LIU Yingsheng, Dept. of History
Autumn Semester, 2015
The Silk Road and China
The purpose of this course is to help young students to examine the past of China and Chinese civilization from the viewpoint of world history. The course will focus on the communication between the east and the west in the period before the Opium War.
1.The origin of the term the “Silk Road” and the its mass fervor in the present world
The Silk Road is not a historical term and has never appeared in any Chinese or non-Chinese historical sources. It is a newly created term. The first user of it is the 19th century German historical geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. He used the term die Seiden Strasse, the German equivalent to the Silk Road, referring the ancient commercial routes from China to Europe via Central Asia. Later this term was accepted by scholars of many countries, and gradually extended its original meaning to describe the commercial, as well as political, cultural exchanges between the east and the west before the modern period.
Research on the Silk Road has been greatly promoted worldwide since the general secretary of Unesco Mr. Federico Major started a project on the Silk Road Expeditions in order to enhance mutual understanding among peoples of different countries who have grown and been educated in different civilizations. In a word, it aimed to uphold world peace. Therefore this project was strongly and warmly supported by the member states of Unesco, as well as the scholars of non-Unesco countries, like the UK and the US.
2.What is the Silk Road
During the process of planning this project, specialists of different countries invited by Unesco discussed the title of this project. Some scholars preferred the term of the Spice Routes, for one of the main traditional products exported from West Asian countries, and Indian Ocean countries to the Far East, was different kinds of spices. And some scholars would like the term Porcelain Routes, for Chinese Porcelains were widely welcomed by the people outside of China, and were largely exported by ancient Southeast Asia, the Sub-continent, West Asia, Africa and Europe in the medieval period.
But more scholars believed that the east-west exchanges in ancient times went far beyond commercial goods and cargos, for via this route, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestrianism (a sect in the name of Nestorius, a branch of Christian religion) , Manichaeanism, Islam as well as Judaism entered ancient and medieval China, and the important Chinese inventions like paper-making technique, printing technology, the magic compass and gun powder, spread to the rest of the world . In case the terms like Spice Routes or Porcelain Routes were accepted, the project would be limited in the area of commercial links between the east and the west. Additionally, silk itself is thin and long and beautiful, and has been widely welcomed by peoples of many different nations, and the Silk Road as a term can cover all the above-mentioned areas. That is why this project was eventually named as Silk Road Project by Unesco.
Many years ago, I received a booklet describing the Silk Road written by a Sri Lankan friend, which begins with a question raised by his son to him: “What is the Silk Road? Does there exist a road made from Silk? ”Now we can answer the question like this: the Silk Roads is a term and a symbol referring to the political, cultural and economic exchanges between the east, including China, Russian Far East, Korea, Japan, and Central Asia, Eurasia, South east Asia, the Indian Ocean as well as the Mediterranean worlds.
3.The Silk Roads Expeditions Organized by Unesco
Although this project was completed many year ago, its influence deeply impressed the scholars of the member states of Unesco. Therefore it is still necessary to briefly introduce it here. The Silk Road Project included two parts.
The first part was mainly carried out in academic circles: organizing integrative expeditions, international conferences, symposiums, and exhibitions in the countries along the Silk Road through cooperation with the local governments, publishing relevant books and monographs, and establishing scientific network among specialists and scholars, research institutions, libraries, and museums of different countries.
The second part concentrated on the media. Unesco invited influential newspapers, magazines, tv and radio stations to participate in the above-mentioned activities, in order to introduce the project to the public.
1.From my point of view, the Silk Road expeditions were the most important and influential activities, for the following reasons:
Nomber 1, these expeditions were not only multi-national, but integrative expeditions. Participants came from almost all the member states of Unesco, as well as non-Unesco countries, like the US and the UK, and had different academic backgrounds: some like me, were historians, and others were archeologists, ethnologists/anthropologists, linguistics, etc.
Number 2, the member states of Unesco organized the specialists of the international expedition team to visit many important historical sites and museums related to the Silk Road, which are far beyond the ability of most specialists to visit during their lives. Therefore all these arrangements provided very good facilities for scientific exchanges among scholars of different academic backgrounds, and between the local scholars and their colleagues abroad.
2.The planned expeditions are as follows:
1) Desert Routes Expedition, starting from Xi’an of China, finishing in Kashghar of Xinjiang, China. This expedition was carried out in the summer of 1989, a symposium of limited scale was organized in Dunhang of Gansu province, and a large scale international conference was held in Urumqi of Xinjiang, focusing on the topic “Trans-continental Silk Road and Cultural Exchanges between the East and the West before the 10th century”.
Unesco called this expedition the Eastern Part of Desert Routes Expedition, for they planned to organize another expedition starting from Merv of the ex-Soviet Turkmenistan and finishing in Istanbul of Turkey. Unfortunately, this plan was given up for the Soviet Union no more existed.
2) Expedition of Nomadic Routes, in the territory of Mongolia.
3) Expedition of Altaic Routes, from the Altai area, a huge mountain range formerly spanning China, Mongolia and the Soviet Union, and now crossing the borders of China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. The reason for planning this expedition is that the languages of Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu-Tonguz, Korean and Japanese belong to agglutinative languages. Therefore some scholars believe that from the linguistic point of view, peoples using these languages must have some kind of link in the ancient times.
The above-mentioned two expeditions were later jointly organized in the summer of 1992, called “Expedition of Nomadic/Altaic Routes”, which started from Hovdo city, and the capital town of a Mongolian province having the same name in the Altai area, and ended in Ulaan Baatir, the capital of Mongolia. Therefore the whole line was located in Mongolia. Prof. Shi Weiming, Sechen Choqtu, and me joined this expedition as Chinese specialists.
4) Expedition of Buddhist Routes, starting from Naranda temple of India, via Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Kighizstan to China. This expedition was finally given up due to the poor relationship between India and Pakistan, and the war in Afghanistan.
5) Steppe Routes Expedition. According to the original plan, it would begin from Odessa by the Black Sea of the Soviet Union, and ended in Alma Ata of Kazakhstan. In order to organize this expedition, the academy of the Soviet Union had organized an expedition participated by their domestic scholars and officials.
4. The New Silk Road
Since the 2nd half of 2013 the Silk Road has become a popular word cited frequently in different media, as President Qi Jingping suggested building “the Silk Road Economic Belt” jointly with the neighboring countries during his visit to the 4 ex-Soviet Central Asian countries (namely Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), and participated in the 2013 summit meeting of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) between Sept. 4th and 13th.
SCO was founded in 2001 based on the Agreement of the Trust Measures of Bordering area’s negotiation between China and its neighbors, namely Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tajikistan. The 2nd stage of this agreement was the establishment of SCO, or Shanghai Five, as it was call at that time. For at the beginning the agreement was reached among the above mentioned 5 countries, and the original member states were those countries. And later, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan joint it this organization.
Since then in the area of trade and economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges, huge progress has been achieved. In 1992 when the ex-Soviet countries got independent, the total amount of trade between China and the five ex-Soviet countries (the above-mentioned 4 countries plus Turkmenistan) was only 460 million US dollars. Ten year later, in 2001 it increased to 5.5 billion US dollars. And in 2012 the amount reached nearly 46 billion US dollars. Today, China is the biggest trade partner of the 5 ex-Soviet Central Asian countries, and the biggest importer of petrol and natural gas produced from Central Asia.
Encouraged and promoted by SCO, its member states established the mechanic system of joint anti-terror military exercises, meetings and discussions by defense ministers, dialogues among high-ranking security officials periodically. In addition, the summit meeting of SCO.
The significance of the rise of China in world history has surpassed that of the United States in the 19th century, and equals that of the Industrial Revolution that happened between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. One of the reasons is the population involved. At the end of the 19th century, the total population in the industrialized countries was only 200 to 300 million. That brought these countries to the top of the industry chain as well as the food chain, who used most of the global raw materials and natural sources, and the gap between the rich and the poor became bigger and bigger. This tendency was not stopped by the rise of Japan, and that of the so-called Four Asian Tigers (namely, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea), for the total amount of their economy, compared with the traditional western countries, was not big enough. However, the rise of China means a population 3 times big will share the global raw materials and natural sources which seems to be only prepared for the old industrialized countries. This means the direction and the existing channels of currency of treasures (财富流动) will be changed step by step.
Although China is a country with a vast territory and abundant sources, the natural sources and raw material produced domestically cannot match the increase of its development. Meanwhile though having the biggest population in the world, the production of its industries still needs overseas markets. We can therefore imagine that if China continues to develop like this in the future, its demand for raw material will become bigger and bigger, and it will rely more and more on other countries for selling industrial goods.
Now we may look at China’s neighboring world. Except Japan and Korea, to the north, Russia and Mongolia are two countries with less population and rich natural sources. To the west, namely Central Asia, West Asia, there are countries either with a huge population, like Pakistan, or with rich natural sources. And Southeast Asian countries usually have big populations and close historical links with China.
Additionally, we should not forget that all these countries are far away from the modern industrial and scientific centers, like Europe and the US, and it will be difficult for them to develop independently into industrial societies. In this case, it is natural for them to choose to cooperate with China, to share the results and to learn the experiences of China’s development.
We may take Central Asia as an example. The ex-Soviet Central Asia had been a part of the Soviet Union. Although they became independent after the Event of Aug. 19, 1991, Russia still treated this area as its backyard. After Sept. 11, 2001, the US influence extended here in the name of anti-terror. At the same time, Central Asia is one of the important areas of fuel production in the world. Meanwhile, China is the biggest and most (?) stable market of petrol and natural gas. The Sino-Kazakhstan oil pipeline, with a length of 2800 kilometers, has become an energy canal between China proper and the Caspian Sea since it was opened in 2006, and 500 million tons of oil has been exported to China from Kazakhstan.
According to statistics, the amount of natural gas consumed in China in 2012 was 127 billion cubic meters, in which 25 billion was imported from Central Asia. Now two natural gas pipelines and the second Sino-Kazakhstan oil pipeline are under construction.
President Qi Jingping discussed the possibility of participating in the construction of several new energy projects in Turkmenistan during his visit.
You may have noticed that Pakistan Prime Minister Husein visited China in Feb. 2014, and discussed the issue of building the Sino-Pakistan “Energy Corridor”. As you know, Pakistan transferred the management of Gwadar Port to China in 2013. This port is located near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and is very close to the oil fields of the middle field. It is planned that oil pipelines, highways and railways will be built between Gwadar Port and Kashghar of Xinjiang.
As the cooperation between China and its neighboring countries keeps on developing, the old Silk Road will revive.