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Through remarkable archaeological excavations, Valerie Hansen, author of The Silk Road: A New History, pieces together the dynamic and complicated history of the Silk Road. Hansen discusses the impact of micro exchanges along these prolific trade routes, the cultural and historical significance of coins, and what she refers to as the “time capsule of Silk Road history,” the Mogao caves at Dunhuang. Hansen is professor of history at Yale University, where she teaches Chinese and world history.

Portrait of Valerie Hansen

Valerie Hansen. Photo: GeekofBooks on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

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JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

VALERIE HANSEN:  Even though there wasn’t that much long-distance trade or that large a volume of trade, the movement of ideas was taking place.

CUNO:  In this episode, I speak with Yale historian Valerie Hansen. Until the late 19th century, key documents from the era of the Silk Road remained unknown to historians, many deliberately hidden by officials for safe keeping. In her book, The Silk Road: A New History, Valerie Hansen examines a range of remarkable archaeological finds that reveal the Silk Road’s revolutionary and complex cultural, economic, and social history. She writes, “…the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to traverse part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands.”

In conjunction with the Getty’s exhibition, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, Valerie came to the Getty give a lecture on the ancient Central Asian city of Dunhuang and the some 40,000 objects that were sealed in the famous Library Cave there. I sat down with Valerie in my office just before her lecture.

CUNO:  Valerie, thanks so much for coming.

HANSEN:  My pleasure.

CUNO:  It’s great to have you here with us at the Getty. Now, you open your book with an image of and a story about a seventh century Chinese document of testimony by an Iranian merchant living in China, who disappeared with his two camels, four cattle, a donkey, and 275 bolts of silk. And you tell us that it’s but an example of the recent archeological finds of documents about life and commerce along the Silk Road. Tell us about the importance of those finds, and perhaps about this one in particular, and what they tell us about—that’s new, about the Silk Road.

HANSEN:  So that find, that document, is typical of the documents from Turfan, which is an Oasis outside of Urumqi, in Xinjiang. And the former name was the Autonomous Province of Xinjiang, but in Northwestern China. And those documents, those excavated documents—there’re about 2,000 from Turfan—allow us to see the nitty-gritty of what the Silk Road was actually like. And so one of the things we learned from that document is exactly how much that merchant was carrying when he disappeared. We think he was probably kidnapped or taken captive by some bandits, and his brother is suing in court. His brother is—he’s a Sogdian. And the Sogdians, you’re right, they’re Iranians. And they’re the most important group of traders on the Silk Road. And he’s suing in court to get back a loan that his brother made to a Chinese merchant. And they had no—the Sogdian and the Chinese merchant, his older brother and the merchant—had no language in common. But somehow they reached an agreement, and they signed a contract in Chinese. And then they also had witnesses who provided oral testimony in court, about the contract. And as far as we can tell, he was successful, that the court ruled that the Chinese merchant did owe him, as the heir to his dead brother, the money. And I was going to say, the key thing is that the scale of the Silk Road trade is so small. [Cuno: Right] It’s just—you know, one person, a couple of animals.

CUNO:  Yeah, that’s what I think is so interesting about the book, because the book counters the popular view, probably, of the Silk Road as being something that—from start to finish. That is, from Xi’an to Aleppo or something like that, that takes you across the full extent of it. And you make the very clear point that these are kind of micro exchanges. These are—these are agricultural communities, for the most part—some of them commercial, but agricultural communities—in which someone trades things that they have, from one town to the next. And that when it gets picked up and exchanged from one that town to the next, and after that. But that sense of a smaller exchange route than one images the Silk Road to be. And is that something that is prompted by the documents that were uncovered by so many so recently, that changed your view of the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  That’s absolutely my view. And the documents—the first document, excavated document, was discovered in the 1890s. And so the documents that we were just talking about, about the court suit, that was—those were excavated between—in the sixties and seventies. There have been other documents that have been excavated more recently; but basically, the whole twentieth century, documents are being uncovered. And there are some in Chinese, but a lot of them are in dead languages like Sogdian, Tocharian, and Kuchean. Many of the people who work on those documents know those languages. I know ancient Chinese, but not the other ones, the dead languages. And so people know about their specific group of documents, and not all of them. And what’s interesting is that when you read these different groups of documents, you never find anything describing large-scale trade.

CUNO:  Mm-hm, mm-hm.

HANSEN:  So that is contrary to what most people think about the Silk Road.

CUNO:  Now, we’re talking today at the Getty, because you’ve come here to lecture in conjunction with an exhibition that we’ve put on on the Buddhist caves near Dunhuang—the Mogao Grottoes, in the far west of China near the Taklamakan Desert. And you note in  your book that the largest group of documents about the Silk Road, if I remember this accurately, some 35,000 in all, were recently excavated from a garrison town some forty miles east of Dunhuang. What did they tell us? And how do they relate to the 40,000 or so documents found in the so-called library cave within the Dunhuang complex?

HANSEN:  So that more recent group of documents is from a place called Xuanquan which was a military fort during the Han Dynasty, which is from the second and first centuries BC through the first and second centuries AD. Those documents—there are 35,000 slips, but most of them don’t have writing on them.

CUNO:  Now, you organize your book around finds and the historical importance of archeological and historical sites, beginning with the ancient cities of Niya, if I’m pronouncing that correctly, and Loulan, on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in the west of China. It might be interesting for our listeners to get a visual of the region, of the location, and the role that Taklamakan, which divides the Silk Road north and south as you go from Xi’an, let’s say, west beyond Kashgar and so forth. But so if you could answer the question, in a sense, with giving us a sense of a map. But could you describe, also, the setting of those particular sites, Niya and Loulan, and tell us about their importance, and about their early modern discovery by Aurel Stein, early in the last century; that is, early in the twentieth century.

HANSEN:  So the Niya site and the Loulan site are on the southern Silk Road, as you said. The Silk Road—I think the basic core of the Silk Road connects Chang’an with Samarkand. And so Chang’an was historic Tang Dynasty capital that’s now modern Xi’an. And so travelers going west would travel, everybody on the same road, to Dunhuang; and then at Dunhuang, the road split. And some people went to the north, and went to Turfan and then to Kucha, and then around to what’s modern Kashgar. Other people went to the south and through Loulan and then Niya, and then Khotan, and then they reached Kashgar.

CUNO:  And that’s because there’s a big desert in the middle of it.

HANSEN:  And the Taklamakan Desert is a ferocious, very dry desert, in the middle of it. And that Loulan is—I haven’t been to. It’s very hard to get to Loulan. It was—used to be the A-bomb testing site for the Chinese. So [chuckles] it’s—and I actually haven’t been to Niya, either. I’ve been very close to Niya, because there’s now a modern highway that goes through the Taklamakan Desert, called, appropriately, Middle of the Taklamakan Highway. And I’ve been on that. And you can just get off that highway and go a little bit into the desert and go to Niya. But I wasn’t able to go. When you go now, it’s very dry. I mean, it’s pure desert. And the finds from Niya, the reason they’re so interesting is that so many things were preserved, things that usually don’t survive archeologically in other places, like cloth, like wood. So I was gonna say, Aurel Stein, the first excavated document surfaces in the 1890s. Somebody brings it to a British consul and sells it to him. And the—

CUNO:  And Aurel Stein, we should just say, Hungarian, working for the British, is that right.

HANSEN:  He’s born Hungarian; he’s gonna be naturalized as a British citizen. I don’t know when that is. He’s knighted in 1907, after he discovers—well, or after. It depends on your point of view. He removes, or loots, a massive number of documents from the Dunhuang caves. But he’s got a PhD in Sanskrit, so he knows what he’s looking at. And when he gets to Niya—and he goes in 1900, to Niya for the first time. And it’s his favorite place, because he can see where—East and West meeting in this one site. And he recognizes that the local documents are written in a script that’s used to write Sanskrit. It’s called Kharoshti. But at the Niya site, there’s one or two Sanskrit documents, but most of the documents are in a North Indian language called Gandhari.

CUNO:  Was the city alive then? [Hansen: Oh, no, it was—] Where there people resident at all? [Hansen: Well, I was going to say, he’s—] ’Cause it was a lost city, at one point, right?

HANSEN:  There is a river—almost all the rivers in Xinjiang are mountain runoff. And there was—’cause there are mountains to the south of the Taklamakan, and also to the north. And so the mountains to the south of the Taklamakan, the water is running down into Niya, and there’s a river that dries up. So when Stein gets there, he follows the riverbed and gets to the place where the river dries up. And there’s still a pilgrimage site, a Muslim pilgrimage site. And then he follows the dried-up river course up—oh, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred or 200 miles, and gets into what we now know as the historic site of Niya. So you can go today, to where he went, to that Muslim site, and you can see, there’s a little archeological museum there. The whole south road, the whole southern Silk Road, if you think of the Taklamakan like an almond, and the eastern side of the southern route basically fell into disuse about 500. And we’re not sure why; there are debates about climate history and did it dry up? But here’s a Chinese archeologist named Wang Binghua who excavated his whole live in Xinjiang. And he doesn’t think that the Taklamakan dried up the entire region; he thinks certain rivers ran dry and other ones replaced them. The river courses shift. And so  for whatever reason, Niya and Loulan are both abandoned after about the year—well, it’s funny—400 or 500.

CUNO:  Yeah. I think it’s in Niya, or around Niya, that you tell a story of some 5,000 graffiti and inscriptions on rocks along the way.

HANSEN:  It’s actually on the road from the Karakoram Highway. So that’s from Pakistan up into— The people who arrived in Niya from India probably went by those graffiti; but the graffiti are actually pretty far from Niya.

CUNO:  And so what do they tell us, those graffiti?

HANSEN:  It’s heartbreaking, because they just have somebody’s name.

CUNO:  Oh, that’s all it is?

HANSEN:  That’s it. So there’s one that tells us where the person was from.

CUNO:  Why would the person want to inscribe his name, I suppose, and where he’s from, at that point? Is it just an I-am-here kind of thing?

