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The Silk Road, Then and Now

BOOK REVIEW

 

Along the Silk Roads in Mongol Eurasia: Generals, Merchants and Intellectuals

 

Editors Michael Biran, Jonathan Brack and Francesca Fiabetti

·         University of California Press; (July 28, 2020)

·         Language : English

·         Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle

·         ISBN-10 : 0520298748

·         ISBN-13 : 978-0520298743

·         360 pages

 

Along the Silk Roads in Mongol Eurasia: Generals, Merchants and Intellectuals introduces the general reader to a period that is remarkable because the roads across the world opened.  

 

Europe and Asia were connected for the first time since antiquity. Diplomats, priests, merchants, adventurers, traders could travel and they did, from the Black Sea to the South China Sea, from Iran and Iraq to Russia, Central Asia, China and beyond. The Mongol Army, justly remembered for the brutality of its warfare, kept the peace.

 

It was a a time of interaction and exchange. The Mongol Empire had a reputation as being about war, but after the period of the conquests, the empire was as much about trade as it was about war. The trade was in porcelain, silk, tea, horses, spices and manufactured goods. 

 

The Silk Road, with its exotic appeal, has always fascinated Westerners. The Victorian era, the nineteenth and early twentieth century (the period of the Great Game, when the great powers vied for influence in Asia) produced many accounts of adventures on the high road in Asia. 

 

The discovery of a lost Buddhist civilization on the Silk Road caused a sensation when the antiquities removed from Qing China's Far West--without permission or purchase-- were shown in a museum in London. From the memoirs of Sir Aurel Stein who brought out the five hundred wagonloads of antiquities to the popular work of Peter Hopkirk featuring foreign devils on the Silk Road, Westerners devoured the literature. 

 

In our time, the Silk Road is THE subject of the moment, judging from the dedicated issue of T, the Style Magazine of the New York Times and the many online brochures with breathtaking color photographs of exciting trips promised by travel companies--travel that was possible before the current pandemic grounded global tourism.

 

For more than a decade, the music of the Silk Road Ensemble founded by the cellist Yo-yo Ma has been a brilliant example of the intertwining of instruments and melodies, cultures and styles. Their albums retain a popularity with audiences. One might well ask, Why? The obvious answer is that this is a music made new, with cross-cultural influences and borrowing as a model, rather than the ethnic battles that are the hallmark of the present era. This cross-fertilizing of cultures did not only happen in music, but also in the visual arts, food and ideas.

 

 

The best reason given for the success of the empire of Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan is a variant spelling) was brilliant leadership. A second reason was the ability of the leader to incorporate, innovate and adapt the talent and expertise of conquered cultures, including forcibly migrating populations of the skilled talents to the capital of the empire.

 

A third reason, the darkest reason, the traditional explanation, was the extreme violence of the conquests. The Mongol Army was the supreme fighting force of the Middle Ages. The Army was well-equipped and highly trained. This book, in its extraordinary introduction, explains what is not usually emphasized, the use of violence as a form of psychological warfare. This is new. 

 

The Orders of Submission were delivered at the gates of the city to be conquered, in Central Asia, China, Russia or Iran/Iraq. Submit and be spared; resist and be plunged into humiliation was the classic formulation. 

 

The Supreme Khan believed that it was his destiny to govern all peoples, and he rewarded those who spared him the necessity of going to war. The idea was to make an example of the lead city to other cities along the route of invasion. This strategywas a success in the conquest of North China and of the Russian principalities.

 

The editors are able scholars and have collected essays that bring the history to life through major characters--generals, diplomats, merchants and intellectuals. The last category includes priests or monks bearing the scriptures that would bring Buddhism, one of the three great intellectual traditions of China, into the country. 

 

The emblem of the Silk Road is the camel caravan. Organized by Muslim capitalists who belonged to trade guilds, the caravan was the main method of transport of goods across the world. In the season when land transport was ill-advised, the maritime Silk Route provided an alternate means. The reverse was true in the season of the monsoon, when the weather was against transport by ship. 

 

Before the Mongol era, the land-based commercial traffic was like a relay race, with the goods being transferred to other caravans at major trading towns or oases along the way. The method of transferring payment was an early form of finance.The banking of the Middle Ages was in the hands of Muslims. Only with the coming of the Mongols could fortunes be made in Europe, a backwater where regional markets had collapsed and capitalism was in its infancy. Europe was still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire. 

