At the beginning of the 20th century, nice Indian girls did not sing in public. Female musical performances were restricted to tawaifs, of a slightly sulfurous reputation, during soirées frequented by cultivated male patrons. If the tawaif wound up getting married, the husband almost invariably required his bride to abandon her art. Men, on the other hand, had for centuries been honored as musicians, patronized by padishahs and maharajas. Their craft was handed down from father to son, and still is today.
The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.
The World of the Ancient Silk Road describes what once represented the epicenter of civilization, before being swallowed up and forgotten, like the Library of Dunhuang, by invading sands. In the last thirty years or so, researchers have increasingly brought this world back to light. The operative word in the title is “world”, for it is really on an expansive scale that editor Liu Xinru has structured this volume. 32 different academic papers cover topics as varied as the merchandise of an ancient caravan. Fittingly, many of these papers use the dispersed manuscripts of Dunhuang as their sources.
Christopher Beckwith likes to shake up the staid world of archeologists, philologists and historians with big claims. In his Empires of the Silk Road, he argued the debt of world civilization to unfamiliar peoples from inner Asia, changing a Euro-centric or Sino-Centric approach to history into steppe-centricity. The Scythian Empire takes this one step forward by attributing many of the contributions from the steppe to a single people, the Scythians. In Beckwith’s telling, the Wusun, the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi, the Tokharians and the Soghdians are all Scythians, as are the Medes.
The protagonist of this book deserves to be much better known than he is. When we think of great early western scholars of Asia, Thomas Manning’s name does not come up in the same sentence as William Jones or Champollion. Yet Thomas Manning pursued fame with relentless self-confidence and energy. In the end, fame didn’t so much elude him as cease to interest him.
How the world has changed in a few years. When Rong Xinjiang first published the papers collected in this volume, between 2002 and 2015, China’s Belt and Road Initiative had captured the world’s imagination. A flurry of scholarly research rediscovered historical ties between China and its western neighbors. Nowadays managing Covid is China’s highest priority. Deepening relations with neighbors is both less important and more difficult to pursue in the circumstances. Revisiting the flowering of the Silk Road has some echoes of and lessons for what is happening in China today.
The Sasanians ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. Under them, the Zoroastrian religion developed its most subtle metaphysics. Greek philosophers flocked to their capital in Ctesiphon, while in Babylon, the Jewish Talmud ripened. Iranian painting, metalwork and music were received enthusiastically in China and India.