The onus on the rising global Marxist intelligentsia is to showcase the BRI’s advantages, shape its theory via dialectical materialism, and champion the project as a radically new multipolar order. Эй, ухнем!
The Silk Road: Past to Present
In its antiquity, the The Silk Road was a massive transcontinental trade route spanning from Beijing and Shanghai all the way to Rome, connecting empires through a complex system of roads and shipping routes, which gave rise to an unprecedented era of trade, wealth, diversity and prosperity.
A University of Vermont scholar notes German explorer and geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen first coined the two terms “Silk Road” (Seidenstrasse) and “Silk Roads” (Seidenstrassen) in 1877. Richthofen used “Silk Road” to describe Marinus of Tyre’s 1st century, single-path “Land of Silk”, and “Silk Roads” to describe the 100-150 CE trade routes between Han China and Imperial Rome.
One important feature of the Silk Road was its power-agnostic characteristics, meaning that a plethora of Chinese dynasties and neighbouring empires continuously used it in times of peace and war, allowing trade to ebb and flow whilst enduring ephemeral political circumstances.
A UNESCO article explains further that,
[…] during the reign of the Emperor Wu-di (140-86 bce) [and] over the next l600 years it was to be the main rival to the Spice Routes as a channel for international trade. […] Han power dwindled during the Second Century CE [but when] the Empire reunited under the Sui Dynasty (580-618 ce), [it was] exploited on an even greater scale and [grew] further under the Tang (618-970 ce). By the Eighth Century, huge ships called at Canton laden with cargoes of [precious goods], making the port one of the greatest in the world.
The Silk Road also begat new modes of transport and construction in response to the challenges of traversing its vast and difficult expanses, both at land and sea. As Chinese trade expanded transcontinentally and intercontinentally, new means of production from prominent civilisations meant shipbuilding and freighting became inextricable from the project’s success.
An UNESCO article explains that,
Developments in ship design and construction methods came about in response to challenges encountered in trading ever further afield. Observations made and information exchanged on these journeys also brought practical knowledge. So the expansion of trade by sea was closely bound up with the evolution of shipping and navigation.
It also illustrated the various species of animals employed by merchants, who would often use handoff points to exchange goods with other traders along the road’s 6,400+ mile journey.
Bactrian (Central Asian) and Arabian camels became instrumental in Silk Road transport as they could endure days on less food and water across the formidable Taklamakan desert. China’s innovative stirrups and saddles eventually spread to Central Asia, and became instrumental in taming and riding new, stronger breeds of horses circa 6th century BCE.
Chinese, Indian, Roman, Persian and Arabic empires built massive fleets to conquer the high seas, with Arabs often borrowing Greek and Syrian engineering for their Western flanks. This produced a race for faster, more powerful ships, as well as new cartography tactics for navigation purposes.
The Great Wall of China (长城, chángchéng) was also initially constructed in the Spring and Autumn period circa 7th century BCE up to the late Qing dynasty, around 1878. The world’s longest engineering feat, it also was used to protect the Chinese from nomadic invaders in the Eurasian Steppes who raided and attacked Silk Road merchants travelling to and from China.
The Silk Roads inspired human exchanges as much as material ones, birthing a renaissance of intercultural associations. Goods such as silk, spices, and artefacts were traded throughout the Asian continent along with diverse religions, which pervade Chinese society to date.
The Asia Society notes that,
Religious beliefs of the peoples of the Silk Road changed radically over time and was largely due to the effects of travel and trade on the Silk Road itself. For over two thousand years [it] was a network of roads for the travel and dissemination of religious beliefs across Eurasia.
This activity pollinated Chinese culture with Nestorian (Assyrian) Christianity, Indian Buddhism, Persian Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, Judaism, Islam, and even Greco-Roman polytheism.
Chinese officials also kept innumerable records on merchants entering and leaving the country, documenting the complexity, traffic, origins, and goods ebbing and flowing from China’s domains.