Trading Cultures Along The Silk Road: An Interview with Professor Valerie Hansen

MiranWingedFigureFor many the “Silk Road” conjures images of exotic goods, verdant desert oases, and the bustling markets of ancient China. However, the Silk Road was also a conduit of ideas, technologies, diseases, the arts, and even fashion. Spread across nearly 6,500 km (4,000 mi), the Silk Road affected the course of history, molding civilizations in Europe, Arabia, Persia, India, and China.

In this media interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Professor Valerie Hansen, author of The Silk Road: A New History and Professor of History at Yale University. Approaching the importance of cultural transmission through archaeology and material history, Hansen reveals new perspectives while narrating a fascinating story of early global exchange.

JW: Professor Hansen, it is indeed a pleasure to be speaking with you on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Welcome! This is the first time I have interviewed an expert of ancient China and I am thrilled that we are going to discuss your new history.

I wanted to begin this interview by asking how you first became interested in the Silk Road and ancient Chinese civilization? Aside from this recent publication, you have also written about trade, culture, and religion in medieval and early modern China.

VH: The lives of ordinary people have always interested me, but the challenge for me as a historian of China was to go beyond the dynastic histories and the writings of literati–which constitute the large bulk of Chinese sources–to find out about ordinary people. In the and 1960s and 1970s, Chinese archeologists uncovered an unusual body of written materials at the site of Turfan in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. These excavated materials included more than 1500 documents that had been recycled and made into paper clothing for the dead. Once reassembled, they allowed historians to study life in a seventh century town under the rule of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). At first, I was interested in what these documents revealed about the Tang dynasty, but then I realized how fascinating the history of the entire region of northwestern China was.

JW: What do you believe is the greatest misconception about the Silk Road? If there is one thing that we ought to know about the Silk Road, what is it in your opinion?

VH: Most people think that the main reason for travel on the Silk Road was trade. Close examination of excavated documents from Turfan and other Silk Road sites shows that people traveled for a variety of reasons. Some (these are the best-documented) were envoys sent by one king to bring gifts to and to spy on other monarchs. Some were Buddhist monks who traveled to study with learned teachers and to teach students. Others were artists and craftsmen who brought their skills to new locations. The most numerous groups were those who fled their war-torn homelands for new, safer places.

These different groups sometimes financed their travels by selling items they were carrying, but their primary purpose in travel was not trade.

JW: Your investigative approach within The Silk Road: A New History is quite innovative in that you analyze unusual archaeological remains and artifacts from across the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang. Furthermore, you provide a close textual analysis of surviving original documents, which makes your book an invigorating read for the scholar and layman alike.

TangBarbieI was amazed to see that you examine everything from ancient Buddhist sutras to the remains of discarded food and even “recycled” papers. What prompted you to pursue this approach, and which of your discoveries enthralled you the most?

VH: Again, my endless curiosity about lives of actual people always sustained me. My favorite discovery was the figurine that the employees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Tang Barbie,” because she was almost exactly the same height (29.5 cm or 11.6 inches) as a Barbie doll. As stylish as a Barbie, she wears an outfit combining the best of Persian fashion (a circle with a pearl border around birds) with Chinese (her striped silk skirt with a gauze overlay).

If you look closely at her, you can see that her arms and hands are made from paper. When archeologists dismantled these other figurines, they unrolled their arms and found that they were made from pawn tickets. Other sources record the existence of ancient “pawn shops,” but these are the earliest surviving pawn tickets in Chinese history. The tickets record the addresses of the people borrowing money, and everyone who lived in the Tang dynasty capital, in the neighborhood of a monastery. Many Chinese pawnshops were actually located in monasteries because the Buddhists could generate merit by lending money, interest-free, to the poor.

Most puzzling of all, Tang Barbie and the other figurines were buried in a grave at Turfan. We do not know why. Maybe craftsmen in the capital made the figurines and shipped them to Turfan–or maybe paper salesmen gathered up the used pawn tickets and shipped them to Turfan, where craftsmen turned them in the arms of tomb figurines. Either way, we learn about the possessions of ordinary people living in the Tang dynasty capital, something we did not know before.

JW: I was fascinated to learn that trade on the Silk Road can be characterized as “impromptu exchanges of locally produced and locally obtained goods.” Could you explain this further to our readers, commenting also on the extent to which trade was regulated and encouraged by the ancient Chinese government and military? From what I gather, trade was rather sporadic and relatively low in volume.

VH: If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that many of the goods people bought and sold were locally produced. One market register survives from Turfan, and it lists all the different items for sale at the market in 743 CE: vegetables, animals, and textiles. The one good that came from far away was brass-inlaid, high quality swords, which were for sale alongside cheaper, locally made knives.

One of the most important players in the Silk Road economy was the Tang government, which sent out thousands of bolts of silk as pay to its armies. Silk was much lighter than coins so it made sense to ship silk, not coins, to the northwest–and the government was chronically short of coins anyway. Once paid, the soldiers then spent their money in local markets, which contributed to the prosperity of the region. Government spending, not private trade, contributed greatly to the Silk Road.

Private trade was indeed sporadic and relatively low in volume, but these shipments of silk by the government were anything but.

JW: Professor Hansen, I was surprised to learn that one of the most common goods on the Silk Road was ammonium chloride. I am no chemist, but I thought that ammonium chloride was used only in fireworks and cough medicine! How was it used on the Silk Road and from where was it exported?

VH: Ammonium chloride, sometimes called “sal ammoniac,” had multiple uses: as a leather-softener; as a flux to lower the temperature of metals; and for dying textiles. Much of it came from modern-day Uzbekistan.

JW: I cannot complete our interview with at least one question on the Sogdians; given their importance in facilitating a network of exchanges between East and West for several centuries, should we regard them as one of world history’s great “Middle Men”? What made them such savvy traders? 

VH: Absolutely! The Sogdians were a Persian-speaking people famous for their skill in trading. The Chinese pilgrim-monk, Xuanzang (602-664 CE), gave voice to a widely held Chinese view of the Sogdians: “Their customs are slippery and tricky, and they frequently cheat and deceive, greatly desiring wealth, and fathers and sons alike seek profit.”

The compilers of the official history of the Tang dynasty echoed this prejudice in their description of how the Sogdians raised their sons to be merchants: “When they give birth to a son, they put honey on his mouth and place glue in his palms so that when he grows up, he will speak sweet words and grasp coins in his hand as if they were glued there…They are good at trading, love profit, and go abroad at the age of twenty. They are everywhere profit is to be found.”

Where earlier scholars often assumed that all Sogdians living in China were traders, more recent discoveries have shown that Sogdians emigrated to China and became farmers, soldiers, metalworkers, and in one documented instance at Turfan, a veterinarian whose nickname was “Ostrich.”

JW: How funny! The Silk Road certainly attracted merchants and opportunists from across Eurasia; in addition to their goods and services, these travelers also brought their religious beliefs and social practices. Buddhism entered China from India via the Silk Road, while Islam later made inroads into China through the trade routes across Central Asia.

What was the religious milieu like along the Silk Road and what forces permitted or restricted religious pluralism and tolerance?

VH: Several important religions existed on the Silk Road before the year 1000 CE: Buddhism was the most important, but devotees of Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, mostly from Iran, and of the Christian Church of the East, based in Syria, also moved along these Central Asian trade routes. Local rulers tended to be Buddhist, but they allowed people of other religions to practice their faiths. Sometimes they even donated funds for non-Buddhist temples and sacrifices.

The coming of Islam marked a sea change. The city of Khotan came under Islamic rule sometime around 1006 CE, and the conquering armies deliberately targeted Buddhist temples and monasteries. It took centuries before Islam became established in Xinjiang, but eventually almost all local rulers and their subjects converted.

JW: I think that it is important to note that the Silk Road was not merely a direct line of trade from the Chinese city of Xi’an, across Central Asia and the Middle East, terminating in Constantinople or Rome. There were in fact many different routes between East and West, and even a “maritime” Silk Road. Cultural exchanges occurred along the various routes but to differing degrees.

Professor Hansen, you demonstrate in your book that the level of exchange between China and Iran was of immense importance; clearly, there is far more material evidence of high levels of exchange between China and Sasanian Iran than China and the Roman Empire. Could you share with us what it was that cemented such strong ties between these two ancient civilizations?

VH: Tang dynasty China and the Sasanian empire of Iran (225-651 CE) were almost neighbors: some Persian-speaking city states lay between Iran to the west and China to the east. Before the fall of the Sasanian empire, Iran and China had established diplomatic ties. After the Arab caliphate conquered the Sasanians, the Shah and his son fled east to China. Tang China suffered a chronic shortage of coins, and the peoples of the northwest used Sasanian silver coins rather than Chinese coins, even after c. 640 CE, when the Tang conquered Turfan and became the major military actor in the region.

JW: Before I conclude this interview, I was wondering if you might share a brief word about your next academic project? Furthermore, do you have plans to continue working on topics related to the Silk Road?

VH: Part of the fascination of the Silk Road is the continuing stream of new discoveries of both texts and objects, and I will always be interested in those. I am now thinking of writing a book about the world in the year 1000 CE to show the deep ties connecting the different regions of the world long before Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

JW: Thank you very much for speaking to the Ancient History Encyclopedia about your new book, Professor Hansen! I wish you many happy adventures in research and only the best in 2013!

VH: Thank you! It’s been my pleasure talking with you, James.

Please see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of The Silk Road: A New History.

Image Reference & Credits:

1. Roman-Style Winged Figure. Silk Road artists modified the Roman motif of Eros as a handsome young man with wings to decorate the interior wall of a Buddhist stupa on the southern route around the Taklamakan Desert. Permission: Professor Valerie Hansen.

2. Ancient Niya. Worn by the centuries, the outer layer of Niya’s stupa has been stripped away, revealing the bricks underneath. Wooden documents found at this site are a treasure trove of information about life on the Silk Road in the third and fourth centuries CE. Niya is located on the southern edge of the Tarim Basin in modern-day Xinjiang, China. Photo: Wang Binghua.

3. Tang Barbie. When this 7th century CE Chinese beauty was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the staff nicknamed her “Tang Barbie” because she was the same height as the children’s doll and every bit as fashionable. Her arms are made from recycled paper that turn out to be important documents from a pawnshop. Permission: Professor Valerie Hansen.

4. Map of the Silk Road and Central Asia. Map Source: International Dunhuang Project (The Silk Road Online). Permission: Professor Valerie Hansen.

5. Silk Road Dance Party. The swirl, introduced by the Sogdians, was performed all along the Silk Road by men and women alike, and described by contemporaries as fast-paced and exciting. This painted stone panel comes from the tomb of a Sogdian headman–in Xi’an, China–who died in 579 CE. Photo: Yang Junkai.

6. Zoroastrian Art from Xi’an, China. This Sogdian tomb has a typical Chinese stone tomb entrance-way with Zoroastrian art above the doorway. Zoroastrian imagery found in tombs like this is much more detailed and informative than anything that survives in the Iranian homeland of Zoroastrianism. Photo: Yang Junkai.

7. The Tomb of Xinjiang’s First Islamic Ruler in Artush, China. This tomb-shrine of the first Karakhanid king to convert to Islam, Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan (r. 920-958 CE), is among the most venerated sites in Xinjiang. Photo: Mathew Andrews.

Valerie Hansen is a professor of history at Yale University. Her books include The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276, and, with Dr. Kenneth R. Curtis, Voyages in World History. In the past decade, she has spent three years in China: 2005-06 in Shanghai on a Fulbright grant; and 2008-09 and 2011-12, teaching at Yale University’s joint undergraduate program with Peking University. To learn out more about Professor Valerie Hansen and her new history, please visit her homepage and view this video from from the Asia Society.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners and are copyrighted. They have been given to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Professor Hansen as a courtesy, for the purposes of this interview. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), international traveler, and fan of ice hockey.