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Central Asia: A Historical Overview

Demographic Map of Central Asia

Demographic Map of Central Asia

The next great Central Asian empire was the Xiongnu, who may have been the ancestors of the Huns. They arrived around the 3rd century B.C.E. and began to challenge the Chinese. There were disputes about trade and land. The Han dynasty, which ruled China from 3rd century B.C.E. to 3rd century C.E. (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.), tried to deal with the nomads in a variety of ways. None of them was particular successful. One way to deflect raids and attacks is to work out marital alliances. Often, a Chinese princess would be sent to the head of Xiongnu confederation in marriage. This, however, did not solve the economic problem since the Xiongnu wanted to trade with China. Eventually, the Chinese devised a tribute system that worked rather well. This system is really a trade system but it portrayed the Xiongnu as inferiors. If the Xiongnu accept three requirements -- accepting the Chinese calendar as their calendar, paying respect to a newly enthroned emperor, and sending periodic tribute to the Chinese court, they are allowed to set up tribute embassies which were really trade missions. This resolved the conflicts between the Central Asian nomads and the Chinese for quite some time.

The Xiongnu was overwhelmed by the Ugyhurs around the 8th century. The Uyghurs are the first important Turkic group. They played a dramatic role in linking the West and the East. The Uyghur people were also the first to have a developed written language that was based upon Aramaic. The Uyghur also adopted the Manichaeism and they introduced this religion to China as well. The Uyghurs traded across Eurasia; they brought different objects into China, such as Persian silvers and textiles. They introduced Islam into China. Vise versa, they also helped bringing Chinese culture to the west. In short, they acted as cultural transmitters. Around 840, the Uyghur Empire collapsed due to divisions between the nomadic and sedentary groups.

Period of Decline
Meanwhile in Central Asia, Islam was developing at a rapid rate partly through the efforts of Arab and Persian traders who crossed along the Silk Road. They converted the local people. Mosques were built in cities like Samarkand and Bukhara.

In late 9th and early 10th century, China collapsed. Simultaneously, the opposite empire in Persia also went into a period of decline. Thus, from 10th to 13th century, Central Asia could no longer function as transmitter, the role that it traditionally played.

The Mongols
The Mongols revived this situation when they came into power in the 13th century. They created a condition that allowed extraordinary contact to be made between the East and the West. The Mongols had taken all the characteristics of Central Asian nomads and elevated them to the highest degree. They were very interested in trade. Europeans arrived in China for the first time through the Mongols. They imported Persian medicine into China and had a great impact on Chinese medicine. Persian astronomical instruments were also brought to Beijing. A new and more accurate calendar was created as a result. They also built observatories in China, which was a Mongol innovation. Mongols also had an impact on Chinese textile in the 13th century The Mongol empire later collapsed due to internal rifts.