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The Silk Road. A New History.

The Silk Road. A New History.

Martin Lavicka09 Mar 2015Leave a comment


Written by Jakub Hrubý

Hansen, Valerie. 2012. The Silk Road. A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-515931-8. $ 34.95.

Ever since the epochal finds in the Tarim Basin and Dunhuang at the beginning of the 20th century, the Silk Road and its exploration has been a fascinating topic attracting a wide audience of scholars and general readers alike. A hundred years later, the Silk Road has lost nothing of its original appeal, generally conjuring up an image of highly romantic and adventurous caravan journeys through distant and exotic countries full of ruins and mysterious vestiges of ancient times. Needless to say, such an image is highly inaccurate and misleading and scholars have tried hard to widen our knowledge about the Silk Road, the nature of its trade and the cultural interaction along its course. The last decade or so have seen several new interesting volumes published, aiming at presenting a synthetic overview of the Silk Road, its trade and history (The Silk Road in World History by Liu Xinru, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Ch. Beckwith, Life Along the Silk Road by S. Whitfield, Religions of the Silk Road by R. Foltz and Silk Road. A Very Short Introduction by J. Millward to name but the most important). Each of them have approached the topic from a different angle, but put together, these books provide a rich and much more complicated picture of the various interactions along the Silk Road than we would have imagined. Hansen’s book represents yet another piece which fits nicely into this mosaic of interpretation and scholarship, and goes a long way towards correcting some of the misconceptions connected with the Silk Road.

The reviewed book is a history of the Silk Road (both the concept and actual route network encircling the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang), an analysis of its trade as well as an account of its exploration past and present and general description of the main archaeological sites and the documents brought to light by excavations. The documents, the stories of their discovery and the testimony they give about those who created and used them in many different ways form the core of the book. In recent decades new documents have been found, sometimes in unlikely circumstances (for example reused as a part of funeral garments sewn together from the scraps of discarded official papers) which can throw additional light on many aspects of the Silk Road communities. This newly excavated material comprises a huge variety of texts ranging from contracts, legal disputes, travel passes, cargo manifests, pawn shop receipts, personal and business letters, as well as medical prescriptions and household accounts written in the many different languages that were historically spoken across the region. Hansen skilfully uses various documents to identify the main actors of trade, their goods, the amount of commodities traded, the size of the cargo and traveling parties, as well as the impact of trade on the local communities and oasis polities especially in respect to the spreading of religious beliefs, knowledge and technologies from the 2nd to the 10th centuries.

The book is divided into seven chapters dealing separately with seven ancient sites along the Silk Road, from the Sogdian centre of Samarkand in the West to the Tang metropolis of Chang’an in the East, but the main focus is on the historical developments of several oasis kingdoms and semi-dependent polities around the Taklamakan desert.

Chapter 1 (pp. 25–55) deals with centres of the oasis kingdom of Kroraina, which flourished between 200 BCE and 400 CE, and the texts in Kharoshthi script and Chinese excavated at the sites of Niya and Loulan. The use of an Indian script provides one of the earliest evidence of sustained cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, as it was introduced by migrants from the Gandhara region in present day Afghanistan, who settled in Kroraina in the 2nd century BCE and profoundly changed the local society. The close analysis of the excavated documents also provides interesting information about Chinese garrisons in the Western Regions and the nature of hold over the area by the Han dynasty. It seems that the local rulers were largely independent and simply hosted Han garrisons and received the occasional emissaries. As the texts are conspicuously silent about mercantile activities, Hansen argues that the Silk Road trade in this particular area during the 3rd–4th centuries was rather low, with the local sustenance economy being largely self-sufficient and only occasionally catering to the needs of the Han garrison in Loulan.

