Silk Road: A Glance at Archaic Globalization

Abstract

Globalization generally refers to the increased interdependence of the world’s economies signified by the circulation of information, money, people and goods across national boundaries. It has of late given rise to the domination of world’s market by a selected number of transnational corporations. However, since time immemorial, different countries were related to one another through geographical spread of ideas, social norms and trading commodities. This pre-modern phase of globalisation is known as archaic globalisation. Silk Road is an instance. It is a network of interlinking trade routes or silk routes across the Afro-Eurasian landmass which carried silk in the main to and fro. China was the first producer of silk in the world. Since second century B.C., China exported silk to different countries as far as the countries on the Mediterranean Coast along different routes. The purpose of the present paper is to analyse the pattern of globalization which took place in several regions of Eurasia from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, using silk as a thread of cultural and economic interaction in the context of the globalisation process today. The globalization process created by interactions and exchange of commodities, culture, technology and religion in the ancient world sought to enrich the world without destroying its cultural diversity. Although our ultimate goal here is analytical, much of the methodology of writing involves narrative. This is because the sequence in which the events happened provides a necessary context for explaining the process of the then globalization. The long passage of time since 2nd century BC to 1400 AD witnessed numerous events of the then global importance. At the outset there was the interaction between China and India, significant because of the role of Buddhism. Then the Christian world’s reception of the Chinese silk has to be taken into account. The advent of Islam shook the global balance of power and the silk trade thereby went through a change. The Islamic empire rose as another centre of silk culture and served as both a block and a link. The brisk trade along the Silk Road continued till the advent of mercantile capitalism in Europe in the fourteenth century. Keeping these in the mind, the paper proposes to study the Silk Road and the nature of trade through the changing times across the emergent events of history as well as the thread of economic and cultural interaction thereof. The study of silk and the Silk Road is thus a model of globalization and sustainable development. It symbolized global economic and cultural networking based on mutual interaction and cooperation. Moreover it is an instance of sustainable development where a commodity like silk has transformed itself from status symbol controlled by the government to a free commodity, through the interaction of different civilizations.

Keywords- Archaic globalization, silk and civilization, economic and cultural networking, sustainable development

1. Introduction

It was in the 18th century that the utilitarian philosopher Bentham coined the word International. In other words, the very word international showed up in the 18th century in the west. In the 19th century, the British Empire expanded enormously and gave a glimpse of a world state. James Thomson cried, “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves." And maybe the vision of Edmund Burke of the British Empire reminiscing the Roman Empire of the past where every country would be self-governing while Britain would look after its defence, touched the imagination of many. Tennyson, the poet laureate of the then England dreamt of the parliament of man and the federation of the world. In the 18th century only, industrialisation took off in Britain and then quickly caught the imagination of the rest of Western Europe and gradually the rest of the world. And it was in the fifties of the twentieth century that McLuhan and, ironically enough, technology helped bring the world into a close knit network goaded by the greed of capitalism. Capitalism should be understood in its matter of fact context. The countries do not belong to a pale outside of capitalism. In practice, communist states are but followers of state capitalism which competes with the so-called capitalist countries in grappling with the market. Capitalism is a monetary motion and force that impels all thinking and all objects of thought and rolls through all things. Whatsoever the one thinks is impelled by capitalist attitude; whatever one creates is impelled by capitalist attitude. In this context, the world is fast rushing to globalization.  It has of late given rise to the domination of the world’s market by a selected number of transnational corporations.

Globalization generally refers to the increased interdependence of the world’s economies signified by the circulation of information, money, people and goods across national boundaries. The Coca Cola that we are drinking in Kolkata could welcome an Indian at Ankara to become fresh and cool. And surely, an Indian in Turkey or a Turk in India will not deem himself a stranger because Coca Cola is in Kolkata and Coca Cola is in Ankara, Coca Cola here and Coca Cola there. The triumph of the global soft drink suggests that globalization is an emergent phenomenon. But history tells us otherwise.

Globalization is not an emergent event concomitant with the rise of capitalism and industrialization. During the ancient times also, trades beyond national boundaries compassing Asia and Africa, the two continents, took place whereby circulation of money, goods and people resulted. As early as in the second century B.C. trade routes were explored which stretched from ancient China to Rome. In fact, trading is as old as civilization and the trade route from China to Rome since 2nd century B.C. is famed as the Silk Road. The Silk Road went past different countries and civilizations and joined China with Rome. And the Silk Road continued for more than a thousand years. It was brisk with trade to and fro since the pre-Christian era down to the fourteenth century. With the advent of mercantile capitalism and gunpowder in Europe, the road vanished.

The object of the present paper is to hark back to the Silk Road. It gives us a glimpse of the archaic globalization or perhaps globalization in the embryonic stage during the ancient times. It is a study which seeks to analyse the globalization process created by interactions and exchange of commodities, culture, technology and religion in the ancient world that sought to enrich the world without destroying its cultural diversity. It recounts briefly the long story of the transition of silk from being a restricted item to a commodity through the interactions between ancient civilizations over far and wide regions. Although our ultimate goal here is analytical, much of the writing involves narrative. This is because the sequence in which the events happened provides a necessary context for explaining the process of the then globalization.

Accordingly, apart from this introductory section, the rest of the paper is divided into three sections:

  • Silk Road, silk and the nature of trade
  • Silk - the thread of economic and cultural interaction
  • Concluding remarks

2. Silk Road, silk and the nature of trade

The early form of globalization known as archaic globalization could be traced in the trade links known as the Silk Route. The Silk Route or the Silk Road is not a single road. It is a network of roads in Eurasia connecting Eastern and Southern Asia with the Mediterranean world, stretching from Changan in China across the Taklamakan Desert, over the Pamir Mountains, through the grasslands of Central Asia, into Persia and then to the Mediterranean, with branches in the northern Eurasian steppes and India. Over 8000 km long, it crossed some of the most difficult terrain. It linked up some of the greatest civilizations of the ancient empires like India, China, Rome and Persia. For over a millennium, technology, art, culture, religion and philosophy were transmitted along these silk routes. Exchanges between China and the ‘West’, i.e. the Mediterranean area, prospered via the Parthian Empire. Glasses and grapes went east, and it was through this route that China’s greatest inventions like Chinese silk, paper-making, printing, gunpowder, the compass, windmills and porcelain were transported to the West. They went to the West either directly or via the Islamic countries ever since the eighth century. It was through this route that Buddhism came to China, which again had profoundly influenced the pattern of economic activities, especially the silk economy. During the early centuries, silk was one of the most precious commodities. The Romans were fond of Chinese silk, transported to them via the Parthians. But the Silk Route is more than silk trade. It has always been a model of assimilation of economic, strategic and cultural identities.

Silk was China’s gift to the world. The Silk Route was the channel through which silk textiles and yarn were exported from the ancient Chinese empires of the Han dynasty and later T’ang Dynasty to the West in Persia, India and the Mediterranean. China started exporting silk since the second century BC and remained the major silk producer for centuries. By the fourth and fifth centuries AD, the international silk market became more competitive and complex. India, Byzantium and Sasaanid Persia all had their own silk industries. This development created a new trade regime where both the old and the new silk producers exported and imported silk fabrics. Though silk was produced in their countries, high quality poly-chrome silk flowed between countries to satisfy the demand for foreign exotic goods. ‘Love for variety’ is thus no new concept in trade theory. There were trades between countries exporting and importing the same type of commodities since the Silk Route era. Silk did not have an intrinsic value; its value derived from the intensive labour and technology involved in its production. Thus, its demand and price varied in different time periods or in different historical contexts.

Simple tabby silks were produced in households and were often used for paying taxes to the
government in Han China. However, government controlled the production and distribution of high quality silk in the earlier period for their own use and for diplomatic purposes. At the other end of the silk trade, during the first century AD, the Romans were familiar with the silk fabric though they were not capable of silk production at that time. Silk was transported there via Central Asia. The westward flow of silk stimulated the flow of diverse commodities from the Mediterranean region to East Asia.

Indian traders under the rule of the Kusanas procured Chinese silk along with other imported goods and indigenous commodities. Urbanisation flourished in northwest India due to a rise in Eurasian trade. During the first few centuries, Mahayana Buddhism developed here. They stressed the importance of worship and donation for a better present life and the assurance of no rebirth. They openly advocated the offering of silk. It helped in the releasing of silk to a larger market.

3. Silk - the thread of economic and cultural interaction

This section tries to reveal the pattern of globalization which took place in several regions of Eurasia from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, using silk as a thread. Following the silk transaction, the study tries to analyze in brief the economic and cultural interactions between the regions like East Asia, South Asia, West and Central Asia, the Mediterranean and West Europe.

