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Weaving together tales of exotic trade

by David Burleigh

THE SILK ROAD: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, by Frances Wood. University of California Press, 2004, 270 pp., $19.95 (paper).

“The Silk Road, or Roads,” begins Frances Wood in this fascinating book, have only been known this way since the late 19th century, when a German explorer came up with the romantic name. She offers a couple of necessary qualifications to the standard image of a route for caravans bearing precious silk from Asia into Europe. One is that the “road” was in fact a network of different routes, linking oases to the north and south of the central desert region, and branching off at either end.

The other point Wood makes is that the products that were borne and traded were much more varied than we usually imagine: From China went “silk, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls and rhubarb,” in the words of one historical account. By the 18th century the last item, valued as a purgative, was already being grown in English gardens. The exchange the other way included not only grapes, but a number of food items that are now essential to cooking in the East: “Sesame, peas, coriander from Bactria (northeast Afghanistan) and cucumber were all introduced to China from the West.”

We tend to think, rather simply, of paper and fireworks and Marco Polo, when we consider the exchanges between the West and China. Wood has written before on Marco Polo, and casts doubts here on some of his more improbable reports. As both a sinologist (she is in charge of the Chinese section at the British Library in London), and the author of a guide to China, she is well positioned to disentangle fact from myth. So we are told exactly why the Chinese wanted horses, and informed that the “blood-sweating horses” once legendary there were probably diseased.

The centuries of trade along these shifting trails have moved vast quantities of merchandise. Silk, for instance, was once sent out to appease the marauding Xiongnu, or Huns, attacking China from the west. But the trade routes also reached down into India, from which came saffron. The narcissus, long a favorite with Chinese painters, came originally from somewhere in the west, as also did the chair. That the latter failed to reach Japan explains why the Japanese continued sitting on tatami.

Wood proceeds more or less historically from the very ancient trade in jade, on through the contact forced on western Asians by the empire of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), of which travelers continue to seek traces even now. She quotes a wide variety of sources, and the chosen passages are always illuminating. Her knowledge of the Chinese language enables her to tell us that the Chinese authorities referred to Rome using the same terms as their own capital. Despite the great distance separating the two cities, there was an awareness of power and importance.

Together with the transport of goods, however, went an exchange of knowledge and ideas, slowly carried along routes that crossed through many different societies and cultures. Among the most influential were religious ideas, though some of the faiths that spread across central Asia, like Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism, have completely disappeared. Nestorian Christianity, itself now the subject of legends, vanished too, though Buddhism spread gradually eastward until it reached Japan. India, from which it came, became important again in the 19th century when Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia were competing for power. Both countries ran a network of spies across the sands between India and Russia in an attempt to dominate the region that was known as the Great Game.

Today the trading networks still exist, but have been much affected by changes in the means of transport. Most of the modern stories that Wood relates are tales of European travel and exploration in the region. These are told, not for the exotic adventures they involved, though these are entertainingly presented, but for the significant discoveries that were often made. It is precisely those discoveries that have enabled much of the trading history to be brought to light.

Around the desert, whole towns and cities disappeared, but the aridity helped to preserve what was buried or forgotten. The Hungarian-British explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) “made perhaps the greatest of the archaeological finds of the Silk Road sites when he gained entrance to the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.” Though he “had little idea of what he would find,” he unearthed a huge cache of books, documents and paintings that had been hidden for centuries. A large amount of these were carried off to London, where Frances Wood now guards them. A second haul was removed to Paris before the Chinese, alerted to their losses, closed the caves.

Stein was a great scholar and a brilliant linguist who realized the full meaning of his discovery, and treated the materials with appropriate respect. His work was the subject of an exhibition at the British Library last year. Almost unacknowledged, it also informs the NHK television series on the Silk Road, which was shown from January to June and will be continued from September to December. That the new series is accompanied by replays of an earlier series, made 25 years ago, clearly shows how popular the subject is.

The places that Stein explored — Loulan, Dunhuang — also gave their names to the fictions of the novelist Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991), who appeared in the first NHK series. Wood explains how some of the documents from Cave 17 at Dunhuang, where the library was found, ended up in Japan. The mysterious inhabitants of Loulan seem to have been Europeans, but today the area “is out of bounds, for it is near where the Chinese test atomic bombs.”

This is a well-written and beautifully illustrated volume, judiciously put together from its many sources. There is an excellent index, and ample notes that will give clues to further reading.