Beginnings of Islam in Xianjiang via the Silk Road

Xianjiang is a region to the North-West of the People’s Republic of China and is located in the central part of Euro-Asia Continent and is surrounded by mountain ranges.[1] For centuries, the vast land of Xianjiang has been a link between Inland China and Central Asia, Western and Eastern Asia as well as many European countries.[2] Xianjiang’s geographical links allowed for the passing of the great path of communication, trade and cultural exchange through the region. This path is known as the Silk Road. The Silk Road refers to a network of trade routes connecting many great ancient countries – such as China, India and Egypt – and many great ancient empires – such as Persia, Roman and Ottoman – as well as covering other territories across Asia and Europe.[3] “The territory of Xianjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China lies just in the middle section of the Silk Road,” Dunfu (2006, p.14) writes, “So, this region, as the intersection of the ancient Silk Road, was the most legendary and a meeting place of the ancient civilizations.” A great amount of silk products were found in the ancient tombs of Xianjiang, dating around 231 BCE: those silk products have been designed with traditional patterns of Inland China.[4] Dunfu (2005, p.3) argues that this discovery proves that “there was an indispensable relationship between the ancient Xianjiang and Inland China in the early development of the ancient Silk Road.”

Yung (1986, p.20) writes, “From ancient times Xianjiang has served as a bridge for the exchange of culture between Chinese Central Asia and the West. It was also the conduit through which major religions were absorbed into China.” Thus, it was Xianjiang’s unique geographic position that allowed for Silk Road to pass through and for the development of the region’s rich cultural heritages. Morrison (1985, p.244) writes that, “for centuries, merchants, priests and conquerors passed through [Xianjiang’s] oases along the Silk Road, and today Xianjiang is home to 12 different ‘national minorities’, in addition to the Han Chinese immigrants who number more than five million.” Islam is currently the dominant religious tradition in the region having outnumbered Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity.[5]

Grand Mosque of Khotan, Xianjiang

It is practiced and is part of an ethnic identity of nearly six million Uyghurs, 900,000 Kazakhs, and other national minorities.[6] The beginnings of Islam in Xianjiang demonstrate the significant role that the Silk Road played in assimilating Islam into the national identity of the region.

Polonskaya and Malashenko (1994, p.12) write that the first introduction of Islam into Central Asia happened by Arab invaders in the 7th century. Yung (1986, p.21) paints a different picture of such introduction: he argues that in 651 CE a ruler of Arabia sent an ambassador to China (ruled then by Emperor Gaozong) and the ambassador then told of Arab customs and of the relatively new Islamic religion (p.21). During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the relations between Arabs and the Chinese flourished: Arab traders navigated ships to China along the Gulf, India and Malayan Peninsula to Guangzhou and other Chinese Empire’s coastal cities.[7] Later, the coastal navigation had been largely replaced by the overland route via the Silk Road through Persia, Xianjiang and the Chinese capital of Chang’an (considered the point of departure of the Silk Road).[8] Thus, the contact and trade between the two civilizations led to the beginnings of integration of Islam in Central China. Before the introduction of Islam, Xianjiang was largely dominated by Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, as well as Daoism and Confucianism.[9] But with the success of trade via the Silk Road Islam began to flourish in the region. Aside from the constant cultural interactions between the Chinese and Muslim Arab traders who came to Xianjiang, Yung (1986, p.21) writes that, “In the late tenth century Uyghur merchants travelled to Arabia, became converted to Islam, and returned to spread the new faith in Xianjiang.”  There was then a two-way interaction facilitated by the Silk Road where merchants of each civilization were free to travel along the route and which allowed for further assimilation of Islam in the Central Asian region.

As previously mentioned by Polonskaya and Malashenko (1994, p.10), Arab invasions into the Central Asia did occur, and the integration of Islam into Xianjiang was not always a peaceful process of trade. Johan Elverskog provides a different view of Islam entering Central Asia that parallels Polonskaya’s and Malashenko’s.[10] “Muslim areas invaded this area,” Elverskog (2010, p.44) writes, “And fifty thousand Arab families were transported from Iraq’s Basra in order to bring Central Asia and its wealth firmly within the orbit of the Umayyad caliphate (661-650 CE).”

