Reflections on the Silver Way and the Silk Road


Since the Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed to revive the Silk Road in 2013, the term have become almost ubiquitous, whether used in a celebratory or derogative way. The topics range from trade agreements, financial loans, military bases, soft-power expansion, and cultural exchanges in the age of globalization.

The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815 is thus timely. It offers contemporary readers an alternative way to understand global connections within the Global South. Focusing on the historical relationship between China and Spanish America, authors Peter Gordon and Juan José Morales shed light on a history largely understudied but instrumental to the formation of global networks.


The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815, Peter Gordon, Juan José Morales (Penguin China, January 2017)
The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815, Peter Gordon, Juan José Morales (Penguin China, January 2017)

According to Gordon and Morales, the first transoceanic shipping line in the modern sense of the phrase actually started in 1565 and only ceased more than two centuries later. Mexico City was a global city. Manila was a regional hub. China and Spanish America became intricately related to each other through commodities, missionaries, merchants and Spanish milled dollars. Despite their historical importance, the Manila galleons and historical figures such as Andrés de Urdaneta (1498-1568) are little known in Western historiography. After all, it is still Columbus that has the holiday, the countries, towns and universities named after him.

The book re-orients the readers to look beyond the classic “Columbus discovered the New World” paradigm. When Andrés de Urdaneta made his way from Asia back to Spanish America, the new Acapulco-Manila line became a truly global trade network. Here are a few lines from the book:


The Manila galleon provided the missing link in the world’s global trade network: for the first time, all the maritime routes – Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean – were now operational in both directions, knitting Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa together.
There had of course been movements of goods, people, crops and ideas before, some even transformative. But never between all the continents, and never on this scale.


The world’s financial markets were now, for the first time, global.


Each of the elements that characterise globalisation – global trade networks, shipping lines, integrated financial markets, flows of cultures and peoples – can be found in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.


It is true that the volume of the trade and the infrastructure of the transoceanic network were far more limited back then. But the authors compare the sizes of economy and population in the past with those in the present, making the impact of different trends of globalization comparable in terms of trade volume and their respective impact on economic activities.

Such intellectual excursions are still notable for their relative rarity. For example, the British historian Peter Frankopan challenges the Eurocentric view of the global history. His bestselling The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) retells world history by shifting the geographical pivot to Central Asia. A similar argument could also be found in James Millward’s book The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013). As he argues,


Obviously, ancient transcontinental integration does not compare in degree with today’s intense global connectivity. But qualitatively speaking, the silk road through history accomplished the same sort of things we attribute to “globalisation” today.


Millward gives a list of what areas used to constitute that “global connectivity”: “Europe, Southwest Asia (the Middle West), Persia, India, China, and Southeast and Central Asia.” Both works offer a complex mosaic of the political, commercial, religious, and cultural networks in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. However, they overlooked the global connections between Asia and Spanish America in the early modern era. The Silver Way is therefore a timely and critical companion reading to both Frankopan and Millward’s renditions of the Silk Road.

Another point of comparison can be found with The Silk Road: A New History, written by the Yale-based historian Valerie Hansen and published by the Oxford University Press in 2012. While still focusing on the Sino-Eurasian Silk Road, Hansen’s book has some innovative approaches relevant to this discussion of the Silver Way. Hansen’s work examines the historical archives and archaeological discoveries in seven major cities along the continental Silk Road. Her work finds that the pre-modern networks between Asia and Europe through Central Asia were disparate and small in trade volume. Thus, she argues that the economic aspect of the pre-modern Silk Road was actually not the most important. The Silk Road, she suggests, might have been better called a “Paper Road” since paper was a precious material used not only for writing but as substitute for money.

