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Silk Road literary sights boost academic focus

ZHANG QINGLI | 2018-03-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Traffic activities of various forms and colorful customs along the route were presented in the literary works of the time, forming a splendid Silk Road literary culture.


As the main traffic route between the East and the West throughout history, the Silk Road has been essential to trade, economic and cultural exchanges. Traffic activities of various forms and colorful customs along the route were presented in the literary works of the time, forming a unique Silk Road literary culture. In this light, scholars are examining the impact  the Silk Road had on ancient Chinese literature.

How did the Silk Road emerge and finally flourish? Fortunately, literary works of different eras recorded many issues related to the Silk Road, leaving impressive Silk Road literature. Qiu Jiangning, a professor from the Jiangnan Cultural Research Center at Zhejiang Normal University, said that Silk Road literature offers a broad research scope. There are many writings regarded as Silk Road literature, including everything related to the Silk Road area and pathways, the methods that monks used to seek the road to the West where the Buddha was said to have resided, records of journeys by envoys, descriptions of military and imperial entourages that travelled the route, as well as writings that recorded the discoveries and thoughts of merchants that travelled the road.

Zhang Tongsheng, a professor from the College of Arts at Lanzhou University, said that the core spirit of the Silk Road lies in the exchanges and integration of Chinese and Western cultures. The colorful and exotic cultural images in Silk Road literature bear witness to the “Silk Road” spirit.

The prosperity of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road was also reflected in Tang poetry. Shi Yuntao, a professor from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that communication between the Tang Dynasty and foreign territory provided fresh inspiration for the creation of Tang poetry. In Tang poetry, the description of envoys, merchants, folk artists, monks, and other kinds of people who were busy with their business on the Silk Road, contains rich information on cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries during this period.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, China established itself as an open trade power with exports through both the desert and the ocean. Qiu’s investigation found that during this period, the Silk Road literary works that mainly consisted of travel notes were plentiful and varied. Content varied from the state’s diplomatic affairs, military operations, religious folklore, to the transportation route, diets, goods and currency. This literature not only held great literary value, but also academic and cultural significance.

The Silk Road opened up cultural horizons for travelers, while their records in return added to the richness of ancient Chinese literature. Qiu said that Silk Road literature was mainly written in the form of poetry. There was also history presented in a series of biographies, and documentaries, travel journals and other note-style records, as well as reviews. Recorders would always write about natural scenery, roads and pathways, as well as customs along the Silk Road. Among these writings, first-and third-person narration were often used to illustrate stories, express feelings, combining the characteristics of geography, biography and travel journals.

Silk Road literature is trans-regional and multi-national, Zhang said. It shows the homology, difference and variability of literary imagery, narrative structure and motifs, and thus reflects the hybridity of literary themes and types, as well as its deconstruction of regionality, race and nationality. It also shows the transformation of the writer’s artistic style, and the influence of religion, sculpture, music, society, economy, culture, history, geography, folklore, aesthetics, architecture, and paintings on the Silk Road literature.

Silk Road literature is mostly unique for its cultural hybridity, Zhang said. He suggested the study of the Silk Road literature be set against the macro vision of the Silk Road culture, which includes research on the written documents, unearthed cultural relics, arts in oral forms of the nomadic people, and living culture along the Silk Road. Related overall intertextual research is also necessary.

In recent years, the study of the Silk Road literature has received strong support from the country. Shi is starting his project “Transition of the Silk Road witnessed by Tang poetry,” funded by the National Social Science Fund of China (NSSFC); Qiu’s project “13th and 14th Century Silk Road Documentary Literature: Collection and research” has also been approved and will be financed by the NSSFC.

Qiu said that Silk Road literature presents people’s perceptions, feelings and imagination of various exotic scenes, as well as the ideas, emotions, and mentalities in cultural exchanges of people from different cultural backgrounds. The study of the ancient Silk Road literature sights helps contemporary readers and scholars to understand the diversity of human lifestyles and summarize the differences among different nations, countries, and regions in the experience and laws of cultural exchanges. It helps to promote practical and peaceful cooperation that will benefit all parties of different nations.


(edited by SUI JINGJING)