Winding Between Myth and Politics: The Silk Road

June 13, 2014   •   By Nile Green

THE SILK ROAD conjures images of camel trains snaking into shimmering sand dunes and the babble of tongues bartering for the pungent spices of Asia. At the same time, it evokes a tempo quite familiar from our current global system. For despite its patina of antiquity, the idea of the Silk Road was the export of an industrializing Prussia of chemical factories and steel mills, a fact that acts like an adrenaline shot against opium dreams of the old road to Cathay. Ferdinand von Richthofen, the geologist who coined the term “Silk Road” (Seidenstrasse), learned about travel in China through his own expeditions searching for coal to fuel the first Chinese rail network. In a very real sense, the image of a road spun from gossamer threads of silk was the dreamy sibling of the smoke-belching railroad. In the decades when German and Russian engineers were designing China’s first railroad — in German, Eisenbahn or “iron road” — the appeal of a road wrought from the very opposite substance is scarcely surprising. If the Silk Road suggests interchange between East and West, then there was reciprocity in its very conception as Europeans ferried iron and coal to China and carried home dreams of a highway named for the softest stuff known to man. Ironically, Richthofen invented the term Seidenstrasse in 1877, just 15 years before silk was itself synthesized as rayon. Yet a century and a half later, his brilliant coinage continues to dispel thoughts of the more tawdry world of rayon, viscose, and nylon and instead fill the imagination with images that tumble like riffs on a poem by Coleridge. Recently in Los Angeles, a traveling exhibition at the Natural History Museum dug deep into this fecund lode of associations, matching ancient trade items with modern-day morals on the tolerant traffic of ideas and the peaceful collision of cultures. As the apotheosis of free trade conceived at the same time as that other notable Prussian Karl Marx was conversely writing Das Kapital, the Silk Road is after all the founding myth of global capitalism.

Like all great myths, the Silk Road disguises much of its baggage; its romance hides an ideological smuggle route. Originally developed as a European concept for the deep past of Asia, since its initial use in German the term has been adopted into Japanese (Shiruku Rodo), Chinese (Sīchóu zhī lù), Russian (Shelkovyy Put), Farsi (Rah-i Abrisham), and other languages, allowing the states that surround its former trails to compete for its cultural-political legacy. What, then, does this ideological and linguistic traffic have to do with the braying quadrupeds and frostbitten porters who undoubtedly did tread their way across Central Asia in the age before Columbus? And how do two of America’s leading historians of the region make their own bargains between the ideology and evidence of that most mythologized and commodified section of Asia? Whether in terms of books, exhibitions, or artistic works, in the West, at least, many works inspired by the Silk Road are starkly depoliticized and subtly bourgeoisified. Witness the emphasis on Buddhist pilgrims rather than jihadists, on the spread of pasta rather than Han settlers, on cultural fusion rather than communism, on the trade in silk rather than heroin. In part, this is an outcome of the period in focus: the ideologies of the deep past are harder to detect than those of the present. But as James A. Millward argues in The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, the Silk Road not only has an antique past but also an active present and expansive future: “The Silk Road never died.”

As a historian based at Georgetown’s Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Millward proves a shrewd guide to the many uses and meanings of the Silk Road in both past and present. He bases his concise study on the premise that the famed pathway “stands for the exchanges of things and ideas, both intended and accidental, through trade, diplomacy, conquest, migration and pilgrimage,” exchanges that (here comes that key claim again) “intensified […] from the Neolithic through modern times.” Millward sets the tone for this distinctive recognition of the dynamic if contested continuity of such exchanges with an opening set piece on a Silk Road exhibition in Washington, DC, where Secretary of State Colin Powell peddled soft diplomacy through a speech about “Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust.” Working back from the American present through the European past of Ferdinand von Richthofen and August Hermann (the first person to use “Silk Road” in a book title) to the Asian antiquity of the Han and Xiongnu empires, Millward builds his book around the thematic dimensions of what he considers an “Afro-Eurasian joint venture.” This is important, for though he was trained as a historian of China, his survey is not a study in Sinocentrism but an attempt to give equal recognition to the roles of nomadic Central Asians and Europeans (especially Russians). Underpinning his survey is not only the now-routine recognition of the environmental determinants of trans-Eurasian trade, but also a clear-eyed vision of the place of politics in promoting and, to some extent, controlling trade. Whether through the centralizing polities of early nomadic confederations or the firmer unification of the Qing imperial conquests, the intensified exchanges at the center of Millward’s survey are always underwritten by strong states. Implicitly at least, this subtext points less to a long history of free trade than to a genealogy for the controlled economics of modern China.

