WILLIAMSTOWN -- Valerie Hansen’s most recent book, "The Silk Road: A New History" centers on everyday moments in the history of the Silk Road in China, re-envisioning life and commerce along these ancient trade routes.
Around 670 CE, she writes, an Iranian merchant travelling the Silk Road in northwestern China lent 275 bolts of silk to his Chinese business partner, and then departed south to the city of Kucha, never to return again. Travelling with a cargo that included silk, bows and arrows and saddles, he was likely abducted by bandits.
His younger brother, Cao Lushan, who by law was entitled to the 275 bolts of silk, sued the Chinese business partner, who had not paid him. Producing two witnesses to the partners’ signing of their contract, Cao won the case (in a Chinese court) and the business partner was ordered to repay the debt.
Historical details like these have been derived from funeral garments - shoes, hats and belts - that were sewn together from recycled paper and buried with the dead. Since paper was scarce when these garments were created (between around 300 and 800 CE), people reused old sales receipts, legal affidavits and other texts, which now provide glimpses into the micro-level world of communities at the western reaches of the Silk Road in China.
Many of these documents might remain unexamined if it were not for the work of Valerie Hansen, Professor of History at Yale University, and visiting Phi Beta Kappa Scholar, who will speak at Williams College on April 4 about how these everyday texts have reshaped our understanding of life and trade on the Silk Road.
It will be Hansen’s final talk in a semester-long lecture tour sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. She has also spoken at Beloit College, Wabash College, Randolph College, The University of California at Santa Barbara, and Wheaton College.
Since 1959, almost 2,000 documents unearthed from tombs in Turfan (a major commercial center on the Silk Road and a bridge between Chinese and Iranian cultures) have been carefully reconstructed, revealing small-scale business transactions, travel records and other glimpses into daily life in the region. The arid climate of central Asia preserved these and many other ancient objects, including artificial silk flowers, human remains and whole dumplings.
Hansen’s lecture, which shares the title of her book, will offer a general introduction to the Silk Road, which linked cities across Asia, parts of Africa, and as far west as Rome. Hansen will also explore how the use of paper, invented in China around 200 BCE, spread into central Asia.
Since her first visit to China in 1983, Hansen’s efforts to bring the ancient past into sharper focus - though personal and collaborative research, fieldwork and writing - has been informed by her direct involvement in Chinese culture. She was present in Beijing during the Tiananmen protests of 1989, and has spent several years living and working in China.
"I would say one of the genuine pleasures of my life has been reading about something in China, seeing something actual in China, coming back to America, doing more reading (or reading something in China) and connecting the dots - slowly, slowly learning the math of this huge country and getting the history in my head and linking it with specific places," she said.
As a college student she probably didn’t anticipate her future as an influential historian of Chinese culture. "I was kicked out of my Chinese class because I was so bad," she said. "Then I went back in." She majored in East Asian studies, and has been speaking Chinese ever since.
As with the focus of her research, when Hansen is in China, the daily interactions that many people would forget about have been an inspiration for her. She finds conversations with Chinese taxi drivers to be especially enlightening. "It’s sort of crazy to say, but one of the things I look forward to when getting into a taxi [is] sometimes just having a terrific conversation."
In a recent blog post for Oxford University Press, she recalls several of those conversations, including some about Chinese history. One driver, she writes, insisted that she had made a mistake by choosing to study the Silk Road. "The most important, and the most interesting, period in all of Chinese history is the third century, after the overthrow of the Han dynasty, when China was divided into three major kingdoms," she recalls him saying. (At the time, the driver was listening to a radio production of Luo Guangzhong’s "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," which may have influenced his opinion.)
In addition to revealing people’s everyday relationships to Chinese history and popular Chinese historical sources, Hansen’s taxicab conversations provide other windows into contemporary Chinese culture as well - through jokes, subtle (and not-so-subtle) references and the drivers’ willingness to criticize corruption and the government.
Forging a trail
Between 1995 and 1998 Hansen was the principle investigator for the Silk Road Project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, in which 25 Chinese and American scholars investigated thousands of ancient documents and artifacts collected mainly in the Turfan region. From there, she said, she began branching out, looking at other sites for clues as to how trade and cultural exchanges on the Silk Road occurred.
Hansen’s book "The Silk Road: A New History" presents historical overviews of several Silk Road commercial areas, through the lens of everyday documents written in a variety of ancient languages. These documents suggest that most trade on the Silk Road occurred locally, and that cultural exchange over long distances was not as dependent on commercial trade as previously believed.
While people certainly travelled long distances, she said, it was usually not for reasons of commerce. "They were moving mainly because one king sent them [as] a diplomat to visit another king, or maybe they were artists trying to make a living by making pictures in different places, or maybe they were fleeing a war-torn zone."
The trail of evidence inadvertently left behind by ancient merchants, moneylenders, local officials and others who recorded daily events, she said, contradicts the standard version of the Silk Road history, which often points to the cultural transmission evident in works of art as indicating long-distance trade. Paper documents offer a relatively new approach to understanding the Silk Road.
"And that’s really what my lecture is about," Hansen said. "What’s new in these materials that have come out of the ground? What can we learn about the Silk Road that we didn’t know from these other sources that we’ve always had?"
One advantage to the Turfan documents, she said, is that they have never been edited. Their purpose was often to chronicle short-term interactions and relationships, and when that purpose was served, they were either discarded or reused.
Another advantage is that they offer highly focused glimpses into people’s everyday lives. "You can see one person - like one peddler - going from town to town," she said. "He’s trading un-dyed cloth for dyed cloth, and we know exactly how far he went - and he was on a triangle that was about a hundred miles on a side. So it’s just not the huge, long-distance trade that people so often imagine."
Part of the ongoing challenge in studying the Silk Road, she said, is applying such detailed glimpses of the past to the larger historical picture.
"There’s moments where you can see an actual transaction - there’s a case where a monk buys a young girl with silver coins that are from Iran - and just being able to catch a glimpse of those kinds of transactions I found very exciting," she said. "And that’s really what kept me going, just that desire to look at all these micro transactions and then try and come up with a narrative of the whole thing."
Valerie Hansen will present "The Silk Road: A New History" on April 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Griffin Hall, room 3, on the Williams College campus. Info: calendar.williams.edu.