Renewing the silk road

From Damascus to Xi’an it ran, to carry ideas and culture as much as goods. This is the aspect Moscow and Beijing must renew



By Rahul Goswami (COCHINCHINA)

Published: Sat 15 Nov 2014, 8:56 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:40 PM

As always, it takes an injection of history and adventure to turn a bland meeting into a stirring promise, more so when the word ‘Eurasia’ is used, not in the geo-strategic manner that has become so commonplace nowadays, but instead to mean slow travel and considerate trade.

And so we had this week two gentlemen, one Chinese and the other Russian, talk it over and agree that ‘Eurasian’ is a good term to describe what their countries (and many others besides) would like to partake of.

The idea they spoke of is an old one, and its practice accompanies Asia’s long history, but amongst its many names one has stuck to win popular acclaim — the silk road. This was the great Eurasian trade route. It linked the China of old with the Mediterranean shore, and was used not only for commerce but also was the meeting point (wherever trading stations sprang up) of the great civilisations of the East and West. From around the second century of what we call the common era, and thereafter for a thousand years, silk and assorted merchandise was carried along this road to be exchanged in the hill towns and desert oases, the serais and amongst the caravans.

And so the silk road was the channel along which ideas, beliefs, styles of art and technologies flowed back and forth. Chinese, Indian, Iranian and the cultures of Western antiquity intersected there. It is this history and trade that was invoked by President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Beijing. Xi spoke of “new economic institutions and regional cooperation architecture that are open, so that the door of the Asia-Pacific will always be open to the entire world”. In the manner of our era, such ideas and resolve require the vehicle of an agreement, a treaty or a pact, and so there is one, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, but one that is explained through an active brevity that is typically modern Chinese — “all inclusive, all-win”. It is an approach that perhaps the ancient traders of the silk road had in mind when they congregated in old Turpan, Ferghana and Kashgar.

As a concept and as a promising practice, the Asia-Pacific cooperation promoted by China (and for which Russia is a partner), is economically far more sophisticated than that sponsored by the USA, the divisive Trans-Pacific Partnership which is divisive because it has no cultural moorings, and whose terms are set not by traders and artistes but by corporations and their culturally ignorant lawyers. President Vladimir Putin of Russia (a country which, east of the Urals, is Asian and not European) is as committed to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as Xi is, for this nascent agency is to fund the works that will define the outlines of the new silk roads (there are more than one) — what Beijing has come to call the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and even the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’.

China has long known the old road while it plans, with Russia, the new. During the first century before our common era, when Wu Ti was emperor in China, accounts of the great trading stations and prosperous cities filled with syncretic populations were collected (at great personal cost) by an officer of the empire named Zhang Quian. And thereafter Chang’an (modern Xi’an) supplied the silk, chrysanthemums, rhubarb, paper, lacquer, gunpowder, mirrors and bamboo to be traded along the road west; from Turfan (or Turpan) came grapes, raisins, wine, cotton, dye for porcelain, alum, Glauber’s salt; in Kashgar pack animals (the steadfast porters of the great road, companions to the traders, essence of the caravans) were bought, traded and cured but Kashgar also sent out tea, dried fruit, medicinal herbs; Ferghana supplied sturdy horses, fabulous rugs and ‘kilims’, nuts, copper; through the winding routes of the Hindu Kush the settlements of northern India supplied cotton, ayurvedic medicines, precious stones, jade; Baghdad’s merchants sent succulent dates, nuts, dyes, lapis lazuli; Damascus (at the shore of Mediterranean and the western end of the silk road) delivered almonds, purple dye, dried fruit, swords (the coveted Damascene steel).

Against the richness of these exchanges, the pronouncements of the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit sound like an unwelcome intrusion of modernity. The silk road has been, above all else, the route through which ideas, languages, notions of cooperation travelled. That is why the sponsors of a renewed silk road, in Beijing and in Moscow, must invest at least as much effort (by marshalling social scientists as much as trade economists and energy technicians), to be true to what the silk road has stood for.

Rahul Goswami is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia makanaka@pobox.com


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