Xinjiang Turpan Flaming Mountain with a Tiny Muslim Shrine.

With Buddhism and Islam coming into contact for the first time in early 8th century the two religious traditions maintained a certain accord due to valuable trade routes in the area.[11] Elverskog (2010, p.44) further proposes that the primary incentive for Muslims to go into Central Asia was for economic reasons, and the secondary incentive was to hunt down heretics (e.g. Kharijites). “It is vital to recognize,” Elverskog (2010, p.44) writes, “That Muslims did not go there to spread the faith because in this early period only Arabs could be Muslim.” Elverskog (2010, p.44) explains that the non-Arab converts (called mawāli) were considered a significant problem, and this issue often caused violence and disarray during the formation of early Muslim community. Therefore, the expansion of Islam into Central Asia did not come from the need to convert the peoples into Islam, and was instead heavily centered on economical issues. The economy was supported by the valuable trade along the Silk Road and Arab merchants traded in such merchandise as jewellery, spices and glass.[12] In the 12th century CE – and long after the first contact between Islam and Central Asia – the Arabs finally dispatched Muslim missionaries to China to increase Islamic expansion.[13] Yung (1986, p.21) writes that “these missionaries entered Xianjiang through Kashgar, and helped to spread Islam to Yarkand and Hotan.” In conclusion, although the spread of Islam into Xianjiang was both a mix of cultural exchange via trade and land invasion, the main motivation was economical. The economy that the Silk Road provided then facilitated Xianjiang as a main connection point that linked the Arab and Chinese civilizations.

Although there are about 14 million Muslims in Xianjiang the most prominent of all those groups are the Uyghur Muslims who comprise over 5 million.[14] During the early 7th century – and when Islam first made its way into Central Asia – the Uyghurs united with several other groups of ethnic herdsmen and maintained close ties with the Tang Dynasty.[15]

Uyghur Man from Xianjiang Plays a Rawap

“The Uyghur exported horses, jade, spices, herbal medicines and glass to China in exchange for silk, steel artefacts, tea and precious metals,” Yung (1986, p.24) writes, “The Uyghur traded via the Silk Road to Western Asia and the Mediterranean.” Therefore, the trade and the cultural exchange facilitated by the Silk Road was a big part of heritage of Uyghur Muslims. The Uyghur position right along the trade routes provided the Muslim group both with economic prosperity and a rich culture. Their trading successes, Yung (1986, p.24) argues, “helped to identify them as a separate entity among the welter of Turkic and tribes in Central Asia.” Lastly, the Uyghur merchants helped transmit the Chinese printing techniques to Europe and, thus, this Muslim group played an important role not only in trade but also in East-West cultural and scientific exchange.[16]

The Silk Road, then, played a major part in boosting the economy of Xianjiang as well as helping integrate Islam both into the region and into the identity of the peoples (as demonstrated by the Uyghur example). It is possible that without the Silk Road the cultural heritage of Islam in Xianjiang would not have been as prominent. This ancient trading network then not only helped the economy of both Arab and Chinese civilizations and promoted cultural exchanges there, but helped form a multi-cultural environment and national identity of the people of Xianjiang. The Silk Road and its ancient treasures undeniably comprise both the cultural and ethnic heritage of Xianjiang.


[1] Wu Dunfu, ed., Footprints of Foreign Explorers on the Silk Road (Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2006), 2.

[2] Dunfu, Footprints of Foreign Explorers, 2.

[3] Dunfu, Footprints of Foreign Explorers, 13.

[4] Dunfu, Footprints of Foreign Explorers, 3.

[5] Peter Morrison, “Islam in Xianjiang,” Religion, State and Society 13.3 (1985): 244.

