There is a route that exists in Central Asia that connects China to the West. In ancient times the Middle Kingdom used these networks of roads to move goods from China to the other side of the world. The most popular commodity that was being traded is silk therefore this passageway is now popularly known as the “Silk Road”.
Susan Whitfield’s goal in writing the book is to show that there is much to this route than just silk. It is in fact a tool used to connect different cultures. Janey Levy writing about the fabled trade route supports the idea espoused by Whitfield. And Levy asserts, “The name ‘Silk Road’ is somewhat misleading. The ‘road’ was actually a system of different routes. Europe was also part of the trade network, linked to the Middle East and the Silk Road by a second system of routes” (p. 4). This also means that aside from trading of commodities the road systems are in effect allowing the movement of ideas between different worlds.
Now that it has been established that the famous Silk Road is not actually a major thoroughfare that branches out from China to the outside world, it is still important to pinpoint the heart of the network. Whitfield explains that at the heart of the Silk Road is Central Asia.
Whitfield then provides a more detailed description of the major theme of the book by explaining the strategic importance of Central Asia and she said that many of Eastern Empires like the Arabs, Chinese, Turks and Tibetans– wanted desperately to take Central Asia.
Through the eyes of these empire builders Whitfield painted her own version of what it was life living in these ancient lands. This was made possible by the rigors of the discipline of archaeology. The artifacts and bone fragments from the facts are now directly communicating to the curious students of Central Asian history of the 21st century – this is one of the main themes of the book.
The more popular explanation as to the purpose of the “Silk Road” dwells heavily on trading. As mentioned earlier, silk is not the only product traded in these parts. Levy made a basic list of what changed hands between Chinese, Arabs, Tibetans, and Turks in ancient times and she wrote, “China also exported such things as medicinal herbs, oranges, teas, gunpowder, compasses, furs, carved jade, bronze objects” while the Chinese imported, “…gold, silver, glassware, ivory, wool rugs, nuts, peaches, cucumbers, onions, cotton, and horses” (p. 4).
Whitfield does not dwell much on the issue of trade as much as Levy does. Whitfield makes it clear after a few pages that yes, the system of roadways are used for export-import business. There is almost no incentive needed to make various people groups in this region to interact than the prospect of making a fortune. But there is more aside from the urge to make great wealth.
Whitfield also focused on another fascinating aspect of the Silk Road and it is the development of civilization and the interactions of cultures as they meet to transact within these routes. Moreover, a major feature of the book is its attempt to explain the “complex succession of power” that occurred in the region that could explain the rise and fall of civilizations and the development of future governments in proximity to the region.
Aside from the political and economic aspect of the Silk Road, Whitfield also provided space to discuss in detail the development of religion through the use of the different routes. Missionaries as well as traveling holy men allow for the propagation of different faith during ancient times. Whitfield listed some of the more popular and more significant religions that played a major role in the development of China, Mongolia, India, and even as far as Russia. Some of these are enumerated as follows: a) Zoroastrianism; b) Christianity; c) Judaism; d) Manicheism; e) Hinduism; and f) Buddhism.
In the first few chapters alone, Whitfield using information gleaned from archeology as well as ancient manuscripts was able to reconstruct what really happened more than a thousand years ago. In the almost forgotten lands of Central Asia there was indeed a system of enterprise established by businessmen with encouragement from their respective governments and consumers back home.
The book led the proponent to visualize the excitement felt among those who participated in the exchange of goods. One could just imagine the feeling of amazement experienced by a Chinese man upon seeing his reflection for the first time using a mirror imported from the West. On the other hand it is exciting to imagine what went on the mind of the first European who ever handled gunpowder.
Another fascinating aspect of this whole trading network is the underlying cultural exchange that happened during the various transaction and the sheer force of curiosity as one person longs to understand more clearly what the other person is saying or selling. There might have been a system or organization put in place to ensure orderly business transactions. This same organization or system was also used to address the problem of money and other currency such as precious metals like gold and silver. The organization or task force whatever the ancients called it is some sort of a forerunner to the present United Nations.
The idea that harbinger of the present day U.N. can be seen within the Silk Road system is not that hard to imagine. First of all there is a need for some to be experts in languages, some are very good interpreters. Secondly, a sort of a U.N. body may have been established to address the enormous problem of settling disputes and the need for diplomacy to prevent bloodshed because in business oftentimes there will be lying, cheating, robbery, and murder.
With regards to religion, the Silk Road was some sort of an information highway. News does not travel as fast as it is today yet still it provided an impetus for missionaries and other men of faith to move from India and the Middle East to the rest of the world as long as it is connected to the intricate network of roads.
This simply means that the Silk Road expedited the transformation of the region. It is just unfortunate that history unfolded in favor of the Western nations and not the Middle Kingdom which was the force behind the Silk Road enterprise. Instead of getting so much more from opening up trade routes what actually happened was that China made technology transfer more accessible to the West.
The gunpowder and compass that was perfected in China was then used by the Western world to dominate the globe. And in the chain of events, China was left behind. It is only in the 21st century, more than a thousand years after the Silk Road really captured the imagination of Asia and Eurasia, did China bounced back and now deals with the rest of the world in the same way as it used to be – a dragon that through trade will change the world.