Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Christopher Beckwith's "Empires of the Silk Road"

Christopher I. Beckwith is Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages; Koguryo, Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives; and several other books.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, and reported the following:
I hope that page 99 of my book does reveal “the quality of the whole,” in the literal sense of Ford’s statement of his test. The page gives a brief account of the death of Attila the Hun and the collapse of his empire, with several minor correctives to the usual accounts, and begins telling how the death of Aetius was soon followed by the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Because much of the text is a continuous narrative—the first full history of all of Central Eurasia—the page is thus representative of that aspect of it; but because it covers a famous episode in world history it does not give a good idea of the book as a whole.

Most of the book covers topics that are little known outside of the tiny number of specialists in Central Eurasian history. Its main goal is to completely redo Central Eurasian history and put the region back in its proper place at the center of Old World history in every major respect until its partition and conquest by peripheral states in the early modern period. Among other things, the book explains how the Central Eurasians’ unique culture was responsible for their successes, most of which are wrongly credited to various peripheral peoples such as the Persians or peripheral areas such as Europe. It also discredits outsiders’ myths and prejudices about Central Eurasians—for example, the complex fantasy of the ‘barbarian’—most of which are still repeated by contemporary historians.

I think more representative, quickly chosen pages would be 16 (on the comitatus, or sworn guard corps); 47 (on the Indo-European chariot warriors who brought the Central Eurasian Culture Complex to early China); 125 (showing how the Türk state was not a threat to T’ang China, it was the other way around); 153 (on the transmission of science from Buddhists to Muslims in medieval Central Asia); 229 (on the establishment of the Junghar Empire, and the Renaissance in Eurasia as a whole, not only Europe); and 300 (on the destruction of the arts by Modernism and the nearly total devastation of Central Eurasian culture by radical political Modernism).
Read an excerpt from Empires of the Silk Road, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue