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.
Matthew W. Mosca
China’s relations with the Asian world between 1500 and 1900 were shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. A common denominator in these international relationships was a loose framework of ideological principles and administrative procedures later dubbed by scholars the “tributary system.” This “system,” first posited in the early 1940s, has remained the single most influential concept for interpreting the interactions of Ming and Qing China with Asian countries. However, in recent decades it has been critiqued from various perspectives, narrowed in the scope of its application, and modified by a greater focus on the actual course of specific cases rather than ideological principles. That is, historians have increasingly come to understand China’s relations with the Asian world as influenced by pragmatic considerations and changing local dynamics, so that each relationship and the factors shaping it are best understood on their own terms. One approach to the study of Ming and Qing relations with the Asian world is to consider it within the framework of three regional groupings. China’s interactions with its neighbors in Northeast Asia were shaped by its largely stable relations with Korea and the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its radically fluctuating relations with Japan, sometimes marked by conflict and sometimes by the deliberate avoidance of political contact. Early Ming political relations with maritime Southeast Asia atrophied as the role of European and private Chinese merchant intermediaries increased. Those with continental Southeast Asia (particularly Burma, Siam, and Vietnam), more enduring, were influenced by intense regional rivalries that occasionally impinged on the borderlands of China’s southern provinces. In these two regions, the Ming–Qing transition, although particularly resented in Korea where it involved two invasions, did not radically alter existing patterns of international relations. By contrast, the vast territorial expansion of the Qing Empire did greatly change China’s foreign relations to the north and west, where it encountered states that had not had relations with the Ming. In these regions the Qing government drew principles and practices from its foreign relations in the south and east, but modified them to fit new conditions. After 1800, and more intensively after 1850, European and later Japanese imperial power began to penetrate Central, South, Southeast, and ultimately East Asia, in each region undermining existing Qing relationships with Asian neighbors. By 1900, virtually all former Qing tributaries were under the direct or indirect control of the British, Russian, French, or Japanese empires.
China’s economic rise has been accompanied by the maturation and increasing professionalization of academic disciplines in China, including the discipline of international relations. The emergence of an indigenous international relations discipline in China has led to an intense debate about the development of a distinctive “Chinese School” that draws on China’s intellectual traditions and historical record to inspire the development of new international relations theories. While the debate continues, the outlines of a Chinese School are becoming clear. The Chinese School of international relations theory draws on Confucian concepts of relationality and hierarchy to theorize the character of the relations between countries rather than focus on the attributes of countries themselves. It also highlights the historical existence of interstate systems organized in a hub-and-spoke pattern around a single, central state. The premodern East Asian world-system in which China was embedded and classical Chinese scholars developed their ideas was a central state system. Premodern China was always by far the dominant state in East Asia, with the result that international relations in the East Asian world-system exhibited a hub-and-spoke pattern centered on China, as in the tributary system of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Moreover the Confucian worldview that ultimately came to be China’s state ideology served in effect as the governing moral code of the system as a whole. The combination of a central state structure with a universal moral code created what in Chinese is called a tianxia (“all under heaven”), a world-embracing system of governance centered on a particular state, in this case China. In a tianxia system international relations tend to be hierarchical because of the clear power differentials between the central state and other states. They can be either expressive (showing social solidarity) or purely instrumental, depending on the stance taken by the central state. Chinese School international relations theorists tend to assume that the “best” (most stable, most peaceful, most prosperous, etc.) world-system configuration would be a tianxia system dominated by expressive rationality and centered on China, but this is no more self-evident than the widely held Western preference for a liberal, rules-based order. What Chinese School international relations theory really offers the discipline is a new set of concepts that can be applied to the theorization and empirical analysis of today’s millennial world-system. This postmodern interstate system appears to be a central state system with a universal moral code, an American tianxia based on individualism. The historical Confucian Chinese tianxia may be the best precedent for modeling this system.