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Book Review


Valerie Hansen. The Silk Road: A New History with Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xviii + 446. Credits and Index.  $29.95 (paper).


     In 2013, the Chinese government announced its intention to help build a series of highways, railways, airports, fiber-optic networks, deep-water ports, and pipelines designed to connect the economies of Europe, Asia, and East Africa. As Valerie Hansen points out in her edited work, The Silk Road: A New History with Documents, Chinese rulers have emphasized the "positive connotation of the Silk Road" to defend this ambitious infrastructural undertaking. After all, she writes, the history of the Silk Road that most people remember from history classes does not include the waging of war or territorial conquest (445). Instead, the Silk Road stands out as example of how peoples as diverse as the Chinese, Romans, and Turks found ways to exchange a wide variety of goods over a long period of time and help diffuse ideas across national boundaries in peaceful ways.

     The Silk Road's appeal as peaceful highway of cultural transmission and trade makes a lot of sense in a world that suffers from problems as diverse as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, displaced refugees, and ethnic cleansing. Yet, as Hansen points out, the documents that archeologists have discovered undermine the accuracy of such a view. Committed to telling the "flesh and blood story" of how the Silk Road actually operated, she utilizes fifty-two of these documents to describe the "nature of trade" and "cultural interactions" that took place in eight oasis communities that existed along the "road" (or "non-road" as Hansen calls it) from Xi'an to Samarkand (24). These documents include sources as diverse as pawn tickets, marriage contracts, legal contracts, receipts, medical prescriptions, religious hymns, and letters written by merchants, explorers, and women, as well as the contract for the sale of a slave girl.

     In addition to writing a general introduction and conclusion, Hansen includes an explanatory essay for each chapter that offers important background information on the oasis communities and the documents themselves, including how they were discovered and where they fit into interpretive debates. Each document also contains an individual description and a question for the reader to consider. Just as important, she includes a wide variety of maps and pictures that help readers follow the Silk Road routes and gain a better understanding of individual regions. Unlike the 2012 edition, this work now contains a chapter that examines how the Silk Road functioned during the Pax Mongolica, which makes a reasonable case that Marco Polo actually visited China (414–5).

     Unlike some accounts, Hansen contends that existing documentary evidence demonstrates that the Silk Road was not so much a "road" but a "stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains. She also argues that "the quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small" and reinforces the point that people traded far more than just silk. As the documents reveal, people exchanged goods as diverse as saddles, glass, spices, paper, and chemicals such as ammonium chloride, which "was used as a flux for metals to treat leather" (5). Along with reminding readers that no "documented traffic exists between China and Rome during the years of the Roman Empire," she also explains how "Silk Road communities" such as Turfan, and Khotan "offered far more local goods for sale than exotic imports" (437).

     Once again calling into question familiar views, Hansen makes a strong case that governments played a pivotal role in the functioning of the Silk Road trade routes. As materials found in Kucha region help show, government officials "closely monitored the caravans going in and out" of their territory through travel passes and tried to make sure that travelers stayed on "their prearranged routes" (119). The Kuchan materials also demonstrate that the presence of Chinese forces largely determined the scale and scope of trade along the "road" from "central China" to various parts of its Western Regions (437). "When Chinese armies were stationed in Central Asia" and received military subsidies, she writes, "money . . . in the form of [silk bolts], coins, [and] grain . . . flowed into the region" (124). In contrast, when Chinese forces left in 755, "small-scale trade resumed" that largely fell under the control of "local travelers and peddlers (124).

     Even though Hansen undermines many common beliefs about the Silk Road, she holds fast to the argument that the trade routes described in her book still became "one of the most transformative superhighways in human history" (5). More than providing an avenue to exchange goods, "this network of routes" facilitated the exchange of "religions, art, languages, and new technologies" such as papermaking across boundaries (5 and 435). Even if some merchants participated in these exchanges, other individuals like refugees, missionaries, and envoys played an even larger role in the diffusion process described above (438). For example, tax receipts and other sources reveal how the Sogidans, an Iranian people who lived near Samarkand in contemporary Uzbekistan, dominated the Silk Road trade and became "the most influential immigrant group in China" (161 and 193). While most Sogidans practiced forms of Zoroastrianism, some adhered to Nestorian Christianity and incorporated Hindu gods into their religious practices (171–2, 203, and 205). They also modified their hairstyles and clothing to conform to the demands of their conquerors such as the Turks. In China, Sogidan settlers blended their own traditions with Chinese motifs in the art and household items that they produced, such as metal cups (252–5). Surviving tombs also demonstrate how these settlers combined Zoroastrian imagery with Chinese or bilingual epitaphs (241–2).

