid kingdom in Persia.

The silk route was flourished under the Sasanians. Their government maintained a rigid control of the trade and imposed heavy taxes on all goods passing between their lands and the Byzantine Empire. In the east, the Sasanians shared the role of middlemen with the Sogdians, a tribe from the Samarkand region.

This gold plate with silver relief shows the 4th century Sasanian king Shapur II. (310-379 A.D.) From the excellent craftsmanship we can imagine the wealth of the Sasanian dynasties. We can see Shapur II on horseback and hunting a wild boar. This kind of hunting theme was very common in the ancient Central Asia.

The Sasanians and Sogdians had also developed silk-weaving industries, as the techniques of silk weaving were no longer protected by the Han dynasty. Very few examples of the silk products survive. However, some of them made their way to Europe, where they have been discovered at Buddhist cave sites in the Tarim Basin. Their motifs and style greatly influences the later designs, of Chinese, Byzantine, and Muslim cloth.

Sasanian and Sogdian decorated metal bowls and jugs were also highly prized. Other vessels made from thick clear glass with elaborate cut decoration are typical Sasanian products and were traded as far as Japan, where they were used by the imperial family. Objects like these provide evidence that the silk route was still functioning.


By the end of the 1st century A.D., the Chinese found out that they had been joined in trading with another civilization in Central Asia called the Kushans. This power was formed by the Scythians and the Indo-Greeks. They were once descendants of Alexander the Great's army in India. At that time, the Kushans became a strong new force on the silk route. Their power stretched from the western oases of the Takla Makan basin, south into the Indus basin, east to what we now call Soviet Central Asia and north to the Aral Sea. The empire was as extensive as that of the Parthians.

These coins served as Kushan currencies. As we have studied this civilization in the course, we can see the characteristics of the Kushans in these coins, such as the costume of King Vasodeva II in the upper left coin. The baggy trousers and felt boots, long riding coat and pointed felt hat.
(Web of Art, lesson sequence Persia 56)

With the rise of the Kushans, there were four great powers along the silk route. The Chinese, the Kushans, the Persians, and the Romans. At that time silk route reached its first great period. The route was divided into different sections, goods and art are being carried by Chinese, Kushan, Persian and Roman caravans.
(Paul Strathern, 1994. Exploration by Land. New York: New Discovery Books)



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