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.
Justin M. Jacobs
The vast region known as “Soviet Central Asia” encompassed the territory of five Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Because of the region’s environmental features, particularly its aridity, historically there had been a close linkage between people and the environment in this region. But the Soviet regime set out to radically reshape this relationship, focusing on the fields of agriculture and animal husbandry, large-scale water engineering, nuclear and biological weapons testing, and medicine and public health. By focusing on the environmental impact of these policies, scholars can see how Moscow’s efforts brought many benefits to the region. Cotton production boomed, and Moscow declared the eradication of malaria. But they also left horrific scars. Josef Stalin’s program of agricultural collectivization devastated Kazakhstan, resulting in the death of more than 1.5 million people. The Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest bodies of water, began to shrink dramatically during the Soviet era, a development due in large part to Moscow’s efforts to divert the waters that fed the sea to cotton production.
David A. Bello
Agriculture—especially grain cultivation—informed the primary environmental ground of imperial China (221 to 1912 ce) and was ideally intended to produce human habitat from state-supervised environmental change. The consequent political and socioeconomic development of the empire and its constituent dynasties was conditioned within larger global ecological contexts that can be abbreviated as two major climate shifts, the Medieval Warm Period (MWP, c. 1000–1300 ce) and the Little Ice Age (LIA, c. 1400–1900 ce). Before 1000 ce, China likely experienced a number of less prolonged alternations of cold and warm climate, such as the Sui-Tang Warm Period (650–700 ce). Chinese empire’s adaptations in response were rooted in agriculture, augmented by agro-pastoral and pastoral measures mainly concentrated along and above north China’s steppe ecotone. Critical inputs for the sustainability of environmental relations were maintained throughout the imperial period and came from domestic and foreign sources—most critically including the fertile eroded silt of the north China Loess Plateau, the water resources of the Yellow and Yangzi river basins, a high-yield crop suite of both dryland and wet rice varieties, south China fast-growth tree species, and New World silver and highland crops. Ongoing development and exploitation of these resources across the succession of seven major—and over a dozen more localized—dynasties over two millennia allowed China’s population to expand at globally unprecedented rates, numbering from tens of millions around the year 0 ce to hundreds of millions during the 18th century. In the process, biodiversity—especially that of wild growth forest habitats—was steadily reduced from north to south, successively. The empire’s main resource base and population centers correspondingly relocated south of the Yangzi around the watershed Song (960–1279 ce) period, with the Grand Canal tapping both of China’s major rivers to deliver southern abundance as far north as Beijing by the Yuan (1279–1368 ce). Inner and Southeast Asian peripheries came under comparable agro-commercial developmental pressure only during the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912 ce). With the onset of the 19th century, however, destabilizing environmental pressures emerged across the empire, many of them paradoxically driven by once-effective adaptations.
Peter D. Shapinsky
Historians translate a variety of terms from 13th- through 17th-century Japan, China, Korea, and Europe as “Japanese pirates” (e.g., Jp. kaizoku, Kr. waegu, Ch. wokou). These constructs reflected the needs of regimes and travelers dealing with a maritime world over which they had little direct control, and often denoted bands of seafarers who based themselves in maritime regions beyond and between the reach of land-based political centers. Seafarers rarely used the terms to refer to themselves. Japanese pirates opportunistically traded, raided, and transmitted culture in periods when and places where the influence of central governments attenuated. However, some innovated forms of maritime lordship that enabled them to establish dominance over sea-lanes and territories at the heart of the Japanese archipelago. Pirates developed expertise in navigation and naval warfare that helped them acquire patrons, who provided access to networks of diplomacy and trade. In the 16th century, some Japanese pirates forged multiethnic crews that seized control of the maritime networks linking East and Southeast Asia. Labels for Japanese pirates also operated as ethnographical, geographical, and historical symbols. Traumatic assaults by waves of Japanese pirates who massacred and enslaved local populations were indelibly etched into the collective memories of Koryŏ–Chosŏn Korea and Ming–Qing China. By contrast, in early modern Japan the eradication of piracy enabled the state to extend its maritime sovereignty as well as to then commemorate pirates as ethnocentric symbols of Japanese warrior prowess.
Japan defined its northern edge against Russia over the course of the 19th century. In earlier periods, an area and people known as Ezo marked the northern edge of Japanese state and society, but expansion of both the Russian and Japanese polities brought them into direct contact with one another around the Sea of Okhotsk. Perceptions of foreign threat accelerated Japan’s efforts to map and know Ezo, and shifted understandings of Japan’s northern edge outwards. Maritime routes defined this new northern edge of Japan, and their traces on the map tied distant locales to the national body. Maritime space was therefore crucial to this expansion in conceptions of the nation, through which the maritime boundary of Japan came to incorporate much of the Ezo region. The mid-century opening of Japan transformed this maritime boundary, which was shaped in the latter half of the 19th century by Japan’s particular situation, even as global and universal concepts were drawn upon to justify its operation. Japan’s participation within international and inter-imperial society conferred upon it the ability to appeal to such concepts for legitimacy, a participation made possible by the state’s efforts to satisfactorily map and administer the boundaries of Japan’s northern edge.
Modern relations between Tibet and the Chinese state retained many previous patterns of connection and contestation in trade, diplomacy, and religion, but also exhibited new and heightened conflicts over strategic, political, and economic control. From the 7th to the late 19th century, the Tibetan regions went through successive periods of imperial expansion, political division, Mongol rule, indigenous dynasties, and Qing rule, in close chronological correspondence with China’s political formations. However, since the late 19th century, the degree to which Tibet was integrated into the modern Chinese state became progressively greater. Unprecedented levels of direct, secular, and extractive control were imposed through military and economic policies inspired by a Han-centered nationalism that rejected traditions of ecclesiastical legitimation, flexible administration, and local autonomy practiced during the Yuan and the Qing periods. As modern Chinese politics has been convulsed by the forces of antiforeignism, antitraditionalism, socialism, industrialization, and state capitalism, the Tibetan populations in China have been subject to intense state pressure and social upheaval. From a historical perspective, the direct Chinese rule since the mid-20th century was a departure from past Tibetan religious, political, and environmental trajectories. At the same time, the present international discourse surrounding the Tibet issue represents the latest phase in Tibet’s historical entanglements with great power competition in Asia.
The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.