The Concept of the Silk Road in the 19th and 20th Centuries
- Justin M. JacobsJustin M. JacobsDepartment of History, American University
The concept of the Silk Road first attained prominence in the latter half of the 19th century as part of European attempts to impose economic and political claims upon the lands and peoples of Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan, Chinese Central Asia, or Chinese Turkestan). These claims were given cultural substance at the turn of the century by a series of expeditions undertaken by Western explorers and archaeologists, who ventured into the deserts of northwestern China in search of Greco-Indian art and antiquities. The study and display of such artifacts were motivated primarily by a desire to highlight the eastward migrations of Indo-European speakers into Central Asia. When these same expeditions began to reveal the presence of ancient Chinese ruins and antiquities as well, Chinese scholars and officials joined their Western counterparts in the field, using the material proceeds of their excavations to construct competing narratives of the westward influence of Chinese civilization. In the decades since the end of World War II, the concept of the Silk Road has come to dominate popular and scholarly associations with the region, monopolizing everything from the advertising of Central Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine to the names of academic monographs and international string ensembles.
The elusive and malleable idea of “the Silk Road” has provided an attractive ideological platform over the past 200 years for major political, economic, and cultural actors throughout Eurasia to assert their imagined historical importance across both time and space, often with a highly romanticized gloss. In that sense, it is a purely modern intellectual construct, one that would have been utterly unfamiliar and likely incomprehensible to those historical agents it purports to describe.