The Silk Road

Silk Road

Silk Road map from Wikipedia

Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, has written this history and archaeology of the Silk Road both to show what we can know about the Eurasian world’s most famous commercial route, but also how we can know it. The book is divided into chapters that look closely at individual Silk Road towns. Most of these are oases in Central Asia along the route, but she included the major metropolises of Chang’An, the capital of more than one Chinese empire, and Samarkand, the homeland of the Sogdian people. For each city, Hansen discusses the Silk Road documents and artifacts that have been uncovered and what these reveal about the role of the city in the Silk Road and the Silk Road generally.

Hansen’s general conclusions about the Silk Road may surprise. “The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history and possibly not worth studying,” she writes provocatively (262). Except, of course, it is very much worth studying. The road carried some commerce, though that was mainly local trade in locally produced goods. But it made possible the movement of emissaries and ambassadors, armies, refugees, and missionaries.

Around 200 CE Buddhism moved into the oases south of the Taklamakan desert from what is today Afghanistan, carried by small groups of Gandharan immigrants. They also gave the locals a script, making them literate for the first time. Buddhism would remain one of the dominant religions in what is now western China for many centuries. But the Sogdian people from the towns and cities of today’s Uzbekistan would slowly come to dominate the region. They practiced Zoroastrianism, embracing the same world view as their Iranian co-religionists but worshipping multiple gods. One Zoroastrian tomb painting includes depictions of the fire altar along with the Mesopotamian goddess Nana.

By the 8th century CE other central Asian people began to make their power felt, including the Uighur who remain the dominant group in western China today. One of the early Kaghans converted to Manichaeism, and encouraged his leading people to do the same. An example of the cultural syncretism of the region is evident in a document discovered in one archeological site that was a Manichaean hymn in Sogdian “but written phonetically in Chinese characters.” (268)

Yet the Manichaeans and Zoroastrians made room for one another, and also for Buddhists and even Christians from the Nestorian Church of the East. The earliest printed book, an illustrated Chinese version of the diamond sutra, was found on the Silk Road. And so too was a talisman of folded paper containing verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. (268)

The Silk Road did facilitate trade. But reports of communication between Rome and China seem overblown. Only a few Byzantine coins have been uncovered in more than a century of archaeology. The period of greatest commercial activity was the early Tang Dynasty, from he 600s until 755. Huge shipments of silk cloth left Chang’An for the Chinese military outposts in Central Asia. The cloth was used as payment to the soldiers, who could in turn use it to pay for their needs from local merchants. After the An Lushan rebellion the Tang removed their forces from the west and trade along the road reverted to local trade in local goods.

Alabama in Africa

Zimmerman, Andrew. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South. Second printing, and First paperback printing. America in the World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Andrew Zimmerman traces the involvement of teachers and former students of the Tuskegee Institute who went to Togo at the invitation of the German empire, to teach cotton farming techniques to the indigenous people. I had expected a story of good intentions wrecked by cultural differences, and to some extent the book provided that. But it did so much more that I did not expect.

According to Zimmerman, although the people of Togo conformed to American ideas about work, family, and production only reluctantly (if at all), the mission to Togo succeeded to training many producers to raise world grade cotton at competitive prices. And this success in turn, convinced many colonial powers in Africa of the need to copy the German model. That is, to keep indigenous peoples in dependent positions as producers of commodities, giving them “industrial” training in the manner of Tuskegee. In this way, Zimmerman, claims, the New South of the U.S. became a model for the Global South.

But it did this not only with the “missionaries” of Booker T. Washington but also through the social thought that developed in dialogue between the Tuskegee model and the Verein fur Sozialpolitik in Germany. The Polish worker question in East Prussia, it seems, posed many of the problems that newly freed African Americas did in the Reconstruction and Redemption eras in the South. Max Weber, out of his studies of and angst over the growth of Polish influence in eastern Prussia, developed views of the Polish workers there as ethnic and even racial others who had to be disciplined to labor. Weber owed a debt to Washington for the latter’s ideas about the primacy of labor for the American “Negro.” The two met in 1904, after Weber’s lecture at the St. Louis Exposition.

The Verein left a deep impress on American scholars who studied in Germany, including W.E.B. DuBois, Robert E. Park, and William I. Thomas. Zimmerman gives Park and Weber credit for developing the social vision that would dominate understandings of the Global South well into the 20th century. DuBois, of course, and Thomas, became critics of that social vision. But all of them had direct connections to Washington and Tuskegee, and indirect connections to Weber.