Perso-Helleno-Indo-Scythian-Sino Eurasia: Jim Millward’s Take on the Central Eurasian Survey Course

Several months ago I asked Scott Levi how he managed to squeeze in two thousand years of Central Asian history into a single introductory class.  More recently, I continued the conversation with Jim Millward to learn about his own undergraduate and graduate courses of similar chronological and thematic scope. 

In this case, I enjoyed the advantage of having actually taken the graduate version of “Central Eurasia in World History” while studying at Georgetown.  As I soon learned from our discussion, however, Millward’s teaching philosophy has evolved a great deal since then.

Chronology and Geography

The basic mold of Millward’s course was inspired by some detective work into the history of the sub-discipline’s pedagogy: “When I started doing this I actually found a transcript of  Joseph Fletcher‘s lectures for a course pretty similar to this, which he’d given back in the early 1980s, a year or so before he died.  Even if some of his materials are now somewhat outdated, his approach was very much ahead of its time in terms of seeing holistic aspects of Central Asian history in relationship to world history.”

In conceptualization, the similarities between Levi’s and Millward’s respective approaches are greater than the differences: both open with thematic thought pieces conceptualizing the region (e.g. Adshead, “World History and Central Asia”); both begin chronologically with prehistory and the anthropology of sedentary-nomadic relations; and both continue to the modern (or early modern) period, with major units on the Silk Road, the rise of Islam, and the Mongol Empire along the way.

Most consequentially, both see the colossal scope of their courses primarily as an advantage rather than a drawback.  Millward characterized his approach to the challenge thusly: “The basic problem is that there is a huge amount of material and a huge amount of territory over a very long period of time.  Perhaps the sensible way to approach it is to divide it up and not try to teach the whole thing.  However, I think there are great coherencies in Central Eurasian history writ-large.  In fact, to see those [coherencies], and to see why this is a field in and of itself rather than just the backyard of a lot of other fields, you need to look at the whole picture.”

Generally, Millward’s syllabus lingers on the ancient period somewhat longer than Levi’s, while Levi’s course spends more time in the middle ages (such as the Timurid empire and successor states).  In fact, the title of this post was inspired by the fourth unit of Millward’s graduate course, entitled: “‘Ancient “Perso-Helleno-Indo-Scythian’ Central Eurasia.”  This and other units explore (re)conceptualizations of the Silk Road (about which Millward has recently published a book) and the religions that followed it.

Also in contrast with Levi’s course, which concludes in the early modern period, leaving it to other courses to pick up the narrative from there, Millward finishes his survey with a unit on the twentieth century and the creation of nationalities and ethnicities under the Soviet and Chinese regimes.  “Any periodization implies emphases and creates teleologies, even if the real reason for bounding the chronology was one of convenience.  I like to draw continuities rather than stark disjunctures.  One can contrast identity formations in ancient times with modern articulations thereof.  Also, how many courses on Central Asian history are most of these students going to take?  I like to take the story to the conclusion rather than leave them hanging.  It’s an impossible task and each approach has its merits.”


The textbook situation for a Central Eurasian survey course, according to Millward, has improved markedly in recent years.  In particular, he is fond of Peter Golden’s new book Central Eurasia in World History.  “It’s quite short, but I find his approach to be very similar to my own.”  Millward also draws from chapters from a handful of books that use the Silk Road as an organizing principle, such as Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road and  Xinru Liu’s The Silk Road in World History.  He also deploys Soucek’s A History of Inner Asia on the side, though students tend to have trouble making sense of the political minutia in that work.

The View from China

The vast majority of Central Asia scholars, it seems fair to say, approach the region either from Russian / Eurasian or Middle Eastern / Islamic studies.  (For another exception to this trend, see my interview with Joe Ricci about nomads on the Roman frontier.)  Millward, however, stands as one of the few scholars studying Central Asia as an important component of Chinese history, and this background has shaped his seminar accordingly.

“My admittedly Sino-centric approach is justified to some extent by the sources themselves.  For  accounts of the classic conflicts between sedentary and nomadic civilizations, some of the best and earliest material we have is from China.  Moreover, most of the theorizing about steppe-sown relations, efforts to figure out what makes this relationship tick, has come from scholars familiar with China, such as Owen Lattimore, Thomas Barfield, Nicola di Cosmo,” Millward said.  That said, his syllabus includes readings from Herodotus as well so that students can compare his description of the Scythians with Han descriptions of the Xiongnu.

