Hyecho's Journey

Hyecho's Journey

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Silk Road

The Overland Silk Road

The history of the Silk Road is a story of the movement and interaction of people, ideas, and objects, all set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of rulers, ethnic groups, and polities. Drawing on even earlier rootes, its beginnings can be traced back as early as the activities of Scythian horsemen that dominated the steppes from Eastern Europe to Mongolia from about the ninth century BCE to the fourth century CE, as supported by the discovery of the frozen tombs in southern Siberia dated to the first millennium BCE, whose occupants were buried with Chinese silk and other types of goods that indicate a complex web of long-distance contacts reaching from the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE) in the west to northeast Asia in the east.

During the early second century BCE, the Xiongnu established what is believed to be the first of the great Inner Asian empires. Archaeological discoveries of village settlements and agricultural sites indicate that the Xiongnu incorporated both nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. Motivated by diplomatic and economic concerns, the dispatch of imperial envoys by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) to the western regions further intensified the trading networks across East Asia, Central Asia, and parts of the Middle East. The rise of the Parthian Empire (247 BCE-224 CE) that dominated trade routes to the Mediterranean, as well as the expansion of caravans in Palmyra further underscored the interconnectedness of both continental and maritime trade routes that operated beyond the northern steppes. Besides silk, the products that circulated in these routes included spices, vegetables and fruit, grain, wood and metal work, religious objects, carpets, iron, precious stones, horses, camels, and much more. Although exquisite silk brocades have been discovered in Xiongnu tombs in north and central Mongolia (dated from the first century BCE to the first century CE), much of the silk products collected by the Xiongnu were traded further west. What is more, there is strong evidence indicating that consistent cultural interaction across Eurasia continued after the fall of the Han Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty (618-906), Persian coins and glass, and exquisite Central Asian metalwork traveled east to China, Korea, and Japan, while East Asian ceramics, silk, silverwork, spices and other commodities found their way to the cosmopolitan centers of Rome (early on), Sasanian Persia, Ummayad Egypt, and parts of Europe.

Further contributing to the expansion of trade routes and cultural exchange were the Sogdians, whose homeland was located in Samarkand (modern-day Uzbekistan) and the Zerafshan River Valley in Central Asia. Known as the first great merchant diaspora of the Silk Road, Sogdians traveled as far as the Black Sea to the west to central China via the Gansu Corridor, even reaching major ports of Southeast Asia. Besides serving the Chinese, the Sogdians also worked closely with the Turks, the Uyghurs, and some of the new polities that emerged from the northern steppes. The Sogdians also played a key role in transmitting Manichaeism to the Uyghurs in the eighth century, a time when China was exposed to both Islam and Eastern Christianity. When the Arab armies conquered the Sogdian homeland in the early eighth century, Sogdian influence in the Silk Road was superseded by that of Muslim merchants.

The Maritime Silk Road

The movement of people, ideas, and material culture also took place via the maritime routes that connected Africa, India, and the Middle East through the Indian Ocean to Southeast and East Asia. Maritime connections between Egypt and India go back to at least the late centuries BCE; connections to Southeast Asia to at least the mid-first millennium BCE. In the eighth century CE, there was clear indication of maritime trading routes linking the Arabian Peninsula and China. The development was in part fostered by the advancement of navigation and shipbuilding techniques, which rendered long-distance maritime travel increasingly feasible and lucrative. While silk was certainly transported, the sea routes were more known for the trading of spices such as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper, as well as incense and fragrant sandalwood.

Concurrent with the trade of material goods in continental and maritime routes was the spread of Buddhism in Central and East Asia. The earliest Buddhist images and documented Chinese translations of Buddhist texts can all be dated to the second century CE. Such transmission would not have been conducted without the intellectuals and scholar monks from Central Asia, who possessed the necessary linguistic skills due to their upbringing in multiethnic towns such as Kucha. By the fifth and early sixth centuries, Buddhist cave-shrines were established in the fringes of Central Asian deserts (see section on Dunhuang). The most famous of all is the Mogao Caves in the vicinity of Dunhuang, where such development continued from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535 CE) to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE), when the Mongols ruled China.


