That silk route to progress | Daily News Online

September 15, 2014 2:51 PM

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Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Samaritans sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.

It was recently reported in the media that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is of the view that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s initiative of 21st century Maritime Silk Road would benefit Sri Lanka and has reiterated his support for the project. In an exclusive interview with Chinn’s Xinhua news agency, President Rajapaksa has said that Sri Lanka will join China’s efforts in the Silk Road trade cooperation as the economic corridor bears significance to the island nation’s development.

The President said the impending visit of Chinese President on September 16, is “important” for the development of the bilateral ties. A number of bilateral Agreements and MOUs are expected to be signed during the forthcoming visit. President Xi’s two-day visit to the island is the first visit by a Head of State of China to Sri Lanka in 28 years. The two nations have a history of friendly relations and the friendship was ushered into a new era since the two sides upgraded their ties to strategic cooperative partnership in May last year.

Recalling that he has toured China seven times since coming to power, the President noted that China accounts for the biggest number of his working travel destinations. President Rajapaksa said Sri Lanka wishes to boost cooperation with China in trade and investment, which harmonizes with the framework of the 21st century Silk Road.

Since the end of the war in 2009, China has provided assistance in the development of infrastructure in Sri Lanka. China has assisted financially as well as technically in building a coal power plant, a port and an airport in the island and supported several road construction projects among others. Chinese enterprises have been carrying out a number of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and the President praised the establishment as having positive impact on his country’s social stability and prosperity. Speaking on the planned Free Trade Agreement (FTA), President said, “Our cooperation covers many sectors including industry, energy, technology, infrastructure and tourism.” He said the FTA will boost the trade and investment ties as well as Sri Lanka’s export to China, creating new momentum for the island nation’s development.

The President also welcomed the increase in tourist arrivals from China boosting the tourism industry in the country and said that Sri Lanka welcomes more Chinese visitors to tour the island. China is Sri Lanka’s third largest source of tourists. The number of Chinese visitors in Sri Lanka stood at 81,682 in the first eight months of the year, seeing a year-on-year rise of 143.5 per cent. Xinhua news agency said that this figure is predicted to surpass 100,000 at the end of this year.

It is noteworthy that from ancient times the Silk Road, or Silk Route, is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time. Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometres), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Hsan Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

The Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Chinese imperial envoy, Zhanj Qian. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their trade products and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe and Arabia opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations.

Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and various technologies, religions, and philosophies, as well as the bubonic plague (the “Black Death”), also travelled along the Silk Routes. In addition to economic trade, the Silk Road served as a means of carrying out cultural trade among the civilizations along its network.

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Romans, Armenians, Indians and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent. As the domestication of pack animals and the development of shipping technology increased the capacity for prehistoric people to carry heavier loads over greater distances, cultural exchanges and trade developed rapidly.

From the 2nd millennium BC, nephrite jade was being traded from mines in the region. The next major step in the development of the Silk Road was the expansion of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great into Central Asia. The margin of Chinese victory appears to have been their crossbows, whose bolts and darts seem easily to have penetrated Roman shields and armour.” The Roman historian Florus also describes the visit of numerous envoys, which included Seres, to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14 AD. (See the quotation at the outset)

A maritime Silk Route opened up between Chinese-controlled Giao Chi (centred in modern Vietnam, near Hanoi), probably by the 1st century. It extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabatrean territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea. The Roman Empire, and its demand for sophisticated Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century. Under its strong integrating dynamics on the one hand and the impacts of change it transmitted on the other, tribal societies previously living in isolation along the Silk Road, and pastoralists who were of barbarian cultural development, were drawn to the riches and opportunities of the civilizations connected by the routes, taking on the trades of marauders or mercenaries. Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors able to conquer rich cities and fertile lands and to forge strong military empires.

The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1207 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-established the Silk Road. It also brought an end to the Islamic Caliphate dominance over world trade. Because the Mongols came to control the trade routes, trade circulated throughout the region. Merchandise that did not seem valuable to the Mongols was often seen as highly valuable by the West. In return the Mongols received a large amount of luxurious goods from the West. However, they never abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Soon after Genghis Khan died, the Silk Road was in the hands of Genghis Khans’ daughters.

Some research studies indicate that the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 1340s, may have reached Europe from Central Asia (or China) along the trade routes of the Mongol Empire. The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural and economic unity of the Silk Road. Gunpowder and early modernity in Europe led to the integration of territorial states and increasing mercantalism. Meanwhile on the Silk Road, gunpowder and early modernity had the opposite impact: the level of integration of the Mongol Empire could not be maintained, and trade declined (though partly due to an increase in European maritime exchanges).

The disappearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols’ reign was one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous Chinese empire through another route, especially by sea. In the 18th century, Adam Smith declared that China had been one of the most prosperous nations in the world, but that it had remained stagnant for a long time and its wages always were low and the lower classes were particularly poor.

China has long been one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms as travellers in the present time describe them. It had perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.

The transmission of Buddhism to China via the Silk Road began in the 1st century AD, according to a semi-legendary account of an ambassador sent to the West by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58–75 AD). During this period Buddhism began to spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia. Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism are the three primary forms of Buddhism that spread, through the Silk Road, across Asia. The Buddhist movement was the first large-scale missionary movement in the history of world religions. Chinese missionaries were able to assimilate Buddhism, to an extent, to native Chinese Daoists, which would bring the two beliefs together.

The Parthian scholars were involved in one of the first ever Buddhist text translations into the Chinese language, its main trade centre on the Silk Road, the city of Merv, in due course and with the coming of age of Buddhism in China, became a major Buddhist centre by the middle of the 2nd century. Knowledge among people on the silk roads also increased when Emperor Asoka of the Maurya dynasty (268–239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and raised the religion to official status in his northern Indian empire.

From the 4th century onward, Chinese pilgrims also started to travel on the Silk Road to India, in order to get improved access to the original Buddhist scriptures, with Fa hsien’s pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuan Zang (629–644) and Hyecho, who traveled from Korea to India. The travels of the priest Xuan Zang were fictionalized in the 16th century in a fantasy adventure novel called Journey to the West, which told of trials with demons and the aid given by various disciples on the journey.

There were many different schools of Buddhism travelling on the Silk Road. The Dharmaguptakas and the Sarvastivadins were two of the major Nikaya schools. These were both eventually displaced by the Mahayana, also known as “Great Vehicle”. The Mahayana, which was more of a “pan-Buddhist movement” than a school of Buddhism, appears to have begun in north western India or Central Asia. It was small at first and formed during the 1st century BCE, and the origins of this “Greater Vehicle” are not fully clear.

Some Mahayana scripts were found in northern Pakistan but the main texts are still believed to have been composed in Central Asia along the Silk Road. These different schools and movements of Buddhism were a result of the diverse and complex influences and beliefs on the Silk Road. With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, the initial direction of Buddhist development changed. This form of Buddhism highlighted, as stated by Xinru Liu “the elusiveness of physical reality, including material wealth.” It also stressed getting rid of material desire to a certain point; this was often difficult for followers to understand.

In conclusion, it must be stated that the President’s initiative to improve bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and China and to join China’s efforts in the Silk Road trade cooperation as the economic corridor would undoubtedly result in Sri Lanka’s economic development and contribute to the future prosperity of our Nation.


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