 

The Mongol era was to change all of this. For the first time, Europeans  could enter the East-West trade. The classic rivalry was between Venetian and Genoese merchants, with emporia headquartered on the Black Sea.

 

Among the European men of enterprise were the Polo Brothers, father and uncle of Marco Polo. Although the family emporium was headquartered in Venice, these two had a branch of the business located in the trading city of Soldaia on the Black Sea. They conceived the idea of eliminating the middle man and increasing their profit by giving up the local trade in foodstuffs and traveling into Asia for luxury goods. On their second trip into Asia, they took the son of one of the brothers. Through his adventures, he became the greatest travel writer of all time. Marco Polo learned precious information, namely, the origin of the spices of the lucrative trade, a secret carefully maintained by Arab and Muslim spice merchants.

 

It is no accident that the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jingping chose the New Silk Road as the name of his signature project, perhaps the most audacious development project in world history.

 

In speeches intended for both domestic and international consumption, Xi announced his Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, calling it the New Silk Road. 

 

The New Silk Road consists mainly of infrastructure projects, roads, ports, bridges, railroads and power plants, coal-fired power plants. The projects created in China by Chinese state-owned enterprises for the most part, and Chinese construction companies. Chinese development banks fund the projects, as opposed to the World Bank and other financial institutions that are part of the Western liberal order.

 

The New Silk Road is meant to export the Chinese model of government as the template for a new world order, an order meant to take the place of the liberal order created by the United States after World War II.

 

 

Building infrastructure in places that do not have infrastructure is a worthy notion. The initiative focuses on Central Asia as a fulcrum for world connectedness. This is a return to its central role in former times.

 

In many cases, Chinese banks are taking up projects that were not deemed to be creditworthy by Western development lenders, in countries that have been bypassed by the Western system. Is the New Silk Road a reincarnation of the Old Silk Road? Is this China Dream of the restoration of China's former glory merely propoganda?

 

It remains to be seen whether the project will be successful. Several countries, unable to afford the debt, have already opted out. The Chinese system, because of the uniqueness of Chinese culture and language, is not an easy system to export.

 

Readers of Along the Silk Road in Mongol Eurasia will have the background to make the comparison and judge for themselves.

 

This book, organized around characters, is a lively read. The reader may browse among the biographies of the personalities who offer an unexpected view of the expanse and variety of the Silk Roads. The locations stretch from the Volga River  to the China Seas. Because of this quality of surprise, the book will have wide appeal for the classroom, as students will engage with vivid examples of human experience rather than plow their way through a tome.

 

The character of Qutulun, the warrior princess of Mongol Central Asia, is said to be the model for the heroine in the Puccini opera Turandot.

 

The biography of the first global historian Rashid al-Din speaks of Buddhism in the Mongol territory and along the Silk Roads. This is an important development--Buddhism in China created the Ch'an or Zen school, a blending of Buddhist and Daoist thought. (The emphasis on insight and sudden enlightenment is a complete departure from the Indian schools of Buddhism which rely upon scholarship and learning to produce gradual enlightenment.)

 

The most original profile in this admirable collection is that of the Muslim scholar Al-Akhawi whose Silk Road adventure was a quest for knowledge. Al-Akhawi began his career in Mongol territory, spent twenty-five years studying in the Muslim centers of learning in Samarkand and Bukhara, and went on to teach jurisprudence and Sufi learning in Arabia.

 

This portrait of a flourishing Muslim intellectual life provides a stark contrast with Muslim life in the present, as can be seen in the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims of the Silk Road under the CCP. This is the difference between the ideological perspective of communism and the intellectual perspective of the past.

 

The scholarship of this book is solid. This is no small achievement given the vast literature across countries and disciplines that contains the record of the Mongol Empire. This book, particularly in its detailed and elegant introduction, makes a great contribution to the literature. It is succinct. This is exactly what has been needed.

 

The publisher has a long history of publishing in the field of Asian Studies and the subject, critical to our understanding of modern times, is alive and well at the press. This is a good thing, for Asia as a region is vibrant and the American public at large would do well to make it an object of study.

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