Events Calendar

Silk Road Rising: Traveling for the State: Dunhuang Envoys on the Silk Road (850-1000)

The University Library System (ULS) invites you to join guest speakers in conjunction with the exhibit ‘Travelers Along the Silk Roads: 10th Century to the Present’ located on the ground floor lobby and second floors exhibit cases in Hillman Library.

Xin Wen
Assistant Professor, East Asian Studies and History, Princeton University

In 1877, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) coined the term the “Silk Road” to denote ancient routes that connected East Asia with the Mediterranean world. Thirteen years later, in 1900, an obscure Chinese Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu (1851-1931) discovered a cave containing about 50,000 multilingual manuscripts sealed up in the early eleventh century in Dunhuang–a key stop on the “Silk Road” between China proper and Central Asia. The Dunhuang manuscripts collection, as I show in this talk, can shed much corrective light on the ill-defined concept of the “Silk Road.” Unlike the conventional picture of merchants journeying in caravans with their commodities between civilizational centers, Dunhuang manuscripts reveal a world in which the state sponsored the vast majority of trans-regional travels, and most of those who traveled trans-regionally self-identified as envoys. These envoys formed reciprocal guest/host relations with the people they encountered on the road, and interacted with them through the exchange of gifts, the main social lubricant for long-distance travel at this time. While on the road, they conducted diplomatic dealings, but also visited buddhist sites and engaged in commercial transactions; and their identities thus cannot easily be pigeonholed. The tangible goods acquired through the envoys’ trips structurally shaped the agrarian society of Dunhuang by injecting vast amount of luxury items into the local economy, while the intangible prestige these envoys accumulated produced a political ideology in Dunhuang that prized the openness of the road and treated its neighbors as “family on the same road.” In this sense, I argue that Dunhuang was indeed a “Silk Road state”: a state that promoted trans-regional connections relentlessly, and was in turned transformed by its own success. 

Thursday, March 21 at 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Hillman Library, 111 Thornburgh Room
3960 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15260