Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes by Susan Whitfield, Thames and Hudson/University of California Press, 4/5 stars
Silk Roads is encyclopedic in scope and structure, and made up of several dozen short essays by almost as many different authors - each lavishly illustrated with indescribable photos of objects and places.
The Silk Road is, as a term, a modern (late 19th-century) construction. Like the Holy Roman Empire - which was famously neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire - the Silk Road was not a road, not unitary and not confined to (or even focused on) silk.
Editor Susan Whitfield, who has passed this way before, uses (as do others) the plural, which is somewhat less inaccurate - if not just as vague.
However, like other such anachronistic terms like the "Middle Ages" and "Byzantine Empire", the Silk Road(s) has proven useful. It is usually clear what is being referred to - the places between classical civilisations and a focus on what connects, rather than what separates.
The boundaries drawn in Silk Roads seem more or less conventional ones.
Chronologically, the essential ingredient of the Silk Road was trade, so the book starts up in the last few centuries BC, and winds down with the advent of the early modern world and the advent of Europe's dominance in truly global trade.
Geographically, the book includes the end points (China and Rome), and has added the ocean routes, India, the Arabian peninsula and the East African coast.
The weight of the actual material of the book remains in what would broadly be considered Central Asia. Notably, Whitfield does not include the 16th-19th century Manila Galleon (Spanish trading ships) trade across the Pacific, which in the modern Chinese version of this narrative has been added to the Maritime Silk Road.
The relatively easy part of this review is the discussion of the illustrations, which make up perhaps two-thirds of the book.
The photographs range from full-page, coffee-table book spreads to fully annotated illustrations dating from the 19th century to the present day. They range from close-ups of intricate jewellery, measured in inches, to limitless landscapes.
Architecture, textiles, ceramics, frescoes, sculpture, metalwork, coins and documents all feature. Some pieces are reasonably well-known; others are revelatory. Some are of things that have since been destroyed, but all are well-chosen (the selection of period maps deserves particular mention). The reproduction quality is uniformly excellent and the layout attractive.
The advantage of having multiple short articles is that the wide diversity of information is presented in bite-sized pieces. The result is rather like an old-fashioned, albeit much better-illustrated and much better-written, encyclopaedia.
The editorial control is excellent: the various essays cross-reference each other and there is minimal repetition. Despite the diversity of authors and subject matter, the book manages cohesion and a commonality of voice and tone.
The disadvantage, however, of having multiple short articles is that the wide diversity of information is presented in bite-sized pieces. Some subjects are too broad to be covered in 1,000 words or less, jumping from one end of the continent to the other in a matter of pages. An article on the steppe is illustrated mostly by examples of the more manageable subject of walls.
The essays that work best are those on narrower, more specific subjects such as coins, glass, the kaftan, stringed instruments or Manichaeism - a major religion founded by an Iranian prophet. Coins and glass, like religions, could travel extremely far from their origins.
The book is structured into sections which are geographical: "Steppes", "Mountains and Highlands", "Seas and Skies", etc. Non-geographical topics - the various religions, physical culture, such societal questions as slavery and so on - are dispersed among these sections, and the allocation doesn't always seem organic.
The whole, however, is at the very least the sum of its many tantalising and thought-provoking parts, from repeating images of three hares or rabbits joined by sharing an ear to an essay on "Slavery and servitude in the Indian Ocean" - which suggests the "slavery needs to be understood within the local context" and that "slavery across the Indian Ocean is more accurately understood as a form of dependency". It's a perspective which, however reasonable, is hard to fit into modern discussions on slavery and its contemporary legacy.
Silk Roads is a book to experience rather than read. And it is hard to experience it without comparing it with Christoph Baumer's four-volume magnum opus on The History of Central Asia. Both are beautiful, fascinating large-format publications, simultaneously erudite and accessible.
Baumer takes a more traditional historical approach - his divisions are chronological and political, with topics in sidebars - and although Baumer strays well beyond what one might consider the normal boundaries of Central Asia, his focus remains the region rather than the topic. The books complement each other rather than compete. Picking up one increases the appetite for the other.
One may, as some do, consider the term "Silk Road(s)" an example of egregious intellectual or political branding, but if it produces wonderful books such as this - to say nothing of encouraging an increased focus on relatively understudied areas, peoples and subjects that call current world views and conventional wisdom into question - we should still be grateful.
Asian Review of Books
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