BRI: History of the Silk Road

In the next 3 Tuesdays, we’ll be publishing a series of articles addressing the Belt and Road Initiative, placing the project in a historical context and analyzing its application in practice.

The BRI, as its full name implies, “Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Development Strategy”, makes a reference to two large historical commercial routes. To introduce the topic, it will be interesting to approach them to understand a little of the region’s history.

One of the biggest misconceptions that exists in the abstraction and the common sense idea of the Silk Road is that it used to be, as the name indicates, a Road. As Buzan & Little[1] point out, the logistics of trade in the pre-medieval era was very different from the one we know today, in which commodity transport is made in infinitely larger volumes and frequency. It’s evident that the technological paradigm dictates the dynamic and the flow of goods, which, since its inception, meant that the Silk Road was essentially a network of entrepots, connecting regional and imperial systems and other smaller political units from Europe to China, through an expanse of land that would be impractical for a single power core to exert military control over, or to police efficiently. This doesn’t exclude, however, the transport of small, high value merchandise, of which Roman chroniclers such as Cicero and Seneca[2] highlighted silk, the latter being critical of it, stating that female clothes made thereof would result in the moral degeneracy of society, a commentary that reinforced the East’s stereotype of a place of luxury and hedonism. The viability of such commerce made it possible for the emergence of vast networks over time, more so than a single route with a beginning and an end, as well as advanced accounting systems within the big economic centers, that almost like a constellation would dot the trajectory of merchandise. Together with these, language, religion and scientific ideas also travelled, which would irreversibly mark history with the search for the East and the perfecting of technological resources that made deepwater navigation possible in the 15th century, the beginning of the end of the Silk Road.

If the land based Silk Road saw the emergence of large urban centers in unlikely places, such as Merv in present-day Turkmenistan or Samarkand in Uzbekistan, not to mention the Kushan Empire, guardian of the Khyber Pass that connects Afghanistan to Pakistan, one of the main connections between the East and the West, the Maritime Silk Road also had its importance. If the Atlantic routes were hard to navigate safely and reliably, something which only technology was able to overcome, the Indian routes have a long history of interchange, facilitated by seasonal winds, whose knowledge allowed locals to maintain regular commercial connections. This is the context that Vasco da Gama found as he reached India, with naval and military technology that was adapted to Renaissance Europe’s reality. Less well known is the commercial fleet of admiral Zheng He[3], which the Ming emperor decided to dismantle, in a period when China turned inward.

With the ebb and flow of empires, the Silk road was a perennial mark alongside history, never with a well defined identity, but as a complex system, sometimes with dispersed power, sometimes unified under imperial systems wherein the Persian empire stands out, or even the Pax Mongolica, but especially where ideas travelled and transformed alongside riches. The idea of a new Silk Road will always be evocative, especially in its implications for the relations between modern states, and the possibilities that modern technology opens up.

[1] Buzan, B., & Little, R. (2000). International Systems in World
History: Remaking the Study of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

[2] Frankopan, P. (2015). The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
London: Bloomsbury.

[3] Kissinger, H. (2011). On China. New York: Penguin Books

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