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Life Along the Silk Road Paperback – August 6, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 253 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (August 6, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520232143
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520232143
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #323,357 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The period of the Middle and Late Tang, from around 700 to 900, is one of the most facinating eras of Chinese hisotry. In particular the An Lushan rebellion, around 750, brought about a change from an outward looking world culture to a gradually shrinking Chinese view of the world. Few good or lively books have been written about this period. Susan Whitfield has portrayed the period by a reconstruction of the life and times of ten individuals, all of them historical and ranging from a humble monk and soldier to a top salesman and a princess. At some pages, the reader may feel transported by a time machine: one hears the sounds, smells the smells and hears the multilingual crowds in the capital of Chang'an or the various desert posts. One major quality of this book is that it is not written solely from a Chinese point of view, but includes many details of the customs and perceptions of the peoples of Central Asia. The author has clearly digested a wealth of historical data and translated those into a book which one would like to read in one sitting - which is an inhuman undertaking given the sheer joy and shock of all the little anecdotes, background facts and human insights. No previous knowledge of Chinese history is necessary to relish these stories.
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Format: Paperback
For historical dilettantes like me, it's easier to understand a time and place not through a recitation of the places and dates of battles and monarchial successions, but through the lives of people who lived then and there. Traditional histories say who won the battles, but not what life was like between those battles. Here, a qualified academic tries to accomodate people like me, showing Central and Eastern Asisa's history during the heyday of the Silk Road through a series of brief vingettes profiling the lives of various types of people who lived then. The professor's writing is stiff, but her intentions are honorable and her technique is effective. Her depiction of the Silk Road through its denizens drew me in with everyday detail from the period, which placed the greater historical details, like Chinese dynastic changes and which nations gained ascendancy at what time, into a context I could understand. I imagine others, including university students, might benefit from the author's methods.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
_Life along the Silk Road_ by Susan Whitfield was an interesting introduction to the rich and varied history of the Silk Road, the fabled path (or really paths) that trade took between China and lands to the west. Not aiming to be a comprehensive history, the author took the unusual step of portraying the cultures and events of the eastern Silk Road between AD 750 and 1000 by showing how things looked to (and affected) ten different individuals. Though each chapter tended to focus on how key political events and foreign cultures appeared to each of the ten individuals the author did provide glimpses into the lives of these people.

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.
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Format: Paperback
While the characters of this book were very interesting and the research helped to create a deep and rich group of people, I found that there were issues for me with the writing style itself. Whitfeild is a gifted historian and does her homework very well, but there are times when she lapses into cliched and confusing language that alienates me from the characters she has created. For a good history lesson, I recommend it, but for a rewarding read, it falls a little short.
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Format: Hardcover
Susan Whitfield has written a book that I couldn't put down, and that probably has more to do with me than with the book, because I have just returned from a trip tracing the Middle and Southern Silk Roads (1500 photos taken over 6 weeks, 7 slide shows given so far) and am still basking in the historical richness of this area, as well as its infinite links to world history at large. I liked especially the coeval Table of Rulers from the empires of the Franks, Turks, Arabs, Tibetans, and Chinese, and the Eastern Roman Empire. The book is marred by one defect shared by so many others, with the exception of Joseph Needham's magnum opuses on Chinese science and Edward Schafer's Golden Peaches of Samarkand, viz. the omission of a table of Chinese/Turki/Sanskrit proper names of people and places to go with the English spellings. This leaves the savvy reader with the unending task of trying to figure out who or what she is talking about based purely on previous acquaintance. Even so prestigious and recent a publication as the Mummies of Urumqi or the Mummies of the Tarim Basin still suffers from this egregious defect. With her accessibility to historical material, it would be somewhat of a disservice to withhold this information for some trivial (or utilitarian) reason such as making the book more expensive, or lack of proper typeset. The latter might have been an excuse prior to the computer age, but with so many multilingual packages and XML/UML widelyl available, the excuse is rather lame. Both these authors should issue a Web-based Appendix for all interested parties. If they do that, I'd feel comfortable making their books 5 Stars.
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