The best books about history take the story part seriously. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that history and fiction are the two modes of our narrative imagination. The intertwining of “facts” and “storytelling” are never clear-cut for a storyteller. But if done with integrity and an eye for the enchanting, stories welcome us into a very possible world or real way of life in time, animating what might seem to us dead or gone. I would go further and suggest that the best history books are effectively well-researched storybooks.
Life Along the Silk Road (1999) is a collection of such remarkable stories, stories that offer much more than our conjured fantasies of silkworms, spices, and pilgrims in white robes with camels. The Silk Road is done justice here as the vast assortment of trades, cultures, and war routes that stretched across the Eurasian landmass, from as far west as Rome, Byzantium and the Arab Caliphates to the eastern reaches of the Chinese Empire. The author, Dr. Susan Whitfield, is the Head of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project. She might not be a novelist or poet, but how many academics have tried to breathe historically accurate, thoroughly researched life into the drama of the Silk Road? Such an attempt is surely as rare as any good book about this deplorably underrated and incredibly complex subject.
There are ten chapters in Whitfield’s book. Each chapter tells the story of a very real character that would have found herself or himself along the Silk Road, from the year 730 AD to the end of the first millennium (roughly corresponding to Europe’s Early Middle Ages). Whitfield introduces us to a spectrum of diverse characters, from a merchant of the Sogdian city of Sarmakand (modern-day Uzbekistan) to a Tibetan soldier. Whitfield applies painstaking detail to bring full color to her subjects’ worlds: their family relations and professions, their friends and lovers, and how some characters meet their end. On the eve of December 755, a Turkic general launched a catastrophic rebellion against his Chinese emperor, which was defeated with help from Uighur horsemen from Inner Asia. The drama and death of one of these horsemen forms a chapter in the book too.
…It is only in old age that she allows the tears and trauma to flow freely…
The harsh migrations and catastrophic wars of the Eurasian empires involved even Buddhist monks and nuns like Whitfield’s Chudda from India, and Miaofu from China. Whitfield also pens with impressive poignancy the loneliness of Chinese princesses like her fictional Taihe. Like like many of her peers, she was forced to marry a nomadic chieftain or king far from home, for the sake of her emperor’s political alliances. The four remaining stories tell the stories of some more ordinary residents in the province of Dunhuang: a widow, an official, and an artist.
My favorite story was of beautiful Larishka, the courtesan and entertainer from the oasis kingdom Kucha (modern-day Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang). Whitfield captures the ephemerality of her travels so eloquently it is almost painful to read: whisked from the comfort of her caravanserai, Larishka travels and beds with wealthy men and military leaders of all kinds, and barely escapes the sacking and burning of her city. It is only in old age that she allows the tears and trauma to flow freely.
…the best kind of story needs good, proper history…
These days we see Central Asia, the one-time transit zone of art, music, religion, and prosperity as a benighted battlefield, a haven for fundamentalists and Pax Americana. The destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas, testament to Afghanistan’s one-time Buddhist heritage, may accentuate all the more painfully the social problems brought about by a rapidly changing geopolitical modernity. Whitfield can’t bring back the characters she devoted this book to, but she can masterfully show us that history is the best story to tell, and the best kind of story needs good, proper history. Life Along the Silk Road is already an old book to be sure, but until an author writes something that can match its scope, ambition, and poignancy, it will remain standing heads and shoulders above the rest, the cheap commercial books and brochures that have turned the Silk Road into a romantic caricature of its historical beauty.
We men of Qin, such grapes so fair,
Do cultivate as gems most rare;
Of these delicious wine we make,
For which men ne’er their thirst can slake.
Take but a measure of this wine,
And Liangzhou’s rule is surely thine.
– Liu Yuxi (772 – 842), trans. Sampson, 1869