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Life Along the Silk Road Paperback – August 6, 2001
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With a nod to the storytelling traditions of the ancient central Asian bazaars that it describes, Life Along the Silk Road is a wily half-breed of a history book. Mixing narrative and historic minutiae, each chapter introduces an inhabitant of the Silk Road at the end of the 10th century. Following the lives and stories of the Merchant, the Soldier, the Monk, the Courtesan, and others, Susan Whitfield brings the dramatic history of pre-Islamic central Asia down to a human scale, fleshing out the battles of conquest and trade with the details of everyday life.
Whitfield is the director of the British Library-sponsored Dunhuang Project, which makes a remarkable collection of ancient Silk Road manuscripts, including those acquired by legendary explorer Sir Aurel Stein, available on the Internet. Her knowledge of this treasure trove of primary material shows throughout the book. What is the choicest cut of meat from a camel? The hump. The Chinese recipe for curing possession by demons? It involves a number of ingredients, including a broiled centipede, with all the legs removed. What ancient Silk Road town was famous for its dancing girls? Read and see. --Ken Peavler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Enlightening new book. . . . recounts the history of the eastern Silk Road, from Samarkand to Chang'an, through 10 individuals--composites based on the historical record--who lived in different city-states along the eastern Silk Road from the 8th to the 10th centuries. Whitfield's skillfully crafted tales take readers on a journey back to the heyday of the Silk Road and enable them to relive its people's unusual existence."--Liya Li, "The Bloomsbury Review
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Some are historic characters who actually existed, others are "composite," comprised of the details of several people. Owing to "relative richness of primary sources in Chinese" and partly because the author is a China historian, the individuals picked do tend to reflect a Chinese bias. It is also significant that China was the only empire that existed at both the beginning and the end of the first millennium AD and before the spread of Islam to the eastern Silk Road.
However, Chinese bias aside, the story is clearly about Central Asia, albeit as seen through the eyes of not only the Chinese but the other empires that competed for control of the eastern Silk Road; Arab, Turkic (primarily Uighur), and Tibetan.
The introduction chapter was the most informative and wide-ranging. In it the reader learns that there was not one Silk Road but multiple paths and that also it was not only silk that was traded along it; horses, salt, wool, and jade were also major trade items. The distances covered (altogether over 3,000 miles) was not the only daunting challenge to merchants; massive mountain ranges with peaks as high as 20,000 feet, deadly deserts, and bandits had to be dealt with as well. Though the Silk Road was of major importance for centuries, by the end of the tenth century trade became increasingly maritime in nature.
The region covered in the book corresponds to modern day eastern Uzbekistan, western China, Mongolia, south to the Himalayas and including Tibet. Today that region is largely occupied by Turkic peoples, mainly the Uighur, as well as Chinese colonists and is more Islamic than not. In the time period covered by the book it was more Indo-European in character, mainly Buddhist, and a great deal more cosmopolitan, with many towns and cities home to Turks, Indians, Chinese, Tibetans, and Mongolians as well as followers of Manicheism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and shamanism as well. Many Silk Road towns, once some of the most populous cities in the world, now have largely been reclaimed by the desert sands due to a decline in population and a drop in the water table, a land now rich in archaeology but vulnerable to thieves looking for artifacts to sell on the black market.
The major source of information for this book and indeed much of the scholarship done on this region and era comes from the over forty thousand documents uncovered in a Buddhist cave complex outside Dunhuang, now in Gansu province, China. Sealed up in the eleventh century, it was uncovered by accident in 1900. Though many of these precious scrolls, paintings, and sculptures have been lost since then for various reasons (and others tainted by the existence of forgeries), more than enough remained; the "importance of the Dunhuang documents cannot be overstated." A whole field of study, Dunhuangology, grew up around the study of the documents. Not only were there many Buddhist texts, but as paper was rare and often recycled (and once Buddhist scripture was written on paper it was considered nearly blasphemous to destroy at that point), many non-Buddhist writings were preserved, unique in providing glimpses into the lives of everyday people.
If there is one over-arching point that can be grasped from the book (and the introduction), it is this; "the history of Central Asia over this period is characterized by a complex succession of power struggles." The lives of the ten people in this book were vastly affected by the fortunes, rise, and often precipitous falls of the Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Arab, and the other powers (such as autonomous city-states like Samarkand) that continually fought for control of the eastern Silk Road, sometimes in three-way struggles in which an "ally" could switch sides in the middle of a battle. Even when an empire was not defeated on the battlefield it could collapse or fall into chaos due to serious internal disturbances, such as a 755 rebellion led by a general of the Chinese army against the Tang dynasty and when earlier that same year the Tibetan emperor was murdered during a revolt by his ministers.
Ok, the tales. There are ten of them and they are arranged in chronological order, though several overlap and a few even briefly mention some of the stars of the other tales. They vary in how much they focus on the actual life of the person whom the tale is about but most give a decent glimpse of what it was like to be such a person in a particular occupation. Some of the tales seem to be more about the political events of the time and the tale was just a convenient way for the author to discuss them while others read like fiction almost, one even with flashbacks. The ten tales, in order, are the merchant's tale (about a Sogdian merchant from Samarkand who has braved the Silk Road many times), the soldier's tale (about a Tibetan soldier), followed by tales about a Uighur Turk horseman, a Chinese princess being married off to the Uighur kaghan to cement a political alliance, a Kashmiri Buddhist monk, a Kuchean courtesan, and the last four set in Dunhuang, about a Buddhist nun, a widow, a government official, and an artist, one who painted some of the very caves the Dunhuang scrolls were found in.
However, I would not call this book a quick or easy read, as it is quite dense.
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Anyways, good luck fellow students.