Podcast with Xin Wen, author of “The King’s Road: Diplomacy and the Remaking of the Silk Road”

Xin Wen Xin Wen

Many of us—who maybe aren’t historians—have an image of the Silk Road: merchants who carried silk from China to as far as ancient Rome, in one of the first global trading networks. Historians have since challenged the idea that there really was such an organized network, instead seeing it as a 19th-century metaphor that obscures as much as it explains.

 

 

The King’s Road: Diplomacy and the Remaking of the Silk Road, Xin Wen (Princeton University Press, January 2023)
The King’s Road: Diplomacy and the Remaking of the Silk Road, Xin Wen (Princeton University Press, January 2023)

But Xin Wen, the author of The King’s Road: Diplomacy and the Remaking of the Silk Road, tries to revive the idea that there really was a “Silk Road,” at least for the people of Dunhuang, in what is now China’s Gansu Province. His book explains that there really were convoys traveling back-and-forth along an established route—though they likely saw themselves as diplomats more than merchants.

“People in Dunhuang, of course, did not not exactly call the road that connected them with their neighbors the “Silk Road.” Nevertheless, had they been asked about it, they likely would have found the phrase entirely intelligible, even meaningful,” he writes.

Xin Wen is assistant professor of East Asian studies and history at Princeton University. His research interests in medieval China also include manuscript culture, urban history, and digital humanities.

Today, Xin Wen and I talk about the Silk Road, the Dunhuang Archive, and the risks of orienting too much of the history of Central and East Asia around China.


Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He is a writer, editor and occasional radio host based in Hong Kong.