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Book Review On Life Along The Silk Road History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The book that I had been given for review is” LIFE ALONG THE SILK ROAD”. The book offers a glimpse into the character and characters of the Eastern Silk road between AD 750 and 1000. The author of the book Susan Whitfield is the director of the British Library sponsored Dunhuang project, which makes a remarkable collection of Ancient Silk Road manuscripts including those acquired by legendary explorer Sir Auel Stein, available on the internet. Her knowledge of this treasure trove of primary material shows throughout the book. She has written extensively about china and therefore is in a good position to give an account of the all the details regarding the network of roads and paths crossing central Asia and concentrates on the 8th to 10th centuries A.D.

The author has an extensive research on the Mongolian Empire and middle kingdom. She has travelled to central Asia several times and has written this novel as reflection of the stories of the Silk Road. She has dedicated the book to prof.Edward Schafer whom she credits for literary excavation of this historic trade route.

This book Life along the Silk Road gives a rich account of the varied history of the Silk Road. It is a good read for people with special interest in history. The book recounts the stories, the lives of ten individuals who lived along the Silk Road in different era. The tale of ten different individuals a merchant, a soldier, a horseman, a monk, a nun among others, all form a different walk of life. The author has tried to reconstruct the history of the route through the personal experiences of these characters.

The region covered in the book corresponds to modern day eastern Uzbekistan, western China, Mongolia, south to the Himalayas and including Tibet. Today that region is largely occupied by Turkic peoples, mainly the Uighur, as well as Chinese colonists and is more Islamic than not. In the time period covered by the book it was more Indo-European in character, mainly Buddhist, and a great deal more cosmopolitan, with many towns and cities home to Turks, Indians, Chinese, Tibetans, and Mongolians as well as followers of Manicheism,

Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and shamanism. Many Silk Road towns, once some of the most populous cities in the world, now have largely been reclaimed by the desert sands due to a decline in population and a drop in the water table, a land now rich in archaeology but vulnerable to thieves looking for artifacts to sell on the black market.

The major source of information for this book and indeed much of the scholarship done on this region and era comes from the over forty thousand documents uncovered in a Buddhist cave complex outside Dunhuang, now in Gansu province, China. Sealed up in the eleventh century, it was uncovered by accident in 1900. Though many of these precious scrolls, paintings, and sculptures have been lost since then for various reasons (and others tainted by the existence of forgeries), more than enough remained; the importance of the Dunhuang documents cannot be overstated. A whole field of study, Dunhuangology, grew up around the study of the documents. Not only were there many Buddhist texts, but as paper was rare and often recycled (and once Buddhist scripture was written on paper it was considered nearly blasphemous to destroy at that point), many non-Buddhist writings were preserved, unique in providing glimpses into the lives of everyday people.

First chapter of the book was the most informative and wide ranging. It takes reader back in 2nd century and helps in understanding what events took place for which during the mid 8th century when the silk route was as its peak. In this chapter reader learns that there was not one Silk road but multiple paths and that also it was not only silk that was traded along it, horses, salt, wool, jade were also major trade items. The distances covered by the merchants around 3000 miles was indeed a challenge for them. Though Silk Road was of major important for centuries by the end of 10th century trade became increasingly maritime in nature.

Following the introduction chapter, author begins to tell tale of ten individuals. The author diligently combines information from texts and archaeological discoveries with her own imagination in order to describe her characters and their families and acquaintances to discuss events in which they participated or which they observed and to indicate their feelings and thoughts. Each tale is full of information about material life that is detail of clothing, eating habits and other details gives the reader a feel for the place and time. The stories along with the numerous pictures present in this book give the reader and insightful into the life of ordinary men and women on the Silk Road era. Following the lives and stories of the Merchant, the Soldier, the Monk, the Courtesan, and others, Susan Whitfield brings the dramatic history of pre-Islamic central Asia down to a human scale, describing the battles of conquest and trade with the details of everyday life.

One significant point that can be grasped from the book is the history of Central Asia over this period characterized by a complex succession of power struggles. The lives of ten individuals in this book were greatly affected by the rise and fall of Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Arab, and the other powers (such as autonomous city-states like Samarkand) that continually fought for control of the eastern Silk Road. when an empire was not defeated on the battlefield it could collapse or fall into chaos due to serious internal disturbances, such as a 755 rebellion led by a general of the Chinese army against the Tang dynasty and when earlier that same year the Tibetan emperor was murdered during a revolt by his ministers.

From the 11th century onwards the culture of the region changed and the Road declined as Islamic culture overtook Chinese influence and the sea route grew in importance. With the rise in sea explorations, overland trade routes became sea routes with Marcopolo set sail to trade the Indians, who were renowned for the spices, textiles and ivory products. Towns near present day Afghanistan saw abandoned villages and the trade declined.

The author of the book has presented history in a vivacious manner. At some pages reader may feel elated by a time machine: one hears the sounds, smells the smells and hears the multilingual crowds in the capital of Chang’an or the various desert posts. The major quality of the book is that it is written not only from Chinese point of view but also contains ample information about the people of central Asia. It is not important to have knowledge about the history of china in order savor the stories in the book. Small and fine details about different characters in the books give the reader a feel as if one is itself present there. The wealth of historical data present in the book which one would like to read in one sitting is an inhuman undertaking given the sheer joy and shock of all the little anecdotes, background facts and human insights.

For a student like me it is easy to understand history through understanding the lives of the people who lived there and then instead of going through the tedious information regarding the places and dates of battles and monarchial successions. Traditional histories are normally about who won the battle where. But after having read this book I can fittingly say that the author has conscientiously tried to accommodate people like me by showing Central and Eastern Asia’s history during the prime days of the Silk Road through a series of brief vignettes representing the lives of various types of people who lived then. I found the writing style of the author quite stiff and solid but the technique she used to present the glorious history is quite effective and fascinating. Her depiction of the Silk Road through her unique style drew me in with everyday detail from the period. She presented the greater historical details, like Chinese dynastic changes and which nations gained superiority at what time, into a context I could understand and enjoy reading.

Apart from the above mentioned qualities there are some problems in the book as well though relatively minor is nature. First of all it should be stated at the outset that this book is, in fact, generally unsuitable as a resource for scholars or teachers, for it is in essence a work of historical fiction. While the book may indeed offer the reader images of life along the Silk Road, it cannot be considered an accurate scholarly resource, since it does not make clear to the reader what is imaginative and what is not. Secondly then trouble with names and terminology emerges almost from the outset, after stating that she will employ “k” rather than “q” in Turkic terms and names (i.e., “Kocho” rather than “Qocho”), since that will make them more accessible to English speakers, the author then informs the reader that she will use “Beshbaliq” (not “Beshbalik,” as one would expect) for the city known in Chinese sources as Beiting, this certainly makes understanding more difficult. Thirdly as one would expect in a book intended for the general market, this work contains neither annotation nor a bibliography, although it does offer suggestions for further reading (pp. 226-29).

The book has numerous illustrations, including color and black-and-white photographs, and maps. It also has a “Table of Rulers, 739-960” (pp. 230-31) that contains–for no clear reason other than much of it has been taken directly (and not without the introduction of errors) from one of Whitfield’s sources (6)–Frankish and Byzantine monarchs as well as those of the Islamic world, China, Tibet, the Turks and Uighurs. There is an index of subjects and proper names as well.

In the end I ill just like to conclude by saying that for the general reader, this book may well serve as an engaging and lively evocation of its subject. For the scholar, teacher, or serious student, however, its problems are sufficiently great as to limit its utility.

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