World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. ix+304. $34.95 (hardcover).


     Yale Sinologist Valerie Hansen's The Silk Road: A New History presents a sweeping new synthesis of recent textual analysis and archaeological findings that successfully challenges and overturns the Silk Road of our collective imagination—that of the first millennium superhighway that connected  Europe with Asia. Hansen strongly proves that there was no one Silk Road; instead, there was a series of routes threading through the rugged topography of Central and East Asia which occasionally involved cultural contact with Western and South Asians but rarely, if ever, with Europeans. Trade did not involve steady streams of long distance traders, but was centralized around imperial Chinese transfers of wealth to its garrisons stationed in the Northwest during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).  After the fall of the Tang, Silk Road trade involved mainly local small scale commerce comprised in large part of local actors who were joined by small groups of itinerant traders who hailed from throughout Central Asia and modern day Iran.  Hansen's view of the Silk Road looks less like an interstate and more like a series of small state highways meandering through some of the harshest landscape on earth, including the Himalayan and Tian Shan Mountains, as well as the Taklamakan, Gobi and Kizil Kim Deserts.  While Hansen upends the idea that the Silk Road was a corridor of global trade, she powerfully illustrates how cultural traditions, including art, language and diverse religious beliefs greatly shaped the communities along this 2000 mile corridor producing a sophisticated and culturally diverse environment during the first millennium.

     Hansen organizes the book by examining seven sites along the Silk Road, six in Northwestern China and one near Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan.   The reader joins Hansen on a trip through the exotic oasis towns of Western China's Xianjiang province, making stops in monasteries, military garrisons, forts, caves and burial grounds.  Once there, Hansen compiles the most up to date research from these sites, analyzing thousands of documents, including bills, contracts, manifests, tax records, wills, and marriage contracts, as well as a plethora of religious texts.  In addition, she brings us up to speed on all the archaeological evidence that has been collected over the last twenty five years including excavations conducted by Chinese government archaeologists. Due to the dry conditions in some of the desert-like sites, archaeologists have uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts, notably the famous mummies of Niya and Loulan whose burial goods include perfectly preserved flowers that looked like they were picked yesterday.  (A strength of the book are the draw dropping color plates of the archaeological finds).

     Hansen's tour of the Silk Road is a lexical gumbo of some of the most exotic and mostly extinct languages of Central Asia.  She deftly collates the translations of Kuchean, Gandhari, Tocharian, Sogdian, Khotanese, Uigher along with Perisan, Arabic and Mandarin giving the reader an impression of a polyglot environment that would rival Queens NY today in its range of cultural diversity.  The range of documents Hansen presents is striking and run from the mundane (tax receipts) to the poignant: a fourth century CE letter from a women whose husband has left her and saddled her with his debts, in which she exclaims “I would rather be a dog's or pig's wife than yours” (118). Striking is the seemingly familiar and modern feel to the institutions the documents reveal: pre-nuptial agreements, pawn shop receipts, travel passes and documents from an early form of credit unions.

     Hansen also spends a great deal of time detailing the Sogdians, an Iranian group originating near Samarkand and who spread out and settled along the Silk Road to become its most successful traders.  Chinese suspicion and mistrust of these merchants reached xenophobic levels as indicated by this seventh century document written by a Chinese traveling monk: “When they [Sogdians] give birth to a son, they place honey in his mouth and glue in his palms so that when he grows up, he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hand.” (116).

     Hanson's book is also an adventure tale that details the exploits of Great Game explorers and artifact hunters Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein who were the European explorers to travel in remote Western China at the turn of and early twentieth century.  Her chapter on Stein's negotiations with a monk who hid documents at the Dunhuang cave site reads like a modern-day thriller.  Stein, using chicanery, was able to acquire almost eleven thousand documents that Hansen calls a “time capsule of Silk Road history” (167). The thousands of documents written in a myriad of scripts date between 405 to 1002 CE and include the world's earliest printed book, The Diamond Sutra, as well as thousands of others, including a document in a Hebrew script containing verses from the books of Psalms.

     While Hansen downplays the role of trade on the Silk Road, she emphasizes how these routes served as spiritual highways connecting an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western religious movements.  In her chapter on Xian, the city that marked the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Hanson describes a cosmopolitan city of one million with many Buddhists but also adherents of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and the Eastern Christian church.  Hanson's last chapter explains in fascinating detail Islam's spread into Central Asia and Western China. 

     While Hansen's book might intimidate a high school reader with its tongue twisting array of ethnic groups, languages and site names, her writing style is clear and her narrative structure is solid.  Written for the lay public, Hanson's book is accessible to undergraduates and all with an interest in this historic world highway.  The Silk Road: A New History is richly illustrated with detailed maps and jaw dropping photos of archaeological finds like the image of a bundle of scrolls from the treasure cave of Dunhuang which were preserved so pristinely that a library call number system placed on the scrolls is visible.

     Hansen deserves much credit for delivering us this corrective of the Silk Road as one of an important cultural conduit where people and ideas were transferred and, occasionally, trade broke out.

Serge Avery has been teaching world history, AP European History and AP Human Geography for twelve years at Brooklyn Technical High School in Brooklyn NY.  He can be reached at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use