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.