“Qarakhanid Roads to China A History of Sino-Turkic Relations” by Dilnoza Duturaeva


Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Dilnoza Duturaeva, an Uzbek historian at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales challenges the conventional narrative that the Silk Road declined following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907, and remained in eclipse until the establishment of the Mongol empire 250 years later. While the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty delighted in chronicling exuberant trade missions from the west, the Northern Song (960-1127) had little to say about such trade. This is reflected in the arts: compare the countless Tang terracottas of western traders, camels and horses with the scarce examples from the Song. Historians have argued that the fragmentation of political power across the steppe in the 10th and 11th centuries had made trade too dangerous and costly. 

This argument is easy to make, but it is flawed. Trade, like water, always finds a way of flowing through obstacles. Look at the sanctions regimes imposed on countries like Myanmar, North Korea, Iran and Russia today. The silk road merchants found a way to get around closed borders or local conflicts. It’s difficult to imagine that the Silk Road declined in this era when in Dunhuang we see how merchants left their scribblings in Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese, Sogdian, Uyghur, Syriac and Sanskrit. Such a cosmopolitan milieu hardly suggests trade in decline. Moreover, the Song dynasty, and indeed all Chinese dynasties, had an insatiable demand for horses from the western regions. At no point in this so-called period of declining trade did horse traders from western Asia stop calling on their Chinese clients. In their saddlebags, they continued to bring other luxury products that the Chinese market valued.


Qarakhanid Roads to China: A History of Sino-Turkic Relations, Dilnoza Duturaeva (Brill, March 2022)
Qarakhanid Roads to China: A History of Sino-Turkic Relations, Dilnoza Duturaeva (Brill, March 2022)

Duturaeva shows that the evidence for this continued, flourishing trade is not missing, it is just fiendishly difficult to find. She deploys impressive erudition and patience to tease the evidence out of her extensive survey of the material. For example, one trade mission, not mentioned in any chronicle, is recalled only in the grave stela of one of its members who died on the mission. A major problem for reconstructing the period’s trade is the way the Chinese referred to foreign countries. The Chinese chronicles talk about the “Uyghurs”, which suggests the nearby Turkic peoples of the Tarim basin, but Duturaeva demonstrates that this also referred to the Qarakhanids, a Turkish confederacy ruling today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and so implying much more long distance trade.

The Qarakhanids are much less well-known than their fellow Turkish contemporaries, the Great Seljuks of Iran, the Ghaznavids of India, or the Khwarezmshahs who battled Genghis Khan. This may be because the few sources for the Qarakhanids are preserved in an old form of Eastern Turkish, while the others are extensively celebrated in Persian literature. One of the Qarakhanid capitals, Balasunghor, is a lonely tract of waste with a single, truncated minaret looking out over the steppe. They were among the first Turkish groups to accept Islam, but conserved their close contacts with the Chinese. So, they provided an indispensable link between the world of Islam and China. Duturaeva shows how they used their intimate knowledge of Inner Asia to navigate trade routes not only for their own but also for other nations’ missions.

Focusing on the Qarakhanids and using little-accessed Chinese documents, Duturaeva catalogs a surprisingly extensive program of trade missions. There were so many, in fact, that the Song had to prune these back. Since the Chinese paid room and board for the foreign merchants, and also gave them gifts, receiving missions placed a big burden on the exchequer. The Chinese also drew a distinction between necessities and luxury imports. Though she does not emphasize this point, the biggest item of trade brought by the Qarakhanids were horses, which the Chinese eagerly bought. However, the westerners also brought the kind of goods we usually associate with the Silk Road: amber, frankincense, jade and camphor. The Song imposed limits on these luxury goods, so as not to run a balance of trade deficit. For Duturaeva the luxury trade underscores the deep web of connections in this period of so-called declining trade between far flung peoples of Asia: Bulgars on the Volga, Yemenis and the Indians.


Duturaeva’s detective work is impressive: she identifies a certain “Houlin” in Chinese sources as the translation for Garuda, the mythical bird of the Ramayana. However here the source uses it to mean a falcon. This, she argues, refers to Tughrul, the Qarakhanid ruler, whose name means falcon in Turkish. So, painstakingly, she reconstructs these forgotten connections between the Qarakhanids to the far west and the Song.

Her encyclopedic knowledge and patient teasing out of her conclusions from philological sources in Chinese, Turkish, Arabic and Persian, are admirable. Older reconstructions of names or identifications of peoples, going back to the work of Vladimir Minorsky in the beginning of the 20th century, are refreshed here, and results in new light being shed on the interactions between the different polities of the 10th and 11th century. Qarakhanid Roads to China offers a comprehensive portrait of the peoples and the activities of this little-known era of the Silk Road, and will be a valuable reference for students and scholars alike.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.