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Buddhist Art

  • Diamond, Debra, ed. Paths to Perfection: Buddhist Art at the Freer|Sackler. London: Giles, 2017.
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  • Agnew, Neville, Marcia Reed, and Tevvy Ball, eds. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2016.
  • Fan, Jinshi. The Caves of Dunhuang. Translated by Susan Whitfield. Hong Kong: Dunhuang Academy in collaboration with London Editions, 2010.
  • Wang, Michelle C. "Dunhuang Art.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-173
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  • Behrendt, Kurt, and Pia Brancaccio, eds. Gandhāran Buddhism: Archaeology, Art, Texts. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006.
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Islamic Art and History

  • Ekhtiar, Maryam D. “Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th Centuries).” In Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Maryam D. Ekhtiar, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar, 20–52. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.
  • Elverskog, Johan. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2016.


  • Hiromitsu, Washizuka, Park Youngbok, and Kang Woo-bang, eds. Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan. New York: Japan Society, 2003.
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  • McBride II, Richard D. Domesticating the Dharma: Buddhist Cults and the Hwaŏm Synthesis in Silla Korea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.
  • Lee, Soyoung and Denise Patry Leidy. Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.
  • Kim, Youn-mi, ed. New Perspectives on Early Korean Art: From Silla to Koryŏ. Cambridge, MA: Korea Institute, Harvard University, 2013.

Maritime Buddhism

  • Acri, Andrea. Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia: Networks of Masters, Texts, Icons. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2016.
  • Sen, Tansen. “Buddhism and the Maritime Crossings.” In China and Beyond in the Mediaeval Period: Cultural Crossings and Inter-Regional Connections, edited by Dorothy C. Wong and Gustav Heldt, 39–62. New York: Cambria Press, 2014.



  • Beal, Samuel, trans. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World (Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629). New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1968.
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  • Wriggins, Sally Hovey. The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Wegehaupt, Matty, Michael Finch, and Sem Vermeersch, trans. Korean Buddhist Culture: Accounts of a Pilgrimage, Monuments, and Eminent Monks, edited by Roderick Whitfield. Seoul: Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012.

Silk Road

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  • Chin, Tamara. "The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877." Critical Inquiry 40, no. 1 (2013): 194-219.
  • Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Morita, Miki. “The Kizil Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 50, no. 1 (2015): 114–135.
  • Vignato, Giuseppe. “Archaeological Survey of Kizil: Its Groups of Caves, Districts, Chronology and Buddhist Schools.” East and West 56, no. 4 (December 2006): 359–416.
  • Waugh, Daniel C. "The Silk Roads in History." Expedition: The Magazine of the University of Pennsylvania 52 (2010): 9-22.
  • Whitfield, Susan and Ursula Sims Williams, eds. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War, and Faith. London: British Library, 2004.

South Asia

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Discourse in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.
  • Kieschnick, John, and Meir Shahar, eds. India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
  • Kossak, Steven, and Martin Lerner. The Arts of South and Southeast Asia. Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Spring 1994. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.
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  • Linrothe, Rob. Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and its Legacies. Chicago: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 2014.
  • Williams, Joanna Gottfried. The Art of Gupta India: Empire and Province. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Southeast Asia

  • Beale, Philip. “From Indonesia to Africa: Borobudur Ship Expedition.” Ziff Journal (2006): 17-24.
  • Bennett, Anna T.N. “Gold in early Southeast Asia.” ArcheoSciences: Revue d’archaéométrie 33 (2009): 99-107.
  • Guy, John, ed. Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.
  • Jacq-Hergoualc’h, Michel. The Malay Peninsula: Crossroads of the Maritime Silk Road (100 BC–1300 AD). Leiden: Brill, 2002.


  • Debreczeny, Karl. “Wutai shan: Pilgrimage to the Five Peak Mountain.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 6 (2011): 1–133.
  • Heller, Natasha. “Visualizing Pilgrimage and Mapping Experience: Mount Wutai on the Silk Road.” In The Journey of Maps and Images on the Silk Road, edited by Philippe Forêt and Andreas Kaplony, 29–50. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  • Lin, Wei-Cheng. Building a Sacred Mountain: The Buddhist Architecture of China’s Mount Wutai. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.