- The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu
The editors of Oxford World History, in which this volume is published, hope that the series will emphasize “the connectedness and interactions of all kinds … involving people, places and processes … make comparisons and find similarities” (p. x). The Silk Road might be considered an ideal subject for this treatment, being a thread we weave to connect the history of the interactions of the peoples of the Afro-Eurasian continents. However, as this book shows, it is also an immense challenge.
Xinru Liu tells a broadly chronological story using the predominant narrative—the development of long-distance trade routes to Rome following the Chinese expansion westward. Von Richtofen’s choice of the term “Silk Roads” in the late nineteenth century to describe a network of cross continental trade routes might have been thought to make this narrative inevitable, but early studies concentrated as much on trade between Rome and India as on China’s role. It was only in the late twentieth century that “the Silk Road” became a common term linked to Han China’s expansion west into the Taklamakan kingdoms. This cannot be unrelated the rise of China and the debate about the decline of the West. Indeed, Liu also starts with this ubiquitous dichotomy, presenting the Silk Road as a link that “brought East and West together” (p. 1), instigated by the Chinese Han empire.
Some scholars have started to challenge the dichotomous view and argue instead for the importance of the routes between Central Asia and India, notably de la Vaissière in his work on the Sogdian mercantile network.1 Liu does not address this view. Her chapter on the Kushan empire, which follows that on China and Rome, mainly discusses the transmission of Buddhism rather than Kushan’s pivotal [End Page 530] role in bringing the stability that enabled their northern neighbors, the Sogdians, to ply their trade across the Pamir, Karakorum, and Hindu Kush. Although the paucity of the archaeological evidence of Indian textiles has almost certainly skewed the scholarship in this area, from what we know, India was likely both a producer and consumer in the textile trade, as were Central Asian Kingdoms and cities such as Khotan and Bukhara. The latter, along with the role of the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic caliphate in the development of the silk industry outside China, are discussed, but the fact they appear at different parts of the narrative does not help the reader in making comparisons and finding similarities.
After these three chapters, the book continues with an account of the trade routes under the Islamic caliphate and, finally, the Mongol empire, before coming to a rather abrupt end, when “the sea routes … overshadowed and then replaced the Eurasian land routes” (p. 126).
Liu’s concentration through the book on the land routes is problematic. For example, her map on pages 70–71 of trading ports and religious sites shows no Indian seaports. Yet there is considerable evidence that the bulk of the silk reaching Rome traveled via such seaports, the Kushans enabling the connecting land routes. Moreover, the map also reinforces her assertion that Buddhism spread primarily by land routes. Archaeologists mapping the concentrations of Buddhist sites near seaports could legitimately contest this point.
Although it would be unrealistic to expect a short introductory text to discuss all the latest scholarly debates, some are now well established, and it is disappointing that they are not incorporated into the narrative. Moreover, a statement of the choices Liu made to define the Silk Road would have been useful, if only to alert the unwary reader of the plurality of opinions and the embryonic nature of scholarship in this area.
In mitigation, any short history is almost bound to be open to this sort of criticism. The Silk Road, however, offers an opportunity to avoid this by presenting the history through themes rather than by chronology. Indeed, this...