If China’s state media and other propaganda organs are to be believed, Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reopening ancient trade routes around the world once known as the “Silk Roads.” Indeed, the state-owned investment arm overseeing a range of the US$1 trillion BRI’s trade-promoting infrastructure projects is known as the “Silk Road Fund.”
The historical term conjures images of desert caravans of silk and other traders crossing from China through Central Asia and on to European markets. It also evokes the travels of 13th century Venetian adventurer merchant Marco Polo, who was among the first European traders to arrive in China and whose reports on his peregrination exoticized China and its silken wares.
BRI’s public relations materials also frequently point to a supposed “Southern Silk Road”, a trade route that reputedly originated in China’s southern Sichuan and wound through present day Myanmar on to the Bay of Bengal and Indian subcontinent.
That historically dubious trade route has been further embellished by a supposed ocean-spanning “Maritime Silk Road”, which reputedly passed through the Indian Ocean during an unspecified period in history.
Few, if any, historians dispute the fact that there was substantial trade between China and Europe dating back to medieval times.
But there is no credible historical record of a “Southern Silk Road” connecting China and India, as China’s multiple attempts to penetrate Myanmar miserably failed. Nor did China historically engage in trade-promoting maritime ventures after its only ancient explorer of the seas, Zheng He, sailed across the Indian Ocean in the 15th century.
The term “Silk Road” is in historical reality a Eurocentric misnomer of relatively recent origin. Lars Ellström, a prominent Swedish Sinologist who trekked the length of China from 2009 to 2011 aptly sums the term up in his travelogue book “Road to Kashgar.”
“The name ‘Silk Road’ has probably stuck in the West because it has an – incorrect – impression that it was [China’s] trade with Europe that was most important and partly because it is exotic and interesting.” That is also the reason, Ellström contends, “why it is used in China today: it is good marketing for the nation and contributes to tourism.”
It has also helped Beijing to soft sell its otherwise controversial BRI concept, now under rising criticism for causing sovereignty-eroding “debt traps” in recipient nations, to a wider global audience.
“Silk Road” is not by any account an originally Chinese term. Indeed, it was likely first officially used in China in 1989, when Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press published a book by Chinese author Che Muqi entitled “The Silk Road: Past and Present.”
Che’s volume fails to mention that the term “Silk Road”, Seidenstrasse, or rather Seidenstrassen (Silk Roads) in the German language plural, was coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, a 19th century German geographer. Von Richthofen used the term in his academic reports from Central Asia, which were first published in Berlin in 1877.
However, the term did not gain mainstream usage until one of von Richthofen’s students at Berlin’s Humboldt University, a Swedish explorer named Sven Hedin, began using it in his studies in the 1930s.
Hedin followed literally in von Richthofen’s footsteps with travels in Central Asia and in 1936 published a book entitled “Die Seidenstrasse” in German and “Sidenvägen” in Swedish. It was then translated into a number of other languages, including English in 1938, and became known as “The Silk Road.”
Exactly why von Richthofen and Hedin settled on the term “Silk Road” is not entirely clear, as a variety of goods were traded between China and Europe at the time. Indeed, in the ancient Roman Empire, silk was widely frowned upon because it was considered an inappropriate luxury item due to its sexually suggestive smooth and glitzy surface.
Warwick Ball, an Australian-born archeologist, has in his writings referred to the term “Silk Road” as a myth of modern academia, as the spice trade between India and Arab countries was far more important for the economies of both the Roman Empire and medieval Europe than the silk trade with China.
Moreover, if there ever was anything resembling a “Southern Silk Road” connecting southern China to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar, it would have been limited to Chinese imports of jade, then as now considered a “heavenly” stone in China, from mines in what is now known as Kachin state.
Few Chinese merchants were known to venture beyond the northernly jade mines and down to Myanmar’s central plains, where there was little of trading interest at the time.
Verifiable historical facts do not always factor into Beijing’s BRI-related propaganda, as state spinmeisters are now busy inventing various “New Silk Roads” based on past ones. In addition to the “new”, “southern” and “maritime” Silk Roads, plans are now afoot to forge an “Ice Silk Road” connecting China with northern Russian ports in the Arctic Ocean all the way to Europe.
The Arctic project also foresees Chinese and Russian companies seeking cooperation on oil and gas exploration in the opening maritime area. China has not yet claimed any historical basis for its “Ice Silk Road”, as any such claim would be even less plausible than its other fanciful “Silk Roads.”
But it’s not clear yet that Beijing’s “Silk Road” revisionism will necessary pave the way for the BRI’s modern China-centric vision of a new global trade order. Indeed, resistance is growing on various tracks of the “New Silk Roads.”
One important component of the BRI’s “Southern Silk Road” is the envisioned Bangladesh-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Myanmar is in the middle of Beijing’s “New Silk Road” vision of the supposed old “Southern Silk Road”, with plans for high-speed railroads, highways and a deep-sea port, but concerns of a possible “debt trap” have scaled back previous big-ticket schemes.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which more credibly runs along ancient “Silk Road” routes, connecting the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, is not consistent with that historical vision of free movement of people and goods.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has routinely dodged questions about China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, where over one million are being held in detention camps which border on his country. When questioned by the Financial Times about his stance on the issue, Khan said that “I don’t know much about that.”
To be sure, China’s new-age vision of “New Silk Roads” is re-writing history, as Beijing reaches outside of its borders in unprecedented ways to build trade-promoting roads, trains and ports. But Von Richthofen likely never would have expected to what extent his Seidenstrassen would come to be used and misused for political purposes.
Like the original “Silk Road”, Xi’s BRI is driving rivalries for control of valuable trade routes, pitting China against the United States, European Union, India, Japan and others that seek to resist Beijing’s rising hegemony. But unlike the ancient era when camels carried silk and other wares from China across the sandy steppes of Central Asia, the competition today is as much geo-strategic as it is commercial.