Susan Whitfield's book offers a history of cultural exchange in premodern Afro-Eurasia through ten key objects, beginning with earrings and ending with slaves. It is less a continuous narrative than a collection of cross-referenced essays on materials, technologies, styles, beliefs, and ideas that embody or concrete, in one way or another, pivotal moments of cultural encounter. Spanning East Asia to Western Europe over more than a millennium and engaging nine separate media with as many distinct contexts of use and patterns of circulation, this study vastly exceeds current disciplinary and field categories. Inevitably, it relies significantly on secondary studies in English and specialist interlocutors acknowledged by Whitfield throughout the text. The major exception is the sections involving Chinese history, Whitfield's (and the present reviewer's) primary field of specialization. The wager in venturing so far beyond standard field boundaries is nothing short of fundamentally reappraising Afro-Eurasian cultural history and, moreover, challenging the idea that at the root of modern categories for human belonging such as ethnicity and nationality are self-contained cultures with discrete histories by which we should or can carve up the globe. To effect such a reappraisal, Whitfield, like proponents of the material turn across the humanities, explicitly seeks to challenge the authority of texts.
Whitfield's investment in broad, heterogeneous representation emerges in her careful selection of the book's ten key objects. The first chapter addresses a pair of earrings made of gold, jade, and other semiprecious stones from a ca. second-century BCE tomb. This first, catalyzing object already evinces, Whitfield demonstrates, mature forms of exchange between two rival empires, the Xiongnu and the Han. Taken seriously as historical documents, the earrings sharply counter the bias in textual records toward conflict and ecological division between imperial China and its steppes neighbors, the latter of whom in this case did not develop a written culture. Chapter Two centers on a glass bowl, also a grave good and roughly of the same period, from a tomb in what is now southern China. Of plausibly Hellenistic origin, the story of this bowl introduces the maritime routes connecting East and Southeast Asia with India, Africa, and beyond. Whitfield lucidly discusses how glass manufacture emerged in part from efforts to replicate other media and its close connection with pigment and porcelain production, demonstrating the importance of technology transfer and intermedia exchange in the history of trans-Eurasian cultural contact. Chapter Three takes us to the Axum empire in Ethiopia, where more than a hundred gold coins of the Kushan empire were found in a sixth-century CE monastery. Whitfield casts them in a new light, attending as much to how the coins were produced and their journey to Africa as to older debates about their iconography. Some of the coins found in the East African hoard depict Kushan kings who ruled around the time that the subject of Chapter Four, the stupa known as Amluk Dara, was built in the Swat valley in modern Pakistan, an important region for early Buddhism. Combining archaeological evidence with records of its famous pilgrim-visitors, Whitfield sketches a cultural biography of the stupa that emphasizes the “symbiotic link” (85) between Buddhism and trade activity.
Chapter Five returns us to a Chinese tomb, now of a sixth-century CE general in present-day northwest China, the find site of an ewer depicting scenes linked to the Trojan War cycle and thought to have been made in Hellenized Bactria (present-day northern Afghanistan). Whitfield tentatively argues that the ewer was produced under the Hepthalites in part based on comparison with coins, one of the few archaeological sources for this poorly documented group. Chapter Six addresses a wooden votive plaque from the ruins of Khotan, a kingdom on the southwestern edge of the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang province, China, that became a Buddhist center of legendary importance. Its iconography—riders carrying bowls and a downward-swooping black bird—has long been linked to the cult of Vaiśravaṇa, and Whitfield introduces a promising comparison with a Sogdian funerary couch from north central China. Chapter Seven centers on the book's first non-Buddhist devotional object, a Qur'an produced in the color scheme, unusual for Islam, of gold text on a deep blue ground. A discussion of book formats in various Silk Road religions leads into the difficult process by which the parchment folia were prepared. This sharply contrasts with the dyed paper used for Buddhist texts produced in the same color scheme, which was much more common for that religion. Although each chapter of Silk, Slaves, and Stupas ends with a discussion of the central object's modern history, Chapter Seven's is particularly detailed, given the long and fraught history of this manuscript's disassembly and dispersal.