The “Squishy Center” of Central Eurasian History

Even if Central Eurasia introductory courses tend to share a handful of themes in common – most notably steppe-sedentary relations, the Silk Road, the Mongols, etc. – syllabi differ more when it comes to the bewildering array of dynasties that pepper the middle ages.  Opportunity costs being what they are, do the Qarakhanids merit their own unit?  What about the Shibanids?  The Khazars?

“The political history is so complicated and such a mess.  In two or three places [in my own research] I have launched into chronological accounts only to be faced with the question: God, do we really care?”  Like Levi, Millward emphasized the importance of picking out themes with enduring significance to anchor the different units of the course rather than specific dynasties.

Primary Sources and Pedagogy

Once of the most dramatic evolutions in Millward’s approach since I took the course is the emphasis on primary sources.  Previously, his course was comprised mostly of secondary readings, with the exception of an entire session devoted to the The Secret History of the Mongols (which, if memory serves, was enhanced with beer and manti at Millward’s home).  Now, every week features the discussion of at least one primary source, such as the aforementioned Herodotus and Secret History, but also Orkhon inscriptions, narratives of Franciscan missionaries in Mongolia, and the Baburnama.

Partly, this is a result of the availability of new collections of primary sources translated into English, such as the anthology edited by Scott Levi and Ron Sela.  However, this new emphasis also arose from a more fundamental development in Millward’s teaching philosophy: “I was talking with one of my colleagues in a faculty meeting, and he pointed out to me: ‘We never do readings of texts with our graduate students anymore.’  We tend to survey the secondary literature in preparation for comprehensive exams, which is all well and good, but it is also kind of ironic when you think about it.  How you read texts as historical documents is precisely what PhD students should be doing, and yet we don’t really spend that much time as professors doing that with our own graduate students.”

Undergraduate vs. Graduate

The emphasis on primary sources is also partly designed to prepare graduate students to teach their own course on Central Eurasian history.  Millward increasingly strives to have the graduate version of the course “track” with the undergraduate one and encourages his grad students to sit in on the lower-level course, as most of them have never before studied the region’s history.  The preponderance of graduate students taking his course are unlikely to specialize in Central Asian history in the long run, but may someday deploy what they learn for teaching purposes alongside the more conventional courses required for their core area study.

In considering the differences between his undergraduate and graduate courses, Millward referenced the deep philological tradition in Central Asian studies as something to be generally avoided with the former.  “You can’t really get away with giving too many articles like that to undergrads.  You can throw intense linguistic analyses like that at some of the PhD students.  Something like David Anthony’s book The Horse, the Wheel and Language on early Indo-Europeans and the spread of horse culture and chariots – he pulls together all sorts of stuff from anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics.  It’s fascinating and it’s good for graduate students to grapple with something like that outside their area of expertise,” Millward said.

Keep it Relevant

As we wrapped up our conversation, Millward emphasized the importance of relating the materials covered in a course like this to contemporary events: “There are a lot of barriers to entry in our field.  It is important to provide some linguistic context to get past the fear factor associated with reading Chinese, Turkic, and Arabic words.  I try to connect the intricacies to things they can relate to, such as [J.R.R.] Tolkein’s use of Altaic words to describe the forces of Mordor, for instance.  You’ve probably met women named ‘Nazgul.’  There is a very rich set of pop cultural echoes from Central Eurasia.  You can follow these currents in real time in the news media. Gulnara Karimova [daughter of the current Uzbek president] did a video with Gerard Depardieu which I showed to my class.  And Stephen Colbert had a great time with [Secretary of State] Kerry’s comment on ‘Kyrzakhstan.'”

I should also note from personal experience that Millward deploys other strategies for keeping the students engaged. In addition to his many talents as a historian, he is also a musician who has been known to demonstrate throat singing as well as such instruments as the dutar, dombra and rawap in his classes.  (While he protests that he is “far from skilled” at these arts, he still outclasses 99% of Central Eurasia scholars in the domain of dombra-strumming prowess.)  Unfortunately, audio-visual evidence of these talents has yet to surface on YouTube.