(1) Science and Technology
The Chinese civilization used to lead the world for a fairly long period in history, with influential contributions in the areas of science and technology to other cultures on the Silk Road.
Among the most important contributions were ancient China’s greatest inventions: compass, dynamite, paper-making & printing techniques, water well drilling, cast iron technologies, alchemy, sericulture, Chinese medicine (in particular, acupuncture), etc.
Many of these exported inventions had profound impact on Western civilizations. Compass greatly facilitated oceanic navigation. Paper-making & printing techniques were brought to Europe via the Middle East, and greatly promoted the spread and development of knowledge and culture. The peoples in Central Asia learned to drill well and develop irrigation systems of wells connected by underground channels from the Chinese migrants and troops via the Silk Road, which boosted the economy of the desert region states. The cast iron technology precipitated the transition of many Central Asian peoples from the Neolithic Age to the Iron. Dynamite became extensively used in Europe in wars, triggering a revolution in weapons and warfare and giving the European powers an edge over the Orient. Alchemy, a technology developed by Chinese Taoist religion, spread to the Arabic world which in turn, influenced Europe and formed the basis on which modern chemistry had grown.
While spreading its knowledge overseas, China drew from the pool of knowledge of the whole world as well. Emperor Gaozong of Tang Dynasty and Jian Zhen (688–763, the monk known for propagating Buddhism in Japan) both received treatment from doctors from India where ophthalmology was advanced. Governments of the Ming & Qing Dynasties imported cannons from the Portuguese and later attempted to produce replicas modeled on them. The Jesuit missionaries, representatives of who included Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, and Ferdinand Verbiest, played a crucial role in introducing Western knowledge to China, and the Chinese rulers and intellectuals were interested in astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, shipbuilding technologies, etc. A world map drawn up by Matteo Ricci interested Emperor Kangxi, who were fascinated with, and worked hard to learn, Western natural sciences and ordered to draw a high quality map of China. Jean Adam Shall von Bell made various instruments or weapons for the Ming & Qing empires, including sundial (made of tusk), compass, planetarium projector, piano, steel cannon, etc. The astronomical instruments of Beijng Ancient Observatory were made under the instruction of Ferdinand Verbiest. And in the area of architecture, Giuseppe Castiglione, Italian painter, took part in designing Yuanmingyuan Palace.
Western modern history saw the blossom of natural sciences and engineering, and Europe surpassed China in these fields. Fruits of the Industrial Age --- silk-reeling machines, matches, cement, electricity, leather, rubber, tobacco, refinery, etc.--- spread to China via the Maritime Silk Road, opening the new chapter of Chinese modern history.
A rich diversity of handicrafts were exchanged on the Silk Road. China’s major exports included silk, porcelain, lacquer ware, ironware, gold & silver ware, and other luxuries. By the 4th century AD, it had become fashionable for a European aristocratic man to wear clothes made of silk. The Arabic canon The Koran acclaimed silk as the dress material of the paradise. Porcelain became a major commodity to the West with the rise of Maritime Silk Road which was more efficient and convenient for transport the fragile porcelain. Tangsancai tri-colored glazed pottery of the Tang Dynasty is known worldwide as an outstanding representative of ancient arts. And the quantity of chinaware possessed became a measure of fortune and education for a Mexican nobleman. Chinese lacquer ware, along with Chinese paintings, furniture and chinaware, was a hot sought-after during the Sinomania in Europe from late 17th to early 18th century. French King Louis XIV was a fervent lover of Oriental arts. His court rooms were said to be full of Chinese furniture, chinaware, vases, and lacquer ware.
In return, the Silk Road transmitted back to China a wider range of handicrafts. Items of any aspect of everyday use were traded, some becoming integrated in the lives of the Chinese. Emperor Lingdi of Han Dynasty was addicted to clothes, tent, bed, stools, konghou (musical instrument like a harp), flute, dancing etc. from the ethnic minority peoples in the north and west, and the whole aristocracy and all men of standing in the capital followed suit. Lifestyle of the Han people was influenced by these imports via the Silk Road. For instance, beginning from somewhere during the Southern & Northern Dynasties (420-589AD), the Chinese started sitting on stools or chairs, as compared against formerly kneeling on their own heels on the ground. Glass was introduced to China from the Middle East during Tang Dynasty, as is evidenced by the twenty pieces of excavated glassware in Famen Temple, Shaanxi Province. The Chinese’ interest in foreign commodities is manifested in the list of collectables of the Late Ming & Early Qing Dynasties period. Western clocks, glasses, tobacco bottles, and satin were popular items for the upper class people. The Qing Dynasty palace factory engaged the service of a number of Jesuit missionaries to manufacture timer and glass ware. In the 18th & 19th centuries, furs from Russia and North America, and pearls and sandalwood from Southeast Asia found a good market in China.
(3)Food, Spice and Drug
China boasts a cuisine culture that is paralleled perhaps by no other country than France. However, initially, the food variety on the Chinese dinner table had used to be fairly limited, and thanks to the Silk Road, new vegetables were transplanted in inland China and became available to the Chinese.
In the Chinese language, there are a number of plants that contains the character “胡 hu”. Examples include: hutao (胡桃, walnut), hugua (胡瓜, cucumber), hucong (胡葱, allium porrum), hujiao (胡椒, pepper), huluobo (胡萝卜, carrot), hudou (胡豆, horse bean), etc. It is likely, then, that such a plant had used to be an exotic plant and was introduced into China from the Western Regions, as “胡 hu” was the collective name given by ancient Chinese to the ethnic peoples to the north and west of central China.
Some other plants, though without the character of “胡 hu”, were imports, too, for instance, tomato (番茄fanqie, literally meaning a eggplant from foreign countries), spinach (菠菜bocai, literally meaning a vegetable from Persia), grape, potato, papaya, pomegranate, fig, sesame, etc. Besides vegetables, the dining culture of these ethnic minority groups influenced the Chinese, too. For instance, lamb kebabs, backed sesame seed cakes, grape wine and ardent liquor were all of northwestern origin.
China’s contribution to world’s food culture is tea. The Dutch East India Company made tea available to the Europeans in 1610, and the food culture of almost all Western countries were influenced by it. Nowadays, Europe is the most important market for tea.
Spice was another import that came to China via the Silk Road. In China, it has been widely used in various fields as medicines, cosmetics, scent, etc. Burning spice to scent clothes was fashionable in a well-off household. Emperor Wudi of Han Dynasty was so addicted to spice that he ordered his ministers to hold a piece of spice when reporting to him at the daily morning meeting. The main sources of spice in the world are the Middle East, India, and east Africa. And the ancient Chinese did not develop the habit of burning incense until the Silk Road made spice available.
The maritime foreign trade of ancient China also had important impact on Chinese medicines. The quantity of medicines imported from overseas increased greatly ever since Tang Dynasty. Over one hundred such imported drugs were recorded in Herbal Medicine, a record by Tang Dynasty pharmacist Li Xun, some of which are still extensively used in Chinese medicines nowadays.