One Modern Term, One Old Road

The silk road is in vogue again: Under the slogan “One Belt, One Road”(一帶一路 yi dai yi lu) China launched a new initiative to enhance the economic cooperation with its neighboring countries in Central Asia. These developments have not only received wide media attention but also caused foreign policy analysts from all over the world to wonder what this might mean for their own national economies and Eurasian economic development in general. (See for example Financial Times and P. Ferdinand)

At the same time, the study of the historical roots of the silk road is flourishing: The UC Berkeley just last month (April 2017) opened the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for Silk Road Studies. (See Berkeley News)

In all this silk road-frenzy, however, it is often forgotten, that the term “silk road” does not stem from the old caravan traders or Buddhist travelers but has its roots in modern, in fact, Colonial history. It was coined in the 19th century by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who set out to provide the German government with geographical information needed to build a railway connecting Qingdao to Germany.

It is astonishing how this term with all its colonial implications is today reinvented as a symbol of a growing self-confidence of China as a regional power.

To read up on this fascinating history of this highly politicized term I recommend this article by Tamara Chin: The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877.

Ferdinand_von_Richthofen
Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) Source
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