This book, being part of the New Oxford World History from the Oxford University Press and by a Chinese author, I had high hopes of it being a well written in-depth scholarly book. Unfortunately, it turned out to be of superficial quality for beginners. The long history and the many cultures the route covers could have been a rich exciting read. Unfortunately, it was just a basic introduction of the history of various cultures along the Silk Road.
Even though the traditionally accepted designation of the Silk Road is the northern and southern land routes from China to Central Asia to Mesopotamia to Asia Minor to Europe, and there are plenty to discuss, because the author is an expert in early Indian history, she wanted to bring in India somehow. So she included the sea route that connected Europe to Egypt to Arabia to India, which specialized in spice trades, and took up many pages talking about it. She was so fixated on India, she took every opportunity to talk about Indian culture and expound on its connection to Central Asia. In addition, the “Tea and Horse Road” from Yunnan to Tibet to northern India, to trade tea for horses, was never part of the Silk Road because not every trade route that had anything to do with China was Silk Road.
Some “modern historians” try to bring “new history” to the populace and try to emphasize the experience of the common people and their daily lives. This demagogue approach may seem appropriate for our time of democracy, but it misses the point. History is a summation and review of the past. It must not be swayed by the wind of change and cater to the present. Chinese had learned early on that a true historian never flinches at telling the truth no matter how politically incorrect and never cringes even at the threat of death. That’s how history maintains its integrity.
Ordinary people live ordinary lives. Their concerns are their family and their decisions rarely affect events beyond their immediate circle. They may live in history but they don’t make history. Traditional historians, “old history”, focus on kings and movers and shakers because their concerns and their decisions affect events that shape history. A good plan from the king-maker could bring peace to a warring nation and a bad decision from the king could bring down a dynasty and plunge the country into chaos and ruin. These are the people who make history.
Even though the preface of the book said it tries to bring in new aspects of human history, such as economic and social patterns and interactions among different peoples, it failed to do so. Instead, it followed the traditional path of reciting what the emperors and chiefs and officials and generals did and how their decisions changed the world and created the cultures along the Silk Road. The broad stroke discussions on economic and religion did not go beyond the general concerns of the ruling houses and the effects of their policies.
Furthermore, in this modern era when every tribe demands the right of self-rule, when all rebels are good guys and all governments are bad guys, we forget that a large cohesive empire brings many benefits to humanity that small fragmented states cannot. War and strife always disrupts commerce, peace and prosperity are what ordinary people want. It was when Rome stretched from the Atlantic to the Mesopotamia, when Persia stretched from the Mediterranean to Transoxiana, and when China stretched from Central Asia to the Pacific, and when the Mongol rules ran from Korea to Hungary that international trade flourished and the towns along the Silk Road prospered.
I was shocked to read here that the Buddha was an austere ascetic. Far from it! The Buddha abandoned the ways of austere ascetics to find enlightenment and to advocate the “Middle Way”. He never said to give up everything. His Theravada teachings were aimed at guiding people to live in the world but not attached to the world. As Buddhism travels and grows, it of course was transform and split into different schools, like Christianity and Islam, to suit different cultures and different levels of humanity. Buddhism in America and in Europe has already gone through a great deal of changes and is being transformed into something entirely new. Again, as the author is a professor of early Indian history, and because Buddhism was an Indian export, she spent a lot of time talking about it and gave India full credit for Mahayana Buddhism in Central Asia and China.
During Pax Mongolica, Silk Road flourished and the towns prospered and served as the basis for the official Yam (pony express) system. While traders and diplomats travelled east from Europe to Dadu (Great Capital), compass, gun powder, and printing were among the items that travelled westward from China to Europe and changed the world. While Muslims came east to work with the Mongols, according to Joseph Needhem, girls from northern China also went west to be household servants and revolutionized Italian cooking. Even though the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta did arrive in China by sea during the Mongol era, large scale sea trade to Indonesia and voyages to East Africa did not take place under the Mongols as the author claimed. They were not undertaken until early Ming Dynasty after the Han Chinese abandoned the “Western Region” and lost control of the Silk Road. Chinese had to find an alternate route for Chinese goods and opened up the sea trades.
It was not until the Ottoman Empire demolished the Byzantium Empire and terminated all trades with the West as retaliation for the crusades that Silk Road began to decline. That’s when Europeans began to rely on the sea route to reach China and why Columbus was commissioned to find a direct sea route to India. But the author ended the book with a whimper and not a bang without mentioning any of the spectacular aftermaths of the demise of the Silk Road that transformed the world in which India actually played a role.
I am giving this book 2 stars because, when the author was not obsessed with India and was talking about the Silk Road, she did a fairly decent job, if brief and sketchy in scope. What a shame that she missed a great opportunity to explore in-depth the rich and varied histories and cultures and stories that framed the fabled Silk Road!