Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 493-495
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Life along the Silk Road
A History of Inner Asia
Life along the Silk Road. By SUSAN WHITFIELD. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 242. $27.50 (cloth).
A History of Inner Asia. By SVAT SOUCEK. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xiv + 369. $64.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been a remarkable and very welcome revival of interest in Inner Asia and the lands of the Silk Roads. And this is generating a significant and accessible literature that should help place the region more firmly on the agenda of world historians. Inner Asian history has much to offer those interested in world history. Its strange and complex blend of pastoralism and agriculture generated a complex (to outsiders) exotic ecological, cultural, and religious syncretism. The region also riveted together the major agrarian civilizations of Eurasia, to create, as Frank and Gills have argued, a single world system dating back perhaps 4,000 years. These two books are welcome and valuable additions to this literature. And both should find a place quickly on the shelves of world historians.
Of the two, Whitfield's is the more "popular," insofar as it is written for a general rather than scholarly audience. Susan Whitfield specializes in Chinese history and runs the International Dunhang Project, based at the British Library. (You can find the Project's web site at http://idp.bl.uk.) In Life along the Silk Road, she offers ten fictional biographies of figures who lived along the eastern sections of the Silk Road, from Samarkand to Zhang'an (modern Xian), between 750 and 1000 C.E. Five are purely fictional, while five are based very loosely on people known to have existed. But all are constructed from information found in contemporary documents, mainly from the astonishing materials found in Dunhuang from the time of Aurel Stein. The subjects include merchants and soldiers (whose biographies make for vivid reconstructions of travel along different parts of the eastern Silk Road); a nun, the imperial bride of a Uighur khagan, and a courtesan (biographies that offer insight into the remarkable independent lives of many urban women in this era); and several other inhabitants of steppe road towns, above all Dunhuang. The illustrations (color and black-and-white) are superb; as a complement to the biography of a Kashmiri monk selling charms in Dunhuang, they suggest the vividness with which Whitfield recreates the details and flavor of this world. "A Chinese cure for possession by demons called for pulverized cinnabar and [End Page 493] realgar, roasted croton seed, root of hellebore and aconite, arsenphyrite, burned for half a day in the earth, and a broiled centipede, with feet removed (this must have taken some time). The resulting mixture was passed through a sieve and combined with honey to form small pills. The patient was advised to take one pill daily, with an additional dose at midnight if the symptoms were not relieved, and to avoid 'pork, cold water, and fresh bloody meat' during treatment" (p. 115). Imaginative reconstruction of a distant time and place is this book's great strength. Its introductory section on the history of Inner Asia and the Silk Road is less successful, but does provide a valuable frame for the biographies. In short, it's both enjoyable and very useful for anyone teaching or learning about the region centered on Dunhuang in the centuries before the Mongol Empire.
Svat Soucek offers a survey history of "Inner Asia" from the eighth century (when Islam first entered Central Asia) to the present day. Soucek's "inner Asia" consists of the five modern states of Central Asia, as well as Sinkiang and Outer Mongolia, though he allows himself to range beyond these boundaries when it makes sense to do so. The book is particularly valuable given the absence of any other modern surveys of this kind. And it will work well as an introductory textbook...