In six brisk, occasionally breezy chapters, Millward brings to life what he groups together as biological, technological, and artistic exchanges. His examples are apt, engaging, and sometimes surprising. The biological traffic thus includes not only “blood-sweating” horses and the prototypes of pasta, but also plague bacteria carried by the Mongols out of China and grapevines carried by Turkic emissaries into China. This pattern of two-way exchange continues in later chapters, such as one dedicated to technologies in which China’s export to the Middle East and Europe of papermaking and silk-weaving is paralleled by the easterly flow of Greco-Arabic medicine and, later, the science behind atom bombs. A short section on the Soviet swap of atomic technology for abundant Chinese uranium in the 1950s is one of many thought-provoking vignettes of the continuity of such exchange. A chapter on the arts brings together the export of the blue-and-white porcelain called kraak in the Netherlands (“the Dutch were hooked on kraak”) with intriguing claims for the diffusion of lutes that, from Italy to Japan, allow us to hear even today “the timbres and modes of the medieval Silk Road.” By asking in his final chapter “why the Silk Road never died,” Millward brings his book full circle from its opening with Colin Powell as he turns to other diplomatic deployments of the Silk Road’s potent symbolism by politicians from America to Iran, Pakistan, and, of course, China. Amid what is now a whole cultural-political industry based around the Silk Road boosterism of fashionable diners and Bitcoin dealers, James Millward’s shrewd but passionate handbook is a gentle antidote for all those enthralled by the myth.

Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History provides at once a longer and shorter history of Eurasian exchange. At twice the length of Millward’s Very Short Introduction, aside from an expansive final chapter Hansen focuses on the six centuries when, during the European “Dark Ages,” the oasis towns between Xi’an and Bukhara flourished on a steady flow of business and water. Rather than thematically organizing the subject matter, Hansen arranges her chapters around seven distinctive sites. This sets up a kind of tangible chronology as we see the lived and material world of the Silk Road transform through the increasing sociocultural complexity of a string of trading towns that become more connected and cosmopolitan through time. It is a highly effective approach, not least in lending the Silk Road a strong sense of place as well as movement. Whether frontier garrison, fertile oasis, or imperial capital, each site is re-excavated before our eyes, unearthing the tangled roots of intersecting cultures seen through decorated tombs, domestic homesteads, desert townscapes, and carefully managed (and sometimes mismanaged) ecosystems.

Hansen is particularly adept at handling the stories of archaeological discoveries in the region, but, though these are fascinating in their own right, she subsumes them within her larger goal of illuminating a lost everyday world. While recognizing the achievements of such archaeological pioneers as Sven Hedin, she quietly points to the politics of historical research. If there are none of Millward’s Washingtonian anecdotes about Powell or Putin, we do occasionally glimpse something of the ideology behind China’s own archaeological push. But for Hansen such agendas are merely smokescreens that disperse when the past is shown in its own terms; her command of the evidentiary minutiae of so many scholars’ findings is startling. The result is that her book is brimming with vivid detail. Pork dumplings preserved for more than a thousand years in the sands of Turfan tell us how the transmission of foodways trickled down to ordinary folk, while, cocooned in their archaeological exile, Zoroastrian reliefs from a merchant’s tomb in Xi’an are better preserved than any such remains from the religion’s Iranian homeland. Every chapter — or site — is revealed to the reader through such tangible and visual relics, an effect heightened by scores of illustrations. The result is at once kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic in its dazzling yet orderly display of evidence drawn from the archaeological and codicological detritus of a past that, before the discoveries of the 20th century, was literally swallowed by the desert. Though the pharaonic grandeur preserved by the dry climate of Egypt is far better known, the buried cities of Central Asia lend a comparable Ozymandias effect of gazing into the humbling sands of time.

For all that Hansen’s Silk Road forms an excavational compendium, it is ultimately a book about languages rather than objects. It is a celebration of the drudgery of sifting ancient trash, of the painstaking work of recovering multilingual documents found in fragments, clumps, and, at the Mogao Caves, one great bibliographical hoard. These documents take center stage in her story. Whether in Sogdian, Khotanese, Kuchean, or Uighur — languages that make the discoveries of early Chinese texts seem almost pedestrian — it is the decipherment of these lost languages that allows Hansen to bring the Silk Road so fully to life. Since most of the sites she discusses had their own scripts and languages, she serves distilled doses of linguistic erudition, rendering digestible the philological and paleographical findings of experts from all over Europe, the United States, and China. Collating the efforts of so many researchers, the book is testament to the internationalism of Silk Road Studies in building an academic republic of letters dedicated to the rediscovery of its ancient forerunner.