     Besides describing the Sogidans in detail, Hansen highlights the travels of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang to elucidate how Buddhist missionaries played a pivotal role in translating their sacred texts into Chinese and helping their faith spread (440 and 142–9).  Drawing on and paraphrasing texts related to Buddhism from numerous languages, she argues, The Book of Zambasta helps illustrate the Khotan Kingdom's "place as a central node for [Buddhist] monks" who travelled the southern route along the Taklamakan desert (350). Hansen also pays close attention to the famous Dunhuang caves. These caves contain an amazing collection of Buddhist art, sculptures, and manuscripts written in numerous languages, as well as other items such as silk banners, that Buddhist monks collected from roughly 862 to the early 1000s CE (297). Because these monks tolerated other religions and probably saw themselves as part of a larger cosmopolitan project, they also collected the writings of other faiths, including Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism, samples of which Hansen includes (302–303). Along similar lines, Hansen also explains how Nestorian Christian communities coexisted with their Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Manichaeism counterparts in Turfan and Xi'an (173 and 248–50) before the Tang dynasty outlawed "foreign" faiths such as Christianity, Manicheanism, and Buddhism during the 840s CE.

     Even if The Silk Road stands out as excellent work that every teacher interested in world and Asian history should read, it does have some limitations. Its length and at times its dense prose make it a much better choice for graduate and upper-level undergraduate classes than high school or introductory college courses. Such a critique should not dissuade high school teachers and professors who teach lower-level classes from utilizing this extraordinary book. They can use selections from any chapter to design thought-provoking assignments and facilitate vigorous classroom discussions about what we can know about the past.

     Some might also question Hansen's reliance on a small number of documents revealed in archeological discoveries to back up her arguments, a critique that she addresses. Unlike some scholars have who relied on more numerous sources like art or those written accounts that appear to support the existence of "high volume" trade on the "Silk Road, Hansen places more emphasis on documents that common people created using materials like wood and leather and then threw away.1 More to the point, she utilizes documents from locations like homes and postal stations whose "authors did not expect later generations to read them . . . and never intended them [to survive], which makes them invaluable windows into the past that do not just privilege the experiences of the "literate rich and powerful" (5). Hansen also rejects the argument that future archeological discoveries will vindicate scholars who see the Silk Road as a gateway that connected the East and West via a large-scale trade in luxuries. Besides being irrefutable, such a claim overlooks the reality that "generalizations about trade pale in comparison to actual lists of taxes paid by merchants or travel passes granted to merchants on the road" (438).

     Hansen's arguments have much to recommend. Right now, scholars do not have enough empirical evidence to make a convincing case that the Silk Road of "high volume" trade existed. On the other hand, as Hansen herself admits, future archeological discoveries may yet vindicate the interpretations of artwork and written records that support a "high volume" road in a fashion similar to the way that  archeological finds have buttressed the idea that Troy actually existed.2 Of course, even if new discoveries render Hansen's findings obsolete, can archeological evidence alone really give contemporary audiences a full understanding of how peoples of the past interacted with each other and understood the world around them? This reviewer wonders what people thousands of years from now will think of the contemporary world when they make arguments based on their analysis of items like broken IPhones, computers, automobiles, and the discarded memorabilia from sports teams like the New England Patriots, Manchester United, and the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Will surviving movies, Facebook pages, and YouTube clips give future generations a better sense of who we are than we have of past generations? Whatever the answers to these questions might be, future scholars will almost certainly debate the merits of modern Silk Road described above should China and others ever build it. Will they remember it as boon for humankind that helped bring peace and prosperity to the rich and poor alike? Or, as Hansen fears, will they remember it as yet another attempt of Chinese rulers to expand their influence in a world where economic competition, the exercise of "hard power," and the control of natural resources continued to dominate the behavior of governments? (445–6).   

Christian Philip Peterson is a professor of history at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. He has published several peer-reviewed articles and written two books: Ronald Reagan and Antinuclear Movements in the United States Western Europe and Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West. During the summer of 2016, he co-directed a National Endowment for the Humanities institute for high school teachers titled "War, Revolution, and Empire: U.S.-Russian/Soviet Relations since 1776." You may contact him by email at



1 Hansen thinks that many authors have construed the mentioning of trade in written sources such as the Turco-Sogdian and Uighur documents as evidence of "high-volume" trade along the Silk Road because such a position confirms their expectations. She makes a strong case that these scholars have not interpreted existing sources accurately. See pages 318–20.

2 For a cogent account of the debates concerning the existence of Troy, see "Is Troy True? Evidence Behind the Myth,"  (accessed 10 June 2017).




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