Between Rome and China

History, Religions and Material Culture of the Silk Road

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Samuel N. C. Lieu, Gunner Mikkelsen
Silk Road Studies
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , June
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Between Rome and China, edited by two leading specialists in the field of Silk Road studies, comprises eight articles (“chapters”) the first four of which are translations of contributions originally published in German. These four articles appeared in Die Seidenstraße: Handel und Kulturaustausch in einem eurasiatischen Wegenetz (edited by Ulrich Hübner et al., EB-Verlag, 2001). For readers already familiar with the German book, this is a drawback. On the other hand, these important contributions are now made available to the anglophone academic world. New bibliographical information has also been added here and there.

Josef Wiesehöfer follows Greeks, Iranians, and Chinese on the Silk Road, taking a quote from Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novel Horses of Heaven as a starting point to set the historical background. He lays special focus on the events in the second century BCE in Bactria as well as in China’s interest in the Western Regions at that time.

Ulrich Hübner assembles the literary evidence for words denoting “silk” and other precious fabrics in various oriental and classical languages. He also provides the historical context of silk findings in Syria and Palestine as well as a description of economic contacts between the Mediterranean and the Silk Road.

The late Werner Sundermann outlines the rise, flourishing, and fall of Manichaeism on the Silk Road with special reference to the East Uyghur Khaganate in Mongolia (744-840 CE) and the West Uyghur Kingdom (866-1368 CE). Only in these polities and under Uyghur patronage could the religion of light flourish. Basing his research mainly on colophons, inscriptions, letters, and literary sources, Sundermann traces the impact of Manichaeism in the oases along the Silk Road, leaving the question decidedly open as to why Manichaeism could not hold out as a minority religion after it was superseded by Buddhism in terms of political importance.

Thomas Thilo, author of a monograph on Chang’an 長安 in two volumes, describes the role of this city as the “gateway to the Silk Road.” Taking Ferdinand von Richthofen’s concept of the “Silk Roads” as a starting point, Thilo demonstrates that in regard to material and intellectual trade, the old city of Chang’an—which was the focus of Richthofen’s research—was clearly less important than the new city founded under the Sui dynasty named Daxing 大興 (“Great Advance,” or “Great Prosperity”). When the Tang overturned the Sui, they used the old name (Chang’an) again. Maps of both cities are provided while the symbolic dimension of its buildings during Tang times is especially highlighted for the new city. The second volume of Thilo’s monograph on Chang’an, which appeared in 2006, is missing in the bibliography.

Gunner B. Mikkelsen gives an up-to-date overview of Sogdian funerary art, based mainly on the spectacular findings of the graves of An Jia 安伽, Yu Hong 虞弘, and Shi Jun 史君 from the 6th century CE. He outlines the specific features of Sogdian Zoroastrianism in comparison to the more “orthodox” Sassanian form. Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and possibly Manichaean motifs are presented in a conclusive way.

Samuel N. C. Lieu examines names for the Roman Empire in Chinese sources and designations for China and Central Asia in classical texts. Other place names occurring in Chinese texts are located in today’s Middle East. Lieu explains how the Roman Empire came to be called Da Qin 大秦 and Fu Lin 拂林 respectively in China. In the case of the latter designation, he stresses the importance of Parthian Frōm, following an often overlooked proposal by Hans Heinrich Schaeder. Lieu introduces the SERICA project funded by the Australian Research Council which will provide a polyglot database of place names in pre-Islamic Central Asia. In the following article, Lieu and his co-author, Gunner Mikkelsen, present a “multi-lingual gazetteer” of place and ethnic names which is organized according to the standard forms in English. Under the English heading, the forms in different languages from Syria to China appear. In the following indices, the place and ethnic names are sorted by languages. One may wonder why Middle Persian, Parthian, and Sogdian forms are included whereas Khotanese, Tumshuqese, and Tocharian equivalents are missing altogether. Old Uyghur sources are rarely quoted. The Biography of Xuanzang contains copious material but only an old article by Annemarie von Gabain written in 1935 is mentioned. Editions of nearly all chapters have appeared by now (edited by Klaus Röhrborn and his colleagues and pupils).

Lyndon A. Arden-Wong examines what structures of recently excavated sites from the East Uyghur Kaghanate (Ordo Balık, Por-Bajin, several so-called “durvuljin” grave structures near Ordo Balık) can be attributed to Manichaeism. Based on written, archaeological, and artistic sources, the author can show the difficulties in establishing an Eastern Manichaean architectural model.

Except for the “gazetteer” all chapters are indexed. An add-on is an index to volumes I-XVII of the Silk Road studies series compiled by Arden-Wong. The first index is arranged by volume, the second by author. In the second index the authors’ names in volume XVII were forgotten.

All articles are well researched and richly documented. The volume was expertly edited. Although a wider public is targeted as well, the book will most likely find an enthusiastic readership in academically trained circles. Articles such as the one by Thilo might serve as an excellent introduction for students on an undergraduate level. For those mainly interested in religious studies, the articles by Sundermann, Mikkelsen, and Arden-Wong are recommended. For readers studying East-West cultural and linguistic contacts in pre-Islamic times this book is a must-read, as it reviews little known materials. The volume will surely be indispensable background reading in university courses dealing with the Silk Road.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jens Wilkens is post-doctoral research associate at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Germany.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2017


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