Though Hansen is not concerned here with the politics of such ventures, in giving evidence for the longevity of China’s presence in “its” Central Asian provinces, there is no doubting the political dimensions to China’s support for archaeology in its western regions. In its bluntest form, the ideology of the Silk Road deepens the cultural, economic, and thereby political claims made by China over territories it has only controlled, intermittently and incompletely, for around three of the past 15 centuries. Most Northern Europeans would be surprised to learn that outsiders framed their history around the roads of the Roman Empire and the goods and gods that traveled them. But seeing Central Asia from the Silk Road serves precisely to magnify the presence of Buddhism and China in regions ruled for most of the past millennium by Muslim city-states.

Hansen does her best to avoid this flawed perspective through a final chapter that focuses on the coming of Islam. And she makes of the Silk Road far more than an ideological ruse by substantiating it as a road of letters penned by the soldiers, monks, and merchants who, with their different purposes, found themselves in the oasis towns around the Tang imperial frontier. Just as in the past 30 years the Vindolanda Tablets — 2,000-year-old wooden postcards found at Hadrian’s Wall near the border of Scotland — have revealed what it was like to be a soldier posted to the farthest fringes of the Roman Empire, so have the discoveries of texts on clay, leather, and that classic Silk Road commodity of paper reanimated the human past of Central Asia. In one almost spine-tingling section, Hansen recounts the discovery by the Anglo-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein of a fourth-century mailbag of abandoned letters penned in the lost language of Sogdia. The reconstruction of such epistolary fragments lets us now read ancient news that never reached the friends and families for whom it was written. Such are the materials that make it possible for Hansen to tell what she unpretentiously calls “the flesh-and-blood story of the Silk Road.”

Richly illustrated, The Silk Road: A New History is a monumental work of synthesis. Summarizing more than a century of research, it is unlikely to be surpassed till the discoveries of another generation demand incorporation. If it avoids the weighty contemporary stakes discussed in Millward’s book, which opens in the District of Columbia and closes with the online Silk Road drug bazaar, Hansen’s book does make a case for the role of political decisions in shaping both commercial and cultural exchange across Asia. As the People’s Republic now appears poised to incorporate the economies on its Central Asian peripheries through the railroads of its “Eurasian Land Bridge” project, some readers will take heed from what Hansen describes as the central role of the Chinese state in the making of the ancient Silk Road and of aspects of its policies (such as the ban in the year 845 on Christianity and other foreign religions) that were less than cosmopolitan.

All told, neither Hansen nor Millward serve up the shiny and sunny Silk Road of neoliberal mythology. As works of mature reflection and masterly synthesis, in their different ways both these new books succeed in diffusing that potently enduring fable. Besides, like all great myths, that of the Silk Road is capable of transcending politics. And as a fundamentally modern myth conceived amid the disenchanting factories of an industrial Germany, it is a humanist one with no place for gods and miracles. Aside from the merchant Polo and the pilgrim Xuanzang — mythic stereotypes, perhaps, of a mercantile West and a spiritual East — there are even few heroes in this myth. In Hansen’s version especially, the Silk Road comprised the trails of ordinary and nameless people, risk-takers perhaps, but men and women going about their work in search of a more comfortable and meaningful life. In such tellings, the Silk Road appears less the legendary road to Xanadu than a camel-strewn Route 66 through the wastes of Central Asia. It is perhaps not so odd a comparison, for in the same years that Okies were fleeing their own deserts for a Californian land of plenty, through the translated travel books of explorers like Hedin and Stein, on the other side of the Pacific at the island end points of the medieval Silk Road, Japanese readers learned with excitement about what they pronounced the Shiruku Rodo. Borne by this modern myth as it moved from West to East, in the decades after World War II the Japanese painter Hirayama Ikuo sought solace from the horrors he had seen as a boy in Hiroshima. Retreading in reverse the ancient journeys of the monks who had carried the Buddhist dharma from India through China to Japan, in the 1960s Hirayama traveled westward to brush serene watercolors of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Born from the atomic ashes of his home town, his paintings are all the more poignant for positioning Afghanistan as the peaceful heart of Asia. If the Silk Road took shape as the founding myth of global capitalism, then Hirayama’s art lends hope that in the century and a half since von Richthofen first recounted it, that fabled highway has become a myth for all humanity. 


Nile Green serves as chair of the UCLA Central Asia Initiative and on the editorial board of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.