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The Legacy of the Silk Road

Modern-day diplomats in Asia and beyond envision reviving the Silk Road, an ancient network of routes crisscrossing the continent for trade and security. But Valerie Hansen, author and professor of history at Yale University points, out that trade was not the primary purpose of the network. “Instead, the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to travel along part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands," she writes "Thriving in new homes, newcomers mixed with local residents and often absorbed other groups who followed." The cultural exchanges were rich and in many cases lasting, as suggested by excavated materials and documents, prepared by people of all social levels centuries ago and preserved in the arid climates. Silk Road traffic may not have been heavy, but cultural exchange was extensive and rich during an era of tolerance. – YaleGlobal

The Legacy of the Silk Road

In an era of tolerance, ancient Silk Road routes opened way to rich cultural exchange
Valerie Hansen
YaleGlobal, 25 January 2013
Searching the past: Swedish explorer Sven Hedin on a boat journey in 1899 across waterways in Central Asia which is now Taklamakan desert. Water color by Hedin himself (top); Dried silk flower bouquet dating 600-700 CE found in a graveyard in Turfan. (Photos: The Silk Road by Valerie Hansen)

NEW HAVEN: Despite all the talk in diplomatic circles of a new Silk Road and restoring trade in Central Asia, in actuality, these routes were among the least traveled in human history - possibly not worth studying if tonnage, traffic or the number of travelers at any one time were sole measures. The Silk Road found a place in history because of its rich cultural legacy in written records and artifacts, and because trade and tolerance were so intertwined.

Trade was not the primary purpose of the Silk Road, more a network of pathways than a road, in its heyday. Instead, the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to travel along part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands. Thriving in new homes, newcomers mixed with local residents and often absorbed other groups who followed. Sites of sustained economic activity, oasis towns like Turfan, Dunhuang or Khotan, enticed still others to cross over mountains and traverse oceans of sand. While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road became the planet’s most famous cultural artery for the exchange between East and West of religions, art, languages and new technologies.

We use the term “Silk Road” to refer generally to the exchanges between China and places farther to the west, specifically Iran, India and, on rare occasions, Europe. Most vigorous before the year 1000, these exchanges were often linked to Buddhism.

And that’s why cities of Khotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, northwestern China, are famous for their Sunday markets, where tourists can buy locally made crafts, naan and grilled mutton on skewers. As visitors watch farmers fiercely bargaining over the price of a donkey, it’s easy to imagine Xinjiang always this way, but that's an illusion. The predominantly non-Chinese crowds in the northwest prompt a similar reaction: Surely these are the direct descendants of the earliest Silk Road settlers.

The Silk Road: Courtesy of The International Dunhuang Project. Enlarge Image

In fact, though, a major historic break divides modern Xinjiang from its Silk Road past. The Islamic conquest of the Buddhist kingdom in 1006 brought a dramatic realignment to the region. Eventually Xinjiang’s inhabitants converted to Islam making that the principal religion in the region today. They also gradually gave up speaking Khotanese, Tocharian, Gandhari and other languages spoken during the first millennium AD for Uighur, the language one hears most often in the region today.

Excavated materials shed light on the nature of the Silk Road trade. These materials, written on paper, silk, leather and wood, survive only in dry locales, places like Niya, Loulan, Kucha, Turfan and Khotan in Xinjiang; Samarkand in Uzbekistan; Chang’an, Dunhuang in Gansu province; and Chang’an, the capital during the Former Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and the Tang (618-907). These documents were recovered not only fromtombs, but also from abandoned postal stations, shrines and homes, beneaththe dry desert - the perfect environment for the preservation of documents as well as art, clothing, ancient religious texts, ossified food and human remains.

Many documents, found by accident, were written by people from all social levels, not simply the literate rich and powerful. These documents were not composed as histories. Their authors did not expect later generations to read them, yet they offer a glimpse into the past that's often refreshingly personal, factual, anecdotal, and random.

Documents later recycled as shoes for the dead or in the arms of figurines show that Silk Road trade was often local and small in scale. Even the most ardent believer in a high-volume, frequent trade must concede that there is little empirical basis. Scholars offer varying interpretations of these scraps of evidence, but there's no denying that the debates concern scraps, not massive bodies, of evidence.

The Silk Road was a famous artery for exchange between East and West of religions, languages and technologies.

The modern discovery of the Silk Road began in 1895 when the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin launched his first expedition into the Taklamakan Desert in search of the source of the Khotan River. After 15 days, he discovered that he was not carrying enough water for himself and the four men with him. He did not turn back, not wanting to admit his expedition had failed. When their supply ran out, he began a desperate search, eventually locating a stream, but not before two men perished.