[6] Morrison, “Islam in Xianjiang,” 244; Peter Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road: Islam’s Overland Route to China (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 19.

[7] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 21.

[8] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 21.

[9] Morrison, “Islam in Xianjiang,” 244; Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 21.

[10] Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 44.

[11] Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam, 44.

[12] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 21.

[13] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 21.

[14] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 23.

[15] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 24.

[16] Yung, Xianjiang The Silk Road, 25.

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Bibliography

Dunfu, Wu, ed. Footprints of Foreign Explorers on the Silk Road. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2006.

Elverskog, Johan. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Morrison, Peter. “Islam in Xianjiang.” Religion, State and Society 13.3 (1985): 244-249.

Polonskaya, Ludmila and Malashenko, Alexei. Islam in Central Asia. England: Ithaca Press, 1994.

Yung, Peter. Xianjiang The Silk Road: Islam’s Overland Route to China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Published in: on April 5, 2011 at 1:58 am  Leave a Comment  

The Destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Issues of Protecting Cultural Heritage

This is a Blog Entry#9 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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The article by Francesco Francioni and Federico Lenzerini “Afghan Cultural Heritage and International Law: The Case of the Buddhas of Bamiyan” and the article by Christian Manhart “UNESCO’s Rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage: Mandate and Recent Activities” describe the acts of terrorism against the cultural heritage in Afghanistan and UNESCO’s attempts to preserve said heritage. In particular, the concentration is on the destruction of great rock sculptures of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the military of Taliban.

Buddha of Bamiyan

Francioni and Lenzerini describe the significance of the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas in terms of 1) “unlike traditional war damage to cultural heritage which affects enemy’s property, the demolition of Buddhas of Bamiyan concerns heritage belonging to the Afghan Nation” (p.266); 2) “the purpose of the destruction was not linked in any way to a military objective, but was inspired by the sheer will to eradicate any cultural manifestation of religious or spiritual creativity that did not correspond to the Taliban view of religion/culture” (p.266); 3) “Demolition was carefully planed, painstakingly announced to the media all over the world and cynically documented in all its phases of preparation, bombing and ultimate destruction” (p.266); 4) deliberate destruction of important cultural heritance is an act of defiance against UN and international community (p.266); and 5) destruction of the Buddhas took place as an act of narcissistic self-assertion against the pressure of UNESCO and its pleading with Taliban to reconsider their disgraceful decision to proceed with destruction of all statues in the country (p.267). Thus, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan is a shocking act of terrorism that affects not only the cultural heritage of Afghanistan but also the whole international community. As Francioni and Lenzerini argue, the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan is a “crime against culture” (p.266) and are “part of the heritage of humankind” (p.271).

UNESCO’s efforts to safeguard the cultural property and ethnic identity of Afghanistan are of considerable importance especially against acts of ‘cultural terrorism’ as such.

UN and UNESCO

Manhart documents that UNESCO responds to the challenge of protecting Afghanistan’s endangered cultural heritage by “safeguarding all aspects cultural heritage in this country – both tangible and intangible – including museums, monuments, archaeological sites, music, art and traditional crafts is of particular significance in terms of strengthening cultural identity and a sense of national integrity” (p. 49). UNESCO coordinates such ‘preserving’ activities with the permission by the Afghan Government. This demonstrates not only UNESCO’s invaluable efforts to protect culture from terrorism but also the country’s own government’s efforts to do the same. It is an opposition to the oppressive Taliban rule which is not supported either by the International community or by Afghanistan’s government. Without the country’s own support the relief efforts would have been much more difficult if not impossible. In addition, since both UNESCO and United Nations look to promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms (no discrimination against culture and religion) and to protect education and culture, the Afghanistan’s government support of such is a step in the right direction.

We can only hope that the International community manages to protect all cultural and ethnic heritage against any form of terrorism. Education in such matters and support of such organizations as UNESCO and United Nations is of invaluable importance for the worldwide community in a war against terrorism and for the protection of fundamental human rights.

