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How important was silk along the Silk Roads?

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Abstract: About fifty years ago, in a chapter on “Trade Routes in Inner Asia” for the aborted Cambridge History of Inner Asia, Volume 2 to be edited by Denis Sinor, the speaker wrote “The caravans from the Chinese capital to West Asia or Europe transported silk and other luxury products while the hunters and herders traveled to nearby agricultural settlements or towns to trade for essentials, a much more vital exchange of goods.” Specialists on Eurasian history arrived at the same conclusion and questioned the economic importance of the so-called Silk Roads. Although they (and the speaker) acknowledged the cultural and artistic importance of such long distance relations, they wondered whether the term “Silk Roads” was appropriate. This presentation somewhat modifies the views of the past five decades. Based on Chinese sources from the Song through the Ming dynasties, it shows the value of silk in commerce and in foreign relations and provides partial support for use of the term Silk Roads.

About the speaker: Professor Morris Rossabi is a historian of China and Central and Inner Asia. He teaches courses on Inner Asian, East Asian, and Chinese history at Columbia. During the 2008–2009 academic year, he received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Mongolia. He and Mary Rossabi are involved in an oral history of 20th and 21st century Mongolia, which has led to the publication of Socialist Devotees and Dissenters; A Herder, a Trader, and a Lawyer; and The Practice of Buddhism in Kharkhorin and its Revival (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, 2010, 2012, and 2013). Author or editor of 25 books, he has helped organize exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. He was on the advisory board of the Project on Central Eurasia and Chair of the Arts and Culture Committee of the Soros Foundation. The author of numerous articles and speeches, he travels repeatedly to China, Central Asia, and Mongolia. In 2021, the Minister of Foreign Affairs awarded Professor Rossabi a Certificate of Merit at the Mongolian Embassy to the United Nations.

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