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Reviewed by:
  • Along the Silk Road
  • Fredrik T. Hiebert
Along the Silk Road. Edited by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis. Arthur R. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with the Silk Road Project, Inc., and the University of Washington Press. Asian Art and Culture Series no. 6. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. 144 pp, index. Soft cover. ISBN 295-98182-2.

This lush, illustrated volume resembles a catalog for a museum exhibition but in fact was designed to celebrate an idea: the idea of the Silk Road. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma followed up an apparently chance encounter with a collection of traditional Asian stringed instruments in Japan, deciding to deliberately explore the connections between Western and Asian music. From these beginnings, the Silk Road Project he founded has been extended to other performing, decorative, and visual arts. Ma's use of the Silk Road motif, while partly metaphorical, has allowed him to connect with others who have been exploring newly accessible regions of Central and Inner Asia. Clearly the Silk Road concept has star appeal. The Silk Road Project is a [End Page 172] consortium of artists and scholars, some of whom have distinguished careers working on the history and culture of the region (here, roughly from the former Soviet Central Asian Republics and Iran to China and Japan). In addition to this volume, the project sponsored a traveling concert series of Asian and western music and worked with the Smithsonian to sponsor a festival of Silk Road folk culture on the Mall in Washington during June and July, 2002.

The core of this book is seven chapters, which deal with the cultures and traditions of the so-called Silk Road from a variety of perspectives and on a variety of levels. There are five essays, a photo essay by Kenro Izo on shrines in Tibet and China, and a transcribed conversation between Ma and ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin on their experiences making musical connections between distant traditions. The first essay is a travelogue and account of folk music in the Qinghai province of Tibet and in Xinjiang by Bright Cheng. Cheng picks apart overlapping languages, ethnic and religious traditions, and musical structures as he recounts the persistence and fluidity of Silk Road musical roots. A similar picture of multiple riches emerges from an overview of textiles and clothing (offering the history of wool and cotton in the region as well as, naturally, silk) in Central Asia and western China by Elizabeth Barber. This article also describes some of Barber's work on the textiles from the Tarim Basin "mummies." An even longer view is taken in a history of metallurgy along the Silk Road by Merton Flemings, who begins with the geological history of Eurasia and ends with a comparison between the development of the Silk Road and the contemporary Internet. Volume editor ten Grotenhuis observes a similar breadth in her analysis of the synthesis of the Western zodiac and Buddhist cosmology visible in the star mandala of Japan and Cambodia. Last, there is an account of the twentieth-century rise, collapse, and slow rebirth of Iranian cinema by Hamid Naficy. The articles include short bibliographies and there is also an annotated reading list and a brief index. Serious themes are introduced in a few places, such as where Ma and Levin touch on the ethics of cultural appropriation of traditional music in China and where Naficy describes the effects of fundamentalist policies upon artistic expression in Iran. Despite the afectionate treatment given to the idea of contact and trade between West and East in this volume, there is little allusion to, for example, the destruction of Central Asian society by the Mongols or the undermining of Central and East Asian societies during the period of European economic and military domination.

This book is a visually beautiful introduction to the region's artistic traditions and landscapes. It is also a lively and accessible introduction to the contemporary connections that are emerging between scholars and artists along this ever-vibrant corridor.

Fredrik T. Hiebert
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia


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