Published in: on March 14, 2011 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Muslim Identity and Contemporary Issues in Central Asia

This is a Blog Entry#8 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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Articles “Shaping an Islamic Identity: Religion, Islamism, and the State in Central Asia” by Jeremy T. Gunn and “Feminism, the Taliban and Politics of Counter-Insurgency” by Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood explore the contemporary issues surrounding Muslims in Central Asia. As Gunn writes, “Probably the most dramatic issue facing Islam in Central Asia is whether its population will be swayed by the Islamist movements that have become increasingly salient in the region since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979” (p.392). Gunn includes a short overview of the beginnings of Islam in Central Asia and describes the religion’s dominance through most of the region by the early 8th century (p.389). He then analyzes the impact that the Soviet rule – which brought with it the destruction of many mosques – had on the Muslim peoples of the region and their identity, and then touches upon the issues of Taliban rule. Hirschkind and Mahmood’s approach is slightly different in that they briefly explore the beginnings of Taliban in Afghanistan before concentrating primarily on the impact of the Taliban rule on Islamic identity of women.

Both authors discuss the contemporary effect that Islam has on politics and the people of the region.  Gunn, in fact, argues that Islam poses some danger to the stability of the region where the problems lie due to “varying assessments of the current strength of Islamist movements, the resiliency of the Islamic populations of Central Asia, the counterproductive and reactionary security measures taken by the governments of Central Asia, and the willingness of the government to end corruption and stimulate economic growth” (p.408-9). Such concern is echoed by Hirschkind and Mahmood where they criticize the oppression of women and question the Afghan government’s willingness to end this.

The two articles also bring up important issues concerning one’s ethnic and religious identity. Identity is often a product of environment – political, economical and geographical – and is often subject to change. Identity then is then very much a dynamic entity.

Published in: on February 27, 2011 at 8:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cosmopolitan Chang’an and the Roots of Nestorian Christianity in China

This is a Blog Entry#7 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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The glorious city of Chang’an was the political, cultural and economical centre of ancient China. Chang’an significance to the study of Silk Road comes  not only from the fact that it was a cosmopolitan metropolis flourishing in trade, consumerism and its vast population, but also that it was distinguished as the starting point of the Silk Road during the reign of Emperor Hui. The Silk Road as the phenomenon allowed for many interactions to occur which brought many religious, traditional and cultural exchanges between peoples which otherwise would not have occurred.

I would like to focus on Nestorian Christianity and its spread into Chang’an as a phenomenon that would not have occurred otherwise without the Silk Road exchange. The entry of Nestorian Christianity into China and, particularly the capital of Chang’an, occurred during the Tang Dynasty which ruled from 618 to 907 CE. David Bundy in the article “Missiological Reflections on Nestorian Christianity” writes that Nestorian Christian missionaries established many locations of worship and that they “entered China via the old silk road from the Persian empire which after the Arab conquests eventually gave way to the Abbasid caliphate” (p.14). Nestorian Christianity itself was originally the church of the Persian Sassanid Empire and follows the theological distinctions – those of Jesus’ divine and human natures – as suggested by Nestorius. Related to the discussion in Blog#6 on Dunhuang manuscripts, many Nestorian Chinese documents were found at Donhuang. Bundy lists a few of those documents including “Discourse on Monotheism” (641-642 CE), “A Treatise Permitting One to Attain the Root of Christianity” (717 CE) and “Treatise of Veneration” (p.18-19). In the end, Nestorian Christians, “established and maintained a Christian presence and witness in China for at least two and a half centuries. They created a Chinese Christian literature and theological vocabulary. They developed an irenic apologetic which proved attractive” (Bundy, p.25).

Thus, the Silk Road helped Nestorian Christianity to enter Chang’an and to successfully consolidate itself there for at least two centuries. Chang’an was truly a cosmopolitan of not just trade, politics and economy, but also of different religious traditions and cultures.