In Chapter 2 (pp. 56–82) Hansen focuses on the Buddhist kingdom of Kucha and traces developments of Agnean and Kuchean (also known as Tokharian A and B, however, the author points out that Tokharian is a misnomer because the historical Tokharians, the Yuezhi tribes, actually spoke Bactrian) and their use during the 4th–8th centuries. She also maps the spread of Buddhism from Central Asia to China in which local translators played a major part, with Kucha-born Kumarajiva being foremost among them. These sutra translation projects not only introduced Buddhism to the wide audience of Chinese speakers but also had a tremendous influence on Chinese itself and on the way its speakers looked upon their language. Textual evidence from Kuchean sites further affirms a rather low level of private trade and Hansen concludes that government sponsored commercial activities connected with the long-term presence of the Chinese military in the region were much more important for the Silk Road economy. When Chinese armies were stationed in Central Asia during the early Tang, great wealth was pumped into the local economy in the form of coins, grain and silk in which the state paid their soldiers. This influx of readily tradable commodities stimulated long-distance trade, but only as long as the garrisons remained. Once withdrawn after the An Lushan Rebellion, the Silk Road economy reverted back to the original model of small-scale trade maintained by the local tradesmen.

Chapter 3 (pp. 83–112) is devoted to the history of Turfan and texts found on scraps of recycled paper used to make pieces of funeral clothing for the dead, excavated at Astana and other graveyards in the Turfan region, which throw light on life in one of the thriving centres on the Silk Road during its peak in the 6th–8th centuries. These texts document the strong presence of Sogdians and other Iranian elements, and the Iranian world emerges as the single most important trading partner of the Xinjiang oasis kingdoms. On the basis of numismatic evidence (almost no Roman coins have been unearthed so far in contrast to the regular occurrence of Sasanian mint production) Hansen argues that the prevailing notion of a thriving caravan trade connecting China to Rome is untenable. Travel documents and a market register unearthed in Turfan attest to strong governmental control over trade and the tradesmen, as well as the crucial role of state military subsidies for the fortunes of Central Asian trade. Hansen sees the Silk Road trade as a “by product of Chinese government spending” dependent on Tang military presence in the region. While before the Tang conquests in the West there existed only a small volume trade conducted by envoys and refugees, the same kind of low-profile trade on a subsistence basis was resumed after the eclipse of the Tang in the second half of the 8th century.

The role of the Sogdians is further explored in Chapter 4 (pp. 113–140), focusing on the famous Sogdian “Ancient Letters” from the early 4th century which Aurel Stein uncovered near Dunhuang and almost a hundred documents found in the ruins of a Sogdian refuge fortress on Mount Mugh outside Samarkand, left there under dramatic circumstances when the castle was besieged by the Arabs at the beginning of the 8th century. These documents together with the iconographical program of famous murals in Panjikent and Afrasiab confirm the notion of a limited trade in smaller amounts of goods, often locally produced and, at least towards the end of Sogdian city states` independence, functioning largely through barter.

Cosmopolitan aspects of the life along the Silk Road are addressed in greater detail in chapter 5 (pp. 141–166) which describes the vibrant metropolis of Chang`an with its busy markets and various immigrant communities of different religious denominations. On the basis of archaeological evidence from several Sogdian tombs unearthed fairly recently in Xi`an, Hansen shows how the immigrants managed to accommodate themselves to the new cultural setting in which they chose to live, how they adapted their original cultural practices and how they modified Chinese traditions combining both in a new, indigenous way.

Chapter 6 (pp. 167–198) is devoted to the great finds in Dunhuang and texts discovered in the famous Library Cave, a storage room for manuscripts, prints and paintings belonging to various Buddhist monasteries of 10th–11th century Dunhuang. Besides stressing the importance of the find as “the single most informative repository of primary sources about the different religions of the Silk Road (Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Church of the East, Buddhism, etc.)”, Hansen devotes particular attention to unique and fascinating Manichean texts and their translations into Chinese. The chapter also explains the changes within the local society which came about following the Tibetan occupation and later with the rule of independent Chinese military governors in the 9th–11th centuries. It seems that frequent diplomatic exchanges between Dunhuang, Uighur polities and Chinese courts provided the main stimulus for trade in the later centuries, with envoys and their entourage being instrumental in moving goods between fairly distant places. Trade, however, had only little impact on the local residents who depended on petty trade conducted on a local level.

