As people from Europe and Asia moved back-and-forth through the centuries on the countless paths, valleys and mountain crossings of central Asia, they brought with them world religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; goods like porcelain, clothing, and pigments; and even the plague. These cultural and commercial exchanges had carried on for centuries quite namelessly—until a German imperialist dubbed them the “Silk Road.”
Since 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping has been trying to revive the famed trade route with his signature project, One Belt One Road, which is bringing more than two dozen world leaders to Beijing for a two-day summit from today (May 14) . The name refers to a land “belt” made up, among other things, of railways stretching from China to London, and a maritime “road” made up of ports in Southeast and South Asia, and all the way to Greece.
But the vision of the Silk Road as an uninterrupted trading corridor uniting Asia and Europe that OBOR is trying to promote has been shaped at least in part by a 19th-century act of colonial imagination.
“The ‘Silk Road,’ as a term, is really fairly recent: it was used for the first time in 1877, by the German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, as he was trying to promote the idea of a railway from China to Europe,” says Tamara Chin, associate professor of comparative literature at Brown University in the US. “The ancients did not have a word for it.”
At that time, Germany had colonial interests in parts of Shandong, in eastern China, in particular in Qingdao, a city still famous for its eponymous beer. From there Richthofen wanted to have a railway that could carry coal all the way to Europe, but he died in 1905 without making much headway. Others carried on the effort until eventually World War II made the project impossible to pursue, and the idea was cast aside.
By baptizing it “The Silk Road,” Richtofen may have done more than just give a cohesive name to something that was perhaps less organized than that. In anointing “silk” the most important item to cross the mountains and the valleys, he cemented the idea of China as the initiator of the trade, the pivotal point in the line. Undoubtedly, silk played an important role for the trade, but it was just one among a large variety of goods coming out of and going into China, as well as continuing to points further east like Korea and Japan. While Chinese silk was coveted in many places, and was even used as currency for certain transactions, China coveted items from other countries too, ranging from gold and horses, to pigments and gems.
For a long time, the term “Silk Road” was seen as a foreign one in China, while the decades of the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split, and the country’s long years of economic stagnation also made any kind of revival unlikely at any time earlier.
Fast forward to today, and China, now the second-largest economy in the world, is pursuing a connected network that would create a much larger and more compact system of transport across Central Asia and all the way to Europe. It’s also recreating old maritime commerce routes (and then some), to connect the Chinese market to just about every other market in the world.
That’s a scale that’s quite different from the old routes, even in what’s understood to be the high eras of the Silk Road, during the Han dynasty (206BC–220AD), when, for example, a Chinese envoy established ties across central Asia, and then again in the Tang (618-906) dynasty.
“We have absolutely no evidence that there was large-scale commerce; We simply cannot quantify what the amount of trade that crossed the land route was,” says Valerie Hansen, professor of history at Yale, adding that “most of the trade was small-scale and local.”
According to Hansen, it was probably much more common to see an isolated merchant crossing the mountainous passes along Central Asia with a couple of donkeys to trade in nearby oases than for a large caravan to complete the perilous journey from the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an) all the way to Europe, or even just Palmyra—the Syrian city that used to be a commerce hub during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
“But what there was beyond doubt was a great cultural mixing along these routes due to the trade that took place,” Hansen says.
New ideas, new religions, and new artistic influences were constantly transported along these fragmented networks—as can be seen with the art of Gandhara, the beautiful Buddhist sculpture that developed in what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that owe much to ancient Greek sculptural convention.
Or the way in which musical instruments have traveled from the most remote corners of the Middle East to resurface near the central Asian Pamir Mountains, still recognizable in their form, but by now played to very different tunes. In the spectacular Dunhuang Caves, for example, in what is now modern-day Gansu in northern China, where unknown artists had been painting the most breathtaking Buddhist devotional mural paintings for hundred of years, some of the iconic colors used came from pigments imported through central Asian trade, such as a powdered lapis lazuli pigment that was used for the first time in these areas. Meanwhile, Gutenberg’s revolutionary printing press may have owed something to travelers’ tales of Chinese typesetting.
These kinds of exchanges, paradoxically, may be of less interest in the OBOR incarnation of the Silk Road. China under Xi Jinping has been progressively closing the door to outside influences, and encouraging paranoia about some kinds of foreigners, while remaining very much interested in exporting its own goods to markets far and wide.
“In Tang times, the court itself was pretty cosmopolitan,” says Hansen, “With OBOR now one does not see the Communists welcoming anybody bringing in foreign influences.”
Yet a third quality of the old Silk Road looks very different today: the role of the Uyghur ethnic minority who in ancient times were the main commercial, cultural, and religious brokers in Central Asia. Today, even as Xinjiang, China’s westernmost “autonomous region” and home to the Uyghurs, is firmly on the map for OBOR infrastructural expansion, president Xi has said China must build a metaphoric “great wall of iron” around the Uyghurs, who face some of the harshest repression in the country.
The route’s remoteness and its antiquity allow it to lend itself well to romantic fantasy, and the politically expedient use of invented tradition. Still, as China invests billions of dollars, and its prestige, in bringing about the Silk Road’s latest incarnation, it may find that the effects of these networks, like those of the old routes, may be at times smaller, and at other times more far-reaching than it can foresee.