The picture above is from 7-8CE and features Nestorian priests in a procession. It was taken from a Nestorian Church from the time of Tang Dynasty, China.

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment  

The Dunhuang’s Caves of Wonders

This is a Blog Entry#6 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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Dunhuang was considered one of the major trading points along the Silk Road. Similar to the Sogdian civilization’s idyllic location for trading (discussed in entry#5),  Dunhuang’s location was similarly strategic with roads leading from India to Mongolia and to Siberia.

But Dunhuang is not known for its trading successes as much as it is known for the phenomenal cave-temples. In 1900 there was a discovery of the Dunhuang Library Cave which contained many ancient cultural relics that included religious writings, administrative documents, as well as a variety of paintings (Ma, “Buddhist Cave-Temples” p.305). There were also found the famous Dunhuang Manuscripts. Shichang Ma writes in “Buddhist Cave-Temples and the Cao Family at Mogao ku, Dunhuang” on page 305, that the Dunhuan Manuscripts were “the scrolls and documents dating from the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316) to the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127) deal with many branches of the social sciences and natural sciences – such as politics, economy, military affairs, religion, literature, philology and art.” There were also caves discovered with many Buddhist influences: some were burial caves with Buddhist funerary practices and others were Buddhist shrines based on the sculptures and wall paintings.

Today, Dunhuang is known only academically, historically and architecturally as a major point of trade along the Silk Road and for its ‘caves of wonders’, but also as an important tourist attraction. There now exists  the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) which attempts to preserve, catalogue and digitize (and translate) many of the manuscripts and arts from Dunhuang and to make it available to a broader international community. The site of Dunhuang then continues to be an important historical and cultural phenomenon.

The picture above is of Mogao Ku, one of the Buddhist cave-temple sites in the Dunhuang region, and also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Trading Successes and the Cultural Exchange of the Sogdians

This is a Blog Entry#5 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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Feng Luo’s article “Sogdians in Northwest China” and Judith Lerner’s article “Merchant Empire of the Sogdians” discuss the ancient Iranian civilization of Sogdiana and its trading successes with China via the Silk Road. As Lerner writes, “Although Persians, Syrians, and Indians, among others, engaged in the trans-Asian trade, the main actors were the Sogdians, an Iranian people who inhabited the region of Transociana (the present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) in Central Asia” (p.221). Sogdiana’s success in trading can be attributed to the civilization’s location with the Late Roman-Early Byzantine and Sasanian Empires to its west, the Russian civilizations to its north, India to its South and China to its East. Such idyllic location allowed for the establishment of the vast trade network with which the Sogdian economy bloomed.

The Sogdians’ greatest role was the facilitation of the trade between China and central Asia along the Silk Roads and its influence on Chinese culture. Lerner writes that “The Chinese viewed the Sogdians as a merchant race” (p.222) and, as a result, the vast multitude of merchants of Sogdian origin caused the Sogdian language to become the lingua franca – the working language of the traders – of the Silk Road. Significantly, all the cultural and trading exchange between the Chinese and the Sogdians allowed for integration of some of Sogdian culture into China. Luo writes on page 244 about the Shi family who was a descendant from Sogdians and who successfully integrated into the Sui and Tang societies. He also argues that, “The Sogdian dance was extremely popular among the Chinese and was for them the most representative feature of Sogdian culture” (p.244). Lastly, he writes on page 244 that the Sogdians introduced a new type of artistic imagery into China known as the “barbarian” style.

Therefore, the fascinating Sogdian culture of merchants and traders not only facilitated economic success for themselves but carried with them a significant cultural influence that impacted many other traditions and civilizations. No wonder the Silk Road is known as the phenomenon of cultural exchange.

The picture at the top features the Chinese-influenced Sogdian coin from 8th Century AD.

