Central Asia’s Catechism of Cliché: From the Great Game to Silk Road

When people ponder the history of Central Asia, they tend to have two ideas in mind – that the region has long been the subject of great power rivalry, known since the 19th century as the ‘Great Game,’ and that prior to that, for over 2,000 years, the region was at the heart of a major trade route connecting China and Europe, known as the ‘Silk Road.’
Both of these ideas, as they are generally understood today, are inaccurate. They have become clichés that are sometimes used in absurd ways. In early 2017, for example, the ‘Mega Silk Way,’ the largest shopping mall in Central Asia, opened its doors across the road from my university in Astana. The mall is a jumble of chain restaurants and designer boutiques; it also features tropical fish tanks and a dolphinarium, creating an incongruous ‘oceanic’ theme in a place located over a thousand miles north of where the ‘Silk Road’ supposedly ran. In short, what was once a historical concept has become a ubiquitous brand.
While clichés can sometimes serve a useful purpose by providing a familiar shortcut to grab attention, or simplify something complex to make it comprehensible to the layman, the clichés concerning the ‘Great Game’ and the ‘Silk Road’ are much less innocent. They do not simplify; instead they deeply distort the past.
These two evocative phrases crop up endlessly these days in books and articles about the region, and are often used to frame current affairs. The contest between Russia, China and the United States for control of Central Asia is seen as a ‘New Great Game,’ analogous to the earlier contest between Britain and Russia in the region; China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative likewise draws explicitly on the image of the ancient and medieval Silk Road. These are anachronisms that obscure rather than illuminate contemporary politics.
It is no coincidence that the ‘Great Game’ and the ‘Silk Road’ are phrases of 19th-century European origin, with no deep roots in Central Asian languages or culture. The ‘Great Game,’ as is now well-known, was a phrase first used in a private letter by Captain Arthur Conolly of the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1840, referring to the European civilizing and Christianizing mission in Central Asia. Conolly ended up being executed by Amir Nasrullah of Bukhara in 1842, but the phrase lived on, first published by Sir John Kaye in his History of the War in Afghanistan (1851), and later popularized in Kipling’s Kim (1901). It also evolved to denote adventure and derring-do in the service of empire – British or Russian – in Central Asia, and, above all, the rivalry between the two powers in the region.
Everything about the term ‘Great Game’ as it is used to describe inter-state relations in Central Asia is wrong – it was wrong in the 19th century, and it is wrong now. It suggests a set of mutually-understood rules, clear strategic and economic goals, and a mixture of adventurousness and rational calculation in pursuit of these goals. Above all, it suggests that only the ‘Great Powers’ had or have any agency in Central Asia, that the region is a ‘giant chessboard,’ to use G. N. Curzon’s phrase, on which they can freely make their moves. Meanwhile, Central Asian rulers, states and peoples serve merely as a picturesque backdrop to events.
This was never true even at the height of European colonialism in the 19th century. As the Russians advanced in Central Asia, the British may have believed that these conquests were directed at their possessions in India. Yet, the Russians themselves were far more concerned about their relations with Central Asian powers and peoples.
Neither side had a free hand in the region: they faced severe logistical constraints (movement of armies depended entirely on camels that were supplied by the nomadic population) and, at the outset at least, they had only a very limited knowledge of Central Asian society, culture and politics.
The British suffered two disastrous reverses in Afghanistan, in 1841 and 1879, and in neither case could these defeats be attributed to Russian initiative – they were inflicted by the Afghans themselves. Abd al-Rahman Khan (r.1881 – 1901), the ruthless creator of the modern Afghan state, used British subsidies and supplies of weapons to suppress internal resistance, but they got very little obedience in return. As Alexander Cooley has shown, a similar dynamic operates today: the five independent post-Soviet states might not be able to match the economic or military clout of Russia, China or the United States, but they nevertheless compel them to play by ‘local rules’ – rules that grow out of their domestic policies, the nature of Central Asian society, and, above all, specialized local knowledge.
The ‘Silk Road’ is, on the face of it, a more benign concept, speaking to centuries of sophisticated commercial and cultural exchange between Central Asia and the rest of the world. Yet the term is also a European creation, and something imposed retrospectively on a more complex past. The term ‘Seidenstraße’ (Silk Road) was first used by the German explorer and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. As Daniel Waugh has argued, Richthofen’s use of the term “is really quite limited. He applies it, sparingly, only to the Han period, in discussing the relationship between political expansion and trade on the one hand, and geographical knowledge on the other.”
Richthofen was primarily interested in the relationship between Europe and China, and not in any effects trade and the transfer of ideas might have had in Central Asia itself. Indeed, he believed that most such contacts had ceased by the 8th century AD.
The term only became popularized in the 1930s, largely through the works of Richthofen’s pupil, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who used it to lend a romantic and scholarly aura to his own highly successful exercises in self-promotion. That flavor of cheap exoticism persists in the use of the term today.
