Restaurants, hotels and a lot of travel agencies, the realities referring to the Silk Road are multiples, often with a scenario of deserts and camel caravans. But this image could be far from the reality of that group of trade routes we call Silk Road. Questioning the very existence of these trade routes is a fine book written by Valerie Hansen, teacher of Chinese and world history at the University of Yale. We are speaking of The Silk Road, a new history, also in the title deviating from the existent literature on the topic.
In Hansen’s opinion trades along the Silk Road were very small, as presumably demonstrated by some documents found in the archaeological sites of the region. The book is divided in eight chapters, each dedicated to one of the oases situated along the famous route: five around the Taklamakan Desert and the last in what was the Sogdia, today Uzbekistan. The commercial transactions, according to the author, would have been restrained and limited to products hailing from locations not very distant from the place of sales.
The concept of freight on long caravan routes is the subject of the Hansen’s “demolition work”. Goods travelling along the whole Silk Road were few and small, for example precious stones. Other issue highlighted in the book is the non-existence of a road joining China to Rome, concept repeatedly stated and supported by evidences collected in the field of numismatics as well. Many peoples, however, travelled the Silk Road this is the great theme of the book, i.e. the cultural importance of this trail, to the detriment of its commercial role.
The focus of the work are persons, whether Sogdian merchants or migrants from Gandhara. Valerie Hansen paints a vivid picture of life around the Taklamakan, of the movements of artistic and religious ideas and of how that area, so difficult and bitter, was active. In this way the Silk Road reacquires its value as place for meeting rather than for exchange; not an uninterrupted caravan route but a network of local trails that, step-by-step, went far away. Very interesting, according the author, the role of Chinese armies as well.
Hansen shows as the settlement of military garrisons was the true motor of trades on the Silk Road. Soldiers were to be dressed, equipped and nourished, which meant a strong Chinese Empires action in fuelling the Silk Road economy. This interpretation is a really challenging topic of the book, innovative in many aspects, especially today that there is talk about this ancient route, frequently with regard to the growing interest of China toward Central Asia.
The reading of this book is pleasant and fascinating, the reader is immersed in the daily life of peoples vanished centuries ago, if not millennia, and many are the reflections raised by the author’s arguments. The spin of the work doesn’t allow answers to these questions, particularly about the relationship between the route in question and the regional powers, hegemonic or not they were; maybe this highlights the need of a “political history” of the Silk Road.
Nevertheless The Silk Road, a new history is a work going against the mainstream, a true and proper dedication for the humankind of the Silk Road.