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 9:17 am  Leave a Comment  

The Pilgrimage of Xuanzang

 

This is a Blog Entry#4 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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Sally Hovey Wriggins’ book “Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road” documents the incredible journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who traveled on the Silk Road into the vast regions of India in the Early Tang period. His journey was that of spiritual discovery, trials, and political diplomacy. Finally, it was Xuanzang’s extraordinary devotion that, by bringing back hundreds of Sanskrit scriptures and translating them, helped Buddhism blossom in China.

Wriggins’ account of Xuanzang is remarkable due to the various photos of relics, diagrams and maps that she provides, thus making reading about Xuanzang’s pilgrimage almost like a reading through a story book: mesmerizing, interesting and imaginative. These illustrations thus solidify the grounded reality of Xuanzang’s journey – as demonstrated by maps depicting real places – as well as the wonder of the story – the breathtaking reliquaries and artful depictions that Wriggins provides. It helps the reader see and visualize Xuanzang’s journey and thus makes it fascinating versus if the book only contained dry factual information without any illustrations. In addition, the fact that the writing style of the author is not academic but rather a descriptive personal journey further helps the reader identify with the story of Xuanzang and truly understand its fascinating events and implications.

 

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

The Kushans and Early Buddhism

This is a Blog Entry#3 for RLG245Y Silk Road class.

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The articles “Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India” by Stanislaw Czuma and “Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan” by Xinru Liu explore the development of early Buddhism in Central Asia along the Silk Road. In particular, from 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD, Buddhism gradually flourished in northwestern India as a result of the Kushan empire patronage. Buddhist art prospered during the rule of the Kushan king Kanishka I who was not only a powerful ruler but a big promoter of art and scholarship. Kushan art, then, has numerous Buddhist references which are especially pronounced in the religious edifices in Mathura. Czuma writes, “The style of Mathura sculpture…borrows from the indigenous Indian traditions of the Maurya and Sunga periods. It displays the same massive, robust quality as introduced by the early yaksa figures…but their archaic quality if replaced in the Kusana school by more refined, fluid forms.” This means that the robust and stiff sculptures of the early periods were given a ‘realism’ treatment where static postures were now replaced with a variety of movements. Thus, the spread of Buddhism into the Kushan territory not only helped the religion flourish but also greatly influenced the arts and scholarships of the Kushan empire.

The photograph features the Kushan art dating from 127AD. It is called the “Kanishka Casket” and is a copper Buddhist reliquary.  The top of the sculpture features the Buddha is in the middle and the Hindu gods Brahma and Indra next to him. The bottom of the ‘casket’ features King Kanishka and other royal figures, all captured in some sort of motion. This reliquary demonstrates both the stoicism and the ‘new’ realism of the Kushan Buddhist art.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 5:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Dynamic Nature of Ethnic Identity: Looking at Medieval Chinese Empire and the Holy Roman Empire

This is a Blog Entry#2 for RLG245Y1 Silk Road class.

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Two articles, “Myth and the Construction of Foreign Ethnic Identity in Early and Medieval China” by Bret Hintsch and “The Western Regions under the Xiongnu and the Han” by Yong Ma and Yutang Sun, discuss the themes surrounding the period of Early and Medieval China and its reign over the surrounding Western regions. The theme of particular prominence and importance is the theme of identity and how it is a fluid, arbitrary and flexible construct shifting in composition depending on a variety of factors including political, military and religious. Hintsch’s article, in particular, examines how the power relations of Xiongnu, Xianbei, Choson and Koguryo regions influenced the construction of ethnic identity, and Ma and Sun’s article examines the Western Regions and their changing identity under Han and Xiongnu conquering through agriculture, military, political rule, religion and the phenomenon of the Silk Road.

