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Book Review


Liu, Xinru and Lynda Norene Shaffer. Connections Across Eurasia: Transportation, Communication, and Cultural Exchange on the Silk Roads. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007). 262 pp, $21.25.

     Xinru Liu and Lynda Norene Shaffer's Connections Across Eurasia is a strong component of the McGraw-Hill series "Explorations in World History." Among others, this series includes works on United States history in global context and universal religions in world history. With Connections Across Eurasia, readers are in the comfortable hands of two scholars working in their field of interest—the cultural importance of the silk roads. Both Liu and Shaffer have published in this field before, as Liu's publication credits include Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges, AD 1-600 (1994), Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, AD 600-1200 (1999), and The Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Interactions in Eurasia (1998), and Shaffer's includes Maritime Southeast Asia to 1500 (1996).

     Liu and Shaffer wrote Connections Across Eurasia as a synthetic history of the silk roads, stretching from the second century BCE—when both Rome and Han China were coming into their own—to the consolidation of the Mongol conquests almost fifteen centuries later. As such, it is a sweeping work (condensed into a relatively modest 262 pages, including a useful 9 page index) but firmly centered on the unifying thread of what they label as "one of the most important topics in the history of economic exchange" (v)—the Eurasian silk trade. Liu and Shaffer hope that by maintaining this thread throughout their narrative they can make a significant contribution to World History studies, moving from a regional context approach to the broader context of a world historical perspective.

     Because this is a synthetic history, it does not contain scholarly apparatus such as endnotes/footnotes or a bibliography. However, each chapter ends with suggestions "For Further Reading." So, if a chapter has piqued the student's (or professor's) interest enough, they have a list of useful titles from which to get more information. In addition, there are several maps throughout the book. The maps are in black, white, and grey, and are not anything out of the ordinary. In fact, all of the maps are reprinted with permission from the second edition of Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler's Traditions and Encounters (2003), also published by McGraw-Hill. Yet, given the sometimes tragically poor level of students' geographical knowledge, any maps are welcome when covering such a topic. Among others, maps include "The Silk Roads, 130 BCE-300 CE" (20), "The Expansion of Islam and the Abbasid Caliphate, 620 to 800 CE" (149), and "The Mongol Empire About 1300" (224). There are also a handful of images, which include the drawing of a Buddhist stuppa, the head of a Buddha (117), and the ruins of Jiaohe (141).

     In all, Connections Across Eurasia has seven chapters and an introduction. Within these chapters, due attention is given to the list of "usual players" attached to the silk trade: the Roman Empire, the Kushan Empire, the Chinese dynasties, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, Genghis Kahn and Kublai Kahn, and so on. To aid in a reader's digestion of the presented material, there are some useful features attached to the chapters, each of which begins with a brief outline and ends with a brief timeline. In addition, each chapter has a beginning series of questions, suggesting the main idea(s) of that chapter. For instance, Chapter Five, "Trade and Communication Under the Muslim System," includes among its introductory questions, "Why did long-distance trade increase after the Muslim conquests?" and "What issues fueled disputes and hostilities between the Umayyad Caliphate and Byzantium?' (147) I have given questions from Chapter Five because I want to point out that Liu and Shaffer have done an admirable job in presenting the relationship between major religions and the silk roads, ranging from Zoroastrianism to Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. While Chapter Five is devoted to "Trade and Communication Under the Muslim System" (147-186), Chapter Four is devoted to "Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism: Political Turmoil and a New Relationship Between Empire and Religion" (107-146), and sections of Chapter Two ("Mahayana Buddhism and Its Spread to China," 63-70) and Chapter 3 ("Buddhist Establishments on the Desert Routes," 85-90) center on the Buddhist diaspora.

     My greatest concern with Connections Across Eurasia relates to the stated goal of the series: "It seeks to convey the results of recent research in World History in a form wholly accessible to beginning students. It also provides a pedagogical alternative to or supplement for the large and inclusive core textbooks, which are features of so many World History courses." ("Note From the Series Editors," x) This is a laudable goal. Unfortunately, I have serious doubts as to how well this particular book can achieve that goal. I question how useful this book would be for introductory World History courses. Connections Across Eurasia is simply too broad of a survey on the cultural significance of the silk roads to be that useful. After all, as inclusive as this work is concerning the silk roads—to be sure, an invaluable subject for any World History survey course—developments in Western Europe and the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa are nowhere to be found. Thus, if this book were to be used as an alternative to a "regular" textbook, where would students turn for contextualizing the significance of Charlemagne or the mound-building societies of North America, to name but two examples? On the other hand, as a supplement to a "regular" textbook, this work is simply too focused on the silk roads. Despite the importance of trade and like cultural interchanges, it is unrealistic to expect introductory-level students to focus so much attention on this topic, particularly in courses already stretched for time.

     Though there are definite concerns regarding using this book for World History survey courses, this book would be an excellent work for junior/senior level World History courses, in which professors focus on particular themes of World History. For instance, this book could serve as a key reference for a World History class devoted to such topics as the Silk Road, Eurasian relations, the cultural development of Eurasia, or key cultural interchanges, perhaps in conjunction with studying the "Columbian Exchange."


Christopher Chatlos Strangeman
Middle Georgia College


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