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May 3, 2017

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Silk Roads’ past vital to future prosperity

FOR some of you, it might be a surprise that I focus on the Silk Roads. This seems like the old, mysterious world of the past, one of caravans of camels setting out across the desert, perhaps, traveling across the hot sands on the long and dangerous journey from one oasis to another; or climbing through the difficult mountain passes that lie beyond China’s western frontier.

Many will think of the bundles of silk being taken to market in Central Asia, and then being sold by merchants until some reached the far-away Mediterranean.

Perhaps thoughts will turn to Xi’an, often considered to be the “start” of the Silk Road, and an echo from the past when China’s heart lay not in the east but in the center of the country.

Maybe the image that comes to mind is the Jade Gate, like Shanghai an entrance for, and also an exit to, the world beyond, a world that was unfamiliar and was often thought to be unpredictable and chaotic.

For beyond the mountains and deserts lay peoples keen to borrow and take from China but who seemed to have little to offer in return.

The world of the Silk Roads was one that was shrouded in mystery, dotted with exotic cities like Samarkand or Bukhara, Isfahan or Herat — that flourished in a distant, faraway past.

In fact, there are better ways to understand the connections that wove across the spine of Asia. For there was no “start” of the Silk Road, just as there was no “end” either.

While it is easy only to imagine and think of goods and people passing from east to west — from China outwards — it is important to think as much about what the caravans brought back when they returned home as about what they took with them.

The web of pathways

It is more useful to consider the impact of exchange not only on China but on global history. For rather than being peripheral, and part of a curious and mysterious world that had little impact beyond the heart of Asia, the Silk Roads shaped the world of the past. They are shaping the world of the present. And they will shape the world of the future.

The term “Silk Roads” was invented in the 19 century by a German geographer named Ferdinand von Richthofen, who wanted to try to find a way to explain the connections that bind Asia together.

There was no single silk Road that began in Xi’an or indeed anywhere else — which was why he invented the word “Seidenstraßen,” or Silk Roads, in the plural. It is important to see the web of roads, pathways and maritime links as being plural, flowing not only east to west, but west to east and also of course north-south and south-north.

This is extremely important for those of you who are looking at the One Belt, One Road initiative. It is easy to think of the direction of investment and the consequences in terms as being the projection and extension of China’s interests beyond its borders.

But exchange is of course bilateral; projects, events and investments need to be assessed and analyzed fully — and not looked at only from a single perspective. This is true of the past; and it is true of the present.

The ancient Silk Roads were the veins and arteries that linked continents, that joined the ocean coasts of China not only with the heart of Asia but with the Arabian Gulf, with Africa and with Europe. These were the pathways that ferried traders and travelers, but also pilgrims and holy men. They did not just bring goods and people, but also ideas and languages.

The Silk Roads enabled the transmission of technologies. They were also responsible for the spread of artistic forms, fashion tastes and even recipes and foods; they were not just affected by climate change, but changed the natural world both through the dissemination of flora and fauna but through the way living patterns were affected by urbanization, irrigation and deforestation.

To understand history, it is vital to understand the Silk Roads.

For this ancient world, the problems that it faced, the challenges of expansion and the techniques that were tried all have many echoes of the challenges and opportunities that China faces in the 21st century — and it teaches many lessons that can be useful too. Understanding the patterns of the past is of additional importance. One Belt, One Road has the potential to reshape the world. It is the most significant program for decades, perhaps even centuries. It offers challenges and difficulties; but also the possibility of huge rewards.

Knowledge and learning is the key to make sense of opportunities that lie ahead. And that requires study. It requires travel. It requires not just learning other languages, but learning to respect the cultures and way of living that do not always resemble our own.

This is not an easy thing to do, for it means involving three disciplines: patience; diligence; and time. The key to the success of this inter-connected, inter-linked and successful world of exchange is stability. With that follows prosperity. And with prosperity comes growth. With growth comes self-confidence, tolerance and hope.

Finding a way to make these regions and nations co-operate is essential for local stability and also for global peace. Finding a way to get all to rise together is the secret to make the 21st century the Asian century.

All will win together; or none will.


Peter Frankopan is a senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford, and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. In a speech he delivered recently at Fudan University, he discussed some of the topics in his recent book “The Silk Roads,” whose Chinese edition has been published by the Zhejiang University Press. This is a condensed version of his speech.


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