HANSEN:  I think so. And I think they’re also waiting—when people on the ancient Silk Road are traveling, they often have to wait for the seasons to shift. So the mountains, for example, will be impassible in the winter, and then better in the summer. And so I think we have a vision of people sitting around bored and thinking, oh, well, I may as well carve my initials in the—they also do Buddhist sketches. So that’s very interesting, ’cause it tells us about the transmission of Buddhism and where it came from. And we can see some shifts in the graffiti, so that the earlier Buddhist sketches don’t have pictures of the Buddha, which is exactly what we would expect, because the Buddha told his followers not to make pictures of him. And then over time, people ignored that and they started making pictures of him.

CUNO:  And I think we have textual and other physical evidence—stupas, for example—of communities of Buddhist monks in the region of Niya and Loulan. Is that correct?

HANSEN: The interesting thing about the Niya documents, there aren’t that many of them, but they are very informative, because they talk about some Buddhists—they use a word that is usually translated as “monk;” but then you find out that many of these men had children, so if they were monks, they weren’t celibate. I think they’re probably early Buddhist followers who were still living at home. There’s evidence in the documents that they were living at home and they had families. And then there were some who lived in monasteries. Which makes sense. One’s impression from those documents, they were constantly at war. The documents are from the third and fourth centuries, and they have enemies everywhere, and they’re always writing about being at war. And people try to collect on loans and the local officials say, “Well, you can’t collect on the loan because we’ve been at war, and we know that it’s just not possible to honor those loans from earlier periods.”

CUNO:  Right, right. You leave Niya and Loulan to go to Kucha. Is that pronouncing it correctly, Kucha?

HANSEN:  [corrects pronunciation] Kucha.

CUNO:  Over on the opposite of the Taklamakan Desert, [Hansen: Right] on the northern edge of the desert. And I gather that it was the largest oasis town on that northern edge; that in the official history of the Han Dynasty, the population is given as 81,317, to be precise. [Hansen chuckles] Which sounds like a very large community of people.

HANSEN:  Yeah. People debate the reliability of the census; but certainly, it’s gotta be—it’s based on something. I mean, they are performing a census—it’s a prosperous place. There are beautiful rivers that are flowing into it, and it is a major settlement on the northern Silk Road.

CUNO:  And you say that it’s a center of translation, and that many of the documents are travel passes that tell us a lot about the composition of caravans traveling through the region. You note, for example, one caravan comprising—this seemed, to me, astonishing—240 non-Chinese merchants and 600 camels carrying 10,000 bolts of silk. Is that a very large caravan, or is that…

HANSEN:  [over Cuno] That’s a huge caravan. That’s actually not attested in the excavated documents; that’s from one of the dynastic histories. And that would be the counterexample to my argument. That would be that. I mean, I think that most people, when they think of the Silk Road and of caravans, they would think of something that large, but I would say that’s the exception that proves the rule. ’Cause the travel passes we see from Kucha are talking, again, mostly about a couple of animals and a couple of people.

CUNO:  So it wasn’t in my imagination. I was trying to imagine Kucha as a big city on a very vital part of the Silk Road, with a lot of traffic going through it. But it—and you’re saying this is the exception. So while there were a lot of people living there, they may have still been small merchants. You know, not larger commercial enterprises.

HANSEN:  I see basically a trickle trade; that most of the production is local. We don’t have that much information from Kucha that directly speaks to that question. There’s much more information from Turfan. So in Turfan, roughly the same period—so like 500 to 700—we have a market register that tells us everything that was for sale in the market. And the heavy preponderance of goods is local goods.

CUNO:  Yeah. Well, I’m just gonna get to Turfan because in the same census, we know—or we’re said to know, from Turfan—that there were 37,700 people living there, in 8,000 households. So that makes it about less than half the size of Kucha. But what does Kucha tell us about the Silk Road, and then ultimately, its distinction, or what distinguishes it from Turfan? What does Turfan tell us about the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  Kucha’s famous ’cause it’s one of—there’s a famous translator who was born in Kucha, named Kumārajīva. You can hear from his name it’s a Sanskritic name. His dad was from India, and as, actually, was his mother. And then his mother [chuckles] didn’t want to get married, but she was persuaded to get married. She had Kumārajīva, and then she joins a nunnery. And he grows up speaking different—so he knows Sanskrit and he’s a Buddhist, so he’s studying Sanskrit. He also is speaking—there are local languages in Kucha, and they’re called Kuchean—that’s just Kucha with a language—you know, the “ean” added to it. And then he’s kidnapped, and he learns Chinese. And he founds a translation bureau around the year 400 where there’s a team of people working together. And the previous translations, the pre- Kumārajīva translations are all kind of approximate where somebody who was a native speaker of an Indian language would be talking with probably Chinese, early Buddhist devotees, and sight translating— Well, he would know the text. He would’ve memorized it. Almost everything in the Indian tradition is memorized, thousands and thousands, even hundreds of thousands of verses. He would recite something, and then he would explain it to the Chinese and they would write down what it meant. And it wasn’t standard and there’s a huge amount of variation and these are very hard to understand. And Kumārajīva comes in and he sets up this translation bureau, and he systematizes all the translation. And so the translations that he does make sense in Chinese. And they’re very popular. Even now, people find them easier to read and easier to understand than some of the later, more technically accurate translations. So I think the—and then I was gonna say another thing that’s significant about Kucha is that there are early Buddhist art in the caves of Kazil and that is—matches the early period at Dunhuang. So in the 300s and the 400s. Although actually, the dating’s contentious and I [chuckles] just met someone who said that those Kucha caves have all been re-dated, so they’re later now. But they’re much more stylistically influenced by India. So Kucha is a place where the Indian influence is the clearest.

