Susan Whitfield writes Life along the Silk Road based on character stories occurring between the eight and tenth century, all living at different times. She writes this history for several reasons. First, she writes it to change the negative perception of the history of Central Asia that we know through the annals of its neighbors. By explaining the history of the region through the eyes of its own occupants, it rids the history of any distorted views from neighboring civilizations. She uses the comparison of trying to examine the life of the Atlantic Ocean by studying the ecology of Europe.
Another perception Whitfield attempts to overcome is that of the present day Silk Road. Today, it is largely Islam, and it is occupied by Turkic Uighurs and Chinese colonists. During the time of the book, it is occupied by Indo-European people who were largely Buddhist. Another reason she wrote this novel is simply to tell of the extremely eclectic history of the area. The Silk Road resulted in interaction between numerous religions, languages, and people. Africans, Semites, Turks, Indians, Chinese, Tibetans, and Mongolians were a few of the people you may have come across on the Silk Road.
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Religions such as Manichaeism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Buddhism were the dominant religions you might encounter. So the people were very diverse, and the trade of the Silk Road was the one unifying factor between all these different cultures. Another minor reason she wrote the book was to explain the intense conditions that travelers faced on the Silk Road. For many, it was an epic journey. People would travel as far as 3,000 miles through many geographical obstacles. In one trip, one might encounter the cold and snow of the mountain ranges, the dry heat of the desert, or the wetness of the marshes.
Explaining this entire history through the eyes of several individuals makes it more interesting for those who find straight histories a little on the boring side. Stories are also easier to remember compared to a bunch of facts about a time period. Susan Whitfield writes of ten different stories in her book. All of these stories give accounts of what life was like on the Silk Road. The Soldier’s Tale is a very bloody account of what life was like. For twenty-five years, Seg Lhaton, a Tibetan soldier, had been at battle. The Silk Road was his home during this time.
The Tibetan army controlled a large region of the Silk Road between Sogdiana and China. They blocked all trade and diplomatic missions through that region. They only way trade could persist was to go another route through Uighur territory. They, however, charged tolls for safe passage. China and Tibet were at war for years. Many battles were fought that resulted in much blood shed. The story of these battles gives a better insight as to what happened, rather than simply spitting out facts about who won. Whitefield also uses this story to describe some of the harsh conditions along the road.
She mentioned that at some points water was extremely scarce. However, at other times there were major floods that acted as major barriers. Often dividing the Chinese from the Tibetans, and postponing a battle. There was also a story about a Chinese officer who lost his foot to frostbite while traveling through the mountains. In the end of the story, Seg Lhaton has to travel over 1,500 miles to get back to his home. The Princess’s Tale shows a lot of the harsh conditions that one would face when traveling on the Silk Road. Princess Taihe journey begins traveling through the Ordo, which is a region of desert and mud.
Then, she traveled alongside the rivers for a long time. She then reached the Gobi Desert. Whitfield’s statement about this portion of the journey sums it up. “From here there were many months of marching across the Gobi Desert before the Princess would see water in any abundance, yet alone another river. ” Then to finish off the journey, the Princess had to endure the freezing cold accompanied by snow. In total, her journey spans over 1,000 miles, and boredom affects Taihe. Throughout her journey, Taihe also experience several different religions and cultures.
She encounters people of Kashmir, Gandhara, Arabia, and Turkish descent, as well as Uighurs. She also travels through Tibetan territory. While traveling, she passes by a Manichean temple, Buddhism is fully assimilated into the society, and her family claims to be descents of the creator of Daoism. Taihe’s encounters with such a diverse group of people shows how the Silk Road brings people together, even though it’s not always in a positive way. Taihe herself was actually given to the Uighurs by the Chinese as a peace settlement. Finally, the aspect of heavy trade along the Silk Road is mentioned several times.
At one point, Princess Taihe stops and has wine. This was a very expensive wine that was largely sent to Chang’an where Taihe was from. It also mentioned silk being traded with Uighurs after Taihe’s husband died. The Chinese brought in over a half billion bolts of silk. The Merchant’s Tale includes more bloody battles. This time, it is involving the nomadic Arab tribes, the Tibetans, and a few other civilizations. In fact, his father was killed in battle. However, the most important aspect of this story is the tremendous diversity that Nanaivandak and his uncle come across.
Not only do they experience culturual and religious diversity, but they also encounter extreme environmental diversity and trading diversity. Nanaivandak was brought up as a Zoroastrian, but later converted to Manichean. There were also Buddhists, Jews, and Nestorian Christians in his hometown. This is a very diverse religious group in just one sit. In order to do well in trade, Nanaivandak has to be tutored in Arabic, Chinese, some Turkic, and Tibetan. These were the languages he needed to know in order to be a merchant. Additionally, he had to carry a variety of currencies because he encountered such a variety of people.
On their journeys, Nanaivandak and his uncle experience a large variety of environmental factors as well. Their trips were extremely demanding. Often they had to travel 3,000 miles to get to their destination. To make matters worse, they had to climb through high mountain passes that demanded considerable endurance. They experienced freezing cold as well as searing heat. A variety of terrain also included marshy ground, bare rock, and grey-yellow sand. In addition to the terrain variances, Nanaivandak also saw a large variety of animals.
He saw camels, wolves, wild horses, herds of asses, antelopes, gazelle, gerbils, and lizards. Nanaivandak was also involved in a huge trade market. He bought and sold items all along the Silk Road. Some of the items he carried were wool, jade, gems, silk, ornaments, jewelry, brass, drugs, amber, coral, gold, wine, and many more. This made him an extremely wealthy man. He was able to afford strippers, buy expensive items, and basically anything he wanted. In order to protect his wealth, he had to carry around weapons while traveling in order to protect himself from thieves.
Through out her many stories, Susan Whitfield does a great job of depicting the life along the Silk Road. Rather than plainly stating the history of the land, she uses characters experiences to explain the history. In all the stories, aspects of diversity in language, culture, and terrain are evident. Additionally, Whitfield depicts great bloodshed through out the history of the Silk Road as well as a lot of trade. The Silk Road began to decline around the eleventh century. China’s influence was felt less and less as Islam spread, and the Silk Road towns were gradually abandoned, to be reclaimed by the desert sands.