The Mogao Grottoes in dunhuang,China
The Silk Road has always been known as a trade route for material goods. Ideas were also an important commodity. Religious ideas pervaded nearly all aspects of the Silk Road. As Xinru Liu notes in Silk and Religion, "The eschatological concern so dominated philosophical thinking an deciding perspectives in life that it often guided people in earning, accumulating, spending, and exchanging their material wealth" (Liu 2). Buddhism was most certainly the most prominent religion, but Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others were spread along the Silk Roads.
As early as the 2nd century B. C., Buddhist beliefs were transmitted along the Silk Road. Buddhist missionaries were a major force is spreading Buddhist beliefs from India into China. Although accounts differ, the spread of Buddhism seems to have been commonly linked to the emperor Ming-ti, who had a dream involving a golden figure in a glowing halo of light. Ming-ti's wise men interpreted the dream as a representation of the Buddha (Angier School, par.27). As a result of this apparition, Ming-ti dispatched representatives to learn more about Buddhism. The missionaries came back with scriptures, priests, and artwork. These missionary trips continued into the 4th and 5th centuries through the Northern Wei dynasty (Wild, par.19).
With missionaries traveling to India and back, Buddhism eventually gained a firm hold in China. Buddhist monks, art, and paintings trickled into China along the Silk Road. Monasteries, stupas, and grottos were constructed.
Donations from powerful local families and merchants helped fund the creation of these works. Monasteries often functioned as a safe haven for travelers and the sick (Hendricks, par10.). Cave temples also emerged during this time. The cave temples located in Dunhuang are among the most famous; these cave temples contain extensive wall paintings dedicated to Buddha, his saints, and his story ("Silkroad Foundation," par. 25). Shortly afterward, in the 6th century A.D., Buddhist schools are created and Buddhist scriptures are translated into the vernacular. (Schirmer, par.17).
During the 3rd and 4th Centuries A.D., beliefs of Manichaeism were transmitted along the Silk Roads (Baumer 50). The reason for the spread of Manichaeism was less a matter of conscious proselytism than aversion from prosecution in Persia. Manichaeism flourished along the Silk Roads for only a short period of time, however (Baumer 51).
Around 432 A.D., Christianity began to make a brief appearance on the Silk Road. During this time, the Roman Catholic Church banned the Nestorian sect of Christianity in Europe, so the Nestorian beliefs fled toward the East. Merchants helped transmit Christian beliefs along the Silk Road, and in 638 the first Nestorian church was created in Changan. Evidence of Nestorian Christian writings can be found in previously mentioned cave temples at Dunhuang (Wild, par.26).
Buddhism grew in importance during the 7th century with the Tang dynasty. During this time, Xuan Zhuang, traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scripture. With his return to Tang, Xuan built the Great Goose Pagoda, which contains over 600 scriptures that he obtained on his travels to India. "He is still seen by the Chinese as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China" (Wild, par.28). With the fall of Tang dynasty (caused by the Arabic invasion), the importance of the Silk Road began to decline. Trade slowed down, and art and grotto construction decreased.
During the 8th century A.D., a significant number of conversions to Islam began. Moslems destroyed symbols of Buddhism; wall paintings, stupas, monasteries, and artwork were demolished (Schirmer, par.4). "Since Islam condemned the iconography, most of the Buddhist statues and wall-paintings were damaged or destroyed. Buddhist temples and stupas were abandoned and buried beneath the sand" (Silkroad Foundation, par. 23). By the 15th century, most of Central Asia had been converted to Islam. In the 10th century, the Chinese government placed a ban on all foreign religions.
In his work, Religions of the Silk Road, Richard Foltz cites three central reasons for the spread of Islam into Central Asia. The first factor is concerned with politics. Because the government supported Islam, then it was easier to accept the government's rule rather than go against it (Foltz 96). The second noted factor is economics-it was less complicated to conduct trade with the local businessmen as a Muslim rather than a Buddhist because they were usually treated better (Foltz 96). The other factor in the Islamation of Asia is assimilation. It was easier to conform to the government's demands than possibly being killed or hurt for going against their beliefs (Foltz 97). With the expansion of Islam, mosques replaced the Buddhist monasteries and stupas along the Silk Road.
Significant changes occurred with the Mongolian invasion. The Mongols were nomadic, and had great skills in archery and horsemanship. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols dominated over much of Asia. Although most of the Mongols followed the beliefs of Islam, this was not the case with the Mongols in Central Asia (Wild, par. 32). The Mongols were open and tolerant of new ideas and other religions. Kublai Kahn, Genghis' successor, was known to have been sympathetic to other religions. Consequently, many religions and nationalities settled in China and took part in the trade along the Silk Road. Some of the other religions that appeared at that time were Judaism, Christianity, Daoism, and Confucianism (Wild, par. 34).
The fall of the Silk Road was not entirely caused by the frequent shifts in governments and dynasties. Maritime trade gained prominence. The Silk Roads are still used today, although not to the extent that it had once been. There are still remnants of Buddhist grottoes, cave temples, and monasteries. The powerful Buddhist paintings, murals, and sculptures serve as a reminder to the religious beliefs transmitted along the Silk Roads.