During a talk entitled, “The Silk Road: A New History,” Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale, questioned the accepted idea of the Silk Road as a long-distance trade route between the Roman and Chinese Empires.
During her research, Hansen has looked at the history of the Silk Road through an archaeological perspective, in particular examining what she called “nonintentional sources,” everyday artifacts that have survived accidentally rather than through a process of intentional preservation such as burial.
19th-century geographer and traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term “the Silk Road” in 1877 to describe an imaginary trade route between China and the Roman Empire. Basing his ideas off of a few remarks in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, von Richtofen claimed that traders traveled long distances on this one route to sell silks and paper as luxury commodities to the Romans. Yet no Early Roman coins have been found in China, and other evidence of this kind of large-scale trade with Rome, focused along a single route, is minimal. China did, however, trade more extensively with the Sassanian and Iranian Empires after the 6th century.
Hansen also highlighted the importance of paper rather than silk as the prized Chinese commodity. Paper seems to have been used as early as the 2nd century BCE, first simply for wrapping drugs. By 300 CE, the Chinese were using paper as a writing material and were soon exporting it to the West. In her work, Hansen tracked the use of paper on the western edges of the Chinese Empire.
Instead of a long-distance trade route, the “Silk Road” seems to have primarily acted as a tool to manage the difficulties of empire on its fringes, especially in the early period until 500 CE. For example, Xuanquan, in what is now central China, was a postal station and a resting point for envoys from the kings. These envoys conducted small-scale trading with locals, but did not carry large amounts of goods over the long distances once imagined by historians. This probably included the buying and selling of pearls and lightweight jewels, using grain, cloth, and even silk itself as a currency.
Hansen pointed to the site Turfan as an example of a typical “Silk Road” settlement on the fringes of the Chinese Empire during the pre-Islamic period until 800 CE. Located in what is now Uzbekistan, Turfan is so dry that many fragile materials have been preserved, including not only paper, but also silk, bread, and even wontons. At Turfan was also evidence that paper had become the primary means writing material, used for loan contracts; in fact, paper had become so valuable that a used paper market had sprung up at the site.
By 700, the first Chinese coins appear at archaeological sites outside of China, in what is now Tajikistan. At the same time, Chinese paper, considered more elegant than the traditional scraped leather, was moving into central Asia. At one site in Dunhuang, archaeologists found a library of 40,000 Buddhist texts, both secular and religious, in a cave; the bundles were even organized in a kind of cataloging system.
Even though the Silk Road can no longer be thought of as a route that facilitated long-distance trade and travel, there was certainly huge cultural exchange along routes similar to the Silk Road, evidenced by the spread of Buddhism from India and the influx of 35,000 Sanskrit words into China. This exchange could only happen through small-scale trading as emissaries, missionaries, and artists traveled from China to areas around the world.