Beyond the “Silk Road”: Conceptualizing Premodern Eurasian Connections in Ages of Fragmentation
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 1
Conceptualizing Pre-modern Eurasian Connections in Ages of Fragmentation
The term “Silk Road” is widely used in both scholarly and popular histories as the framework to conceptualize pre-modern trans-Eurasian or even global cultural exchanges. Yet the applicability of this term, an invention by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) in 1877, in describing transcultural connections across such vast expanse of time and space has rarely been subjected to rigorous empirical examination. Scholars continued using the term Silk Road in an unproblematic manner without much appreciation of its 19th century baggage as well as the limited relevance of the role of luxury trade in trans-Eurasian connections implied with the adoption of the term.
This panel seeks to address this problem by localizing some of the basic concepts of the Silk Road in four distinctive spatiotemporal settings in order to test their specific validity. Armin Selbitschka examines artifacts and texts from Eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang) from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE and argues that it was politics rather than trade that motivated the “opening” of the Silk Road, the date of which is also much less fixed than generally assumed. Turning to the Gansu Corridor, the land bridge that connects China proper with Central Asia in the 9th and 10th century, Xin Wen argues, on the basis of the multilingual corpus found in Dunhuang, that the social relation of host-guest reciprocity, instead that of commerce, ordered the vocabulary and practices of traveling. Hyunhee Park, in her examination of cartographical works in the Chinese and the Islamic worlds from the 7th to 13th Centuries, argues for the centrality of neither of these traditions, but of India in the production of geographical knowledge prior to the unification of Eurasia under the Mongol Empire. Ali Gibran Siddiqui traces in India and Western Central Asia during the 15th and 16th century the economic role of the religious group Naqshbandī order and demonstrates the various ways a “trust network,” instead of a purely commercial one, worked to enabled the movements of people, goods, and credits.
Collectively, these papers show that to see the pre-modern trans-Eurasian cultural connections as that of the Silk Road – a commercial network of luxury goods – is fundamentally inappropriate. Instead, each spatiotemporal setting demands a particular set of concepts to describe the specificity with which trans-local connections were made. By shying away from periods of supposed “prosperity” of the Silk Road during the Tang-Abbasid period, the Mongol Empire, and the Russo-Qing period and focusing on periods when Eurasia was politically more fragmented, these papers also show that the vitality of connections existed despite political fragmentation and disconnection. Such observations rooted in case-specific concepts in these fragmented spatiotemporal entities will reinvigorate the field of pre-modern Eurasian connections that is summed up by the often all-too-easily invocation of “merchants” or “Silk Road.” They will also contribute to a better understanding of the pre-modern origins of the globalizing trends of deterritorialization and interconnectedness in modern societies.