The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures up a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different--and far more interesting--as revealed in this new history.
In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes. For centuries, key records remained hidden--sometimes deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead. Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from Xi'an to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. There was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west. China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs. Silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk. Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.
The Silk Road is a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and China.
The Silk Road was never really a road at all, but rather a "stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains" that carried a slow trickle of trade between the Near East and the Chinese empire over millennia. The arid conditions along the trail have helped preserve some of the greatest treasure troves of the ancient world, increasing our understanding of dozens of cultures. Hansen, an expert in early Chinese history at Yale, presents an erudite, scholarly look at artifacts as diverse as Buddhist sutras, ancient bills of sale, and even petrified dumplings, placing each in its proper context and building a detailed historical record drawing heavily on primary sources. At times too dry for general readers, this study may put off specialists with its lack of focus Hansen touches on civil service examinations, prevailing stereotypes of Sogdian merchants, bans on religious practice, and sea trade with Southeast Asia in succeeding paragraphs but the work does break new ground with its close textual analysis of so many original documents. Although trade on the road largely consisted of "impromptu exchanges of locally produced and locally obtained goods" (silk was one common currency; another was antelope skin), such exchanges played no small part in shaping the modern world. 19 color and 61 b&w illus., maps.