The Silk Road: A New History

Valerie Hansen. Oxford Univ, $34.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-515931-8
The Silk Road was never really a road at all, but rather a “stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains” that carried a slow trickle of trade between the Near East and the Chinese empire over millennia. The arid conditions along the trail have helped preserve some of the greatest treasure troves of the ancient world, increasing our understanding of dozens of cultures. Hansen, an expert in early Chinese history at Yale, presents an erudite, scholarly look at artifacts as diverse as Buddhist sutras, ancient bills of sale, and even petrified dumplings, placing each in its proper context and building a detailed historical record drawing heavily on primary sources. At times too dry for general readers, this study may put off specialists with its lack of focus—Hansen touches on civil service examinations, prevailing stereotypes of Sogdian merchants, bans on religious practice, and sea trade with Southeast Asia in succeeding paragraphs—but the work does break new ground with its close textual analysis of so many original documents. Although trade on the road largely consisted of “impromptu exchanges of locally produced and locally obtained goods” (silk was one common currency; another was antelope skin), such exchanges played no small part in shaping the modern world. 19 color and 61 b&w illus., maps. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 05/21/2012
Release date: 08/01/2012
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