It’s amazing what marketing can do for your image. The world has been full of trading routes since the earliest human settlements. Trade, and with it rivalry, diplomacy and power politics, have been foundations of human interaction everywhere, and yet one trade route rises in our imagination above all others: The Silk Road.
Conjuring an awesome sense of history, the Western mind in particular is sent into flights of exotic fancy by those three simple words. The precious silks and spices of the Orient wending their way by camel train out of China and along the fabled cities of Central Asia to the gates of the Middle East and Russia, to arrive in the markets of Europe.
Had Europeans simply been beguiled by the idea of this single silken thread?
It was therefore striking to read — in this week’s excellent briefing on China’s Belt & Road Initiative in The Economist — that the term ‘The Silk Road’ was coined on the much less distant date of 1877, by Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of the famous WWI flying ace, the Red Baron. My first reaction was to marvel at the power of good branding to elevate even the most tangled and convoluted collection of trading routes.
Had Europeans simply been beguiled — I wondered — by the idea of this single silken thread weaving from China across the whole of Asia to Europe? If they had, then it is ironic and perhaps appropriate that the Chinese should now be muddying the water with their unwieldy One Belt, One Road or Belt & Road Initiative. Not so much of the neat branding there, but maybe more reality?
There has been endless media confusion and clarification over the terms and their meaning. China’s ‘Belt’ refers to a network of overland routes connecting China with Central and South Asian countries, and thence the Middle East and Europe. Its ‘Road’, confusingly, refers to the sea routes from China through the Indian Ocean to the West.
But despite the clunky official titles, there is clearly something of the old branding magic of Von Richthofen’s Silk Road that has rubbed off on Chinese Communist Party planners, since this new and breathtaking (in scale and expense) infrastructure project is very much inspired by and aiming to emulate the Silk Road of old. Whether that’s the Silk Road of our imaginations or of historical fact, I will leave you to decide.