Silk Sense

….concept of a historic Silk Road by which camel
caravans wend among the mountains and deserts of Central Asia ….re-establishing maritime networks…Chinese Admiral Zheng He…naval armada across
the Indian Ocean…..China’s leaders promote ancient
trade routes…emphasize role as a harbinger of peace and prosperity.
….minor problem….history is distorted….
Who is Professor Sen?…Prof Amartya Kumar Sen of Shanti-niketan, Delhi School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard represents the old guard in his (sincere) attempts to bring South Asian Hindus and Muslims together. Now is the age of Hindi-Chini shadow boxing, and the man who is best informed about the thought processes of our Chinese overlords is Prof Tansen Sen of Peking University, University of Pennsylvania and Baruch College.

Tansen Sen is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (University of Hawai’i Press, 2003) and co-author (with Victor H. Mair) of Traditional China in Asian and World History (Association for Asian Studies, 2012). 

He has edited Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Cultural and Intellectual Exchange (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014) and guest-edited special issues of China Report (“Kolkata
and China,” December 2007
; and “Studies on India-China Interactions
Dedicated to Ji Xianlin,” 2012).
With Wang Bangwei he has co-edited India and China: Interactions through Buddhism and Diplomacy: A Collection of Essays by Professor Prabodh Chandra Bagchi (Anthem Press, 2011).


While the scholarship is impressive, we confess to be charmed by the name Tansen Sen.  

We presume that the good prof is named after [ref. Wiki] Mian Tansen (born 1493 or 1506 as Ramtanu Pandey – died 1586 or
1589 as Tansen) a prominent Hindustani classical music composer,
musician and vocalist….He was among the Navaratnas (nine jewels) at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jalal ud-din Akbar. Akbar gave him the title Mian, an honorific, meaning learned man.…It was only after the age of 5 that Tansen showed any musical talent….he was a disciple of Swami Haridas, the legendary composer from Vrindavan and part of the stellar Gwalior court of Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486–1516 AD), specializing in the Dhrupad
style of singing. His talent was recognised early and it was the ruler
of Gwalior who conferred upon the maestro the honorific title ‘Tansen’.


The romantic concept of a historic Silk Road by which camel
caravans wend among the mountains and deserts of Central Asia is back in
the news. So is talk on re-establishing the maritime networks by
which the Chinese Admiral Zheng He steered his naval armada across
the Indian Ocean seven times. China’s leaders promote the ancient
trade routes, most recently during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s
visits to countries in Central and South Asia, to emphasize the
nation’s historic role as a harbinger of peace and prosperity.

One minor problem in China’s history-based campaign— the history is distorted. In September 2013, less than a year after assuming the position of
general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of
China, Xi launched new foreign policy initiative known as the “Silk
Road Economic Belt.”  

In an address at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev
University, calling for cooperation and development of the Eurasian
region through this new Silk Road initiative, Xi presented five
specific goals: strengthening of economic collaboration, improvement
of road connectivity, promotion of trade and investment, facilitation
of currency conversion, and bolstering of people-to-people

A month later, at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit held in Brunei, Chinese
Premier Li Keqiang proposed the building of a 21st century “Maritime
Silk Road” to jointly foster maritime cooperation, connectivity,
scientific and environmental research, and fishery activities. A few
days later, in his address to the Indonesian Parliament Xi confirmed
this idea and stated that China would devote funds to “vigorously
develop maritime partnership in a joint effort to build the Maritime
Silk Road of the 21st century,” stretching from coastal China to the
Mediterranean Sea.

In both speeches, Xi underscored China’s historical linkages with the
respective regions and suggested that his proposals were intended to
reestablish ancient friendly ties in a modern, globalized world. In
Kazakhstan, Xi credited the Western Han envoy Zhang Qian with
“shouldering the mission of peace and friendship” and opening up the
door for east-west communication and establishing the “Silk Road.” In
Indonesia, he praised the Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He for
bequeathing “nice stories of friendly exchanges between the Chinese
and Indonesian peoples.”

Not mentioned, however, are the backdrops of conflict and the push to
spread a Sinocentric world order. In trying to portray the past as a
utopian epoch, the purpose of Zhang Qian’s mission
to the so-called Western Regions was misrepresented. The Han emperor
dispatched Zhang to find an ally to fight the powerful Xiongnu
Confederacy, the leading adversary of the Western Han Empire. 

Because of
its expansionist policies, the Han Empire was responsible for
transforming the originally nomadic Xiongnu people into a semi-state
entity that offered resistance to the Han forces. In 138 BCE the
empire sent Zhang to Central Asia to locate the Yuezhi people,
previously routed by the Xiongnus. His mission was a failure,
however, as he was captured by the Xiongnu and forced to marry a
local woman. Escaping after 10 years of captivity, he found that the
Yuezhi were not interested in a military alliance. Zhang Qian’s only
contribution was to inform the Han court about the polities and
people in Central Asia. 

