James Millward, professor of Chinese and Central Eurasian history at Georgetown University, has achieved the formidable task of condensing the Silk Road’s 5,000+ miles and 5,000 years of history* into a mere 121 pages for the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. Although the book is written for a non-expert audience, to the scholar it stands as a close appraisal of the historiography of the Silk Road and a thoughtful summary of the current state of the field.
The book prompts the expert reader toward the same exercises undertaken by Millward in its writing: What constitutes the most important information about the Silk Road? And what framework proves most useful for presenting this information?
Using the term “silk road” as shorthand for trans- and inter-Eurasian exchange rather than as a reference to any concrete route connecting China and Rome, Millward draws on recent research to describe multiple “silk roads”— biological, technological, cultural, etc. Deemphasizing commercial trade, Millward posits that the Silk Road is better conceived of as a system of communication and cultural transmission. Objects did move, and makers of objects moved, but far more pervasive and productive was the movement of ideas. With this foundation, Millward does three important things: 1) he expands the silk road’s traditional chronological framework, 2) emphasizes the role of states in facilitating exchange, and 3) confirms that the history of the Silk Road is, at its core, a story of Central Eurasia, of “the spaces in between.” Nothing illustrates these concepts as immediately and effectively as the thoughtfully selected art pieces that appear in the book’s chapter on silk road arts.
From the outset of the book, Millward expands the chronological framework of the Silk Road in order to prompt the reader to think about trans-Eurasian connections over a longer period of time than one typically would. While traditional Silk Road history generally pinpoints the system’s emergence around the first century BCE due to diplomatic and commercial efforts of the Han dynasty, Millward begins his account with early Indo-European nomads from 3,000 BCE to 300 BCE, and uses the “animal style” of Iron Age Eurasian art to demonstrate these early connections. Dynamic, curling portrayals of birds, pouncing predators, and hybrid beasts with elaborate antlers have been found as gold, bronze, felt, leather, and wood artifacts in the burial mounds, or kurgans, of Scythians and other nomad groups, illustrating a shared cultural space extending from the northern Balkans to western China as far back as the sixth century BCE.
Another Silk Road Story, as Millward calls them, which begins outside of the confines of the traditional Silk Road timespan is that of the diffusion of the use of a halo in visual art to indicate a figure’s divinity and/or power. The earliest instance of the use of a halo noted in Millward’s book dates from the fourth or third century BCE—eight hundred years before its use in Christian art—appearing around an image of a head on a ring found in the Issyk kurgan of the Scythian noble known as Golden Man, in present-day Kazakhstan.
Breaking through the latter part of the traditional Silk Road timeframe is Millward’s assessment of the case of blue-and-white ware. While the disintegration of the Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century CE and the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire over Byzantium in the fifteenth century CE mark the decline of the traditional Silk Road, Millward follows the Silk Road Story of blue-and-white ware all the way to the mass-produced Blue Willow tableware of 1960s and 70s United States. The Silk Road, then, represents a kind of proto-globalization, and in this sense is still an ongoing process.
Emphasis on the Role of States
Influenced by Valerie Hansen’s insights on the neglected role of the state in promoting the silk road, Millward questions the notion of the intrepid merchant or individual adventurer as a significant agent of cultural transmission and shows instead how larger empires facilitated greater and steadier exchange. The Mongol Empire enabled Eurasian connections to an unprecedented extent. In art, imperial communications increased imports to China of the Persian cobalt used to create the blue-and-white ware known today. Additionally, the movement of artists and artwork between courts in China and the Middle East gave Islamic book illuminations, or miniatures, echoes of classic Chinese landscape painting through their imitation of clouds, mountains, trees, flowers, fire, and flying creatures.
Importance of the Places in Between
Finally, by conceiving of the Silk Road as a process rather than a route, Millward elevates the role of Central Eurasia from an exotic backdrop for camel caravans to a chief participant in that process. In many cases, these spaces in between serve as the source of ideas, technologies, goods, artistic motifs, and materials that then spread in multiple directions. The diffusion of the halo from Indo-European speakers on the Eurasian steppes to painters and carvers of Christian and Buddhist figures at either end of the continent is one such example. For the blue-and-white ware developed in China, both the idea and the materials came from the west; examples of Islamic blue-and-white ware date back as far as the ninth century CE, and when cobalt mined in Persia was exported to Tang China, it was known as “Muslim Blue.”
Moreover, Millward demonstrates how ideas, technologies, and goods—even ones that did not originate from the “places in between”—relied on a “transeurasian context” for development. The greatest demands for blue-and-white ware, for example, came from Safavid and Ottoman courts, causing Chinese artisans to produce pieces with specifically Islamic motifs.
Displaying the Silk Road
In a YouTube video promoting the 2012 release of her new Silk Road history, Valerie Hansen quips that most Silk Road books are “coffee table books” about art. Hansen’s book is based on written documents that have been excavated along the Silk Road, and still its publisher lists “topic is a perennial favorite for museum exhibits” as one of the book’s chief selling points. Behind this persistent impulse to display the Silk Road no doubt lies a mixture of the timeless allure of the exotic and its contemporary utility as a counterexample to popular culture clash debates, and yet Millward’s summary reveals a field that actively challenges the historical imaginary. His careful and thoughtful use of art to quite literally illustrate the ideas driving the study of the silk road today suggests the potential for similar nuance in the exhibition of silk road visual art.
Read Millward’s thoughts on teaching the Silk Road at the CESS Blog’s “Bactriana,” by James Pickett.
*Millward begins his account with early Indo-European nomads in 3,000 BCE (though he calls Homo sapiens migrating out of Africa onto the Eurasian steppes 70-130,000 years ago the “first silk-roadies”) and argues that it continues today.