CUNO:  I think I remember that you write about Kucha, that it’s important for our understanding of the relationship of the Chinese military to the Silk Road economy.

HANSEN:  That’s interesting. There’s a little bit of material. There’s better material from other places. There’s not that many documents from Kucha. There are those—the caravan passes. And then there’s some Buddhist texts. But there’s not very much about, like, the Chinese military. There was a garrison there. There’s some records from them, but it’s very fragmented.

CUNO:  And do I remember that one of the important contributions silk makes is as currency, or as salary, shall we say, to the military. In other words, it’s useful material; it’s not only a luxurious material.

HANSEN:  I think probably, most of the silk that was circulating on the Silk Road was used as currency. So even the court case that we started talking about, where the—for the loan of the 275 bolts of silk, that silk is not being sold as a fancy textile; that is the currency that is in use in Turfan at that time in the 600s. And the silk has—I mean, when we think about it now, we may think it’s not that practical. But it’s actually lighter than coins. Coins are heavier. And the silk was fairly durable. And it also had the advantage that if you needed to, you could cut it up and make a suit of clothes. And we have examples of people doing that, [chuckles] where they’re like, oh, I need to—you know, my shirt is torn. And they cut and make clothing out of it. There’s a chronic shortage of coins, basically, running through the whole Silk Road period. We know about this. The Chinese state—officials in the Chinese state are writing about this in the 600s and 700s, and saying like, how can we supplement those coins? What other things can we use? And they use grain. So they assign a value, a fixed value, for grain and for silk and for coins. And there are ratios. And the Tang Dynasty uses—which is a nightmare for historians, ’cause it’s very hard to figure out what it means—they use a combined unit, which is like a bolt-slash-peck [of grain]-slash-string of coins. You know, how much money was that? You know, and the exchange rate is always changing, among those three things.

CUNO:  I gather that there were thousands of silver coins found in the area around Turfan.  And you write about that and you  write about the Sogdians, as you just were referring to them as sort of, I guess, the legacy of these Iranians in the Iranian empire. But they came in great numbers from Samarkand, thousands of miles away to Turfan. Who were the Sogdians, and what was the significance of this discovery of these coins that tell us something about the Sogdians?

HANSEN:  So the Sogdians are the people who live in Sogdiana. And that’s a region of Central Asia, around Samarkand. It’s culturally associated with the Sasanian Empire, more than it’s under direct political control of the Sasanians. It’s usually independent. And there are city-states, also oasis states. And the Sogdian residents are trading with China. Well, it’s funny. One of the big discoveries of the Silk Road is the  Sogdian letters. And they’re in the early 310s. Actually 312, 313. And they record the presence of different Sogdian communities living in China, one of them probably in Dunhuang. So they’re the main Silk Road traders. And the silver coins are evidence of their activities, and of the links between Turfan and Kucha, and then with Sogdiana, or the region around Samarkand. And they had their own language. Broadly speaking, they’re Iranian, and they speak—Sogdian is a language that’s related to middle Persian.

CUNO:  I think that you’re referring to, by these letters, the letters that were found in the Sogdian mail bag. [Hansen: Yeah] Is that right? Yeah?

HANSEN:  Exactly.

CUNO:  By Aurel Stein, again, [Hansen: Right] is that right?

HANSEN:  It’s Aurel Stein again.

CUNO:  And what would it be like to come across a bag full of letters?

HANSEN:  Well, he does describe them, because they’re—he creates this word, he coins this word, which I love, is “convolutes.” Which is a piece of paper that’s been folded many, many times. And so the Sogdian letters have been folded many times, and they’re not—they have addresses that are very short. So they’ve been entrusted to a messenger who’s on his way to Samarkind. So it doesn’t say the name and the street address and the city; it just says, you know, give it to Jim Cuno in L.A. Right? And the assumption is that the carrier knows you and knows your address. And so—

CUNO:  And what roughly—what is the date of this?

HANSEN:  This is—those are—have been dated to 312 and 313.

CUNO:  Oh, right. Okay. I think you say in the book that these letters are important because they tended to have been written by merchants, rather than by authorities overseeing or taxing the trade. What’s important about that?

HANSEN:  We have so little documentation from actual merchants, in all of this material. And you know, there’s different sites, and they produce different documents and they’re found in different places. Sometimes they’re—they’re often linked to officials, or court documents. We’ll find, like, an archive of officials who were hearing many different disputes and writing them down. We’ll find, in the Chinese graves, people will bury different kinds of paper. They’ll recycle government documents and make clothing out of them in Turfan. That’s how we know about that lawsuit in the beginning, about the deceased Sogdian whose brother is trying to recover the material. But to have letters from the merchants about their business dealings, that’s really unusual. And those documents really are the first thing we know for sure about the Sogdians. There is some earlier Sogdian material, but those letters—there are seven or eight of them. Five of them have been translated into English by Nick Sims-Williams. And they tell us—some of them are from a merchant writing back to his boss in Samarkand, saying how the business is going. And also, they give specific quantities of materials and they’re linguist—of the different trade goods—they’re linguistically extremely difficult, and the people who know Sogdian debate pretty much [chuckles] almost all these different words in those letters. But most of the quantities seem, again, to be fairly small.