China reached its cultural zenith under the Tang dynasty (618-907). India experienced the prosperous short-lived empire of King Harsha (AD 606-47) who patronized the prestigious Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang, thus strengthening the cultural exchanges between the two civilizations. Hsuan Tsang (or Xuanzang) travelled along the northern road of the Silk Route. His travel records narrated the ‘not at all silky’ journey. However, it also recorded the description of many bustling cities (over 200,000 people) and independent oasis city-states on the edge of the Taklamakan desert along the routes, all depending on the Silk Road for their survival. Many of them had foreign merchants and monks from India, Central Asia and the Western regions. Those cities were the evidences of the how the Silk Route trade promoted urbanization.

Around the Mediterranean, The Byzantine Empire where Christianity prevailed retained its supremacy over the western part of the former Roman Empire. Between East and West, the rise of Islam as well as an Islamic empire incorporated Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia, into a new political, religious, economic and cultural domain by the mid-seventh century.

Among these regions, transaction of silk persisted through the so-called Silk Road. However the form and nature of the transaction changed. Silk was strictly a restricted commodity in both Byzantium and China, the two major producers of silk during the seventh century. It was considered a luxury item. The government monopolized its production, distribution and consumption pattern. However, by the tenth century, expensive silks were available in many markets of Eurasia mainly for religious purposes and subsequently there was a total deregulation of this market in China and Europe.

The structure of the silk economy depended on the sub-structures of culture and religion of different civilizations. As silk was the most common form of wealth in China and Central Asian countries and a commodity very much common in India, religious investments were often made in silk textiles. So the close connection between the famous Silk Route and the spread of Buddhism helped in establishing a free market for silk.

Similarly, Christianity prevalent in Western Europe also helped in the expansion of the silk market. Churches stored silks in their treasuries as a form of wealth, and the devotees were encouraged to donate silk to churches. Christians decorated their Cathedrals and covered the tombs and relics of their saints with silk in their concern to get a better afterlife.

Again, in the Islamic Society merchants enjoyed a high status, and among them the most prestigious were the textile merchants. The Islamic empire rose as another centre of silk culture and served as both a block and a link between the earlier two domains.

4. Concluding Remarks

The study of silk and the Silk Road is thus a model of globalization. It symbolized global economic and cultural networking based on mutual interaction and cooperation. Moreover, it is an instance of sustainable development where a commodity like silk has transformed itself from status symbol controlled by the government to a free commodity, through the interaction of different civilizations.

The narrative of the Silk Road speaks of sustainable trade. Although nowadays such phrases as 'sustainable development' are widely used, one wonders whether the world could continue any sustainable development in any sphere, be it trade or politics, for such a long time. Be that as it may, the ancient world could boast of a sustained trade route that continued for more than fourteen thousand years, despite the fact that the countries it ran through witnessed great political upheavals in the meantime. Now, the question arises as to what made that Silk Road possible. It should be remembered that mere utility could not sustain it. An oil pipe from Iran to India might be forged, impelled by the exigencies of the countries through which it travels. But the craving for silk was different from today’s craving for uranium ores. The craving for silk speaks of an urge for the finer things produced by the civilization which was ancient China. But nowadays, such fine things are no longer asked for despite lip service to them. In this context, we might quote Cargoes (John Masefield, 1902) to illustrate our point:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

The first stanza of cargoes gives a picture of ancient period trade, the second stanza portrays an era of mercantilism - the yearning for precious stones - and the last stanza describes the trade pattern of Britain’s industrialisation era. Mere utilization and profit, we are afraid, cannot sustain the globalization, the guiding principle of the world today. Here it should be noted that the story of a silk road is just the tip of an iceberg. The ancient world saw globalization on many planes. Archaeological evidence shows that Kenya had close contact with ancient China of the Tang dynasty. The fables of Panchatantra of India see eye to eye with the Aesop’s Fables of Europe. The story of Ramayana seems to have been retold in the story of Elliot. Such instances could be multiplied. In the ancient world, in spite of a kind of globalisation, every culture and every country lurked in its own elements. One wonders whether the globalization of today that seeks to manifest itself in the India-Iran pipeline, in the revival of the silk road from China to Turkey, could let every country and culture to let in its own elements and contribute to global brotherhood. Maybe an enquiry into the archaic globalisation of which the Silk Road is but an instance could help the world today to achieve a sustainable exchange of wealth, both material and supra-material among the countless peoples of today.

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