Friday, September 28, 2012

Valerie Hansen's "The Silk Road"

Valerie Hansen is Professor of History at Yale University. Her books include The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276, and, with Kenneth R. Curtis, Voyages in World History.

Hansen applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Silk Road: A New History, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Sometime around 600 officials of the Gaochang Kingdom recorded the names of forty-eight merchants who paid a tax, called a scale fee, on the goods they sold to one another. After the goods were weighed, the tax was assessed in silver coins. This much-studied document survives as ten paper shoe soles cut from four different sections of the original register. Offering a series of snapshots of individual transactions over the course of a single year in the early seventh century, it is the single most informative document about the commodities exchanged in the Silk Road trade. These documents embody all the joys and the frustrations of the documents pieced together from the Astana graveyard: they give more information than any other materials available, but missing sections of the documents—where they were cut to make shoe soles—mean that they are incomplete.

Even so, these records highlight the dominant role played by Sogdians in the Silk Road trade. Of the forty-eight names mentioned either as purchasers or sellers of a given good, fully forty-one are Sogdian. The scale-fee records suggest a relatively low frequency of trade—a handful of transactions each week—with many weeks in which no tax was collected.

Officials recorded all the sales by each day and then twice a month tallied up the total number of coins they collected. The rate of taxation was two silver coins (weighing 8 grams) on two Chinese pounds (jin) of silver, less than one percent. Scholars do not know how much a jin weighed in the year 600: either 6 ounces (200 grams) in the older system or about 1 pound, 3 ounces (600 grams) in the newer one. The lower weight is more likely, but the accompanying chart uses the original units of jin and liang (a Chinese ounce, with sixteen to a jin) because of the uncertainty.

The scale-fee register lists thirty-seven transactions over the course of a single year. Brass, medicine, copper, turmeric, and raw sugar traded hands only once, while other goods appear more often: gold, silver, silk thread, aromatics (the term xiang refers broadly to spice, incense, or medicine), and ammonium
chloride. The one unfamiliar item on the list, the chemical ammonium chloride, was used as an ingredient in dyes, to work leather, and as a flux to lower the
temperature of metals. These documents list ammonium chloride six times, in
Unlike most books about the Silk Road, which showcase art and monuments, The Silk Road: A New History focuses on documents to see what they reveal about the people and goods moving along the Silk Road. Page 99 provides an excellent example: this particular register survives because it was cut up to make paper shoe-soles for the dead. In the distant past, the people living in the oasis of Turfan, one of the main trading towns on the Chinese Silk Road, buried their dead in paper shoes, hats, and belts. And, because paper was scarce, they recycled discarded documents, sometimes painting them over.

The register discussed on page 99 is the most revealing document about trade because it lists 37 transactions. The largest quantity listed was 800 Chinese pounds (it is not clear how much a Chinese pound weighed at the time, either less than half a modern pound or three times that much) and consisted of incense. Other traders imported valuable metals like gold and silver or cheaper metals like copper and brass. One good surprises almost everyone: ammonium chloride, which was used to soften leather or as a flux for metal.

All of the quantities mentioned in this document – and in other documents as well – could easily fit on a few pack animals. Most of the documented trade on the Silk Road was a small-scale peddler’s trade. Camels played a crucial role in carrying goods through the desert, but once peddlers reached dirt roads, they shifted their loads to wagons pulled by horses, donkeys, and cattle.

The payments on the register were made in in silver coins minted to the west in the Sasanian Empire of Iran. Although many claim that the Silk Road linked ancient Rome with ancient China, archeologists have found surprisingly few – only 48, many of them fake – Roman coins, and they were all buried after 500 CE, long after the capital shifted from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). In contrast, well over one thousand Iranian silver coins have surfaced in China, and they are frequently mentioned in other documents. 41 of the 48 merchants whose names appear on the register came from the Iranian world or were descended from those who did, yet another indication of Iran’s important role as a trading partner to China at the height of the Silk Road trade, between 500 and 800.
Visit Valerie Hansen's faculty webpage, and learn more about The Silk Road at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue