Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 18 News List

The story of the Silk Road told in highly colored snapshots

British academic Susan Whitfield is an eminently qualified guide to the history of this remarkable trading road

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Life Along the Silk Road
By Susan Whitfield
242 pages
John Murray

This is an intelligent and therefore an interesting book. Its author works at London's British Library and is responsible for the computerization of many of the incomparably precious manuscripts held there and elsewhere originating from Central Asia. But what she's written here isn't in any way a dry monograph but 10 tales, narrated in a quasi-fictional manner, based on her reading of the ancient documents that are her professional responsibility.

The result is a set of narratives from the Silk Road's great days. Comparisons with medieval collections of tales -- those of Boccaccio or Chaucer, for example -- are inevitable but inappropriate. There the chivalric alternated with the low-life and farcical, but the narratives in this book are largely vehicles for the scholarly author to unload her knowledge, and instruct the reader through the more palatable medium of storytelling.

She begins with a chronological account of this most remarkable of trails. It has been a trading road for as long as there have been people there to trade, and Chinese silk has been discovered in Bactria (modern Afghanistan) dating from 3,500 years ago. But before that it was mankind's greatest migration route eastwards. If, as is now generally believed -- though some Chinese ethnologists dispute it -- we all originated in Africa, and are even descended from a single black African Eve, many of the forebears of the present populations of Asia got to where they are now along this road. (Others probably traveled further south, and by sea).

Susan Whitfield runs the International Dunhuang Project, providing Internet access to over 50,000 ancient manuscripts from the region that are now dispersed in different collections (for more see http://idp.bl.uk). Dunhuang is the name of the town in China's Gansu Province near where a small cave containing over 40,000 Buddhist texts and paintings was discovered by accident in 1900. It had been sealed in the 11th century, and the importance of the texts it contained, Whitfield says, is impossible to overstate. Because of a shortage of paper, many of the sacred texts were copied onto the backs of documents dealing with more mundane matters -- letters, medical prescriptions, even bawdy stories -- with the result that the historical value of the hoard as a whole is beyond measure. Cartloads of these manuscripts were bought within a decade by the British and French sinologists Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, after which the Chinese authorities closed the cave and removed its remaining contents to Beijing. More manuscripts, however -- including some forgeries made by a local trader -- continued to be available when Japanese and Russian teams later arrived on the scene.

This is a very readable book, yet behind it lies all the authority and judgment of an exceptionally knowledgeable specialist. Susan Whitfield clearly has the instincts of a popularizer, however -- essentially a love of her subject so great that she doesn't want it to remain only the province of experts. The result is that you know you're in good hands, and so can sit back and enjoy the book knowing that even its smallest details are impeccably authentic.

Some of the tales are in actuality miniature travelogues. The first one, for instance, focuses on Samarkand in the 6th century AD. Ostensibly it tells the story of a merchant, but the opportunity is used to give a detailed picture of this famed trading center -- its buildings, the styles of dress there, the goods traded, and so on. The Silk Road existed for such a long time that its story can only be told by means of highly colored snapshots in which time is frozen and the life at one place and time examined in detail. These tales in effect provide such snapshots.

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