Tamara T. Chin
- Associate Professor
- Brown University
Illicit Exchange: An Imaginary History of the Han Dynasty Silk Road
The Han dynasty witnessed the largest-scale territorial expansion in Chinese history. To finance war and occupation the government experimented with controversial firms of centrally planned market reform. This study examines the transformation of the imagination of the political economy during the second and first centuries BCE, across political rhetoric, economic theory, historiography, and poetry. It focuses on a short-lived poetics of commercial empire that embraces the market as an inspiration for social and aesthetic reform. In opposition to this, a traditional Confucian hostility to merchant activity developed into new anxieties that market price was determining gender and cultural norms, as well as social and literary value.
The Silk Road Idea
Today, the Silk Road is invoked as an interconnected antiquity before globalization. This book approaches the Silk Road as a modern idea—one of several conceptual frameworks and rhetorical tropes of China’s connected history that emerged during the century spanning new imperialism and the Cold War, from ca. 1870 to ca. 1970. Against a dominant trend during this period of partitioning antiquity into distinct civilizations and languages, some scholars and writers pursued premodern connections. The historical imagination of an interactive ancient Afro-Eurasia took on new importance in two sets of interdisciplinary conversations, one between Chinese and non-Chinese classical/antiquarian traditions in Europe, India, and East Africa, and a second between classicists and economic geographers who sought to historicize modern connectivity, e.g., railways. These far-flung literary, economic, and political debates over the meaning of ancient contact and exchange continue to shape the ways scholars narrate the connected past.