Beyond the Silk Road Paradigm

In American and British-based history studies and teaching, a dominant paradigm for teaching World History is the Silk Roads or Silk Routes that arose from late Antiquity between Western Asia and extended across Central Asia, Northern India and to and from China. An alternative to this American-British globalist approach is still needed and scholars versed in Russian, Egyptian and Ottoman,  South Asian and Chinese history are providing ways to move beyond the global market approach to history. See for example, Nelly Hanna’s Ottoman Egypt and the Emergence of the Modern World 1500-1800 (Hanna 2014). The overwhelming emphasis on using the Silk Roads is to establish a model for late 20th century and early 21st century ideas of globalization. An example of this approach is seen in Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads:  A New History of the World (Frankopan 2015).  His emphasis on commerce and empire crosses with the rise of competing religious based empires, Byzantine, Islamic, Russian, Ming and Qing, etc. (Perdue 2010), and British.  Frankopan provides a long view of the Silk Roads by updating the imposition of Central Asian geographical and political maneuvering up through the age of American imperialism and Superpower rivalries of the late 20th and beginning of the 21st century.  A comparative approach to economic history between early modern China and early modern Europe is found in the formative and continuing projects of Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (2001) and Bin Wong (Wong 2000).  An emphasis on South Asian and Indian Ocean based commercial and cultural development is seen in Andre Wink (Wink 2004).

A conventional and chronological periodization with a trade-based approach to Silk Road history is found in Xinru Liu, and his discussion of the Kushan and Han Empires (800 BCE to 100 CE) (Liu 2010). We have unique written travel account of Chinese monks who travel along the Silk Routes in search for the origins of the Buddha:  these include Faxian (337?-422?), Xuanzang (600?-664), and Yijing (635-713).  Several studies of the extent of Muslim merchant communities that were established within China have been made including, M. Pearson (Pearson 2010) and Benite (Benite 2010). We still look for a fuller analysis along the lines of Joseph Needham’s multivolume history of Chinese Civilization (Needham 1954-2015). A longer and more detailed analysis of the West-interconnections has yet to be fully developed but the following approaches help. A useful attempt to summarize the contributions of Central Asia to areas of science, philosophy and technology is found in S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (Frederick Starr 2015).  A short comparative civilization approach is found in The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (Hobson 2004). A more engaging and rigorous challenge to many assumptions about Oriental depotism, stages of development theory and lack of modern development in China and Asia at large is found in the large body of writing by Wang Hui (Hui, 2014).

Bibliography

Benite, Zvi Ben-Dor. 2010. Follow the white camel: Islam in China to 1800. Vol. 3, in New Cambridge History of islam: The Eastern Islamic World Eleventh to Eighteenth Century, edited by D. O Morgan and A Reid, 400-26. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Frankopan, Peter. 2015. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. London: Bloomsbury.

Frederick Starr, S. 2015. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane . Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hanna, Nelly. 2014. Ottoman Egypt and the Emergence of the Modern World 1500-1800. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Hobson, John M. 2004. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Hui, Wang. 2014. China from Empire to Nation-state. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liu, Xinru. 2010. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Needham, Joseph. 1954-2015. Science and Technology in China. 19 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pearson, M. 2010. Islamic trade, shipping, port-states and merchant communities in the Indian Ocean, seventh to sixteenth centuries. Vol. 3, in Islam: The Eastern Islamic World Eleventh to Eighteenth Century, edited by D. O. Morgan and A. Reid, 317-365. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Perdue, Peter. 2010. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pollock, Sheldon. 2009. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2001. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Rypka, Jan. 1968. History of Iranian Literature. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Wink, Andre. 2004. Al-Hind, the making of the Indo-Islamic world: Indo-Islamic society, 14th-15th centuries. Vol. 3. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Wong, Bin. 2000. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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