(Bloomberg View) -- Sitting in my Hangzhou hotel room one evening last September, I caught a helpfully subtitled Chinese TV show about Song Dynasty inscriptions carved on a mountainside near Quanzhou -- the city Chinese media invariably call “the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road.” With prayers for good winds and safe returns, the carvings bore witness to China’s far-flung commercial relations during the European Middle Ages. The report was a perfectly legitimate travel feature. By calling attention to the Silk Road, however, it also served the Chinese government’s purposes.
The Chinese “Belt and Road” program is more than an ambitious infrastructure drive and an opportunity for diplomatic gatherings like last week’s forum in Beijing. The initiative is certainly, as my Bloomberg View colleague Noah Feldman has written, a “bid to displace the U.S. when it comes to global leadership.” But it’s also part of a bigger story -- one that highlights certain facts, downplays others, and creates a value-laden narrative in which China is the protagonist and hero. This national myth-making is designed as much for domestic as for international consumption.
Talking about the Silk Road gives Chinese the opportunity to hear and to tell positive stories about their nation’s history and character. It gives them a “usable past,” offering an enlightened, progressive heritage to counter the colonial vision of China as backward and the Maoist repudiation of the imperial past. It reminds the world of China’s technological dominance before the Industrial Revolution and frames that history not as one of relative decline -- why the West grew rich and China didn’t—but as evidence of persisting national strengths.
“In Chinese-language media and China studies the Silk Road generally begins with China’s official diplomacy in Central Asia in the second century BCE and inserts China into an enduring world history of ‘open’ empires instead of isolated civilizations,” observes Tamara Chin, a Brown University comparative literature scholar much of whose work focuses on the Silk Road. Others versions, however, make Central Asian nations like the now-vanished Sogdians the central actors.
China’s version of the historical Silk Road also omits some crucial facts -- notably that “the” Silk Road did not exist. It’s 19th-century shorthand for a network of routes from oasis to oasis across Central Asia and, contrary to popular imaginings, few travelers or goods went very far. “The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history,” Yale historian Valerie Hansen writes in The Silk Road: A New History. Its importance was less commercial than cultural, as travelers -- and, most important, refugees -- carried their religions, technologies, and artistic motifs along with them.
The Chinese Silk Road story downplays the central role of the Mongol Empire in restoring trade routes as they conquered Eurasia in the 12th century. “The expansionary Mongol rulers acted to ensure the safety of the trade routes, building effective post stations and rest stops, introducing the use of paper money and eliminating artificial trade barriers,” writes Debin Ma, an economic historian at the London School of Economics. They also extended the sea trade. Pax Mongolica, not native Chinese rule, “marked the high stage of East-West exchange as symbolized by the famous travels of Marco Polo.”
Myth-making is always selective. The stories Americans told about themselves in the confident middle of the 20th century weren’t entirely true either -- but neither were they false. In this way, the Belt and Road initiative resembles the Marshall Plan, to which many accounts have compared it. The lavish spending serves geo-strategic interests while simultaneously creating, or reinforcing, a national self-image that appeals to Chinese pride: Here is a country that is not just strong and prosperous but generous and admired. We’re important and people like us.
That dual agenda was an undercurrent at the seemingly esoteric academic conference that brought me to Hangzhou. Textile historians and archaeologists from some 15 nations -- including back-to-back talks by Iranian and Israeli scholars -- presented their research on silk. They also dutifully posed for photos documenting the occasion. There were presentations of plaques and gifts, greetings from various muckety-mucks, and performances by Chinese artists. UNESCO’s imprimatur was frequently invoked. While it was a real scholarly conference, it was also a propaganda event, demonstrating worldwide recognition of the significance of China and its central place in the history of the Silk Road.
Or consider the brand-new buildings of the host China National Silk Museum, completed a year ahead of schedule in order to greet the G-20 Hangzhou summit. The well-curated exhibits depict the history of silk as an inspiring tale of peaceful trade, technological ingenuity, and productive cultural exchange. While including many nations, they of course position China as the story’s protagonist. And despite the museum’s focus on the history and science of sericulture, a sign outside during my visit alluded to the contemporary context: “The Silk Road Leading to a Beautiful Future,” it proclaimed.
As a product of the New South, I know boosterism when I see it.
I recognize the underlying insecurities, frequent wastefulness, and over-eager efforts to demonstrate importance. I also understand boosterism’s valid purposes and claims. Boosters have something to prove -- to themselves as well as outsiders -- but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong to make the effort. Their offended pride often drives achievements surpassing those of more established and complacent places. Jaded westerners may cringe at the video of multicultural children singing praises of the Belt and Road, but it’s hardly the worst way for an ambitious world power to assert its ascendency.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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