The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   30

On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks

Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China

by Sir Aurel Stein

introduction by Jeannette Mirsky

University of Chicago Press, 1974

The Slow Road to China

The Silk Road, as every schoolchild knows, was the the collection of routes across Central Asia which connected China and the Far East with the Mediterranean and the Far West. From its opening under the Han dynasty in the second century B.C., it carried much more than silk one way and glass the other. Religions (at least five), languages, arts, fruits, tools, empires and plagues all crossed Eurasia along the Silk Road, through the Tarim Basin, probably one of the least hospitable parts of the planet outside Antarctica. Strange civilizations, hybrids of India and Persia, of China and the Hellenistic world, of Turkic, Tibetan and now-extinct Indo-European tribes, arose along its path, shifting with the vagaries of dying rivers fed by shrinking glaciers, the ebb and flow of empires, nomadic conquest and collapse, religious conversion and political intrigue. Gradually, as navigation on the Indian Ocean improved, trade shifted from the Silk Road to the maritime routes, and the Road died and was ultimately forgotten, leaving behind a few mentions in Greek geographies, far more detailed records in the Chinese dynastic histories, and dead cities immaculately preserved by the incredibly harsh, dry climate.

The re-discovery of the Silk Road is one of the high points of modern archaeology and history, and Aurel Stein --- a Hungarian in the British service in India --- was eminent among its re-discoverers. His three expeditions, of 1900, 1906 and 1913, into Chinese Turkestan --- nowadays Sinkiang, or Xinjiang, or even the Uighur Autonomous Region --- lasted seven years altogether and covered some forty thousand kilometers the way the ancient caravans had, on foot or pony-back. Archaeology was close enough, in those days, to its treasure-hunting origins for him to return with fabulous finds --- paintings and frescoes, statues and manuscripts (we'll get back to the manuscripts); and old-fashioned imperialism was strong enough that all his archaeology was accompanied by detailed map-making, the results of which went straight to the British army. (By contrast, when he passed through Russian Turkestan, it was under military guard, and no cartography allowed.) But Stein was infinitely more than a treasure-hunter and British pawn in the Great Game: he was a genuine archaeologist, led to his sites by carefully considering all the textual evidence he could lay hands on, especially the memoirs of Marco Polo, and of the T'ang monk Hsüan-tsang, whom Stein came to call his "patron saint." (Stein never learned to read Chinese, and only spoke a little, but was conversant with, it seems, all the other important languages, living and extinct, of the region.) He excavated carefully and intelligently, and if he had a weakness for spectacular relics, he was almost equally avid for the refuse --- "antique dirt and litter, still pungent after so many centuries" --- which tells us more about everyday life than any other archaeological clue. He uncovered hitherto-unknown cities and languages, re-traced the path the Silk Road had taken across the Lop Nor salt beds --- "some 120 miles of utterly barren ground, already in ancient times without water, fuel or grazing", located the famous Jade Gate that marked the end of China and the beginning of the Western Kingdoms and the border walls, the Limes as he calls them, built under the Han to control the nomads and secure the trade-route.

Probably his most famous discovery was not his discovery at all. At Tun-huang, in T'ang times and earlier, Chinese and western Buddhists had carved great temples into the cliff-sides, eventually abandoned with the collapse of the dynasty's power in the region and the arrival of Islam. At the turn of this century, the caves had fallen to the care of a Taoist priest named Wang, who "with pious care and devotion," was attempting repairs --- "the new statuary and other additions to the shrine for which he was responsible were coarse and gaudy enough" --- in the course of which he stumbled upon a cache of manuscripts, in Chinese and other languages, silk paintings, and some of the oldest specimens of printing known. The value of this collection, scholarly and monetary, was immense, and Wang was a poor priest with an expensive establishment to maintain; he was also afraid of confiscation and of his neighbors being more than a little upset at someone who sold ancient treasures to foreigners. Negotiating through his secretary, Chiang Ssu-yeh, and leaning on their mutual devotion to Hsüan-tsang, Stein induced Wang to part with a considerable number of manuscripts in exchange for "such a number of silver ingots or `horse-shoes' as fully satisfied his honest conscience and the interests of his cherished shrine." For eight nights, Chiang carried the documents out of the cave under cover of darkness; the total haul was twenty-four cases of manuscripts and five more of miscellaneous relics for the British Museum. A year later the French sinologist Paul Pelliot struck a similar deal and came away with 15,000 manuscripts, but this transaction came to the attention of the authorities in Beijing, who had, in 1909, enough national pride left to be upset, and to attempt to buy all the remainder of the collection from Wang. This was a particularly low trough in the dynastic cycle, however, and the money vanished entirely on its way west to Tun-huang, and most of the relics vanished on their way east to Beijing, so that when Stein returned in 1914 he was able to buy "whole bundles of fine Buddhist roles of T'ang times" on the open market. Many, not only Chinese but also Western scholars of later generations, have never forgiven Stein for his role in this affair, but in his defense one can point out (as he did) that the manuscripts that were sent to London and Paris were catalogued, preserved, published and generally rescued for the world, and those that were not, for the most part were lost. Whether this is a good enough excuse, I shan't say.

We come round at last to On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks; it is Stein's most compact and popular account of his travels and discoveries. (Each expedition received its own, copious documentation, and some of these books are still in print from Dover.) After an initial survey of the geography of the region and the history of Chinese influence there, the book's organization is not strictly chronological but geographical. Incidents from different expeditions follow one another as dictated by a composite itinerary, starting by crossing the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs in Afghanistan and working east, below the Tarim, to Tun-huang and the edge of China, and then west again, between the Tarim and the T'ien Shan mountains, to Kashgar and back to India through Russian Turkestan. (The map provided is helpful, but unfortunately does not show Stein's paths.) This inter-cutting of three different expeditions causes surprisingly little confusion, perhaps because the separate chapters are largely self-contained (leading to a small amount of repetition). He describes how each site was found and excavated, and what was discovered and its interpretation, the latter with the benefit of considerable scholarly hindsight. Naturally enough, he is especially excited by any connections he can find to the classical world (say, record of a painter named Titus), and is at times moved to elegy when contemplating Hellenistic works; but he doesn't slight the other civilizations. Stein's working conditions were what he described, upper lip no doubt very stiff, as "trying": because the sites had absolutely no water, they were excavated in the depths of winter, when the ice which formed in the salt-springs could be carried thither in "galvanized metal tubs brought from Calcutta". Once there, Stein supervising crews of from thirty to sixty local workers, often, ill, aided by a handful of Indians from the Geographical Survey and his Chinese secretary, doing much of the work of patiently sifting through centuries of accumulated sand, dirt, and filth himself. (He claimed to be able to identify Tibetan occupation by the especially loathsome quality of their rubbish.) With more-than-British phlegm, his loss of sundry fingers and toes to frostbite gets dismissed in a sentence.

Stein ends in Samarkand, in 1914; but what I come away with is the picture of a long-dry river-bed in the cold waste, and centuries-withered orchards and rows of poplars and wild tamarisk, and mounds preserving houses since Hsüan-tsang came that way and found them full of life, or were ruins even then, the remains of forgotten peoples and times at the center of the old world.

xxii + 290 pp., map, 8 black-and-white plates, unfortunately no index
Ancient History / Anthropology and Archaeology / Central Asia
Currently out of print. University of Chicago "Phoenix Books" edition, paperback, 1974, ISBN 0-226-77174-1, reprinting NY: Pantheon Books, 1964, which adds the introduction by Mirsky, Stein's biographer, to the first edition, London: Macmillan, 1933.
19 November 1997