As he made his way out of the desert, Hedin encountered a caravan of merchants and pack animals, and he purchased three horses, saddles, maize, flour, tea, utensils and boots. This list, described in his biography, is revealing. Even at the beginning of the 20th century, almost all the goods traded in the Taklamakan were locally made necessities, not foreign imports.

Similarly, during the first millennium, markets offered more local goods for sale than foreign-made imports. At one market in Turfan in 743, local officials recorded prices for 350 items, including typical Silk Road goods like ammonium chloride, used for dyeing cloth and softening leather, as well as aromatics, sugar and brass. Of course, locally grown vegetables, staples and animals, some brought over long distances, were also available.

Despite the limited trade, cultural exchange between East and West was extensive – first between China and South Asia, and later west Asia, especially Iran. Refugees, artists, craftsmen, missionaries, robbers and envoys traveled along these routes in Central Asia. The most influential people moving along the Silk Road were refugees. Waves of immigrants brought technologies from their respective homelands, practicing those skills or introducing motifs in their new homes.

Artists, craftsmen, missionaries, robbers, envoys traveled these routes - and the most influential were refugees.

Frequent migrations of people fleeing war or political conflicts meant that some technologies moved east, others west. As techniques for making glass entered China from the Islamic world, the technology for manufacturing paper was transported westward. Invented in China during the 3rd century BC, paper moved out of China, first to Samarkand, arriving sometime around the year 700, and then into Europe from the Islamic portals of Sicily and Spain. Paper, the most convenient and affordable material for preserving writing, encouraged great cultural change, including the printing revolution in Western Europe. Of course, the Chinese developed woodblock printing much earlier than Gutenberg, starting around 700 AD.

Cultural transfer took place as the Chinese learned from other societies, specifically India, the home of Buddhism. Buddhist missionaries were key translators and worked out a system for transcribing unfamiliar terms in foreign languages, like Sanskrit, into Chinese that remains in use today. Chinese absorbed some 35,000 new words, including both technical Buddhist terms and common everyday words.

People who spoke different languages often encountered one another on the Silk Road. Some had learned multiple languages since childhood. Others had to learn foreign languages as adults, a more arduous process than it is today given how few study aids were available. Surviving phrasebooks shed light on student identities and reasons for their studies. Used in monasteries throughout the first millennium, Sanskrit attracted students, but so, too, did Khotanese, Chinese, and Tibetan.

The most important legacy of the Silk Road is the atmosphere of tolerance fostered by rulers of small oasis kingdoms strung along the northern and southern Taklamakan. Over the centuries these rulers welcomed refugees from foreign lands, granting them permission to practice their own faiths. Buddhism entered China, and so too did Manicheism, Zoroastrianism and the Christianity of the East. Archeological sites and the preserved artifacts offer a glimpse into this once tolerant world. The new Silk Road is indeed far removed from the legacy of the historic network.

 

Valerie Hansen teaches Chinese history at Yale University. Her most recent book is The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

3 February 2013
One needs to consider the volume to value ratios when discussing trade not just tonnage. Even more interesting is the route being a conduit for the spread of disease as well as culture in particular the plague in both Europe and Asia.
-Gamboa , USA
28 January 2013
Interesting read. However, it seems like there is an undertone of modern standards imposed on the importance of the Silk Road. I would imagine that tonnage-wise, the Silk Road would not have matched ship "trade" via the water routes. However, the knowledge, cultural awareness and, as mentioned above, tolerance "trade" earns the Silk Road its reputation and place in history.
-Ryan , Canada
28 January 2013
This is interesting. I believe that the Silk Road served different purposes at different times, but it was very trade oriented during many rulers and the Golden Orda's Ozbek Khan especially (circa 1300s). First Genoa, then Venice held a Great Khan's "yarlyk" for the ports in the Black Sea and their goods went eastward via the Silk Road. Also the Mongol Hulagu dynasty in Iran was in war with other khans over trade permits in disputed lands (Georgia, Azerbaijan), implying that trade was very important.
Doesn't this imply that trade was not only organized and sanctioned, but was also its primary purpose? And cultural exchange a byproduct? I'm not a historian by any means, just curious. Thank you!
-Aida , Kyrgyzstan
25 January 2013
Thanks for sharing the knowledge; it is a great history
-Walter I Hurtado , Greenville SC
25 January 2013
I think this all true. Thank you for deromantisizing the myth.
-KAMATH , Canada