Silk Roads and Cultural Routes

If the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is about “reviving” the Silk Roads for the twenty-first century, we might also ask how China now reads the past, and in what ways it appropriates it for strategic ends

Such lines of inquiry help us begin to understand how Belt and Road not just writes, but comes to re-write history, and it is the latter that may hold the greatest long-term impact.

From the very beginning, Beijing has framed Belt and Road as a “revival” of the Silk Roads. But what this means precisely has received little critical attention in the West. Journalists and analysts have noted the Silk Road as little more than a gesture to romantic pasts of trade and exchange, where the camel trails and caravanserai of previous centuries are replaced by transcontinental rail lines and special economic zones. Sailing ships carrying porcelain become the container ships and oil tankers of the twenty-first century. History then is merely a palette of richly evocative imagery through which the old is paralleled with the new to make strategies of connectivity meaningful for audiences around the world. Countless news channels, think tanks, government reports, and academic papers have thus introduced BRI by casually summarizing the Silk Road in a short sentence or two, and rapidly moving on to the “real” stuff.

But if we look closer, we begin to see that the idea of the “Silk Road”—a concept invented in the late nineteenth century, and which now renders highly selective, stylized depictions of pre-modern globalization—is doing considerable political work in the context of BRI. For much of the twentieth century, the story of the overland Silk Road held little currency as a history of transcontinental connectivity. The creation of the Soviet Union meant Central Asia was closed off to the West, and the politics of history and heritage making across Asia gravitated around building the “imagined communities” of nations and the tying of ethno-cultural identities to territorial domains. Up until the 1990s in the West, the Silk Road remained a vague, enigmatic concept, and rarely received sustained critical attention.

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