Category Archives: Travel

A Tale of Two Cultures

As I come back from the sumer hiatus it seems appropriate that my first post should be inspired by someone who’s made a career helping us figure out what to do with our summertimes and also happens to be a local here in the Puget Sound region: Rick Steves.

According to the Seattle PI, Steves has decided to donate the money that he’s saved from the Bush-era tax cuts to local arts causes. Specifically, he’s “giving $1 million over the next 10 years to meet all facility costs  of his hometown Edmonds Center for the Arts as well as the Cascade Symphony Orchestra.”

In this time of shrinking arts budgets, it’s good to see some positive news about funding for arts and music in particular.

Beyond that though, Steves’ comments in the article give one something to really think about as they raise questions about the importance of music and arts in our culture, as well as the ideas around financial support and patronage.

I will be upfront and say that I myself tend to be of a mind that the arts as a whole would be better served by reducing reliance on government funding. Having watched the NEA funding battles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that taught me that what the government giveth, it can just as easily take away. Having art and artists in a state of dependence on the Government for their livelihood creates a dangerous and worrisome dynamic with regards to free expression. Funding can be cut if artists fail to please their government overlords, as we saw in those battles. But even without that, the mere threat of that can prompt a degree of self-censorship that is harmful.

But getting government out of arts funding creates a vacuum for which there is no easy replacement. This is where Steves’ comments about the importance of the arts and patronage really strike an important chord.

The simple fact is that in our culture arts and music are viewed as frivolous luxuries or entrainment. There is a real lack of any sense of the arts and music as something inherently ennobling and important in its own right.

One new area of interest for me is classical Chinese poetry. And if you spend any time studying classical Chinese poetry, you’ll quickly find that the arts and music are reckoned very highly in classical Chinese thought and civilization. Indeed, music, poetry, and calligraphy were all viewed as activities that a refined, noble person pursued for their own sake. Indeed, two of the Confucian classics that has formed the bedrock of Chinese thought and culture for millennia are on poetry/song and music. Indeed, as I was preparing to write this posting, I found this interesting post that talks about how Confucian ideals around music still influence Chinese culture today. In that vein, too, I think it’s noteworthy that some of the most vibrant activity in support of artistic, concert music is in China and other Asian countries heavily influenced by Chinese thought and culture.

Which brings us back to Steves and his donation. Imagine for a moment what the state of arts support would be if the arts were viewed not as entertainment but something central to being a good person and citizen?  If instead of expecting our kids in school to be playing football, basketball or cheerleading, instead there was an expectation that they would learn music and poetry?

What a wonderful world that would be.

And perhaps may be yet. After all, globalization is hardly a one way street. Maybe as we learn more and more about Chinese culture, we’ll learn the importance of this from them and slowly adopt it into our culture.

The Smooth Touch of Silk

Somewhere near the bottom of the footlocker of our everyday lexicon is a phrase that nearly everyone has heard at least once: “the Silk Road“.

And, for a popular culture that suffers from a terrible lack of knowledge about history, most people manage to get some vague idea about what it was right.  Most people know that it was an overland trading route between Europe and China and that it played some role in prompting Columbus on his voyage. Oh, and that there were camels and silk.

Considering that most people keep trying to put Vietnam as the southern neighbor of Canada and the western neighbor of Iraq, that’s not too bad!

And so, in our popular understanding, this turn of phrase calls forth some of that exotic orientalism of old: mental images of camels, chinese silk clothes, deserts, Marco Polo, Kubla Khan, and maybe Xanadu (no, not the Olivia Newton John version).

Until a couple of years ago, that was roughly where my understanding was, though my history has always been pretty good, so tilt me more historical information and less poetical.

In the past couple of years, though, I slowly stumbled my way into reading about first Afghanistan and from there more and more about Inner Asia. And, like one of the explorers of the Silk Road that I’ve read about, the more I dig and find, the most I’m left simply speechless at the beauty and diversity that I’ve found.

For it turns out that this very simple and pithy phrase (coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen uncle of the Red Baron of World War I) really labels not so much a simple road or path but, really, a juncture; a juncture that sits in the middle of the largest land mass on the earth and knits together the four major spheres of settled civilizations on that land mass: the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean; the civilizations of China and South East Asia; the Civilizations of Persia, the Near East and the Mediterranean; and the civilizations of India and the surrounding regions.

Into and across this juncture come elements, goods (yes, including silk), peoples, thoughts and languages. A huge expanse of land mass that serves essentially as a cultural superhighway transmitting things between all of those civilizations. Paper from China finds its way to the Muslim world and eventually to Europe. Gunpowder, silk, cannons, alphabets: all of these circulate across this superhighway.

And ideas. Perhaps most important, ideas. Buddhism from India to China. Manicheanism (best know because of Saint Augustine) can be found everywhere, all the way from Europe to China. Writing: many scripts of medieval central asia use a script derived from the Sogdian Language which was an Iranian language that used an Aramaic script.

Perhaps most interesting, especially in today’s multicultural world of mass movement and travel, peoples and languages. From the Indo-European Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Sogdians, and Tocharians to the Turkic Koks, Huns, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Turks of Turkey to the Mongolian Mongols, Tartars, and Manchus the Silk Road and the Steppes represent the worlds greatest melting pot, ever.

Spend any time studying the Steppes and the “”Aryans”” (meaning the early Indo-European peoples) on it and you realize just how thoroughly ludicrous racial purity theories are, most especially ones focused on Germanic identity: the Goths (perhaps the strongest and most successful of the early German tribes) were strongly intermixed and influenced by the Huns, a Turkic people. Genetic scientists claim that perhaps 1 in 200 people carry DNA from Genghis Khan. Through migrations, trade, and war, among other things, the the Steppes and the Silk Road took those isolated spheres of  genes and ethnic identity and mixed it all up.

Perhaps there is no better example to explode these compartmentalized ideas of history, culture and ethnic identify than a picture. This is a picture of Buddhist monks from the 9th Century CE. It comes from Bezaklik which is located in the Tarim Basin (here is a map to help you see where that is. The image really speaks for itself.

Another example of the incredibly interesting mix of cultures and history is the tale of Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, also known as the “”Bloody Baron””. A Russian General who played a major role in the Russian Civil War. He was a liberator of Mongolia from China who saw himself as a reincarnation of Genghis Khan, and declared to be a Mahakala incarnation by the Dalai Lama XIII.

I am a history person.  I always have been and I always will be.  I’ve always been particularly drawn to lesser known, more obscure history. And so, in many ways, I have found a true treasure trove for my interest in this region. It’s only a couple of years since I found my way into this region but I know this will be a lifelong interest as it unites so many interests including a desire to someday write a history about the role of the horse on Indo-European cultures.

And so, we see, there is so much buried in this one phrase, “”the Silk Road””. A lifetime of pleasant study, at the very least. But also, a very key element in the history of humanity and one that we could stand to study more because it can influence and guide us both as our current world becomes ever more connected and fluid and as we move (as we surely will) into the broad expanse of space. I firmly believe that our experience of space will be very like our experience on the Eurasian landmass: pockets of civilization joined by a fluid, open juncture.

If you’ve made it this far, then you’re probably interested in learning more.  So, here’s some places to go:

The Silk Road Foundation has great resources and articles, though the site is clunky:
The Silk Road Project is a wonderful musical project:
The International Dunhuang Project is simply incredible for information and resources: