It is because of trade, expanding swiftly from a purchase here and a sale there to encompass the modern geographies of continents and country borders, that the world as we know it developed. It couldn’t possibly be a statement of exaggeration to say this. A truly globalised world has been around for longer than we give the idea of globalisation credit for. Chief, even first, among these trade routes was the Silk Road, the idea of which has been romanticised no end continually, from the time it began—an exact date or year is still rarely agreed upon by historians—to the way it still holds influence over trade and tourism.
Jonathan Clements’ The Silk Road, A Biography—From Prehistory to the Present Day is the latest of his books on China. It contextualises the idea of Silk Road, at once stripping it off the glamour it is sometimes assigned and at the same time perpetuating the heady combination of mystery and romance it deserves. True to the title, the book stretches back to an undated prehistory and along its way to the present, contextualises the Silk Road’s influence on society, culture, art, music, food and the politics of the countries it has always passed through.
Even if the history of trade along these routes stretches across centuries, the “Silk Road itself is a modern idea, dating only from 1877 when Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the more famous Red Baron, published a multi-part atlas of China”. Thus, the intrigue associated with the Silk Road, so termed by Richthofen who assumed silk from China, was taken along this route to modern Europe and beyond, was introduced into history lexicons and has only gained widespread popularity in travelogues and history books. It is at once the idea of a long road to the mysteries of the west and an actual, concrete, physical road called Silk Road these days, with signage in English to help the tourists.
The book dispels meticulously the illusions that are associated with the road —none of the traders who used it or the historians who wrote about it ever used the term Silk Road, few even managed to travel its entire length. Nor was the trade restricted only to priced silk and included horses from what is now Uzbekistan, “glass and gemstones, musical instruments and slaves, medicinal herbs and strange spices”. Far from being a one-way street, the Silk Road was, more correctly, a criss-cross connection of routes that stopped sometimes at the next town, sometimes stretched longer and more often than not, included traffic from the opposite directions as well.
The Silk Road wonderfully documents the invention of this idea, the sites along the route that continue to draw tourists and in doing so, holds a mirror to the many people that have lived and ruled in China, from Han dynasty to Tang to Uyghurs and the Mongols. When talking of the Silk Road as it stands today, Clements’ has a gloomy worldview, prophetic at times when he writes of the impact of China’s insanely big projects like Three Gorges Dam on the environment.
Towards the end, the book acquires the tone of a tourist guidebook when Clements gets down to the logistics of being there and travelling, including sections of what to eat and drink, security issues, when the festivals are, etc. It sure dampens the rest of the history/anthropology tone that the book maintains. That said, The Silk Road is an interesting way to get acquainted with a piece of the world that has had so much of influence on so many aspects of civilisations.