The last chapter (pp. 199–234) deals with the kingdom of Khotan which played an important role in the introduction of both Buddhism and Islam into the region. Documentary records discovered at archaeological sites around Khotan again challenge the long prevailing notion of the flourishing caravan trade in bulk commodities. Yet, the life along the Silk Road does not appear to be less vibrant for it. Hansen shows that the trade in local products was thriving and omnipresent up to the beginning of the 11th century when the Muslim dynasty of Karakhanids conquered Khotan and launched a great military campaign which paved the way for thorough islamization of the region. Hansen concludes that islamization ushered in a new era when “each oasis became a self-contained Islamic state.” And these “homogenous, isolated communities were very different from the cosmopolitan towns of earlier times.”

Through the detailed analysis of excavated textual material the author manages to touch upon many different aspects of the Silk Road offering an insightful glimpse into life along its course. Yet there is an overarching argument which keeps recurring again and again in every chapter of the book that the volume of Silk Road trade has been highly exaggerated and its character seriously misunderstood. Hansen argues that the Silk Road was not as much a commercial highway as it was “the planet`s most famous cultural artery for the exchange between East and West of religions, art, language, and new technologies.” Working under the prevalent notions of the Silk Road trade, specialists generally focusing on a single excavation site have had a hard time trying to explain away the absence of evidence of large scale trade. Hansen convincingly demonstrates that these notions are erroneous and that the whole Silk Road trade should be reconceptualised, as long distance bulk trade was rather rare and the majority of commercial activities along the Silk Road consisted of exchanging locally produced goods in relatively small areas, item for item.

The complexity of the topic and the unbalanced information value of the surviving textual evidence probably account for several minor flaws of the book which I perceive as a reader. At some points the flow of explanation is rather confusing; at others the author is tempted to make small detours and gets carried away by the richness of details which, not uninteresting in themselves, are not so important for the main argument. An example of it can be found on pp. 188–190 where the Zhang Yichao transformation text is discussed. Hansen gives a small excerpt from the text but without saying anything about the content of the work or the transformation texts in general, jumps to a bianwen scene depicted in one of the Dunhuang murals and through it to the explanation how the caves were actually carved, concluding with the assessment of religious patronage of the independent Dunhuang rulers. The overall impression is slightly confusing and the reader feels that some important information went missing. Another example would be the dating of the Hejiacun hoard on p. 157 (while it is mentioned that the hoard was deposited in the 730s, it is also mentioned in connection with the An Lushan Rebellion).

Some chapters would need better editing and pruning as some of the information gets repetitive. An extreme case is to be found on p. 188: “…of all literary genres represented in cave 17, transformation texts, which alternate passages of prose with poetry, are the most distinctive. Transformation texts combine stretches of sung poetry and recited prose (this literary genre existed in Kuchean too).” Even though this is exceptional there are frequent repetitions throughout the text within the space of pages or chapters (for example the information about the break-up of the Uighur Kaghanate and its successor states is repeated at least three times on pages 190, 192 and 226). Better editing would also have prevented some strange lapses from creeping into the text, like the puzzling statements that the Western Jin were a regional dynasty (p. 44), that the original capital of the Sui dynasty lay in Yangzhou (p. 147), or that the Tang general Gao Juren at some point wrested control of Beijing (p. 157).

Despite these minor flaws the book represents a highly informative and insightful account of various aspects of the Silk Road and its history, making the best up-to-date scholarship available to a much wider audience and providing probably the less appealing, but much more convincing, alternative vision of the fabled commercial activity along its course. I would heartily recommend it to both students and scholars interested in improving their knowledge of the Silk Road and the present state of the field.

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