This illustration from Abraham Cresques's Catalan Atlas depicts a caravan traveling along the Silk Road. Cresques, a cartographer from Majorca, completed the atlas in 1375, a few years after the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. This portrayal was inspired by accounts of Marco Polo's travels, which gained significant popularity throughout Europe.
The Silk Road (or, more accurately, Silk Roads, as there was no one single route) served to connect China and the world to the west for centuries, with many high points and low points throughout its life. Its name comes from the fact that silk, originating in China, was considered a highly sought after commodity and luxury in the rest of the world. Silk and other trade goods were not the only things that spread along the Silk Road. For instance, Buddhism was first brought from India to East Asia in this manner.
Many centuries later, during the height of the Yuan Dynasty and the period of Pax Mongolica, many European merchants traveled along the Silk Road in hopes of gaining fortune, as Chinese silk and other luxury goods continued to be in great demand in Europe. These travels also helped spread ideas throughout Europe and Asia. Perhaps most famously, thanks to the stories of Marco Polo, the view of China as a place of wealth and wonder spread across Europe.
Inspired by this view for generations, Europeans sought a sea route to East Asia. This picture shows a sixteenth century folding screen with art depicting the arrival of Portuguese trading ships to Japan.
Ming Dynasty China took efforts to ban Japanese traders from the country as punishment for the "Japanese pirates". Because Chinese silk was a very desirable product in Japan, in the sixteenth century European merchants began to see this as an opportunity for profit. They bought silk in bulk from China and brought it to Japan to sell in exchange for Japanese silver. In many cases, success for European traders in East Asia during this period became centered around acting as the intermediary in silk trade between China and Japan.