As Khodadad Rezakhani has suggested, “the Silk Road is not only a nineteenth-century name, but, indeed, a modern historiographical invention, serving to lump together individual histories and creating long-distance connections where they never existed.”
The historical reality of the Silk Road was a series of shorter trade routes that connected the Chinese capital (Xi’an/Changa’an) to various entrepôts in Central Asia, including Tashkent, Otrar and Samarkand. Those entrepôts in turn were connected to other points in India, Iran and the Near East, and, through them, to Europe. No merchants, and very few goods, would have made the entire journey, nor was there ever a single ‘road.’
The emphasis on the two ends of the road – China and the West – tends to marginalize the territories that lie between, particularly those in Central Asia, when, in fact, the West of most Chinese sources was Central Asia itself, not the modern European West.
Rezakhani also notes persistent vagueness in explaining where exactly the route from Central Asia onward to the Mediterranean is supposed to have run, the fact that silk was almost certainly not a major commodity of trade (it was manufactured in Western Asia from at least the 3rd century AD) and the anachronism of assuming that Europe played the same role in the ancient world economy as it does today. Finally, the key cultural exchanges along the supposed Silk Road were religious, and did not involve any direct connection between Europe and China – Buddhism travelled from India to China (i.e. from South to North, not West to East), and Nestorian Christianity, having been expelled from Roman Syria as a heresy, travelled from the Sassanian empire in Iran to India and Central Asia.
If these are all sound scholarly reasons why the ‘Silk Road’ should be discarded as a historical concept, its contemporary misuse only reinforces this impression. The 2015 Hong Kong blockbuster, Dragon Blade, has Jackie Chan and his Chinese soldiers fighting alongside Uighurs and Indians to “guard the peace of the Silk Road” against a force of predatory Romans. As history, the film is nonsense, but it carries a very clear political message. Reference to the ‘Silk Road’ has become a means of justifying any and all development and political projects across Central Asia, dressing up the ruthless exercise of political and economic power in cuddly historical clothing. China’s massive One Belt, One Road development project, originally launched in a speech by Xi Jinping at Nazarbayev University in Astana, is the pre-eminent example of this.
The Chinese premier explicitly linked his initiative to the heritage of the ancient Silk Road, and presented it as a matter of “equality and mutual benefit, mutual tolerance and learning from each other, as well as cooperation and win-win outcomes.” But One Belt, One Road, is not about the mutual exchange of goods, services and ideas on equal terms. It is about creating new markets and routes for Chinese goods in Asia, partly as a means of absorbing the overcapacity produced by falling European and American demand, and it is not an altruistic exercise.
Though in this respect it is no different from many western capitalist investments in the developing world, it has been widely criticized for failing to consider labor and human rights, or environmental sustainability, and for potentially eroding national sovereignty. The darkest interpretation is that it is a means of exporting the deadly environmental pollution produced by China’s industrial boom to weaker neighboring countries, something that already seems to be happening with cement production in Tajikistan.
In China’s own Central Asian territory of Xinjiang, where some key infrastructure is due to be built, it has the clear political purpose of dampening Uighur opposition to Chinese colonial rule and promoting Han settlement. Even if Chinese investment under OBOR may bring real benefits, dressing this up in the language of the Silk Road does nothing to aid our understanding of it.
The ‘catechism of cliché’ was coined by the great Myles na gCopaleen (Brian O’Nolan) in a column he wrote for the Irish Times in the 1940s. For him, as for George Orwell, clichés were ‘fossilized’ or ‘mortified’ phrases that could slip under the critical radar without being analyzed or questioned. The ‘Great Game’ and the ‘Silk Road’ are not the only clichés regularly applied to Central Asia (I have written elsewhere about Stalin’s Giant Pencil), but they are surely the most persistent, and the most pernicious.
While the ‘Great Game’ is perhaps now truly no more than a cliché – a dead phrase that writers reach for when they cannot think of anything better – the ‘Silk Road’ remains a powerful myth that is being heavily exploited for modern purposes, and which is, if anything, growing in popularity in Central Asia, as well as China. The point where the two intersect is their disregard for Central Asia as anything more than a backdrop to a grand geopolitical narrative. Above all, they are concepts that, in their modern incarnations, tend to ignore the agency and interests of ordinary people, in favor of those of great powers.
This may be a practical, as well as a moral error. In Kazakhstan last year, an initiative to extend the term for which foreigners can rent land from 10 to 25 years was shelved after unprecedented public protests. Widely perceived as a measure designed to favor Chinese investment, it provoked a wave of often ugly Sinophobia. The point is not whether or not the protests were justified, it is that even in authoritarian Central Asia, public opinion now counts for something. ‘Great Games’ have to adapt to ‘local rules’ that often have deep roots in Central Asian society and culture, while ‘Silk Roads’ that cannot accommodate themselves to local realities are likely to lead nowhere.