The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World, by Peter Frankopan
It is unfortunate that this book has such a transparent agenda to endorse China’s expansive effort to dominate trade and has such a lamentable anti-Western bias with it. What the author is attempting to do, if it was done by someone who was not trying to be a shill for the CCP and its efforts at encouraging Chinese imperialism, could be a good basis for history in examining history through the routes that connect people together in various activities like trade and religion. It would have to be done in a better fashion than is done here, though, as the author simultaneously plugs for China’s growth in trade (overlooking China’s persistent problems with Muslims and abusive imperialistic tendencies in East Turkistan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and other places) while also cheering on the Islamists against the West, a rather dicey strategy when one considers the way that Islamism could easily work against China as well. When one adds to this the chronological snobbery by which the author spends most of his time talking about the 20th century and 21st century from a stridently anti-Western point of view while having skipped over centuries in single chapters earlier in the books, it is clear that the author needs a sense of balance to make the work a more coherent and historically significant one.
This book is about 500 pages long and 25 chapters long, and a measure of its slant towards the recent past can be recognized by the fact that nearly half of the book looks at the period between 1900 and today, while the first thirteen chapters cover history up to about 1800 or so after having started in the time around 200BC or so. This slant of material means that only the first part of the book is genuinely worthwhile as history, where the author talks about the trade for prestige goods which had to be paid through European mining efforts because they had nothing that the Chinese wanted to buy, and where there is a discussion of the spread of Christianity into Central Asia via non-Chalcedonian missionaries, something which has been sorely overlooked in many religious histories about the Middle Ages. The first half of this book offers some solid insight about ancient and medieval history and the connections that existed between East and West. It is the second half of the book, which contains the authors partial whining about European imperialism and his refusal to take China to task for doing the same thing in history and at present that drag this book considerably down, so one can safely skip that if one wants to read only the good parts of what the author has to offer.
In reading a book like this, It is worthwhile to praise what the author wishes to do but simply lacks the skill and evenness of perspective to do well, but the execution of the author’s plan can clearly be faulted, unless the plan is to earn lots of money as a Chinese propagandist, in which case the author is doing very well already. The best parts of the book are the earlier parts of the book, where the author’s interest in history allows him to approach subjects from an unusual angle that provides context about Central Asia, a part of the world that many Europeans and Americans are used to looking down on or disregarding as an important player in world history but which have a central role here. One of the most frustrating aspect of this book is that it is obvious that the approach the author takes could be immensely fruitful in encouraging the development of history that looks at nodes and networks going back into history fear earlier than most people do and looking at the importance of places that many people disregard as unimportant simply because they are poor and backward at present, but the author’s ability to do this well is kneecapped by his inability to give the West its fair due, and especially because of his hostility towards the United States.