In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Silk Roads

  • Introduction
  • Scope and Definition
  • General Overviews
  • Archaeology
  • Modern Narratives: UNESCO and BRI

Chinese Studies The Silk Roads
Susan Whitfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0215


The Silk Road/Roads is a term that is now widely used in scholarship and beyond, yet it is a relatively recent adoption and there is uncertainty and disagreement about its scope and focus. If there is consensus, it is that it refers to premodern routes of trade and interaction across Afro-Eurasia, primarily focusing from about 200 BCE through the first millennium when cultivated silk and its technology spread out of China. It often includes the period of the Mongol Empire, up to the fourteenth century. The east-west routes from the states and empires of China to those of the Mediterranean remain the focus for many studies. But there has been a significant body of scholarship broadening this, arguing for the importance of Central Asia and of routes in all directions through it, including those from South Asia and across the steppe, as well as to northwestern Europe. Routes by sea, which were at first often treated as a separate field, “the Maritime Silk Road,” are increasingly accepted as part of one system, the Silk Roads (the plural form is now also commonly used), bringing Southeast Asia, North and East Africa, and Korea and Japan into its scope. The term has also been extended to trans-Eurasian interactions in the second and first millennium BCE and for continuing interaction up to the present. Most recently, the influence of economics and politics, especially the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Cultural Heritage Programme of UNESCO, has also impacted the scholarly narrative. Some scholars argue that this ever-expanding scope and corresponding lack of focus renders the term meaningless.

Scope and Definition

Long commonly attributed to the geographical work of the German scholar Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 (see The Environment: Geography and Ecology), Mertens 2019 has since shown earlier use of the term “Seidenstrasse” in 19th-century German scholarship. The politico-economic context at the time of von Richthofen is discussed in Chin 2013 and, framed within the colonial context, Mishra 2020. The subsequent adoption of the term by archaeologists and then scholars prompted by early-20th-century imperial explorations and excavations in the Tarim Basin, now part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the PRC, is the focus of Jacobs 2020 and Waugh 2010 (see also Liu 2018, cited under Archaeology). An early discussion, Japanese National Commission for UNESCO 1957, emphasizing the role of Central and South Asia and routes through the steppe to the north and the Tibetan plateau to the south, was to be influential in UNESCO’s Silk Road projects in the late twentieth century and has since been explored further by others (see also Christian 2000, under The Environment: Geography and Ecology). Khazanov 2022, Rezakhani 2010, and Selbitschka 2018 provide robust examples of the skepticism about the usefulness of the term, while Li 2021 presents the view of many scholars that, despite the coexistence of a popular usage, the term still has a use in scholarship.

  • Chin, Tamara. “The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877.” Critical Inquiry 40.1 (Autumn 2013): 194–219.

    DOI: 10.1086/673232

    Chin describes the commercial and colonial context of von Richtofen’s combination of Greek classical geography with Chinese historiography to map a potential trans–Central Asia railroad. She also notes Sven Hedin’s subsequent diplomatic exploitation of the term.

  • Jacobs, Justin. “The Concept of the Silk Road in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Edited by David Ludden. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.164

    A useful summary of the late-19th- and early-20th-century context to the appearance and increasing and widening use of the term.

  • Japanese National Commission for UNESCO. Research in Japan in History of Eastern and Western Cultural Contacts: Its Development and Present Situation. Tokyo: UNESCO, 1957.

    A very influential overview of early Japanese scholarship, especially in the field of Turkic studies, whose arguments about the importance of Central Asia, and of the routes through the steppe and across Tibet, to counter an overly Sino-centric narrative, were in shaping UNESCO policy and activities.

  • Khazanov, Anatoly M. “The Overland ‘Great Silk Road’: Myths and Realities (A Politically Incorrect Paper on a Politically Correct Subject).” In Caravans in Global Perspective: Context and Boundaries. Edited by Persis B. Clarkson and Calogero M. Santoro, 122–167. London: Routledge, 2022.

    Kahzanov argues against the usefulness of the term in scholarship given the complex and changing developments of Eurasian trade across this wide period.

  • Li Bozhong 李伯重. “‘Sizhou zhi lu’ de zhengming—quanqiu shi yu quyu shi shiye Zhong de ‘sizhou zhi lu’” (“絲綢之路”的”正名”—全球史與區域史視野中的 “絲綢之路”). Zhonghua Wenshi Luncong 中華文史論叢 3 (2021): 1–45.

    Li discusses the differences between the popular and scholarly concepts of the “Silk Road.”

  • Mertens, Matthias. “Did Richthofen Really Coin ‘the Silk Road’?” The Silk Road 17 (2019): 1–9.

    Mertens uses electronic search engines to show that the term “Seidenstrasse(n)” had been used by German scholars, primarily geographers, before von Richthofen, and that the concept can be traced back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

  • Mishra, R. K. “The ‘Silk Road’: Historical Perspectives and Modern Constructions.” Indian Historical Review 47.1 (2020): 21–39.

    DOI: 10.1177/0376983620922431

    Mishra revisits the early use of the Silk Road and criticizes the narrative for its colonial and dichotomous context—the route between the empires of Rome and China—and the resulting lack of focus on other sedentary and nonsedentary cultures.

  • Rezakhani, Khododad. “The Silk Road That Never Was.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30.3 (2010): 420–433.

    DOI: 10.1215/1089201X-2010-025

    Rezakhani argues against the use of the term as a modern invention and simplification distracting attention from the complexities of Central Asian history.

  • Selbitschka, Armin. “The Early Silk Road(s).” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Edited by David Ludden. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277727.013.2

    Considers the usefulness of the term to describe the early period of China’s interactions with countries to its west, arguing that the term that fails to recognize the complexities of this, arguing instead for interpretation using the concept of movement.

  • Waugh, D. “Richthofen’s ‘Silk Roads’: Toward the Archaeology of a Concept.” The Silk Road 5 (2010): 1–10.

    An exploration of von Richthofen’s scholarship, his influences and interests, and his reasons for using the term “Silk Roads.” Waugh then explores the term’s early-20th-century adoption and popularization by August Herrmann (see The Environment: Geography and Ecology) and Sven Hedin (see Archaeology).

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