Chapter Eight moves us further westward, into discussion of a Byzantine “hunter silk,” a samite fragment woven with a medallion depicting a mirrored lion hunt that had found its way to Mozac Abbey in Auvergne by the eighth century. Here Whitfield seeks to defend the importance of the Silk Road's titular trade good, tracing the technology's development and transmission while demystifying the notion that in China it was a closely guarded state secret. Given that the Mozac hunter silk was used in connection with the remains of a saint, this chapter also discusses the transcultural worship of scared relics. An “almanac” datable to 877 from the so-called Library Cave at Dunhuang is the subject of Chapter Nine. Here Whitfield showcases the sophistication of astral and calendrical knowledge in China, as well as the paper and print technology that made its widespread dissemination possible. The final chapter, which also serves to conclude the book, surveys the traffic in humans across a wide range of cultures. Its effect is twofold: the reader recalls that enslavement was a widespread phenomenon unique to no single culture and confronts a major form of exploitation embedded within the history of cultural exchange liable to go missing in romanticized accounts.
Silk, Slaves, and Stupas offers no singular, explicit definition of the Silk Road, treating it variously as a social, material, geographic, and temporal phenomenon. The latter sense is invoked most frequently but remains undefined chronologically, suggesting that the author may see periodization itself as inherently partial or unhelpful. If the inference is founded, this offers a provocative alternative to the recent category of the “global medieval,” which seeks an expanded purview without fully abandoning its link to a culturally specific, in this case Eurocentric, periodization model. The book's heterogeneity and breadth of scope further indicate that Whitfield intends the term Silk Road to remain fluid. Perhaps, to Whitfield, the Silk Road is simply to be defined through ever-expanding networks of research and representation. Still, some discussion and critique of current definitional standpoints on the Silk Road would have been welcome. A couple of minor issues crop up in Whitfield's discussion of Buddhist topics. For example, the “Dharani Sutras” discussed on page 255 ought either to be specified by title or treated as a textual genre. Some of the figures are of a quality or size that makes them difficult to track with the discussion at hand (e.g., Figures 2, 7, 9, 10, and 16).
The terrain of materially oriented scholarship across the humanities is extremely varied and thus a bit of comment on disciplinarity seems warranted. The object-based format of Silk, Slaves, and Stupas recalls a historical study of cultural exchange well known to specialists of premodern China, Edward Schafer's 1963 Golden Peaches of Samarkand.1 However, unlike Golden Peaches, which catalogues Tang-dynasty “exotica,” Whitfield explicitly seeks to de-center China, to challenge overreliance on the dynastic history model, and to integrate Chinese sources (textual and otherwise) into the broader history of Eurasia. This is all in keeping with trends that Whitfield's own previous work has helped to establish. However, at least as consequential is Whitfield's shift from general types to specific artifacts. This entails a conceptual shift from social process or a more abstract notion of trade to the question of the object's own unique force in the world derived from its sensible configuration—in other words, its aesthetic character. This, of course, is a much-debated premise of the discipline of art history, and one Whitfield gestures toward when citing the metallurgist and historian Cyril Stanley Smith's “argument that technologies develop from aesthetics” (45). While Whitfield did not set out to write an aesthetic study, pressing on this category could extend, nuance, or amplify some of the book's analyses. To take the example of the steppe earrings (Ch. 1), I suspect that it would be possible to understand much more about who made them through fine-grained visual comparison, supported by more informative images, with jades from Han tombs, which speak to a very different set of technical practices and aesthetic goals. This approach could also establish deeper connections among the discrete case studies.
The issue of how a concept like the Silk Road can contribute to thinking beyond units of cultural analysis such as nationality and ethnicity, whose modern applications tend to frustrate as much as they facilitate historical reflection, is a live one. By centralizing the material object and venturing far beyond the oasis entrepôt, Silk, Slaves, and Stupas makes a timely and productive contribution to the debate.