Monday, February 13, 2012

Getting the Silk Road

I am fascinated by the Silk Road and if you, like me, would like to learn more about it, here are some good tips. First of all, Laszlo Montgomery's great China History Podcast (feed) has begun a series about the Silk Road just now. There was also an In Our Time issue about the Silk Road in 2009 which can now be had from the In Our Time History Archive (feed). Other podcast tips I have come up with in the past are:
Zhang Qian,
The Parthians,
Jade artifact 
The Kushan.

The basics of the Silk Road are not difficult to understand: it was -already by 200 BC and still is today- a network of land routs that connected China with the rest of Asia and Europe and which allowed for trade between distant cultures such as the Roman Empire, the Han Chinese, India and more. Notably Silk and Jade were traded along the routes and if you stop here, you are just fine. I try to imagine how this actually worked and then the idea of a Silk Road becomes very complicated to understand. If you begin considering the sheer distances, the difficulty of the terrain, the problems of logistics and so on, I fail to see how it could actually work. How could a trader from China transport something extremely valuable like silk over such a distance alone? He'd be away for at least a year, he'd take enormous risks along the road and assuming he'd manage to sell his goods in Rome, he'd have to get home safely. On the other hand, if the trader wasn't to sell the silk in Rome himself, but rather rely on a chain of middle men, I would expect that the silk, by the time it reached Rome, had become so expensive, nobody would be willing to pay the price.

I am still to get an answer to this basic question, but from Laszlo Montgomery's opening episode, I learned of a solution that addressed one of the logistic problems that would have made the journey impossible: the problem of fresh water. If traders had had to carry the water they needed for the journey, along with the goods they wanted to trade with, the amount of luggage would have become simply too large. Yet, most of the roads pass arid terrain, if not outright desert. The way this was addressed was by local populace that had dug canals from the snowy mountain tops, until numerous wells along the route. This allowed the traders to journey with just their goods. I also understand that this brought the routes down to a very limited amount of possibilities: only those places where the mountains were sufficiently close by and wells had been established.

I still have to get an answer to the practical questions of how the trade was actually pulled off, because it continues to escape me how anyone would have taken the risk of the whole journey or how it could deliver affordable goods within an endless chain of middle men. Exposes about the Silk Road, whether podcast or not, rapidly leave the subject of trade and move on to emphasize what else began to travel along the Silk Road: ideas and technologies. The Silk Road allowed Buddhism to spread from India to the rest of Asia. Along the road also spread Manicheanism and early forms of Christianity. Eventually Islam took the road. Chinese inventions such as paper made it to the west over the road and of course Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road back and forth.

Another point that is not always made, but needs to be held in mind is an inequality that also played a part in the age of exploration when the sea routes also connected China with the rest: China had all the splendid stuff, but what did the rest of the world, especially the Europeans have to offer China? In the later years it was silver from South America, but what traveled on the Silk Road from west to east? How did the Romans pay for their much craved silk? Montgomery mention that spices, ivory and horses were wanted by the Chinese, but this is stuff from other parts of Asia and possibly Africa. What came from Europe? One thing that could not possibly be all, comes as a surprise: chairs. I hope the China History podcast will have more answers in the coming chapters.

More China History Podcast:
Deng Xiaoping,
Chronology of Dynasties,
China History Podcast.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Een grote podcast voor een klein publiek

Veertien Achttien is een van de allerbeste podcasts die op het net te vinden zijn. Dat heb ik al vaker geschreven en om nou niet in herhaling te vervallen, zal ik het anders zeggen: Veertien Achttien is een van de allerbeste podcasts die op het net te vinden was. Verleden tijd.

Het betekent niet dat Veertien Achttien, de grote podcast over de grote oorlog, afgelopen is, of voortijdig podfaded is. Tom Tacken, de onvermoeibare maker van deze serie biografieen, gaat gewoon door. Hij gaat zelfs langer door, voorbij de wapenstilstand van 11 November 1918, wat aanvankelijk de planning was. Er wordt doorverteld tot en met de tekening van het Verdrag van Versailles in 1919. Maar al dit moois komt niet meer in de feed, zal niet meer publiek beschikbaar zijn.

Het is niet de eerste keer dat Tackens provider hem in de steek laat. Toen dat eerder gebeurde wist hij zijn feed bij een ander te plaatsen, maar nu ook deze feed niet meer werkt heeft de podcaster de moed opgegeven. Het is al genoeg moeite om de afleveringen te produceren, er moet niet teveel overhead bijkomen om al dat moois voor niets bij het internetpubliek te krijgen. Wat overblijft is om, voor een niet al te groot bedrag, volger van Veertien Achttien te worden. Dan krijg je tekst en uitleg persoonlijk toegestuurd en kan je genieten tot het einde.

Voor Tom Tacken is het een begrijpelijke beslissing, maar voor het medium podcast is het een grote klap. Ooit leek het mogelijk om met bescheiden middelen, uitzonderlijke audio bij een geinteresseerd publiek te krijgen. Voor de maker eiste het nauwelijks meer dan de inzet van het produceren en voor het publiek was het aanbod gratis. Het klonk altijd al een beetje te mooi om waar te zijn, maar het impliceerde wel een fantastische vrijheid van expressie. Het leverde een prachtig rijk geschakeerd en geinspireerd medium op. Veertien Achttien is niet de eerste podcast die ik zie verdwijnen van dit utopische toneel. Ik vrees een beetje dat het symptomatisch is en dat we geleidelijk terug komen bij wat media in de tijd voor internet ook al was: een wereld gedomineerd door giganten en tamelijk flauwe main-stream produkten.

Als er al een weg daaruit is, terug naar de vrolijke anarchie van podcast uit, laten we zeggen, 2007, dan lijkt mij dat het publiek moet gaan betalen. Als een podcast als Veertien Achttien voldoende volgers heeft, kan het zijn onafhankelijkheid terugwinnen. En dan kan Tacken doorgaan tot 1948 - om maar eens wat te noemen.

Meer Veertien Achttien:
Sholem Schwarzbard,
Bernard Freyberg,
Richard Huelsenbeck,
Veertien Achttien nieuwsbrief (PTSD versus shellshock)
Sir Mark Sykes.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

India and the Mahabharata

Professor Vinay Lal (UCLA) can be heard again on podcast with his History of India (UCLA - History 9A) (feed), about which I have written before in 2009 when it was also podcast. As then, also this time, there is a considerable difference in the characteristics of the material delivered between the first lectures and that those towards the end of the course. Whereas the history is more recognizably history, that is political history, economic history, as we approach the present, the very early history of the Indian subcontinent is presented by Lal with very little political and economic data. Much of the first 10 lectures are spent on discussing culture, religion (as much as the term can be applied, which is doubtful according to Lal) a bit of archeology and the literary traces of old India the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Two years ago, the series of lectures that discussed hardly any data, but delved into those texts were very hard for me to follow and I am happy to report it is different this time around. The kudos in this respect go entirely to another podcast: The Mahabharata Podcast (feed). Lawrence Manzo's retelling of the Mahabharata, which has progressed to the 90th episode (Bhisma's Final Teachings part 2), has made the story as well as the cultural scope of the epic much more familiar to me. As a consequence, whenever Lal is referring to the Mahabharata's characters and anecdotes, they are familiar, easy to place and his point is coming through.

I want to recommend Manzo's podcast to anyone, regardless whether you are thinking of latching on to History 9A. The Mahabharata is a most fascinating, entertaining and at times mind boggling tale to engage with. Should you seek some shorter preparation, you can also turn to Rick ALbright's series on World Literature (feed) which has a two part issue addressing the Ramayana.

Next on Lal's schedule is the Kama Sutra, which, incidentally was also discussed on the last program of BBC's In Our Time. (feed)

More History of India:
History of India - the search goes on
8 podcasts I listened to,
History of India or Europe?
History of India.

More Mahabharata:
The Temptation of Karna,
Flood tales; Noah, Gilgamesh and Manu,
Indian roots of the Unicorn,
Endless cloth,
The Mahabharata Podcast.

More Rick Albright's English 205:
World Literature.

More In Our Time:
In Our Time Archive,
A reminder of the great BBC podcasts,
Diarmaid MacCulloch in podcast,
The Indian Rebellion of 1857,
Frankfurt School.