The academic discussion of Early and Medieval China’s ethnic identity and its dynamicity depending on politics, culture and religion is reminiscent of yet another time in history where national identity was an important subject of development: the period of the Holy Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, Western Europe was united for the first time since the Roman Empire and this encouraged the formation of common European identity. Similar to the study of the Chinese Empire provided by Hintsch’s, Ma and Sun’s articles, the Holy Roman Empire had come forth as a result of religious – and, specifically, Christian – influence as well as political and military under a certain ideology: that of the Roman Empire, the united and powerful domain which was believed to have been the exemplar of civilization. Likewise, the Western regions including those of Xiongnu, Xianbei, Choson and Koguryo, were united under the Chinese Empire which, through politics, religion and culture, was working to create a particular identity of a powerful and prevailing civilization. Thus, an important component which helps shape ethnic and national identity is the component of unity. After all, weren’t some of the most notable national identities – such as those of the Roman Empire and even the recent USSR – abolished upon the dissipation of the united regions of those empires?

Hmmm.

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thinking about identification and natural progression: Culture and Language

This is a Blog Entry#1 for RLG245Y1 Silk Road class.

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What is culture? The analysis and theories of such phenomenon were discussed in details in “Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” (2nd ed.), edited by David Crystal, and in “Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology” (1st ed), edited by Levinson et al. Both Encyclopedias discussed the idea and the phenomenon of “culture,” and outlined various identifying markers indicating “culture” as such. Most notable of such “cultural” markers were religion, ethnicity or nationality, and language. Each one of these is capable of differentiating one culture from the other and, at the same time, these markers can be interrelated and signify only one culture. For example, one’s nationality can be Greek if he or she speaks Greek and practices Greek Orthodox religion. And yet, one can be Greek is he or she does not speak Greek in the case of early-age immigration or ancestry. And one can practice Greek Orthodox without actually being Greek.

This discussion is of profound significance in studying the Silk Road. For example, what differentiates Islam as a religion versus as a “culture”? Is it because of the vast variety of regions Islam was found in or because there is no “Islamic” language (since it’s Arabic and many regions speak Arabic)? Why, then, does the modern view sometimes classify these same Silk Road regions of today interchangeably as “Islamic” countries and “Arabian” or “Middle East” and its people as “Muslims”? Is it because it is currently more widespread than it was a during the ancient Silk Road period? Such questions bring up interesting issues in studying various traditions, cultures, religions and ethnicities of Silk Road.

The cultural phenomenon of language is the one thing that stood out the most to me from the Encyclopedia readings. Is there some kind of naturalness to language change? Do all languages change with time? Is this something that is unavoidable and expected of every language? There is an idea in linguistic studies that there is an apparent time hypothesis where it is believed that change in time results in variation in each time period. The evolution of Slavic languages (as the tribes moved around and settled) and English will confirm this hypothesis to be the case. However, Latin is still alive and unchanged (even if used in rare circumstances) although there is no longer an alive “Latin” culture or tradition or ethnicity left after the fall of the Roman Empire. Would it mean that, eventually, Latin will disappear in time as did Ancient Egyptian? Or would it remain if it is preserved for its use, no matter how limited, while other languages will develop and branch off from it? Could Arabic language become extinct or will Arabic be preserved in time as Latin since some of the important worldly and sacred works (eg. Qur’an) are in Arabic? Thus, are religious documents (such as Qur’an) or meaningful and cultural works (such as Plato’s philosophies) the only ways to preserve language and to keep it from “dying”? This reminds me of what my late grandfather once told me in my childhood. A pure Ukrainian, he refused to speak Ukrainian and was against teaching it in schools (he was a professor). He had always said that Ukrainian was a dying language and encouraged his children and grandchildren to speak and learn Russian instead. His philosophy came as a result of “Russionalization” phenomenon – where, as a result of Soviet Union, Russian culture and language became so inbreeded into Ukrainian ethnicity that the country became symbolically split into East (the Ukrainian side) and the West (the Russian side). Thus, my grandfather believed that the fate of Ukrainian language was to “progress” or “develop” into Russian, and saw no point in delaying this “natural” progress. Does anyone think that my grandfather was right? Or does it simply make him “unpatriotic” without the necessary serious issues behind his philosophy?

Some food (even if junkfood) for thought.

Published in: on September 27, 2010 at 10:51 am  Comments (1)  
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