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 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.