Christian Mueller

Image Credit: Camels convoy by amir appel/Flickr; Licence: CC BY 2.0 DEED

In September 2013, the announcement of a new “Silk Road” programme for infrastructure development by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, made headlines across the globe. Since then, political and financial analysts have speculated about the economic and political implications of the proposal. Focusing on the historical invention of the “Silk Road” as a 19th century programme for imperial penetration helps identify some agendas behind the project.

Through the alignment of the “Silk Road” heritage with the five principles of peaceful coexistence, China attributes a legacy to this common Eurasian history that it never had.

Xi’s “Silk Road” speeches in Astana and at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May 2017 used the rhetoric of economic win-win and political friendship. Legitimacy for the project is drawn from an invention of the “Silk Road” that focuses on economic and cultural exchanges in the timeless space of Central Asia. Its emphasis on developmental modernisation bears close similarities to European imperial projects for developing China that invented the “Silk Road” as a political concept in the 1870s.

The German explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen depicted the “Silk Road” as a straight railroad-like passage from Europe to East Asia. During his China travels as a mining prospector between 1868 and 1872, Richthofen, a geologist by training, argued that transportation routes needed to follow the natural connections between Europe and Asia. He identified this land corridor as the East-West connection from Xi’an to Samarkand through the Gansu Corridor, but made it quite clear that this “Silk Road” had only existed in a very limited time window when Silk was traded as the main luxury good. Richthofen claimed the existence of a “Silk Road” under the Chinese dominance in the central Asian region between 100 BCE and 100 CE.

The concept has since been used to describe all commercial activities and related transfers of culture and technologies from pre-scriptural times until the present day. The exploring “Indiana Jones of Asia” who followed Richthofen, prominently Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, promoted the image of the “one road” and the trading posts along the two pathways of the Northern and Southern routes. Hedin coined the phrase in his writings and the London Times first used the word “Silk Road” in praising Hedin’s autobiography in 1926 as one of the greatest and last adventurer’s tales of the 20th century. It was Richthofen’s legacy in the works of Hedin that made the “Silk Road” famous as the “Imperial Highway” with all its stereotypical images. Less well known is that Hedin had already come up with a specific plan for a continental road and railway connection to link the greater Nazi Empire to Beijing and Shanghai in his 1936 book “Die Seidenstraße.” This plan of a “one road” development scheme granted him the support of the Nanking government for his expeditions in the 1930s. The narrative is not very different from the current version to revive the “Imperial Highway” of Silk.

The use of the word “Silk Road” comes with the legacy of an imperial vision of developmental modernisation. As early as 1868, Richthofen promoted railroad investments and other strategic moves to the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck to strengthen the role of Prussia (and after 1871, Imperial Germany) in the Far East. Richthofen’s vision was to establish a railway line that followed the ancient “Silk Road” outlined in his scientific writings. His scheme for developing China fits into late 19th century imperial aspirations to make the most profit for the Empire by penetrating the vast economic zone through joint investments in railways, mining and commercial enterprises. Unlike others, Richthofen insisted that China was destined to rise as an industrial great power and would eventually flood the world market with cheap commodities and abundant labour forces. Once unleashed, the potential of a modernised China would be equal to no other state in power, resources and influence. Following the logic of developmental modernisation, he claimed that European foreign investment in Asia would inevitably lead to the dominance in the Asian region of a China that would have outgrown its foreign investors.

In politics, words are deeds. Xi certainly used the term “Silk Road” for good reasons. One might speculate whether the political implications of informal imperialism inherent in the “Silk Road” idea are accidental or intentional. Certainly the regions that buy into the new “Silk Road” investments will depend on China’s good will. This good will has always been praised in Xi’s ‘spirit of the Silk Road’ that stresses mutual friendship and people-to-people peace, and mutual benefit. It also stresses above all a Chinese regional world order of hierarchical harmony facilitated through government to government collaboration. This “spirit” has very little to do with the “great heritage of human civilisation” but is at best a rhetoric of wishful thinking how the BRI should be perceived. Through the alignment of the “Silk Road” heritage with the five principles of peaceful coexistence, China attributes a legacy to this common Eurasian history that it never had.

The second question arises as to the implications of Chinese foreign development investment as a means of Asian modernisation. China’s Northwest and Central Asia have been re-invented since the European explorations in the 1860s as a romanticised rural arcadia. The main selling points of Sven Hedin’s numerous books were the invention and othering of a romantic and adventurous Central Asia untouched by European modernisation. “In our imagination did we see the brilliant, many-coloured scenes form the past, the unbroken carnival of caravans and travellers, [… and] listened to the tinkling from the collar of bells […,] echoed in our eyes a melody which had sounded along that road for more than two thousand years.” This passage from Hedin, very similar to the “camel bells” and wisps of smokes rising from the desert in Xi’s Astana speech, illustrates the profound othering of Central Asia in need of modernisation. While the Europeans neither had the power nor the resources to carry out a wholesale modernisation of Central Asia, Xi’s grand scheme of Chinese development aims at economic inclusion through modernisation accompanied by a century-old Han civilizational mission.

Richthofen’s and Hedin’s inventions of the “Silk Road” indicate two important legacies that bear striking similarities to China’s current investment scheme. The “Silk Road” was a European imperial programme for infrastructure development to modernise China through close railway connections via Central Eurasia. The current BRI uses different rhetoric to boost trade and knowledge transfer but it is in fact an infrastructure development programme not unlike Richthofen’s “Silk Road”. The other striking similarity is that the “Silk Road” always focused on exploring, developing and civilising the regions in between the political and economic zones of Europe and China. While European imperial powers saw themselves on a moral mission to export the benefits of progress to the world in order to exercise their own power, China has re-discovered its own idea of civilisation in order to export trade and commerce with a Han civilizational mission. Key to this mission is the region of Xinjiang with all its social repercussions to the region and its population. It remains to be seen whether the financial underpinning will allow China to carry through a development utopia that the Europeans in the 19th and early 20th century could never afford to implement in their East Asian Empires.

Dr. Christian Mueller, FRHistS is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus and Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford. This article is part of a special series on the Belt and Road Initiative written by University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute experts.


  1. very interesting, I’m also working on geopolitics and geo-culture in the making of new silk roads, May I know the special issue mentioned in the end?

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