A timely history lesson
EMPIRES OF THE SILK ROAD:
A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present
by Christopher I. Beckwith
(Princeton University Press)
Hardcover: 496 pages
Rec. price: AUD$69.95
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
This book overturns certain assumptions about the history of Asia and Europe, revealing a number of “facts” about the Central Eurasian region to be no more than nationalistic propaganda.
The author, Christopher Beckwith, is a linguist and historian who has brought Central Eurasia into the light, a region which has gained prominence following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebellions of local populations, such as the Tibetans and Uighurs, against the influx of Han Chinese.
Take, for example, the claim that the Great Wall of China is a defensive structure designed to prevent the barbarians from conquering the peace-loving Chinese. Beckwith shows that this is false.
What happened was that the Chinese invaded the northern areas and then built walls to consolidate their territorial gains. These walls were eventually joined to form the Great Wall of China. Beckwith proves that the so-called “defensive” walls were in fact offensive structures designed to achieve a number of strategic objectives.
The walls were designed to deny the nomadic northern peoples access to their best pastureland. The walls were aimed at stopping Chinese people from getting out of China to Central Eurasia, where life was often better, less arduous and more prosperous.
The walls were also intended not so much to prevent the horse people of the steppe from invading China, but to control access to the Chinese heartland. The steppe peoples wanted to trade with the settled agricultural people of China. Where trade flourished, peace followed almost inevitably, as it does today. The steppe people had things the Chinese wanted or needed, such as horses and metals. The Chinese, however, did not always value trade and were essentially mercantilist, as they remain today.
The Chinese did not value trade as a means of increasing people’s welfare, but saw it as a way of gaining treasure for the rulers. The millennia-long warfare between the Chinese and the steppe peoples was not aimed at keeping the horse warriors out of China, but of extending Chinese territory at the expense of the nomads. In other words, the Chinese were either the aggressors or provoked conflict by refusing to trade.
Beckwith writes: “Chinese, Greek, and Arabic historical sources agree that the steppe people were above all interested in trade. The careful manner in which Central Eurasians generally undertook their conquests is revealing. They attempted to avoid conflict and tried to get cities to submit peacefully.”
For the steppe people, trade was valued as a means of building a better life and for creating wealth. The Silk Road was at the heart of this economic system.
Beckwith continues: “The Silk Road was not a network of trade routes, or even a system of cultural exchange. It was the entire local political-economic-cultural system of Central Eurasia, on which commerce, whether internal or external, was very highly valued and energetically pursued – in that sense, the ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Central Eurasia’ are essentially two terms for the same thing. In its more restricted economic sense, the Silk Road was the Central Eurasian economy.”
So, when we see modern-day adventurers following the treacherous “Silk Road” or gain an image of a road like the Eyre Highway linking the civilised extremes of temperate south-eastern and south-western Australia, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical reality.
The traditional image assumes that there was nothing of worth in Central Eurasia except a few poor nomads and “oasis” cities, and that “the valuable goods that appeared at one or other extreme must have passed through by long-distance caravan, as if in a pipeline”.
The trading aspect of the Empires of the Silk Road is only one strand of this fascinating book. In modern times, the Central Eurasian region has been a theatre of contention between Russia, China and India, with unfortunate Afghanistan being a buffer state. Due to the disastrous assaults of godless Stalinism in the west and Chinese cultural imperialism, including Mao’s destructively iconoclastic Red Guards, in the east, the rich architectural tapestry of religion and learning we see to this day in Europe and even China is lacking. Central Eurasia has become a cultural desert that is only now being revived.
Beckwith also scotches the myth that border areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet are “eternal” components of the Chinese state.
Traditionally and ethnically, Tibet is much larger than the remaining present-day rump. Xinjiang, which can be translated as “New Frontier”, has never had a majority Han Chinese population until the modern population flows. Both areas have asserted their independence whenever possible.
Empires of the Silk Road has much to reward the interested reader, and this review has highlighted only a few of its many themes. Some background knowledge of Asian and European history is assumed, but this is one of the most fascinating scholarly books I have read recently.