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date: 17 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Much has been said and written about the “Silk Road” since Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen coined the phrase in 1877. Fostered by spectacular discoveries by so-called explorers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, and others, the Silk Road soon became the subject of countless articles, books, museum exhibitions, and even legends. In times when almost any location—virtual or real—is but one mouse click away, the catchphrase Silk Road has not lost any of its original appeal. On the contrary, the term is almost constantly present in all kinds of media. Yet, it is never quite clear what exactly the Silk Road concept really entails. When was it established? Was it even formally established? What was its purpose? Was there but one function? And, more importantly, how useful is it as an analytical concept in the first place?

These are the main questions this article seeks to answer. Its arguments are based on an analysis of the earliest available sources: archaeological finds from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, indigenous documents written in Kharosthi script, and early Chinese historiography. The article will argue that the history of the early Silk Road (and its so-called prehistory) was considerably more complex than generally claimed. For instance, we can certainly not pinpoint a fixed date on which the Silk Road was established; neither were the intercontinental land routes primarily traveled (and populated) by traders. China’s initial forays into Central Asia in the 2nd century bce were politically motivated and had little to do with silk trade. The exchange of the famed fabric was at best a corollary of political interactions between the Western and Eastern Han Empires and powerful steppe nomads such as the Xiongnu. The latter extorted copious amounts of luxury goods from the former and redistributed them throughout Central Asia and Eurasia. Thus, this article claims that the Silk Road as an analytical concept does not do justice to the intricacies of prehistorical and historical realities. It therefore introduces the concept of movement as a heuristic tool to analyze cross-cultural interactions.

Keywords: Silk Road, movement, Han dynasty, Xiongnu, Chinese foreign relations, archaeology, Central Asia, Tarim Basin, tributary system

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