Professor Michael Heffernan, University of Nottingham


Informed by the AHRC’s ‘Translating Cultures’ highlight notice, the research network will investigate the concept of the Silk Road as a seemingly privileged site of cultural transmission, translation and exchange, in order to consider its radical potential to challenge the bounded, oppositional geopolitics that still determine the conventional categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’. An international, inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral forum, the network is intended to spark new conversations and collaborations between academics, travel writers, professionals from museums, art galleries and the tourist industry, and practitioners in the creative and visual arts. In doing so, it will serve to enable a wider public re-imagining of this ancient, long-distance trade route linking towns and cities from eastern China to western Europe, so that it speaks to 21st century global concerns.

The Silk Road has featured prominently in historical geographies of Europe and Asia for more than a century, and remains a powerfully evocative metaphor around which narratives of east-west relationships are constructed. Investigations into the economic, cultural and intellectual exchanges between Europe and Asia are almost as old as the interactions themselves. The systematic study of ancient overland trade routes however, only began in the late 19th century when European historians, geographers and archaeologists produced the first scholarly accounts of the main trans-continental conduits along which people and commodities, particularly high-value, low-bulk textiles such as silk, moved in waxing and waning cycles over many centuries. Classic early works on the Silk Road include those by Scottish Orientalist Henry Yule (1820-1880), who re-introduced the adventures of the Venetian traveller Marco Polo to the Victorian reading public, and German explorer and academic Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), who coined the phrase ‘Seidenstrasse’ in 1877. These pioneering ideas were developed in the early 20th century by explorers, collectors and writers such as the controversial Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) and the remarkable Hungarian-born traveller Aurel Stein (1862-1943), as well as by more sedentary geopolitical theorists such as Halford Mackinder (1861-1947). Since World War Two, new forms of historical and archaeological research have transformed the terms in which the Silk Road has been interpreted, rejecting the imperialist connotations of earlier accounts and emphasising instead the shared traditions and mutually constitutive encounters between regions shaped by comparable though different economic, social and intellectual forces. Despite these more critical approaches however, exoticising imaginative geographies of the routeway persist. Stories of the Silk Road reproduce images not only of intercultural exchange, but also of luxury, the exotic and the adventurous, as evident in contemporary travelogues, literary fiction, television programmes and other cultural performances produced and consumed in both western and eastern countries.

In the context of the rapid economic development of China, India and other Asian powers, and in response to increasing popular interest in the Silk Road, this network seeks to develop recent critical re-assessments of east-west economic, cultural and intellectual translation and exchange, so as to extend their impact within such public sectors as tourism, heritage and the arts. Although the network will include specialists in Silk Road studies, the workshops are not primarily designed to advance historical and archaeological research. Rather, these events will bring together academics and non-specialist professionals from the creative and tourist industries, travel writing, and the visual arts to explore how recent scholarship on the Silk Road might facilitate a wider public re-imagining of this ancient trade route.



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