Did the Ancient Silk Road Ever Die? - The Silk Road Misnomer
August 19, 2016
This post is part of a series that aims to provide a background on the history of the Silk Road.
Assuming that the Silk Road disappeared around the 15th and 16th century as overland trade through central Asia became unsafe and less cost-effective is an idea implicitly founded on a narrow interpretation of the nature of this road as inherently commercial. However, goods were only one of the multiple elements travelling on this unpaved road connecting Europe to Asia.
The term “Silk Road” is a vague misnomer, which leaves a perilously wide space for diverse interpretations to thrive. While touristic pamphlets portray a confined vision of this road as centred on Central Asian market towns and Western China’s desert, the term theoretically refers to a vast geographical land mass extending from the shores of Portugal all the way to China. Counterintuitively, the Silk Road was never a single paved road, but rather was composed by a spider web of unmarked routes connecting the main commercial hubs across this land mass. Additionally, silk was only one of the many goods to travel on these extensive overland routes.
More importantly, the Silk Road historically may have played a more important role in transporting ideas over goods. The central thesis of Valerie Hansen’s book The Silk Road: A New History is in fact that “while not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road was important historically – this network of routes became the planet’s most famous cultural artery for the exchange between east and west for religions, art, languages, and new technologies”. More specifically, Hansen argues that there is scant evidence demonstrating that there was a consistent and large-scale trade network between Europe and Asia. Trade, according to Hansen, was mostly between neighbouring towns, and hence “local and small in scale”. Furthermore, the basket of goods traded consisted mostly of luxurious goods that permitted merchants to maintain a profitable margin even in the face of elevated transport costs.
Historians have often considered ideas as the most important factor establishing the historical relevance of this road. As this blog will observe in later posts, large migrations of people occurred from east to west, and inversely from west to east. Whether these movements were caused by conflicts or by gravitations towards economic hubs, the hosts often integrated migrants’ ideas. Across the Silk Road, for instance, one may find multiple cases of artists mixing motifs from diverse cultures. A notable case of cultural syncretism, for instance, occurred in Central Asia where Hellenistic art styles carried by Alexander the Great were mixed with Indian iconographies generating a so-called Greco-Buddhist or Gandhara art (an example is found in the figure). In terms of technologies, renowned cases of migrations include the transfer of glass-making techniques from the west to the east, and, the manufacturing techniques for paper and silk weaving techniques moving in the opposite direction.
When looking at the dissemination of ideas, as the Georgetown Professor James Milward declares, “we find significant exchanges through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the era when received wisdom claims that the Silk Road was dead”. Overall, ideas migrated incessantly through the treacherous natural confines of this road, until the political isolation generated by communist regimes forcefully reinforced nature’s detainment role (See note below).
The Return of Commerce
Curiously, Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen coined the term “Silk Road” in 1877, long after the presumed death of this route’s commercial importance. At the time, the German geographer conceived the term by mapping a line crossing Central Asia to delineate a potential path for a railway route connecting Germany to China. Almost a century later, the Yuxinou railway allows freight trains to travel for approximately 11,000 kilometres from Chongqing in China to Duisburg in Germany in 13 to 16 days. Unsurprisingly, a 2014 report by the European Commission argued that Europe was China’s most important trading partner. The Silk Road never truly perished, yet its nature has dramatically changed over time.
Author’s Note to Reader: While communist regimes impeded foreigners from non-communist countries to access their borders for multiple decades, one should still note that cooperation between communist countries was common. In the 1950s, for instance, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China repeatedly championed cooperation between the inherently analogous Marxist and Leninist regimes. Soviet technical personnel, for instance, advised Chinese engineers on how to set up factories and nuclear power plants. Additionally, Chinese students were encouraged to study Russian at school.