Similarly, the portrayal of Admiral Zheng He
as an agent of peace and friendship is problematic. In reality,
Zheng’s seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 included use of military
force in what are present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and
India to install friendly rulers and control strategic chokepoints of
the Indian Ocean. He intervened in dynastic politics of Sri Lanka
and Indonesia and brought back prisoners to Nanjing, the Ming

Ming Emperor Yongle originally dispatched Zheng to the
Western seas to look for his nephew whom he had deposed from the
throne and to promote the virtues of the Chinese civilization. In the
course of these expeditions, Zheng brought back many kings and
princes to kowtow to the emperor and exchange gifts. The voyages were
abandoned when it turned out to be too expensive and gave excessive
power, in the view of the Confucian court officials, to eunuchs such as
Zheng He.

The Han Empire used similar tactics in Central Asia, especially at
strategic locations of the trade routes. Thus neither the overland
route nor the maritime channels, termed collectively as the Silk
Routes, were peaceful or fostered friendly exchanges through Chinese
presence, as modern narratives would suggest.   

There is also a problem with the term “Silk Road” or “Silk Routes.”
German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term in 1877 for
the ancient overland trade route through Central Asia.

Since then,
many routes that linked China to the outside world have been called
“Silk Roads” or “Silk Routes” despite the fact that silk was neither
the earliest nor the most commonly traded commodity on any of these
routes. Additionally, the term, enthusiastically employed by Chinese
scholars, places unwarranted emphasis on the role of China in
pre-modern intra-regional interactions. 

This comes at the expense of
neglecting external influence on Chinese societies and economies
throughout the past 2000 years.

Perhaps, like many Chinese, Xi’s views about the Silk Roads were
shaped by the PRC educational system that prevents critical analysis
and proper deconstruction of historical sources. It’s also possible
that Xi was genuinely influenced by the fact that his family hails
from near the ancient Chinese capital Xi’an, known in history as
Chang’an, a place recognized in history books as the starting point
of the overland Silk Road.
Either the president is unaware of the
negative reactions that use of Chinese cultural symbolism in the
arena of foreign policy induce among some foreign states or is
adamant about pushing these through with the economic muscle China has
toned over the past several decades.

Several countries are willing to accept these distorted historical narratives for economic reasons.

The Sri Lankan government, for example, last year received a
gold-plated statue of Zheng
as a gift from China’s International Tour
Management Association. The two sides declared that Zheng He and his
expeditions represented ancient commercial and peaceful relations
between China and Sri Lanka. Neglected were the details that Zheng
had instituted regime change in the region; abducted a local ruler,
Alaskawera; and brought him to Nanjing as a prisoner. Zheng also
carried off the famous Tooth Relic of the Buddha at Kandy, long a
symbol of Sri Lankan political sovereignty.

Military conflict also took place in Indonesia, where some local
newspapers applauded Xi’s proposals noting that they could bring
“enormous opportunities for regional development.” Not of concern was
the fact that in Sumatra, in 1407, Zheng had instituted a regime
by abducting a local ethnic Chinese leader named Chen Zuyi,
whom the Ming court portrayed as a pirate. After Chen was publicly
executed in Nanjing, he was replaced by a person representing the
Ming court’s interest in the region. In the same year, Zheng also
intervened in the internal affairs of the Majapahit polity in Java,
seemingly to weaken the main regional power in Southeast Asia. 

These military interventions like those in others regions that used
the pretext of ushering in a harmonious world order under the Chinese
Son of Heaven were objectives of the Zheng He expeditions. 

The Silk Roads initiative of the Chinese government, with substantial
influx of money and investment, could boost the economies of several
countries in Asia and Europe that are willing to claim ancient links
to the Middle Kingdom. For China, the success of the initiative will
open new avenues for investing its vast monetary reserves. 

It will
also mark a major step towards recreating the Chinese world order of
the ancient times known as tianxia, that is, all regions of
the known world that belonged to the heavenly-mandated emperor of
China. This new world order will not be simply rhetorical, but could
impose significant geopolitical implications.



Nicola Di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming, 1405–1433. New York: Longman, 2007.

Étienne de la Vaissière, Sogdian Traders: A History. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tansen Sen, “Changing Regimes: Two Episodes of Chinese Military
Interventions in Medieval South Asia.” In Upinder Singh and Parul P.
Dhar (Ed.), Asian Encounters: Exploring Connected Histories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Geoff Wade, “Ming China’s Violence against Neighbouring Polities and
Its Representations in Chinese Historiography.” In Upinder Singh and
Parul P. Dhar (Ed.), Asian Encounters: Exploring Connected Histories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.




Brown Pundits