CUNO:  Do these letters, or do other such documents, help us understand about the sort of lives of the people involved, or just the transactions that they engage in?

HANSEN:  Well, the Sogdian letters, there’s two letters that are heartbreaking, ’cause they’re written by a woman whose husband has abandoned her. She’s in Dunhuang. And she writes a letter to her husband and says, basically, I’m stranded her. She and her daughter are working as shepherdesses. We know because the daughter writes a postscript on one of the letters. But she says she needs—she wants to go home, and her husband has abandoned her. And she lists all the different people who she’s gone to, all the different men in the Sogdian community she’s gone to for help. But most of them have turned her down. There’s one Sogdian priest who’s trying to help her. So you have a sense of somebody who’s—I mean, it’s very human. You really feel like you feel this woman’s pain.

CUNO:  So to get back to Samarkand and to help our listeners trace this path we’re on—we’ve been on the northern side of the Taklamakan Desert, we’re heading west. We’ve gone to Samarkand. But you also introduce a city east—not far, but east of Samarkand. So backtracking a little bit, shall we say. The city of Panjikent, now in Ta—

HANSEN:  [corrects pronunciation] Panjikent.

CUNO:  Panjikent, now in Tajikistan. Your description of that town or that city is extraordinary. Could you rehearse that for us and tell us its importance for the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  Well, it’s funny. The reason it’s important is that Soviet archeologists have excavated there for more than fifty years. And so much of the archeology we have on the China side is focused on tombs. It’s not entirely; there’s some excavations of palaces in China, like, city walls. But we don’t have a whole city that’s been excavated. In Panjikent, we also don’t have a whole city, but we have a third of a city, or nearly a half of a city, of a Silk Road city, that’s been excavated. So we can see all the houses there, for example, and we can see all the art. And it was, you know, in the core area of the Sogdians. So we can see what Sogdian life was like before the coming of Islam. We can see people— It’s funny, when you look at Panjikent, there’s not that much evidence of trade there, as a city. I mean, people lived in beautiful houses, with paintings of Sogidian deities in, like, their living rooms. The biggest paintings that they would have would be of Sogdian deities. And then it’s a little bit like the caves at Dunhuang, that the details around the deities would be from other things. There’re a lot of pictures from the Panchatantra, this book of Sanskrit fables, that traveled—those stories traveled all throughout Central Asia. We can see some fire altars. It just allows us to see what Sogdian life was life.

CUNO:  Did they live in ways similar for us to imagine? Herculaneum, for example, Pompeii, or something like that?

HANSEN:  [over Cuno] I was just going say, sort of like Pompeii. It’s very similar, yeah.

CUNO:  So it was a real city, where there were streets [Hansen: Right] and rectilinear relationships and things.

HANSEN:  [over Cuno] There were streets, right, and there are bigger temples, and you can see—you can see how the rich live, and then poorer people live. And there—you know, there are annual site reports, in Russian. But we know more about it than we know about any other Silk Road town.

CUNO:  And so we can extrapolate, at least in a large town, that that’s a Sogdian manner of urban development of some kind.

HANSEN:  [over Cuno] Yes, absolutely. Yes.


CUNO:  To distinguish it from Xi’an and Chinese plans something like that, yeah.

HANSEN:  Right.

CUNO:  Now, we’re talking about the seventh century. And not long after Xuanzang makes his way out of Samarkand, for example, the Arab armies come in. This would be about fifty years later or so, forty years later. And they ultimately conquer the city. How did the arrival of the Muslim invaders change the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  I think the biggest change about—with the coming of Islam is that the earlier, basically general policy of tolerance ends. All of these Silk Road oasis rulers on the Silk Road, any of them were Buddhist. But they allowed their non-Buddhist subjects to worship what they wanted to. And with the coming of Islam, people are not forced to convert to Islam; but there are benefits to being a Muslim. And then also, the state supports Islam in a way that the earlier state—it privileges Islam in a way that the earlier states didn’t.

CUNO:  Mm-hm. Does that translate into a kind of retrenchment of commercial activity along the Silk Road, because of a—less and less tolerance of difference along the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  I think it’s very hard to demonstrate that there was less trade. I think that the centers change, so the trade is reoriented. So people who become Muslim are focused more on the cities to the west. And the Hajj becomes very important. People are going on the Hajj and so the routes, the trade routes, converge at Baghdad or they converge at Basra, the port near Baghdad, where in the previous period, they would’ve gone to Chang’an. So there—you know, there’s still—this local trickle trade continues.

CUNO:  Yeah. You follow your chapter on Samarkand with the chapter on Xi’an. We’ve already talked about Xi’an. You mention in the chapter on Xi’an that it was the capital of three major Chinese dynasties—the former Han, the Sui, the Tang Dynasties and so forth—and that it was the point of departure, not only for caravans going west, but also along the Silk Road, but also for those heading east to the sea routes. And you describe the recent finding in the surburb of Xi’an, of one of the largest hoards of buried treasure ever found in China, you say, including some of the most valuable and most beautifully worked Silk Road artifacts, and including more than 470 coins. Tell us about the role of Xi’an on the Silk Road, as you say, going both east and west, going both over land and over the sea. And tell us about that find.

HANSEN:  So you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s really, I think, the most important city in China on the Silk Road. And when you go there today, to Xi’an, everyone is [chuckles] telling you this all the time, so I happen to agree with them. But it is interesting. It’s not intuitive that the sea route travelers would start there. But they do start there, and then go down to the sea, and then travel through Southeast Asia. The sea route has always been used I mean, my book was about excavated documents and looking at the overland route. But there’s a lot of very interesting information about the sea route. We have other monks who tell us about traveling by sea, like Xuanzang.  There’s someone named Faxian who travels in around the year 400; and there’s someone named Yijing who travels at the end of this, like, 695. And there’s a well-developed sea route. And also on the sea route, there’s not the limitation that there is overland, for how many goods you can carry. So people are loading ships full of goods, and then they’re— Part of one of the positive effects of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea is that we have a great interest in the archeology of shipwrecks, because the Chinese are hoping that they can demonstrate a territorial claim to various place. And there’s a very interesting site called Belitung, which is the Indonesian island in the—it was excavated commercially, and then the Singapore government bought everything that was found there, thousands of ceramics in a single ship, so—

CUNO:  From what date, roughly?

HANSEN:  The Belitung is dated to 830—I wanna say the late 600s. But I’m not positive about that.

CUNO:  [over Hansen] So one is tempted to suggest the following, which is probably dead wrong, but it suggests the following. Which is that with the arrival of the Muslim armies in Samarkand and the across into China, and the withdrawal of the Tang Dynasty, the closing of the garrison towns and the various like that, you talk about it as being a kind of rise of anti-foreign sentiment in the Tang Dynasty. One wants to see a kind of drawing up of trade on land, on the trade routes on land, and transfer—this is where it’s probably wrong—transfer to sea routes.

HANSEN:  No, it’s—lots of people think that. I mean,  lots of people would say that the overland route dies out sometime around the year 1000. Maybe later. Maybe you go to 1400. I wouldn’t see the coming of Islam as the reason for the end of the trade; I would see the presence of the Tang army in Central Asia as a key factor in the boom period of the trade. And when the Tang withdraws, which is actually simultaneous with, the victory. The Tang lose a battle to Islamic forces in 751, and then there’s a huge rebellion within China in 755. And the Tang troops, some of them can get back to China; some of them are just stranded out there. We have documents from them, trying to make a go of things in the 780s and the 790s. So that’s the only way I would tweak what you said. But I would say the sea route was always in use.

CUNO:  So it’s in your book at this point, you go back out west toward—now, to Dunhuang. So you’ve gone from the west in Samarkand, and from Turfan to the east, to Xi’an. Now you’re going back out the west to Dunhuang.

HANSEN:  I will interrupt you and say there is a chronological reason for that. [Cuno: Yeah, right (laughs)] and we’ll—I mean, it sounds totally random, as you’ve just described it, but we are going in chronological order.

CUNO:  And to that point, you call Dunhuang the time capsule of Silk Road history.

HANSEN:  Right.

CUNO:  Why is that?

HANSEN:  Because of the library cave. I mean, well actually, because of the library cave, and also because of the painting—the painted caves. Because the Mogao caves start in the 400s, and run through to the 1300s. So you, you know, you can go century by century, and see how Buddhist painting is changing. The library cave is the time capsule, because it was sealed—we’re not sure of the date, but sometime after 1002. And it contains material. Most of the material’s from the ninth and tenth centuries; but there is material going back to, again, that period, the 300s and the 400s.

CUNO:  Yeah. Now, there are things on view in the Getty exhibition from the caves themselves. Tell us about the caves. Tell us about the sealing up, the reasons why it might’ve been sealed up, how it was then discovered much later, and then the inconsequence of some of the things that are in it, to tell us about life in Dunhuang.

HANSEN:  Okay. The cave is a side cave. This has been very heavily studied. It’s in a small side cave that was dug into a wall next to a kind of a normal cave that had a Buddhist image in it. That cave began as a memorial to a monk. We know that because we have some texts that tell us, and there’s also a statue of him there. And then it was filled with material that—you know, the numbers of documents—the estimates are from 35,000 to 50,000; half in Chinese and half in Tibetan—those are the vast majority of the material. But there are lots of other languages, like Sogdian, all the Silk Road languages. But also things like there’s a prayer in Hebrew. That’s one of the things that’s on—not a prayer; it’s a poem written of existing lines from the Bible that have been sewn together. And that’s on display in the Getty. So it doesn’t have very much printed material. It was sealed around the year 1000. We would expect—printing, not using movable type, but printing using individual wood blocks for text , is well established. And we would expect, I think, to see a lot of printed material. The Diamond Sutra, which is the world’s first printed book, it doesn’t look like a book. It’s a scroll; it’s rolled up. But it is an integral unit, which is why people call it the world’s first printed book. We would expect to see more printed material than that. Most of what we see is manuscripts. It was—there were schools in Dunhuang, like monastic schools, and people studied Buddhist texts, of course, and copied them to learn how to read and write. But they also copied contracts, they copied lots of other things, and poems. So there’s a lot of variety in the material.

The cave was found in 1900. We don’t know that much about how it was found, because nobody recorded it. But there was a itinerant monk who called himself a Taoist. He had become a Taoist when he was in the Chinese army. And he knocked on the cave wall and he heard it was hollow, and he opened up the wall and found all the materials. Aurel Stein gets there in 1907. He’s the Hungarian who has been naturalized and becomes a British citizen. He’s working for the Archaeological Survey of India. And then Paul Pelliot gets there in 1908. And Paul Pelliot is probably the greatest Sinologist that France has ever produced. So they get there and they tell us— What we know about the discovery of the cave, we know from them. There’s like, no eye-witness accounts of its discovery. So it’s sealed from, you know, 1002 to, let’s say, 1900. So there’s 900 years where— And it’s dry. So pretty much, as far as we can tell, everything that was placed in there is intact. And there’s a lot of paintings, too; it’s not just documents. Paintings, and there’s some—the paintings are on silk. There’re some document wrappers, there are some banners that are on display in the Getty. There’s a huge amount of material. I mean, there’s so much material there’s a branch of study in China called Dunhuangology.

CUNO:  [chuckles] Oh, really?

HANSEN:  I mean, people just—that’s what they study.

CUNO:  I gather that there are documents that list military salaries and the role of bolts of silk and these salaries and so forth.

HANSEN:  Oh, yeah, one of— that’s one of my favorite documents, because it shows that the amount of silk that the central government sent up to Central Asia in support of the armies is so much greater than anything we have recorded in the excavated documents. So that fits my view that the Silk Road was not about private trade; it was about the government support. The Tang government is paying the troops with silk. It’s sending bolts of silk up to China. We actually, from Turfan, we have some bolts of silk that have the writing on them, the same as those silver—those lumps of silver that were found in Chang’an. There are pieces of silk found in—again, by Aurel Stein—found in Turfan, where it has the inscription of the town that wove the silk and gave it as part of its taxes.

CUNO:  You talk about, in a description of one of the caves—not in the library cave, but another one of the many caves that are at Dunhuang—that offers a step-by-step account of how to make a cave. And so I’m sort of interested that that would be actually inscribed on the wall of a cave, as opposed to left in a document. Why would one do that?

HANSEN:  The desire of the donor to document his contribution to the cave, so that he will generate merit. And also that he will be a Chakravartin ruler. That, I think that’s the basic motive for the cave construction.

CUNO:  So it documents the making of that cave, which can be interpreted by others as a way to instruct them to make other caves. But it wasn’t left with the idea that it would be an instruction for other cave makers; it’s documented—

HANSEN:  [over Cuno] Well, no, it wasn’t meant to be instruction, but it’s—I think it’s just—it’s a wonderful example of somebody explaining, in that particular case, that the local ruler of Dunhuang, who’s from a—like a Chinese strongman—his uncle has reconquered Dunhuang—taken Dunhuang back from the Tibetans who were occupying it. And this is the nephew. And he’s describing his desire to make a cave as an expression of pious devotion, which everybody would—that would be always what they described their motivation as, for any kind of Buddhist contribution. And then what’s interesting is he describes digging the cave into the conglomerate there. And then the gods help, because they want the cave, right? And so they hasten the excavation. So that’s—I was going to say, it’s charming to see that idea that the gods want the caves, too. You know, there’s a school of thought by a professor from University of Chicago, Wu Hung, that the paintings were not meant for people; the paintings are meant for the gods to see. I find that very compelling.

CUNO:  Yeah. Now, you end your history of the Silk Road with Khotan, in the far west of China. So you’ve now gone even farther west, beyond Dunhuang. And the region was Buddhist at the time, I think, and was conquered by Muslims at the turn of the year 1000 [Hansen: Right] or so, like that. What is the importance of Khotan to the history of the Silk Road?

HANSEN:  Well—

CUNO:  And why do you end your book with it, other than the chronological reason to do so?

HANSEN:  Well, I believe that the cave in Dunhuang was sealed in 1002, in response to the news of the fall of Khotan. There were very close ties between the rulers of Khotan and the rulers of Dunhuang. They intermarried, and there are portraits of Khotanese brides that are in the Dunhuang caves, and also of the Khotanese king. And we’ve got some—one document in 970, where the Khotanese are fighting this Muslim army, the Karakhanids. And winning. And they send—the king of Khotan sends a letter to his uncle, who’s the ruler of Dunhuang, saying he’s winning, with some gifts that he’s gotten—he’s recovered—he’s stolen from the Karakhanids. And then we don’t know what happens. But then we just know that Khotan falls, about thirty years later. And we do know when the Islamic armies invaded, that they defaced existing Buddhist monuments. So the Buddhists—any Buddhists living in the region would’ve dreaded an Islamic conquest. And I do find that the most compelling reason for the library cave to be sealed. I also admit—this is the theory of Rong Xinjiang, a professor at Peking University, that there’s no direct evidence that this is what happened. We don’t have anybody saying, let’s seal the library cave because Khotan has fallen to the Muslim invaders. We don’t have that. We just have the chronological sequence.

