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The Silk Road

By Jonathan Clements

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The Invention of the Silk Road

The Silk Road 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. His first volume included a map of ‘Die Seidenstrasse’, Richthofen’s term for the route that, he assumed, Chinese silk had taken towards the Greco-Roman world in antiquity. Key points included the trading centres of Samarkand and Xi’an (formerly known as Chang’an), from which branches would shoot off in multiple directions. Between those two towns the route was simpler, and limited to only a couple of branches that traversed the west Chinese region known today as Xinjiang.

Richthofen’s term had a romance to it, a sense of mystery and wonder that proved infectious. The term ‘Silk Road’ is now in widespread use, even in the regions through which the trade passed. In Chinese, it is translated as Sichou zhi Lu, an oddly classical construction that makes it sound like some ancient term, and not something knocked up by a German geographer only 150 years ago. In Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken by many natives of the region, it’s Yipek Yoli, connoting, as in other languages, a solid, physical road to the exotic west.

But none of the travellers on the historical Silk Road ever used that term. Only a handful of men and women ever travelled its entire length. For most of the participants in the trade route, the ‘road’, if there was even a real road, was only to the next town or oasis. Artefacts and articles might meander along the route from China to the Mediterranean, but only in stops and starts, traded back and forth, buffeted by changing conditions and markets, until they suddenly tumbled out at the far end to the bafflement of their final buyers.

The same trade routes carried glass and gemstones, musical instruments and slaves, medicinal herbs and strange spices. As early as AD 331, princes of Ferghana were sending gifts of cotton east to the rulers of north China. In the distant past, the same routes had carried the ancestor of the modern apple westward from central Asia, and the bulbs of a flower that the Persians called dulband (‘turban’), and which entered medieval Latin as tulipa. However, silk seems to have been the commodity most likely to travel the entire length from east to west. This was partly because of its value at the western end, but also because of its portability and durability. Silk, in both woven and raw form, was a major form of currency for certain early Chinese dynasties, far more convenient than mere coins. It was transported, usually on camels, west from China to the forbidding deserts and steppes as bribes, gifts or soldiers’ salaries, depending on the political situation among the border tribes. Those groups, in turn, would pass the silk on, with much of it continuing further west as payment for livestock or luxuries. Valerie Hansen, in The Silk Road: A New History, comments that trade in the region was more often than not ‘a byproduct of Chinese spending’, as great quantities of silk arrived in lieu of cash money, obliging the locals to get rid of it somehow by bartering it elsewhere.

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