“The Silk Road and Cultural Exchanges between East and West” by Rong Xinjiang

The Silk Road and Cultural Exchanges between East and West, Xinjiang Rong, Sally K Church (trans) (Brill, November 2022) The Silk Road and Cultural Exchanges between East and West, Xinjiang Rong, Sally K Church (trans) (Brill, November 2022)

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.

During both the Han and Tang dynasties, creation and maintenance of a dense network of exchanges represented a major policy thrust. Caravanserais, post horse relays, customs offices and military garrisons sprung up all across the immense zone between China’s heartland and the Altai mountains to the west. Even under less powerful dynasties, active diplomacy with city states like Turfan and Khotan promoted China’s interests and ensured a steady flow of lucrative trade. Rong extensively reviews  manuscripts and inscriptions unearthed in this region to demonstrate the huge Chinese engagement with Inner and Central Asia.

This investment in trade infrastructure permitted foreign merchants to visit China in the best conditions. Then, as now, Chinese officials welcomed distinguished guests with banquets and goody bags. Less well-heeled traders could count on cheap and cheerful digs. The Soghdians of today’s Uzbekistan established permanent trading colonies in Chinese cities like Chang’an and Luoyang. Iranian merchants traveled by sea to Guangzhou, where they also settled in large numbers. Rong’s deep reading of fragmentary documents brings to life the vitality of this era, where expressions like “a poor Persian” was used as a playful oxymoron.

The influx of so many foreigners necessarily entailed exposure to foreign ideas, in this case, religious. Rong details how Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Manichaeism all flourished in China along with the Silk Road trade. He attributes Buddhism’s survival to its assiduous courting of elite sponsorship, and its embrace of native Chinese traditions such as Daoism. Iranian and Soghdians practicing Zoroastrianism did not proselytize. This religion gradually disappeared as these communities became Sinicized, though Kang, Li and Su surnames often recall Iranic origins. Manichaeism and Christianity enjoyed less state sponsorship.


Western foreign influences on China get more much attention than Chinese influence on the West, observes Rong. He argues convincingly, on the basis of a close reading of documents recovered in Xinjiang, that a sophisticated society, following the latest fashions from Chang’an, existed in the oases towns. The irony of China’s current efforts to Sinicize the population of Xinjiang, is that they had once been at least as imbued with Chinese culture as Korea or Japan. As late as the 15th century, Turfan and Khotan hosted glorious Buddhist temples.

After centuries of opening and tolerance, the Tang cracked down on the foreign religions, following the An Lu Shan revolt in 755, a movement instigated primarily by foreign elements. The Tang had to abandon the administration of Inner Asia. Trade collapsed. Foreigners no longer offered any economic benefit to China, and their loyalty had proved wanting. Many abruptly left China.

It is tempting to draw a parallel with China today, facing a myriad of challenges, and concluding, perhaps, that trade does not trump ideology. Are we experiencing a new cycle of isolationism in China, similar to that of the late Tang? If we are, it should be remembered that the late Tang continued to do business with the West. The Dezong emperor sent Yang Lianglao by sea to Baghdad to renew relationships with the Abbasid Caliphs. This mission was forgotten by subsequent chronicles, and only rediscovered when Rong and other scholars published the text of Yang’s funeral stele, discovered in 2005. It just goes to suggest that even when China turns inward, it pragmatically carries on business with the rest of the world.


First published in Chinese by Peking University Press in 2015 : 荣新江著丝绸之路与东西文化交流

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.