Review of The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu Oxford University Press

The Silk Road in World History. Xinru Liu. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780195338102

This book more than more exemplifies the themes underlying Oxford University Press’ New Oxford World History series: presenting comprehensive histories of the local , the regional and the national while emphasizing their links with the global, using an inclusive narrative that accommodates the voices of actors of every possible provenance.

The book starts off by exploring the interaction of China, Rome and the Indic world of northern South Asia and Central Asia, and works its way through the Buddhist flowering, before describing how the Mongols oversaw the decline and ultimate decay of the Silk Road as a trading route. Politics, power and economy were intertwined all along the Silk Route; indeed it was polity that dictated how the commerce of the route functioned- or not. The desire to maintain trade interests  ensured that stretches of the  route were in the hands of local groups. While knowledge of goods, and indeed goods themselves, traversed long distances, people at one end of the route might not necessarily have been able to make it to the other end; the Han envoy, Gan Ying, was deterred from making the journey to Rome by an Iranian group who presumably did not want to lose its middleman status and the benefits thereby accrued. Through such quirky anecdotes, the book also illustrates how much knowledge along the Silk Road was localized, in part because not every caravan made the journey from Peking to Rome via Kashgar; traders worked local sections and stretches of the route, and  goods were relayed from one end of the route to another. Thus, again, in Rome, Pliny the Elder could not know very much about how silk was made, or accurately differentiate between silk and kapok, because the Romans sourced their wares from ports on the eastern Mediterranean instead of going all the way to China. Much information was lost, even if inadvertently,  in transmission.

Of course, the merchants and princes of South Asia, Central Asia and the ‘Middle East’ were best placed to act as intermediaries between the Chinese world and the Roman world but they must made their own contributions to the Silk Route as well.

The Kushans took the fullest advantage of their siting.  Nomads who settled down in the northern reaches of modern day Pakistan, the Kushans ruled over a pluralistic state and deployed many scripts and languages to engage with their subjects. Under them, Buddhism spread across large swathes of the Silk Route in the first and second centuries CE. The Kushans endowed monasteries, which themselves became hubs of life whose reach extended beyond the spiritual. The larger monasteries were veritable caravanserais for the traveler-merchant; most were destinations in their own right. This network extended all along the western coasts of South Asia and even branched out into the Deccan plateau. Even after Kushan power waned and no strong ruling group managed to establish itself in their former fiefdoms, the Silk Route continued to flourish. As the author contends in Chapter 4, this was because it had gradually emancipated itself from political control; its vitality came to depend solely on market forces.

In Chapter 5, the author makes the interesting contention that demographic and technological changes triggered a fall in the use of the ‘Silk Route;’ growing local markets did not leave a surplus that could be used for overseas trade, and products having lost their exoticism did not command as much of a premium. Bulk goods were, in addition, best transported by sea. So by the time Genghis Khan and his Mongols overwhelmed the Central Asian steppes, the Silk Route was already in decline. The Mongols gave a fillip to the Silk Road. Making the transition from impoverished nomadic group to sophisticated ruling class possessed of all the material paraphernalia of prosperity required enormous amounts of gold, silk, and building materials. It also required the artisans and workers to fashion these materials, as well as thinkers and ideologues to build a worldly, cosmopolitan court. New cities and colonies were established all along the route, but this was not enough. When natural disasters overwhelmed China, which was the source of much of what was traded along the Silk Route, the Mongols’ unstable polity was not up to instigating economic recovery. The Silk Route went into terminal decline, even as the regions and people that had serviced it for centuries went to on to flourish by other means and in newer guises.

The refreshingly contemporary bibliography takes care to include specialist and subject specific websites, while the addition of a ‘further reading’ list separated from the more specialist content in the endnotes should be useful for academicians from other disciplines and students seeking introductory works. The Silk Road is a fine a book that gives equal coverage to the religious, political and commercial economy of the string of cities that served as staging points from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.

Reviewed by Dhara Anjaria
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 4, Spring, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]