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The term Silk Road has been debated and used in a variety of subjects ranging from leisure to politics, to an economic fishing hook to academic debates. The numerous questions in the academic field to whether it existed, to where it can be mapped if it did exist, is it still a relevant field of study, can it really be simply classed as the link of East to West and so on. These questions are fair and are still hotly debated but where did the term come from? Is it fair to say that it has lost its influence as a historical site(s) and study? This essay aims to show that the relevance of the Silk Road(s) is still important and still has an impact in this modern world. The article will cover (I hope) the romanticism of the Silk Road, its political strength and recognition today and its remaining prominence as a field in which historians and archaeologists are still discovering things of the Silk Road(s). The argument of whether it has ended or still continues today will be the conclusion of this article.


The Silk Road is known most commonly as the major trade route between the East and West from roughly 206 BCE through to mid-16th century. The term ‘Silk Road’ was originally coined by Ferdinand Freiherr von Richtofen, Richtofens usage of the word was originally used to refer to the routes which Chinese silks were traded between the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, though the term is ‘Silk Road’ this did not necessarily mean that the routes were exclusive for trade in Silk as many other things were traded along these same routes as well such as precious stones, iron, grapes, furs, spices, musk and most importantly religious ideas; amongst things like domesticated horses and livestock. The term ‘Silk Road’ was not officially publicised until, or rather its first use in a published manner until 1910 by Albert Hermann ‘Die alten seidenstrassen zwischen China and Syrien: beiträge zur alten geographie Asiens’[1] Seidenstrassen meaning Silkroad. This work was highly cited by many other scholars. Many scholars may have cited Hermann’s work but it was Sven Hedin and his expedition partner Folke Bergman who brought about the more generalised meaning of the Silk Road and expanded Ricthofens ‘Silk Road’ which was focused on trade between Chang’ An and Central Asia to that of trade between many different countries, from China to India and Tibet. Bergman’s work expanded the Silk Road from the singular to the plural and the ‘Silk Road’ became more commonly known as the ‘Silk Roads’, here the use of ‘roads’ is misleading as there was also sea and mountain routes that linked to the land routes. In establishing these routes Bergman wrote his 7 volumes of expedition notes. Later Hedin wrote his book ‘The Silk Road’ was translated and republished multiple times all around the world, in places such as Japan and China itself as the popularity of the Silk Road(s) grew in 1963 a man named Louis Boulnois wrote a historical guide based on the Silk Road, ‘La Route de la Soie.’[2] One of the major factors to this fascination and romanticism can, arguably, can be attributed to things such as Marco Polo and stories brought from travelling monks who note their travels.

The interest in the Silk Road(s) grew from an academic interest to a much more general interest amongst the populace and businesses and marketers soon jumped on the opportunity to use the name for their profiteering. The Silk Road became an image of exoticism and romance strongly influenced by the many playwrights and stories traded amongst travellers about different cultures, new things they were not used to seeing and so on. This led to the recognition of Silk Road worldwide and as James A. Millward claims that the name of ‘Silk Road’, Silk Road a lure simply and an attempt of Asian Fusion[3] in a presentation promoting his new book ‘The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction’. Arguably you can claim that what is meant by this is a type of globalisation, Millard in his book even argues that ‘Qualitatively speaking, the Silk Road through history accomplished the same sort of things we attribute to ‘globalisation’ today.’[4] The Silk Road(s) is not represented just by things like restaurants as a lure but there was a website called ‘The Silk Road’ which sold drugs online selling things like Hash, Musk amongst other A and B-class drugs. There is also an online game based on the Silk Road(s) known as ‘Silkroad Online’[5] without going to deeply into the game, some of the things you can do in the game is trade items and make money many of these items are based on things that would commonly be sold along the Silk Road(s) and battle mythical Chinese, Buddhist demons and bandits. The idea is to play on the romanticism and adventure that is portrayed in playwrights and monk travel journals. One of the great novels of China ‘Journey to the West’ written by or attributed to Wu Cheng’en also has its largest section of the novel based on the Silk Road(s), the story based on 3 disciples of a legendary monk who go to India to claim some Buddhist scriptures involves a lot of Mythical folk Chinese and Buddhist demons or fantastic creatures. Arthur Waley who introduced this to the West translated this novel. The wide spread interest and romanticising of the Silk Road(s) led to a very large ‘pool’ for the many businesses and marketers to ‘fish’ for customers and ultimately profit and it is still used today. Interest and association with the Silk Road(s) has not decreased, arguably it has fortified the image of exotic, high quality and wonderful goods and it is possible to argue that the Silk Road(s) still exists and holds influence though in an ephemeral way, rather than a physical one.

The Silk Road(s) are not only used in the commercial sense, recently it has been used as a political symbol for unity of cultures and trade. James A. Millward in his book speaks of a phone call from one of Hillary Clinton’s staff where he is asked whether Bishkek was a Silk Road city. The staffer wanted to know because Hillary who was first Lady at the time wanted to use the Silkroad in her speech to promote unity of the people.[6] Again she used the Silk Road in another speech in India where she said she wished to create another Silk Road between South and Central Asia. The Turkish President speaks in a conference about his plans to make a new Silk Road between Turkey and through Afghanistan in November 2008[7], though the trade aspect was not accurate as the presenter or intermediary claimed that it was silk as if the only trade. The Turkish president emphasises not only the trade aspect with the East and West he also speaks of connectivity of cultures and improved education. This plan for a new Silk Road focuses on trade in oil, gas and education with aspirations of freer trade with the west as well as in Central Asia. In 2012 in the Global Horizons Oxford Analytica conference there was discussions in a geopolitical aspect in reference to the Silk Road(s) in which the Western powers have limited influence on the regions along the Silk Road(s). During this time there was still the war between Afghanistan and Britain and America, this was problematic, this as well as the political agreements that were not being met between governments provided a multitude of problems, though the reference of the Silk Road and the same goals of global economic and political impact was the point of the arguments.[8] More recently in 2013 the Chinese President Xi Xingping claimed to make the ‘New Silk Road’ priority discussion of the 13th annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in which he claimed that Beijing investing in new roads and bridges along the Eurasian Land bridge (another denominator of the Silk Road) which focus on railways, highways and fibre optics.[9] The Silk Road(s) is still recognised today but not as just a trade route but also as a way for countries and cultures to mix and understand one another. Politicians see the power of the Silk Road(s) as a symbol for economic growth and cultural understanding, which benefits all parties involved and of course is likely to increase foreign opinion of said party.

The Silk Road(s) or the existence of the Silk Road(s) has been debated amongst historians one historian David Christian argues that it was not exactly ‘road(s)’ but steeps instead as much of the trade along what was known as the Silk Road(s) was actually carried over steeps or the bases of mountains or deserts ‘For much of their length, the Silk Roads passed through or along the edges of arid steppes or desert lands’[10] Christian also writes of how many of the Steppe settlements and ecological settlements away from the main in-land cities were still very prosperous.[11] This view changes the ‘Road(s)’ to ‘Route(s)’ also since most of the trade was from steppes and woodlands, silk was not the main focus of the trade. Valerie Hansen on the other hand does not dispute the existence of the Silk Road(s) but does argue that it was not the economic powerhouse of thriving trade as it has been seen, but as more of an cultural success in which the trade was not of goods but ideas ‘While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road was important historically- this network of routes became the planet’s most important cultural artery for exchange between East and West of religions, art, languages, and new technologies.’[12] James A. Millward, however claims that the Silk Road(s) is just an idea instead of a physical existence in which companies and politicians use in an attempt to evoke peoples wish to live in that type of exotic fantasy world where we are all connected with unexpected surprise at the next stop.

‘But the evocations of the Silk Road in music, travel, games, food, fashion, pharmaceuticals, and even politics speak of something else: nostalgia for a world connected but discrete, a world still capable of surprising us, where the bazaars at the next oasis sell something different from our own, where our strenuous journey yields a comparable measure of spiritual insight. That Silk Road may be a fantasy, but we still hope to travel it.’[13]

The Silk Road(s) arguments, although valid have seriously undermined the historical importance of such a route(s). These routes clearly (of course arguably) did exist, the trade along the Silk Road(s) is the only way in which any of the settlements that once lined the route(s) could survive, this and the discovery of new evidence still happening today solidifies this argument. Though the fact those commercial companies as argued by Millward and Whitfield have diluted this legitimacy as a field worth studying. The overall truth is whether either argument is correct the Silk Road(s) still has a large influence today and many people have some knowledge of what the Silk Road was, politically the Silk Road is used to promote unity between cultures and progressive economic gains for all parties. As a label it emphasises something romantic, exotic and exciting.

[1]Susan Whitfield, ‘Was there a Silk Road?’, Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity, 3:2 (2007), p1

[2] Susan Whitfield, ‘Was there a Silk Road?’, Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity, 3:2 (2007), p2


[4] James A. Millward, ‘The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction’, (Oxford University Press 2013) p2


[6] James A. Millward, ‘The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction’, (Oxford University Press 2013) p3




[10] David Christian, ‘Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History’, Journal of World History, 2:1 (2000), p7

[11] David Christian, ‘Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History’, Journal of World History, 2:1 p9

[12] Valerie Hansen, ‘The Silk Road: A New History,’ (Oxford University Press, 2012) p235

[13] James A. Millward, ‘The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction’, (Oxford University Press 2013) p121