We are witnessing today a renewed interest for the Silk Roads across the world expressed through the proliferation of projects at national, regional and global levels which address a vast range of activities: trade, tourism, education, arts, infrastructure, industries, communication etc…
One of the most famous and important initiative is “The Beld and the Road Initiative” launched by Chinese Governement in 2013 which ambition is to reconnect China with Asia, Africa and Europe by using the historical narrative of the Silk Roads. But other countries such as India, Iran, Japan, South Korea or Oman have also initiated projects in order to build new relationships on this memory and heritage.
Beyond the economic or geopolitical interest pursued through these initiatives, the Silk Roads have become attractive because of the nostalgia of a certain way of interacting, trading and producing. In today’s world obsessed by speed, impatience, quick fix and superficial exchanges, there are more and more aspirations for quietness, deepness, and conviviality. In response to hate speeches, vilification of the others and fear exploited by all kind of opportunists, many people feel the need to go back to history in search of humanness, value and hope. The Silk Roads appeared as an example of the great moments of dialogue that humanity experienced and offer romantic narratives on the past.
There is another reason that could also explain the popularity of the Silk Roads. It is the imaginary inspired by the glamourous nature of silky products and by the legends on the secret of the Silk production. It should be recalled that Silk is not produced by human beings but by animals. It is a textile which is woven from the protein fiber produced by the silkworm to make its cocoon. One legend tells us that it was a woman, a Chinese Empress, who discovered silk while she was having tea in the imperial gardens with many mulberry trees. A cocoon fell into her tea and unraveled. She noticed that the cocoon was made from a long thread that was both strong and soft. She found how to combine the silk fibers into a thread and invented the silk loom that combined the threads into a soft cloth.
This discovery was not told. Silk production was the most guarded secret in China for more than 3,000 years, with imperial decrees sentencing to death anyone who revealed the secret to a foreigner.
Regarded as an extremely high value product, Silk was reserved for the exclusive usage of the imperial court for the making of cloths, drapes, banners, and other items of prestige. It was also used by the Chinese authorities as a diplomatic gift.
Although silk remained China’s best kept secret for thousand of years, it was finally broken. There are many legends about how and who leaked the secret.
One story mentions a Chinese Princess, who, upon leaving to marry a Prince, decided that she could not live without her favorite fabric and took some silkworms along with her by hiding them in her hair.
Another legend tells that it was a Japanese Emperor who managed to use four Chinese girls to smuggle silkworms, out of the China and provided information on how to make the precious textile. There is also the story about Nestorian monks sent to Central Asia by Byzantine emperor Justinian, who smuggled cocoon hidden in bamboo staffs.
Despite the fact that the know how on silk production became largely disseminated in other countries around one thousand and half years ago, China remained the world’s leading silk producer until now. It is from China, and in particular from the city of X’ian, that the Silk Roads took their departure before becoming a network of trading routes stretching across the Asia to Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Considered as the oldest and longest trade routes, the Silk Roads have played a major role in the cultural, political, economic, religious, scientific and artistic transformations that took place in major centers of civilization in different continents.
While silk was clearly one of the earliest and most important commodities traded along the route, other goods also traveled the road such as precious metals and stones, spices, porcelain, and textiles, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood and metal work, religious objects, art work, and much more.
More significantly, the Silk Road was a network of pathways, an avenue for the exchange of ideas. Migrants, merchants, explorers, pilgrims, artists, brought along with them religious and cultural ideas, products, flora and fauna. Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity entered China via the Silk Road. Many travelers ventured onto the Silk Roads in order to participate in this process of scientific, intellectual, cultural and spiritual exchanges taking place in cities along the routes.
The technologies of silk production, paper making, gunpowder, and block printing made their way west across Asia via this pathway. Cities, towns, fortresses, oases, caravanserais and ports along these routes grew rich providing services to merchants, while at the same time serving as international melting pot places.They necessarily became scientific and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet, debate and create. On a practical level, merchants had to learn the languages and customs of the countries they traveled through, in order to negotiate successfully. As the Silk Roads crossed some of the most populated countries which have been experiencing important development of sciences and technologies, they contributed to shape the destiny of our societies. That why the Silk Road can be considered as an early form of the globalization of trade, science, technology, and ideas.
The flexibility and adaptability of the Silk Roads to the changing demands of society may explain its longevity, surviving numerous geopolitical turmoil. Maritime trade was another extremely important branch of this global trade network. Used for the transportation of spices, the maritime trade routes were also known as the Spice Roads, supplying markets across the world with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves, incense, timber, and saffron and nutmeg from the Indian Ocean World. These Spice Routes stretched over 15,000 kilometers and benefited from the progress in navigation made by the sailors from the Arabian Peninsula who forged new trading routes across the Arabian Sea, Red Sea into the Indian Ocean.
Comparing to other Routes of dialogue, the Silk Roads present some specificities. They were protected spaces which required a level of safety, tolerance and trust to facilitate transactions and trade. They constituted peaceful sanctuaries where the capacity of exchanges was more efficient than the military force. Most of the powers controlling the Silk Roads have managed to preserve their security and safety because they understood that conflicts and insecurity would kill the trade. In fact, everybody had interest that these Routes remains opened, safe and secure because everybody was expecting to gain from it. Unlike other Routes, the Silk Roads were not shaped by the colonial mode of domination and production. The most powerful countries at those periods did not use colonial types of relationship with the people under their rules. These Routes were a good example of “Win-Win” situation where most of partners, including the dominated ones, had the possibility to gain some benefit from this trade. Finally, these Silk Roads had developed a culture of interactions, a spirit of mutual curiosity, and specific skill for intercultural communications facilitated by the contacts between individuals and groups during the long period of time spent on travel and at caravanserai. They encouraged a slow path of encounters and exchanges that were very different from our modern accelerated relationships.
Today, the Silk Roads raise a new type of interest. It is at the heart of a new geopolitical configuration which exacerbates the competition between different centres of power. Most of the territories covered by these historical Routes became strategic spaces where strategic products are produced ( oil, gas, minerals etc). Following the decline of ideologically driven alliances and the financial crisis, which put into question the dominant economic order, the necessity of building new groupings around new deals and ideals, the common heritage of the Silk Roads offers a glamorous cause that seduces many people. This is the genuine idea behind the Chinese initiative. Instead of showing its muscles and aggressively claiming the defense of its national interest, China is intelligently advancing an agenda built on the nostalgia and imaginary of an historical Route which, unlike the Slave Route, are not synonym of violence, extortion, oppression and domination.
During their emergence, European powers have created the propaganda of the “civilizing mission” to justify their expansion and domination of other continents. We all know today the barbarity that accompanied the colonial entreprise and the legacy of inequity and economic exploitation in modern time.
The concept of "New Silk Roads” may be considered as a symbol of the re-emergence of China as an important player in the current international order. The question many observers are asking is: Will Chinese superpower be able to draw the necessary lessons from this history and introduce a new form of international cooperation built on the principle of mutual benefit, in the spirit of the historical Silk Roads ? That is the main challenge and stake of the New Silk Roads.
Ali MOUSSA IYE