Chengdu:Start Point of Southern Silk Road

Authors: Go Chengdu

2014-07-03

People would associate Qionglai City in western Chengdu with a wine-making base and the venue of a romantic love story, the real-life Oriental equivalent to the Romeo and Juliet, that happened about 2, 000 years ago, but few of them know that the site was a very important post the ancient route that, for two thousand years and more, connected the heartland of China to the southern Asia.

The route even has a longer history than that of the famous Silk Road, as believed by historians who are giving more attention to its study and recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed the historical records that there has existed a large-scale trade and cultural communication between southwestern China and the outside world since remote times.

What is Southern Silk Road?

Ancient Sichuan linked with South Asian countries by a route with long, tortuous roads that stretched from the regions of Sichuan through Yunnan and branched out into Myanmar, Thailand, India and even extended to the Mid-east countries.
The trade route with a length of over 2,000 km, for the most part, dubbed by historian as the “Southern Silk Road”, was the primary international trade route for the regions in southwestern China and greatly facilitated the exchange between China and the outside world. Though mentions of trading activities between southwestern China and the neighboring foreign lands can be found in many ancient records, the role of Southern Silk Road in promoting the cultural and economic in these regions had long been neglected until recent years when new archaeological discoveries have been made and there is renewed interest on the study of foreign trade in southern Asia.
Export from southwestern China were mainly tea, silk products, cinnabar, iron and copper items and so on while imported goods were included jewelry, shells, hemp textile, etc.
A more popular term for the Southern Silk Road is the “Tea Horse Road” (Chinese 茶马道 or 茶马古道), referring the horse (mule) caravan paths winding through the mountains in Southwest China. Both people and horses carried heavy loads, the tea porters sometimes carrying over 60–90 kg, which was often more than their own body weight.

Chengdu: start point of Southern Silk Road

Tea, iron, salt and silk products from Chengdu and its neighboring areas constituted the bulk of export to foreign countries and Chengdu, as the largest city in southwestern China, has been the most prosperous city, the trading center and transportation hub in the region throughout history and accordingly became the beginning point of the Southern Silk Road.
One of the remarkable discoveries involves four loom models recently excavated from an ancient tomb in the north suburb of Chengdu, and experts concluded that the find provides further evidence that Chengdu was silk production center in China and the start point of the Southern Silk Road.

Silk production center in China

The loom models, first of the kind in China’s archaeological discovery, were found at a tomb dating back to the Western Han dynasty about 2, 000 years ago. At that time, Chengdu was the center of silk production center in China and the central government set up offices in the city to supervise the production of the Shu (Sichuan) Brocade and Embroidery. The brocade and embroidery from Chengdu was the tribute to the royal family and one of the most important export items of China’s international trade.
The main watercourse in Chengdu, the Jinjiang River, got its name from the custom that local women washed brocade in the river, and it is said that silk products washed in the river look brighter in color.
Silk products from Chengdu and the neighboring areas, called Shu Brocade and Embroidery. Shu Brocade is an important cultural heritage in China and one of the four Most Famous Brocades in China and Shu Embroidery, also an important cultural heritage item, is the general term for the embroidery products from areas in Chengdu.
The history of sericulture and silk handcrafts in China can be traced back to over 2, 000 years in ancient Sichuan, which is the cradle of silk production. Since Sichuan is called “Shu” for short, the brocade produced in Chengdu is known as Shu Brocade. Shu Brocade has a variety of designs and uses traditional techniques, including pattern design, cross-stitching, coiling, and weaving.
In history, Shu brocade and embroidery was used as an important export of Chengdu through the Southern Silk Road to South Asian countries.
In western Chengdu there is factory making Shu brocade and embroidery with traditional techniques.

Qionglai: First Post on the Southern Silk Road

Starting from Chengdu, the Southern Silk Road went about 60 km southwest when it reached Qionglai City, the first important post along the road. The city, called Linqiong in ancient times, has a history of over 2, 300 years and is one of the first Historical and Cultural Cities in Sichuan.
Now Qionglai is one of the biggest production base of liquor and an experimental site for ecological agriculture, but for a long period in history it was an important production center of the iron industry in western China and boasted to be the first user in the world of natural gas. Vestiges of the gas wells can still be found at Huojing Township of the city.
Qionglai has a number of important sites of historical and cultural interest, but the city is better known to most people in China because of a love story that happened there some 2160 years ago which, as many believe, is the mostfamous elopement in the Chinese literature.
The story began when Sima Xiangru, then a poor scholar but known for his literary talent, came to Qionglai to visit his friend and during his stay he was invited to a banquet hosted by Zhuo Wangsun, the richest man in the city.
During the feast the scholar was carried away by Zhuo Wenjun at the first sight, who he later learned was the daughter of the host and lived in widowhood as her husband died several months ago. Then Xiangru proposed to play Guqin for people at the banquet, and everyone present was thrilled by his music and songs, including Wenjun. Several days later the poor scholar and the beautiful young lady ran away to Chengdu where they found a settlement at a place near today’s Qintai Road in the western downtown.
With no economic support from her angry father, Wenjun rented a small shop to sell wine while her husband made himself a waiter. Thus the couple lived in Chengdu for several years before Xiangru was invited by the emperor and went to Chang’an (present Xi’an, then the capital city of China) and soon became known as the best prose writer in the country.
This famous elopement is often quoted in history by young people seeking independence in choosing their better half and up to now there are still several sites in Qionglai and Chengdu that remind people of the romance that happened 2, 000 years ago.
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