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Review of Susan Whitfield's Book "Life Along The Silk Road"

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The Silk Road is thought of one of the main arteries of international trade, however the term does not explain the impact of the phenomenon on individuals. That is mainly because the topic is too complex and elusive. The term contains the movement and exchange of any intangible or tangible good, service, and ideologies through trans-Eurasian routes. The kickoff of this exchange began in the first millennium BC but was not limited to one historical period or generation. Trade still exists through identical routes and the effects of the exchange continue to multiply through globalization.

Susan Whitfield is a librarian and international professor with access to manuscripts, arts, artifacts, and other relics from the Silk Road. With these records, Whitfield chronicles and connects snapshots of characters who lived at different points through the Silk Road. These stories describe communication, transportation, goods, services, people, ideas, religion, disease, culture, technology, conflicts, diplomacy, and any other evidence of life to be found throughout the Silk Road. They also give different accounts and perspectives of what it was like to interact with the Silk Road. Through this book, Whitfield offers a small glimpse of the interconnectedness of the historical Afro-Eurasian web.

The stories in Life Along the Silk Road describe tangible good such as jade and other precious stones, metals for currency and armor, teas, furs, livestock, perfumes, ad any other desired materials to be found in other lands. People traded goods or resources they specialized in for ones they wanted or lacked. Ideologies spread as politics, religions, technologies, fashions, and more were carried as humans across these routes. Technological trades appear in one example of as paper making which allowed the production of almanacs and books which held worlds of philosophy and geography into a wider record of information. We see that the biggest intangible value was the ability to do business and communicate or exchange with neighbors who have unique goods and technologies.

Throughout the story and contributing to the expansion of routes, geography and politics were great obstacles. Although some routes were shorter, they were dangerous and convinced travelers to take longer or previously uncharted routes. Some terrains acted as major barriers. If a route extended into another’s territory, parties would have to use diplomacy, such as trade bribes or other deals, or strategy, through scouts and military exports, to get them through. Natural resources were also a big influence. At some points water was scarce, at others game was scarce and they would have to find more to continue their journey. These routes connected the world in ways that touched people all over even in small ways by the culture, technologies, and goods from different worlds and its influence continues today.

Through a flashback to 821 Chang’an, The Princess’s Tale illustrates the conditions of an alliance between Chinese and Turkish forces. Her journey told the stories of treasured Nisean horses collected from Kashmir, Gandhara, and Arabia. The finest were gathered from Ferghana until Chang’an was forced into exclusive trade with the Uyghurs. From then, the Chinese military became dependent on the Uygurs for their supply of calvary horses in addition to Uygur strength. In accordance with tradition, Imperial Princess Taihe would be sent in her older sister, Yongan’s, place to create a peace-making marriage to an Uygur Khagan. She would travel in company of her retinue, Uygur horsemen, Chinese officials to bestow the new insignia of office on the new Khagan, and camels carrying gifts for the Khagan and provisions for the convoy.

This journey would also explain some dangers of travelling the Silk Road as they traveled through exposed territory and through inconvenient terrain- that even looped back to her family palace- to avoid stronger or unpredictable forces. This large caravan would take much longer than covering the distance of over one thousand miles on ponies. Besides accommodating people, to meet the different needs of the herds they used for transportation, they would also have to stop to allow all to graze and provide fodder for the camels crossing the icy terrain. This stall would increase the threat of unfriendly forces such as Tibetan Raiders, resource depletion, or harsh weather.

Taihe arrived, married the Khogan and the Chinese and Uygur cultures, and lived together for two years before he passed away. After his death, she chose to stay in Uygur and witness new Khogan rise to power. As the capital weakened and was unable to repel enemies, Uygur rulers lost control of the lands. In danger, Taihe had to eventually be smuggled back through the Silk Road to remain in the emperor’s territory and protection. Meanwhile, The Courtesan’s Tale was unfolding. The courtesan, or Larishka’s, tale began as one of music. At this time, Kuchean sound traveled all over and was sung and played into China from where it was later passed into Japan and Korea.

This song was accompanied by dance and were both bought and sold down the Silk Road. A mix of the Kuchean and new elements from each culture are still performed today. Larishka was an entertainer who specialized in the Kuchean lute. She and her city, Kucha, became very well acquainted with Uygur refugees and soldiers who were concentrated partially as a request from the King as aid and stationed to control surrounding areas. Once when performing for these soldiers and nobles, who were the main supporters of her career, Larishka was noticed by a general who took special interest in her who took her to a neighboring land to perform for his own guests.