I end my book because the excavated documents that I am interested in really stop at that point. That they stop around the year 1000. The whole field of Silk Road history shifts, linguistically, and it becomes a— In order to understand what’s going in Xinjiang, you really need to know Uyghur and— There’s a modern language of Uyghur, but there’s also a classical Uyghur. And it’s a language I haven’t studied. There’s also not very much material. But you move from a Buddhist era. And my whole book is really about a period where Buddhism is the main religion in the whole Silk Road. You move to a new era, where the main thing that happens is the Islamification of Xinjiang. Takes about 500 years.

CUNO:  Now, about 300 years after this fall of Khotan, around in the year1300 or so, a  little before then, Marco Polo visits Khotan. [Hansen: Right] Right. And he describes it in his account of his journey and merchants like Polo and his uncle, you say provide a crucial service for the Mongols; that is, the ruling authorities in China. Tell us more about that, and about Polo’s account of Khotan at that moment.

HANSEN:  Well, I was going to say. I should also, if I could put a plug in, I have written a sequel to the Silk Road book, that has a chapter about Polo. And it also has about translations of fifty documents, so it’s like an expanded version, as opposed to a sequel. An expanded version of the Silk Road book, and it is now out. The Mongols had a group of merchants who played a key role for them. If you think of the Mongols conquering a city, laying waste to it, and then getting a huge amount of plunder, the things that they plundered were not necessarily what they wanted. And so they went to a group of merchants called the ortaq, and asked—basically said, “Here’s all the stuff we’ve plundered. Bring us back what we want.” And what they liked were textiles. They liked two-dimensional art, they liked things that they could hang in their tents.

And so there are—we know about the ortaq merchants. And then there’s a chance that Polo and his uncle were foreign ortaq—foreign, I mean European, ortaq merchants. Most of the ortaq merchants were from Central Asia. So they would’ve been Uyghurs or speakers of Arabic.

CUNO:  But now, how did Polo provide a crucial service, then, to this?

HANSEN:  If Polo and his uncles were members of the ortaq, the crucial service they provided was converting the plunder that the Mongols didn’t want into the goods, the textiles. Like, there’s a lot of beautiful textiles with golden threads in them that they did want. There was a huge controversy in the field a while ago, about the reliability of Polo’s account. And Frances Wood wrote a book saying she doubted that he had gone to China. And then she was very ferociously attacked by some Mongolists, who felt that he had definitely gone to China.

And reading their attacks on her, I am persuaded that he’s—Polo certainly went to Beijing, to the Mongol capital in Beijing. Reading Polo’s accounts of China, I still think he didn’t go there. I still think that [Cuno laughs] he’s relaying hearsay. But the travel accounts at that time, in the 1300s, were not—readers did not expect that the author had gone to all the places he wrote about. And I also think our ideas about plagiarism are—did not apply at the time. So people very often lifted each other’s accounts, as they described different places.

CUNO:  Now, you close with a compelling statement. You say that, “The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in history, and possibly not worth studying, if tonnage carried, traffic, or the number of travelers at any time were the sole measures of a given route’s significance. Yet the Silk Road changed history.”

HANSEN:  But it changed history because even though there wasn’t that much long-distance trade or that large a volume of trade, the movement of ideas was taking place all the time. And we can see—I mean, the movement of Buddhism into China is probably the best example of religious movement that we can see along the Silk Road. But there are other religions coming in, too. Manicheism, the Christian—the Christianity of the Syriac Church is coming in. We can see technological movement.

The technology for how to make paper is going out of China; the technology for how to make glass is coming into China. So that’s what I think is really interesting about the Silk Road, is that cultural exchange. And I don’t think it presupposes a comparable mercantile exchange.

CUNO:  Yeah. Well, the book is an important book, a substantial book, and we’re pleased to know that there is a—an expanded version of the book [Hansen laughs] just out. And it’s also Oxford University Press?

HANSEN:  Yeah, also Oxford, right.

CUNO:  Well, thank you, Valerie. Thank you for the time this afternoon, and thanks for coming to the Getty.

HANSEN:  Oh, thanks so much. It’s my pleasure. It’s absolutely beautiful. It must be the most beautiful museum in the world. Thank you so much.

CUNO:  Join me again next week for a special episode on the Mogao caves at Dunhuang. I visit the life-size replica caves and galleries of the Getty exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road with Neville Agnew, Lori Wong, Susan Whitfield, and Marcia Reed to talk about the paintings and sculptures found in the caves, as well as the conservation work the Getty Conservation Institute has been involved with at the Dunhuang caves for the past three decades.

Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.

Subscribe to Art and Ideas on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit for more resources. Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

VALERIE HANSEN:  Even though there wasn’t that much long-distance trade or that large a volume ...

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