Life Along the Silk Road
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999.
Writing in a style somewhat reminiscent of Edward Schafer's "The
Golden Peaches of Samarkand," Susan Whitfield produced a neat little book entitled Life Along the Silk Road. This publication constitutes a welcome addition to the growing scholarly literature in English on
Central Asia. This region of the world presents a formidable challenge for Western historians. During the last three millennia this area of the world served as the homeland for a motley assortment of nomadic peoples who frequently terrorized their more sedentary civilized neighbors.
Just trying to identify who was where during what period of time (and for how long) can vex the most dedicated historian.
Fortunately, for students of Asia, a fairly impressive number of delightful books appeared recently offering extremely helpful information about this mysterious region. This especially proves true for conditions in this area during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). These publications became possible because of the accessibility of thousands of manuscripts plundered by Western and Japanese adventurers in the first decade of the twentieth century. Yet it took quite a while before these Dunhuang manuscripts successfully inspired scholars to reveal their contents.
Susan Whitfield offers ten well-balanced biographies in this volume. She also included a Preface, map, annotated bibliography, and index. The biographies deal with four women and six men, each from a distinctive social class and profession, who lived from the 9th through the 10th centuries. Five are Han Chinese and the others are Sogdian,
Tibetan, Uighur, Kashmiri and Kuchean. The men are a merchant, a soldier, a monk, a horseman, an official and an artist. The women are a princess, a courtesan, a nun and a widow. They also lived in different cities along the Silk Road and some, such as the merchant, travelled from Samarkand in the west to Changan in the east. The balanced mix of people, profession and social status allowed Whitfield to infuse each biography with ancillary information pertaining to religion, flora and fauna, medicine, housing, food, scenery, and so forth. She also was quite faithful to report major historical events for each "tale."
Susan Whitfield appears extremely well-qualified to conjure up this assortment of tales concerned with Life Along the Silk Road. She supervises the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library. This
COMPARATIVE CIVILIZATIONS REVIEW
project recently made available on the Internet to scholars everywhere over 50,000 pre-eleventh century Silk Road documents. This represents a veritable cornucopia of materials that will keep scholars busy for many decades. Amongst several impressive titles credited to her, she is listed as co-author of Dunhuang and Turfan: Contents and
Conservation of Ancient Documents from Central Asia. Having ready access to this material and obviously very intimate knowledge of its contents, doubtless accounts for the delightful wealth of personalized information contained in these "tales."
This book's most obvious strength is its descriptive details.
Whitfield not only offers matters on the lives of human beings, she infuses her narrative with delightfully elaborate descriptions embracing an amazing plethora of topics. The Sogdian merchant's story which opens this book affords Whitfield that chance to describe where the Sogdian people lived, their distinctive clothing, what products were traded and how people in the 8th century AD bargained. As the merchant in question traveled to Xi'an, this allowed Whitfield to include a description of the travel conditions, the terrain traversed, the cities visited (along with