Life Along The Silk Road by Susan Whitfield presents a highly original version of history. In some ways it is historical fiction, but she doesn’t make anything up. But then neither does she merely describe events. It’s not really fiction, but then it’s not a completely factual account of a turbulent period in the history of Central Asia.
In 1999 when the book was published Susan Whitfield ran the International Dunhuang project in the British Library. This gave her access to tens of thousands of documents, scrolls and books that were discovered in sealed caves at the turn of the twentieth century. The texts present an admixture of material, some of it religious, some administrative. Some of it is trivial, thus material of invaluable contextual importance for the historian, while some is poetic, and that helps the creation of fiction.
Using the contents of this written material, Susan Whitfield has assembled a set of stories. She creates individuals who illustrate contemporary life as they live through, if they are lucky enough to survive, the great events of their times. We meet merchants, soldiers, courtesans, artists, monks, nuns and officials. Their lives intertwine as they span the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, a period when overland trade via the Silk Road flourished and then began to decline. It was China’s silk road economic belt a period when in China the Tang gave way to the Song and when numerous religions competed for adherents.
Skilfully Susan Whitfield uses each of her characters, almost all of them at least partly real, the rest created by amalgam, to illustrate how lives are transformed by the great events of their times. They witness the attempted Arab conquest. They trade along the Silk Road. They visit Chinese emperors in their capital Chang’an, the modern-day Xian. They deal with Sogdian rulers, speak Chinese, Turkic, Mongolian and Tibetan, and deal daily with Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus and Muslims. Their history thus comes alive.
Dunhuang, with its stunning complex of Mogao caves, is central to these stories. At the end of the Tang dynasty in the tenth century, some of its artwork and statuary was already old enough to be in need of restoration. I have had the privilege of visiting the site and I rate the experience among the most impressive of all I have seen on all my travels. Susan Whitfield’s book took me back there and brought the experience to life. It’s an easy read, but then it needs to be because the subject matter is quite challenging for someone who is unfamiliar with the era and its events. The book is undoubtedly entertaining and at the same time informative. Through it, the reader can join these characters in their own time and experience a culture and way of life that will be immediately foreign, but ultimately understood.