However, she ended up as one of many who were captured or enslaved on the journey of these soldiers to become a service for them. From then, Larishka never settled but was passed around until she was sold to a “stepmother” for who she became a courtesan who she stayed with in Chang’an for nearly two decades. After witnessing rebel groups challenge the imperial forces through massacre and destruction of the city, which would lead to the change of emperor and dynasty in China, she escaped to Kucha. Unlike the one she left, she returned to a Kucha that had been transformed by a higher concentration of Uygur settlement and influence including art, religion, culture, and military. From there, we are transported to 903 Isfahan.

The Writer’s Tale was formed from the spillover of two cities made of different Jewish and Arab cultures. Besides the trade of religious beliefs, the transformation of empires had given Isfahan to many different rulers, new trade, currency, goods, and technologies such as paper making and silk production. His city favored roses and board games imported from India, the latter modified and tweaked at their stop in Persia where chess fleets turned into chariots. Over a game of chess or in a bathhouse is where we would find our writer, Ahmad. There he listened to travelers’ stories and shared his own popular fictitious tale of travelling with fur traders to the North. Ahmad’s story illustrated the Rus fur traders wearing their wealth as precious gemstones and metals that they collected by raiding or trading in distant lands. The transaction focused on furs, amber, armor, silver, and slaves and the lands stretched from Caspian, India, and the Gorgon region through interfaith relations with the Arabs and others who traded for Rus furs and goods.

Since the Rus rowers often ran into trouble with the Khazars who owned the popular waterways, they would look for ways to bypass them and even travelled longer and more difficult routes, some extending to the edges of Europe. Ahmad’s journey was a safe one past the Khazars that allowed him to enjoy a more colorful and diverse world. Research and teachings from these expeditions travelled too and were incorporated by others. Calendrical knowledge was like everything on the Silk Road, a collection of influences from many countries. Back in China, this knowledge was used to legitimize leadership and society through manifestations in the sky. When the Tang Dynasty came to power in Chang’an, it was insecure and monopolized production of calendars to monitor its role in politics and collect income from sales. Even though the private distribution of almanacs was prohibited, almanacs were still made and sold everywhere, including the monastery Zhai Fengda studied at.

The Official’s tale tells how Feng was placed in a Buddhist school as a kid because his father hoped that he could become a government official. When the Tang dynasty fell, those hopes fell with it and Feng became a clerk like his father instead. However, Feng continued to produce his own works inspired by the almanacs and poetry from his classrooms. Feng eventually created his own calendar after securing an administrative job in the military and was promoted up to the title of “Erudite of the Classics in Dunhuang Prefecture”. Today he is known by his surviving almanac and series of manuscripts he commissioned in memory of his wife and his story tells of the spread of Buddhist practice and China’s decreasing influence and power on the Silk Road.

These stories focus on fictitious or composite stories, which means that they were composed from multiple individuals experience in the Silk Road. History is not written in complete chronological records. Many pieces come from stories and legends that have been passed down, letters, paintings, pictures, poems, artifacts, etc. Some records left out the details or how the world was understood and perceived by these historical peoples. Also, the book travels a long period of time with the transformation of regimes and technological revolutions, so there may be inconsistencies in the records. Academic historians have had to fill in the gaps by bringing the separate and incomplete pieces together.

Having all the details together allows us readers to stimulate the world around us and be more involved in their stories or adventures. We may better understand or remember strategy and responses in dealing with historic environments and become more emotionally connected. The narrative not only relates you to history and historical figures, but relates you to the cultures, relationships, and realities that may still be alive today or may derive influence from these historic ideas. It also explains relationships between states and transformation of politics between them. The fictitious collection was created to piece all these fragments together in a moving, relatable, and memorable way. Life Along the Silk Road introduces us to new worlds and brings the events to life.

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Review of Susan Whitfield’s Book “Life Along the Silk Road”. (2020, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from
“Review of Susan Whitfield’s Book “Life Along the Silk Road”.” GradesFixer, 19 May 2020,
Review of Susan Whitfield’s Book “Life Along the Silk Road”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 18 Jan. 2022].
Review of Susan Whitfield’s Book “Life Along the Silk Road” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 May 19 [cited 2022 Jan 18]. Available from:
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