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the silk road

Silk Road Encounters
Learn about the Silk Road.
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Travel of Ideas and Techniques
A famous example of a Chinese invention that helped to transform the world is paper. Paper was invented during the Han dynasty, probably just at the time the Silk Road trade was beginning to flourish. Far superior to the narrow wooden strips or hard-to-handle rolls of silk that the Chinese had previously used for writing, paper soon became the writing material of choice throughout China and East Asia. It was found also in the Buddhist temples of China's northwest, but seemed not to make inroads beyond that for a long time, perhaps in part because the Chinese tried to protect the secret of its manufacture, and perhaps in part also because other writing materials, such as parchment and papyrus, were well established in the west.

In China, the invention of paper stimulated the invention of printing, sometime during the sixth century CE — a development energetically supported by Buddhism, according to which the duplication of sacred texts was an act of religious merit. The re-invention of printing in Europe centuries later did not employ East Asian-style printing technology, but it may have been stimulated by accounts of Chinese printing that could have circulated in the Middle East.
Another invention that spread entirely across Eurasia was the noria, or irrigation waterwheel. This simple, ingenious device, invented in Roman Syria, consists of a vertical waterwheel to the rim of which are attached a series of pots or tubes. As the current of a river rotates the wheel, the pots fill with water at the bottom of the cycle and empty into a chute at the top; a large noria can lift water as much as forty feet with no input of human or animal energy.

Foodstuffs also count in this category of the travel of ideas and techniques. Apples spread in both directions from Kasakhstan; oranges went (via the maritime route) from China to the Mediterranean world; grapes went from the western reaches of the Silk Road to China.

It is worth noting that long-distance trade can have unexpected bad side effects as well as direct beneficial effects. For example, the Black Death plague that devastated Europe in the fourteenth century is believed to have come via the Silk Road from Central Asia, where plague is endemic among local rodents.

The Music of the Silk Road
A number of interesting examples can be given of the spread of musical instruments and techniques along the Silk Road. One is the sheng, or Chinese reed-pipe mouth organ. It was incorporated into Chinese orchestral music by the fifth century BCE (examples of actual instruments have been excavated from tombs in south-central China). The sheng came to be associated with Buddhist liturgical music in China, and spread to Buddhist congregations as far east as Korea and Japan, and as far West as the Buddhist oasis temples of Central Asia. The Buddhist cave-temple murals at Dunhuang show many scenes of angelic beings hovering over Buddhist sacred sites, playing musical instruments, often including the sheng.
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