The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction by James A. Millward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Millward’s emphasis is in pointing out that the Silk Road was neither predominantly about silk nor was it the single route that the word “road” implies. While silk was certainly a product that traded on this transportation network, it wasn’t necessarily the most important commodity by value– and certainly wasn’t in terms of its effect on the world. More broadly, the author presents a Silk Road that defies neat delineations and definitions, a Silk Road that is often more of a conceptual bridge than a literal transportation route.
The book consists of six chapters. The first describes the territory serviced by this network, and particularly Central Eurasia which served as the bridge between East and West. This is the Silk Road as connective tissue allowing dispersion of ideas, technologies, products, services, and art between regions separated by vast distances and cultural gulfs.
While chapter one deals in the space of the Silk Road, chapter two explores time periods in which the Silk Road flourished. This begins with Indo-European nomads as far back as 3000 BC / BCE, and proceeds through various eras seeing changes in the route and the products moving along it. Most of these eras, e.g. the classical Silk Road period and the time of the Mongol Empire, are defined by burgeoning use of the network. However, Millward does ask how dead was the period from the 3rd to the 5th AD / CE which is normally considered a dead spot in Silk Road history. It should be noted that modern history is addressed mostly in the last chapter, which considers whether the Silk Road remains relevant in today’s world with its very different transportation and communications infrastructures.
Chapter three is about the biology of the Silk Road. A considerable portion of this chapter is devoted to human dispersion and the legacy of events in Central Asia as seen in human DNA. However, the author also examines the spread of horses, grapes, and dumplings. The approach of focusing on a few key commodities is repeated in chapters four and five. (These three chapters form the core of the book.)
Chapter four reflects on the role of the Silk Road in dispersion of technology. Silk is presented in this chapter, but not so much as pashmina and bolts of cloth, but rather in terms of sericulture—the technology of producing silk. The second product to be evaluated herein is paper, and it’s argued that paper was a more important commodity than was silk. Medicine and military technology are also examined in this chapter as among the biggest global game changers of the Silk Road.
Chapter five is about the spread of art along the Silk Road. One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me personally, was a discussion of stories and myths that spread via the Silk Route, and which can be seen in various cultures along the way. The lute (and stringed instruments that sprung from it) is also considered as a key artistic commodity of trade. There is also an extensive discussion of visual motifs seen along the Silk Road, as well as the blue-and-white porcelain that was a popular product, ultimately becoming widely copied.
As discussed above, the last chapter is about the present and future of the Silk Road. Entitled “Whither the Silk Road,” the author suggests that this trade network didn’t become irrelevant with the rise of transportation by sea and air and new modes of communication—though it has changed considerably.
There are a small number of graphics, including maps as well as photos and pictures that depict examples of commodities and technologies relevant to discussion of Silk Road trade. There are also sections devoted to references, advice on further readings, and a page of relevant websites.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants a brief overview of the Silk Road. If you’re a history buff and want to dig deep and see broadly, it seems there are some very well-regarded books of a much more detailed nature. I can’t comment on said books, but I know there is more than one award-winning book on Silk Road trade and cultural interactions. This, as the subtitle suggests, is much more of an outline of the subject. That said, I think the author does a good job of picking a few exemplary commodities, technologies, and arts, and focusing on them. Thus, one does get some of the insights of a book that drills down, just not along as broad of subject matter.
View all my reviews