The Silk Road : A New History, Hardback

The Silk Road : A New History Hardback

4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal.

But what was it, exactly? It conjures a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome.

The reality was different, and far more interesting, as revealed in this new history.

In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archaeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes.

For millennia, key records remained hidden-often deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping.

But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead.

Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from northwest China to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism.

Hansen notes that there was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west.

China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs.

Hansen writes that silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk.

Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs. The Silk Road is a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and Southeast Asia.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 320 pages, 34 b/w & 16 color illus.
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Asian history
  • ISBN: 9780195159318



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Review by

Hansen has done a great service to history by telling the story of the so-called "Silk Road" through its own documents. After traveling to Kashgar, Urumqi, Turfan and Dunhuang, I had tried to understand the subject by reading through a stack of books. While often lavishly illustrated, none of the swashbuckling popular histories really made sense. Not until Hansen's book came out just this year was I able to get a grip on the history. The passport documents reveal the small number of animals in the typical caravans from 200-1000 CE. Tax records and contracts reveal the main source of income, not independent trade but military budgets and the gifts of official emmisaries. Money was largely barter, but direct payments could be made in coins when available, grain, and bolts of plain silk. The economy was largely subsistance agriculture for most of its history. When it comes to traders, Hansen highlights the Sogdians, an ethnic group with a talent for trade over longer distances (though hardly non-stop across the region), and a habit of keeping accounting records. She quotes from the eight ancient Sogdian letters found by Aurel Stein in a mailbag that had been abandoned in about 315 CE. Written by traders rather than government officials, they form a rare window on everyday life, including an irate wife named Miwnay denouncing her husband in a letter on Chinese paper written in a language that today can only be read by a handfull of scholars. Paper only became available in Europe first in Spain and Sicily in the 11th and 12th centuries, a century later in northern Europe. Cancelled pawn tickets are another source of information about loans and everyday survival in a harsh landscape. The Buddhist texts are of course better known, particularly the Diamond Sutra, considered the oldest complete printed book, from 868 CE. Hansen does mentions the travels of the famous Buddhist scholars back and forth between India and China, but she brings out details from the records that show Buddhist monks marrying, establishing families and joining the local substitance economy, not the sterotypical image of the celebate sages of popular imagination. Where there are gaps in the archival record, there are gaps in our knowledge. No archives, no history. On Aurel Stein's looting of the Dunhuang library cave, Hansen is fairly non-judgemental. More troubling is that even today ancient manuscripts are still being looted from archeological sites and offered for sale on the antiquities market. The Chinese are faced with the old dilemma: buy the stolen documents and you are not just receiving stolen merchandise but also creating a profitable market for looting; turn down the documents offered for sale, and they are lost.

Review by
Six-word review: First-millennium travel shaped world history.Extended review:Like so many others, including, it seems, many scholars, I'd fallen for the popular conception of the fabled Silk Road as a well-beaten thoroughfare traversing Central Asia from coastal China to the Mediterranean, with long trains of pack camels hauling goods for trade across endless reaches of mountain and desert.In fact, according to Yale professor and researcher Valerie Hansen, caravans tended to be small, wholesale trade light, travel limited and local, and the routes inconspicuous but for the natural formations that marked them. If it weren't for the cultural cross-pollination that resulted from migrations of refugees from war and political conflict and the exchanges of gift-bearing envoys from kingdom to kingdom, there would be little of significance to say about the Silk Road.But those cultural effects were world-changing. From about 200 CE to 1000 CE, the vast land mass extending across the whole breadth of Asia was traversed on foot and on camelback by hundreds of thousands of travelers, carrying knowledge from east to west and from west to east. Language, writing systems, technology, art, and especially religion spread along those pathways. Rulers converted, temples arose or were torn down, new customs supplanted old. Alliances formed and reformed; boundaries were drawn and redrawn. Monks and scholars traveled to study under other masters and examine original sacred documents. The resulting blends of peoples and cultures transformed some of the world's oldest civilizations.The author cites primary sources, such as records of taxation, travel passes, correspondence, and legal documents, to establish a picture of traffic along the routes of the Silk Road and life in seven oases dotting the way, locations that became urban centers and even capitals of rulers. The well-documented view that emerges may have lost something in romance but seems to have gained in authenticity.One fact of note: the term "Silk Road" was coined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 when he developed maps of the ancient routes as a basis for building a railway line; until then the expression had never been used.I read this book because Pearl S. Buck's 1948 novel Peony made me curious about how Jews came to establish large communities in China. A search for books about the Silk Road led me to Colin Falconer's (definitely romanticized) 2011 novel Silk Road, which I read in tandem with this evidence-based account of verifiable fact. All three broadened the horizons in my mind across time and space and left me with an appetite for more.
Review by

I found Hansen's explanation of how the Silk Road actually worked very helpful. However, as she delved into the archaeological discoveries at each site, I found her presentation meandering. There's a lot of interesting information about Central Asia in these pages, but I didn't have the patience to digest it all.

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