Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Road
Just like the modern-day Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, there were two general paths: By land and by sea.
At one of the key crossroads lies Dunhuang, which boasts bountiful cultural relics that demonstrate the ancient trade and cultural communications along the Silk Road.
Among its well-known sites are the Mogao Caves, which feature frescoes depicting travelling merchants, cargo being transported on horse and camel-back, and other commercial activities. The costumes and social lives of the people along the Silk Road are also reflected in the paintings.
One can even see Zhang Qian, a royal envoy during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC- 8 AD), as he bade farewell to Emperor Wu before starting his journey to the West.
The Formation of the Silk Road
Zhangqian's mission was to build an alliance with Yuezhi, an ethnic group based around where are known now as northwestern Gansu Province and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The effort was designed against the Xiongnu, an ethnic nomadic people then living in what is known as northern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region today, and who were known for their military power and frequent invasion to the neighbouring regions.
Zhang's dangerous journey lasted 13 years, but his route was marked and later travelled by more people in the area, and the Silk Road was thus formed.
Over 1,100 kilometres to the southeast of Dunhuang, at the Guyuan Museum of Ningxia in Guyuan city, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, cultural relics unearthed in the region also point to the cultural exchanges on the Silk Road - from a silver kettle to a sapphire ring from ancient Persia and gold coins from the Byzantine Empire.
Ancient communication by the sea
The maritime Silk Road saw the light of day even before its land-based counterpart. Established during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-220 A.D.), it ran from southeast China through the Strait of Malacca and west towards the Indian subcontinent in southeast Asia. For the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road, it goes even farther to Nairobi in Africa, before heading north through the Red Sea towards Athens and Venice in Europe.
In 2007, a Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) ship, believed to have embarked on the Maritime Silk Road, was found in the waters of Guangdong Province.
Onboard the "Nanhai One" merchant ship were pieces of refined porcelain, ironware, jade, gold and silver items, coins, and more.
By March 2019, more than 140,000 artefacts had reportedly been recovered.
Archaeologists speculate the ship had loaded the cargo for trade in the west before it sank in an accident at sea.
From cultural relics and historical sites like these, it is clear that the Belt and Road is not just a theoretical concept. The ancient Silk Road connected East and West for centuries and still functions today as a bridge, not only for the economy but also for cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
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