The cities between Kabul and Chang'an are famous to us, and saw wealth in the first millenium CE, because of the trade routes between East and West, also between Tibet and India. They were ecologically fragile, with scant or unreliable water supplies and terrible weather. But there were dozens of kingdoms, cultures, entire religions that rose or survived in this web of cities connected by traders. (Perhaps it's an example of island biogeography for ideas.) Also, cloth and paper -- and the religious trading societies seem to have been widely literate -- survive pretty well in dry cold salty territory.
Whitfield summarizes the general history, and the kinds of records we have and the history of those records, in the first chapters. Each subsequent chapter is a biography or pseudo-biography of someone with a reasonably characteristic life, one era to the next, over 250 years from 750 CE to 1000 CE. None of these lives are easy, given the combination of marginal ecological existence and the tides of conquest running in all directions, but that makes them exciting to read about.
There are wonderful pictures, of the objects and wall-paintings that survive, or at least survived long enough to be photographed. (Whitfield works at the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which links web access to collections all over the world. She argues that was more responsible for saving some of the artifacts of Dunhuang from destruction or smuggling than not.)
Interesting early 'bio-signature': illiterate persons putting a forefinger down under their name, and the positions of the joints marked on the contract.
The long story of life on a hard trade route reminded me of two other books that I don't seem to have mentioned. The Mummies of Urumchi, by, describes the astoundingly well-preserved mummies and fabric salt-frozen into the edge of the Tarim Basin desert as the last water dried up about 1000 BCE. One of the points of contention is where the mummified civilization came from, and who, if anyone, are their descendants now. Whitfield describes rather a lot of the small civilizations of 1000 CE as being of unknown origin, even down to 'East or West?', although I suppose we have a better guess at their descendants. Wayland Barber is also an experimental archaeologist, someone who understands the evidence by figuring out how to use or reproduce it; her specialty is fiber and cloth, still important in Whitfield's period; the "Silk Road", after all.
Or, considering ecology more than trade, Eagle Dreams, by: what it's like to hunt with a golden eagle in Mongolia. There was a lot of romanticism in that book, about how tough the steppe-dwellers are compared to lowland dwellers. Certainly they are. They're also clearly at the top of a food-chain with a narrow base; Bodio describes his confusion at looking at grazing-grounds that seemed to be made of rocks only, no grass. Consuming a higher proportion of what's available probably crowds out more of the creatures that could live there if humans didn't. Bodio seemed to assume it was ecologically virtuous (or at least, defensible despite its carnivorous, aggressive, gunpowder-happy style) because the absolute consumption seemed lower. I suspect absolute consumption is actually pretty high, because it takes a lot -- of calories, to start with -- just to survive there; it's comfort that's low. On the other hand, it's (a version of) a system that did co-exist with large wild animals for hundreds of years, so can be at least locally reasonably sustainable. (One is not socially allowed to keep a hunting eagle for more than a few years, which is an impressive social stricture given how hard they are to catch and train.) On the third hand, I don't know that the steppe pastoralists have been a local lifestyle on a historical timespan.
Whitfield's period overlaps Tibet's time as an expansionist military empire, which still confuses me. How did they support the manpower? Did the expansionism export young men and import NPP? How is this related to comfort vs. consumption, as in the Mongolian example? It fits's theory of conquerers-from-the-desert becoming soft, conquerable city people, sort of.
Find in a Library:So wrote clew in Cities. , Clothing. , History.