The Myth of the Silk Road

Silk traders on the march?

As standards of history teaching fall around the world, it might be worth trying to capture the imagination of students by presenting world history in terms of romantic sounding trade routes. This approach has clearly paid dividends with centuries of obscure Central Asian history, as demonstrated, yet again, with another well attended "Silk Road" exhibition in Japan, "Treasures of the Silk Road" at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Although, somehow, I don't think teaching the history of the British Empire as the "Tea Lane" or 20th century U.S. history as the "Oil Path" would have quite the same cachet with the public.

Since Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term "Silk Road" about 130 years ago, interest in a large, nebulous, almost forgotten tract of Asiatic history has grown, receiving a further boost in Japan through the popular NHK series Silk Road, which debuted 25 years ago.

This exhibition celebrates the digitalization of this classic series (DVDs are available in the museum shop) and showcases recent discoveries from China's Xinjiang Region and Shaanxi Province, although many of the artifacts, like "Gold and Precious Stone Mask" (fifth-sixth century), may well be the same as objects seen at the Tokyo National Museum's Silk Road exhibition three years ago.

Like that show, this exhibition of over 100 items, ranging from 2000 B.C. to the 10th century, is organized with the cooperation of various Chinese government departments -- despite the recent political tensions with China.

"The Japanese public regards politics and culture as separate," Fumihiko Hara, a member of the curatorial staff, explains. "Since the NHK series, the Japanese public have been in love with the Silk Road regardless of the feud."

A large part of this appeal clearly comes from the Silk Road's connection with Buddhism. Of these, there are some particularly interesting Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) Buddhist murals, uncovered in Xinjiang's remote Taklamakan Desert. Other Buddhist items include some sutra scrolls (fourth to fifth century) and a small "Gilt Bronze Seated Buddha" (eighth century) in a lotus position, apparently engaged with counting its fingers.

The religious nature of these items emphasizes that this network of overland routes was about a lot more than just the transportation of a luxury fabric, with the silk road serving a host of other, historical functions, such as the spread of beliefs and ideas. However, a Roman of the fifth century, when the central Asiatic Turkic peoples known in the west simply as Huns overran much of Europe, or a Russian of the 13th century, when Russia suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Mongols, would be unlikely to have seen these Eurasian land routes as either peaceful conduits of trade or paths for Buddhist religious research. Although trade objects, including silk, passed over these routes, their most famous historical functions came when they were used as warpaths by fierce Central Asiatic hordes, like those of Attila and Genghis Khan.

As such, it is difficult to say whether the many items on display, like the gorgeous fabric of the garment worn by "Mummy in Full Dress" (second to fifth century), with its clearly Roman pattern, or the several artifacts rendered in gold, were plundered or traded; their history probably includes both.

The final stage in the transaction, however, was almost certainly ritualistic and funerary, as nearly all the items, including a fantastic, anthropomorphized, painted clay chicken (one of the 12 animals of the Chinese duodenary zodiac) and a terracotta figurine of a groveling civil official kowtowing (both eighth century) -- were recovered from tombs.

Modern China and Japan, with their interest in long-distance peaceful trade links, clearly find Baron von Richthofen's idea of the "Silk Road" more palatable than the alternative notion of the "Nomadic Horde Road," but historically there is no denying the warlike nature of the ancient Asiatic tribes, although only a hint of this is given here in the muscular "Painted Gray Pottery Figurine of a Man from the Western Region on Horseback" (706 A.D.), which shows a Turkic warrior in what can best be described as a "Rambo pose."

While these tribesmen often devastated the more peaceful civilizations to East and West, they occasionally invigorated them. The Tang dynasty, often regarded as the greatest Chinese dynasty, is thought to have been partly Turkic in origin and definitely used Turks in its powerful armies. Such "inside knowledge" may explain why they were so successful in subjugating the Turkic tribes of Central Asia and expanding Chinese power far to the West. Despite, or perhaps because of, their affinity with the Turkic tribes, Tang representations of the peoples of central Asia have an element of caricature or mild mockery, like the exaggerated eyes and scowling faces of the "Mural of Men from the Western Region with Horse" (666 A.D.) discovered in Shannxi Province.

Although never entirely peaceful, it was during the Tang period that the Silk Road was probably closest to its tranquil NHK image, with trading caravans traveling from oasis to oasis and Buddhist monks visiting the holy sites in India. Politics and culture may be conveniently separated in the mind of the Japanese public, but it will not have escaped the notice of students of geopolitics that these trade routes flourished best when there was a strong political presence in China, projecting power and imposing order far beyond China's borders, as with the Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Tang and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties.

This message of trade and cultural links dependent on a powerful China must be particularly pleasing to the Chinese government whose cooperation was vital in arranging this exhibition.

"Treasures of the Silk Road: Recent Discoveries from Xinjiang and Shaanxi" ran until July 3, 2005.

The Japan Times
1st June, 2005

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  1. The 'Tea Lane' does have a ring to it actually, its kind of aesthetically English in a way that's unmistakable.

    Silk Road cultures are pretty damned cool mind you, I love the Mongols and the Scythians. I know its not strictly the Silk Road but its cool to think the Goths and Heruls were on the steppe, and that the Alans were important in French history. People in \western Europe have a lot of blood in us from those nations neither east nor west.

    I find this valley fascinating.

    But yea the reason why they push stories of cultural contact at the exclusion of narratives of purposeful isolation, which are also a part of history and human nature, is obviously because it fits with UNESCO propaganda.