A comparison of Hansen’s advocacy for Paper Road with the notion of the Silver Way highlights a major difference. Both notions challenge the conventional ideas of the Silk Road from a grounded, material-based perspective. Yet, the Silver Way significantly differs from the Paper road. The difference lies much less in the geographical focus with the former in maritime networks and the latter in continental webs. Rather, it is the emphasis on the commercial and financial nature of the global networks that distinguishes the Silver Way from the Paper Road. Whereas Hansen downplays the trade aspect in the pre-modern era, Gordon and Morales stress the aspect of trade and finance in the early-modern time. They show how the exchange of commodities and precious metal fundamentally changed the economies, urban infrastructure, imperial courses, and cultural imaginations across the Pacific Ocean.

The Silver Way also presents a good opportunity to briefly re-examine the Chinese historical accounts of the Maritime Silk Road. The Manila galleon and Urdaneta’s story are good reminders of the interaction between China and Southwest Asia in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The most popular historical figure is Zheng He (1371-1433), a Muslim admiral born in Yunnan Province. Born 127 years before Urdaneta, Zheng He was commissioned by the Emperor Yongle (1402-1424) to explore the Indian Ocean and establish China’s presence in the region. Zheng He, an experienced mariner, led his fleets sailing from the coastal China to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. Along the way, he impressed local kings and rulers with the Chinese products and the gifts from the Ming emperor. Over his lifetime, Zheng He led a total of seven fleets into what is commonly referred to as the Maritime Silk Road today. Yet, despite the considerable size of Zheng He’s ships, those maritime expeditions are generally considered to have been an extension of China’s tributary system rather than an attempt to create an inter-regional network of trade and finance.

More closely connected to the Silver Way are recent works on Qing history (1644-1912). For example, the Taiwan-based scholar Man-houng Lin’s monologue China Upside Down: Currency, Society, and Ideologies, 1808-1856 (2006) was translated from English into Chinese in 2011. As an economic historian, Lin traces the flow of silver from Latin America to China. She assesses both the positive and negative impacts of the silver on the domestic economy of the Qing Empire. She also highlights Japan as an important link in the network. Her work resonates well with The Silver Way in a way that both try to pluralize and deepen our understanding of the key features of globalization. As both works show, those features are already manifested in the early-modern global networks between Asia and Spanish America.


A critical reader might now question the relationship between globalization and the Silk Road. Quite often, these two terms are conflated today. But they are different. The Silk Road is a historically useful term for us to understand a vast array of inter-Asian or trans-regional connections. Such networks include commercial routes, diaspora connections, political alliances, and religious pilgrimages across different regions in different historical periods. It is this diverse nature that leads to a plethora of cultural references associated with the Silk Road today: spice, paper, tea, porcelain, maritime trade routes, continental networks…

The advent of a global era transformed the forms of interconnections between the pre-modern worlds. Some networks continue to exist in the age of globalisation. But they may have been profoundly changed due to the global flows of capital, technology, and people. Some networks simply died out or have been replaced by other forms of connection. One is highlighted by Akinobu Kuroda, whose 2017 paper in The Silver Age: Origins and Trade of Chinese Export Silver shows how China rapidly shifted from the copper coins to silver in the 16th century.


There are still many gaps to be filled and connections to be made, given that The Silver Way is presenting a succinct view on the world from an alternative perspective. Still, the authors are ambitious in outlook and meticulous with historical facts. Toward the end of the book, the authors propose a non-hegemonic vision for future:


The Silver Way, however, offers a third possibility: globalisation with neither convergence nor major armed conflict, where two sides integrate but remain apart. This possibility is not one where one side progresses while the other is held back: rather, the parties are in equilibrium, albeit an unstable one, subject to disruption, changes in relative terms of trade, differing interests and objectives and more than occasional misunderstandings.


For anyone who wants to learn more about alternative pathways to modernity or a different view of global history, The Silver Way is one of the many ways to explore further.


Editor’s note: Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and Juan José Morales is a frequent contributor.

Jing Wang is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at Rice University and currently a visiting scholar in the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in issues of globalization, intercultural studies, and ethnic/religious minorities in post-socialist states.