Silk Road Resources: Videos and CD-ROMs
Titles listed (some to be annotated later):
The Great Moghuls
A six-part series of half-hour films devoted to the most important of the Mughal emperors, starting with the founder of the Dynasty, Babur (ruled 1526-1530) and ending with Aurangzeb (1658-1707). The second Mughal ruler, Humayun, does not have his own film, but his successor Akbar gets two. Well researched series with excellent photography and script by the urbane narrator Bamber Gascoigne. Gascoigne also wrote an accompanying book for the series: The Great Moghuls (NY: Harper & Row, 1971). In contrast to the often empty commentary in the Silkroad video series reviewed below, this series has some real substance and should appeal both to school audiences and to adults. Northwest educators may borrow the videos from the JSIS South Asia Center outreach collection; they are also available through the King County Library system.
A 28-minute video also available through the JSIS South Asia Center.----------
NOVA VHS WG2502, available from WGBH in Boston
A somewhat sensationalized NOVA film about the fascinating mummies excavated in Xinjiang in the Taklamakan Desert of Western China. The talking heads include Victor Mair and Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who are experts on various aspects of the early cultures of Inner Asia. The film contains excellent footage showing burial objects, textiles (some of the most important evidence about Western connections); information on nomadic-sedentary interaction going way back in Inner Asian history, and the importance of wool before the Silk Road came into being. There are some very interesting views of a major petroglyph site with ritual art that is to be connected with the early inner Asian nomads. The film can be used very successfully in classes, since student audiences, perhaps attracted by the somewhat ghoulish subject and images, do respond to the material, and issues that are raised about cultural interaction across Eurasia from very early times provide a good springboard for discussion.
There is undue emphasis on the degree to which the Chinese authorities have attempted to keep the mummies secret because of the fact they show that the early inhabitants of the region were not Chinese but in fact seem to have come from the West. Another regrettable feature of the film is the sense that it gives about the discovery of the mummies really being new. In fact, some were unearthed a century ago by explorers such as Sven Hedin. The viewer is not told how controversial some of Mair's views are concerning the identification of the mummies with the mysterious Tocharians. The scene where he identifies his Tocharians on a cave mural painted centuries after the date of the mummies is a curious exercise in "proof" if there ever was one.
Those who find this material interesting may wish to read Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of Ürümchi (NY; London: Norton, 1999), a well-illustrated book valuable for its analysis of the textiles found in the burials. Be warned though that the book rambles, and it is hard to connect a lot of its material into any kind of coherent narrative. For Mair's own views in print, see: J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest People from the West(London; NY: Thames & Hudson, 2000).------------
A thirty (!) part VHS videotape series, jointly produced by Japanese (NHK) and Chinese (CCTV) Television, filmed over four years beginning around 1980 and first aired in 1990. Each film runs 50 minutes. The first twelve are on individual cassettes; the last eighteen are three to a video. The complete series is available for Northwest educators to borrow from the JSIS REECAS outreach collection; also, a non-circulating copy of the first six films is available in the UW Bothell library. The films may be purchased from Central Park Media. At least the first 12 films may be purchased individually for $29.95 ea.; boxed sets contain pts. 1-6, 7-12, 13-30. Parts 1-12 are available as a 3 DVD set. The soundtrack of Kitaro's electronic Silkroad Suite is available on two CDs.
The strengths of the series include stunning photography of landscapes, historic sites and art, and contemporary cultures of Eurasia from China to the Mediterranean. A substantial amount of the footage is not otherwise readily available. Parts of the narration are quite meaty, and the commentary generally quite well informed. The film crews had access to important museum collections, which are tapped to show specific archaeological/art objects; occasionally some technically sophisticated techniques are used which enhance understanding of material.
The challenges (read weaknesses) of the series are also significant. Since the series is so large and is not accompanied by any kind of viewing guide, the blurbs on the cassette boxes provide too little indication of content. For this reason, we offer on a separate page a generally detailed table of contents for each film. One easily tires of Kitaro's electronic score, which often accompanies extended views of the Silk Road Expedition's jeeps raising dust clouds in the desert. Even if accurate, commentary is often frustratingly thin and seems to get thinner and more repetitive as the series proceeds, probably because the script writers ran out of ideas.
At the point where the "expedition" left China (starting with film 13), the production was taken over fully by the Japanese crew, with a resultant shift in tone, script, and narrator. Especially in the the parts where the Chinese crew participated, there is occasionally a kind of cultural snobbery that borders on the offensive--the non-Chinese peoples in China, who are central to many of the films, are happy "tribes" who enjoy colorful markets if somewhat primitive ways and are, of course, benefitting from government programs of "modernization." There is a very different side to that story, and it is not told. One consequence of the switchover in the production team is that there is a lack of uniformity in pronunciation of proper names. The narrator for the Chinese parts of the series pretty much gets the pronunciation right, but in the purely Japanese part of the series once they have left China, names are often pronounced so as to be unrecognizable. Also, the then Soviet republics of Central Asia are referred to by the ethnonym, not the regional designation (i.e., Kazakh, not Kazakhstan). With one or two exceptions, it never occurred to the producers that most viewers would benefit from some maps. Without knowing quite a bit about the geography of Eurasia ahead of time, one can easily get lost, since the genenerally East to West progression of the series breaks down in the middle. The viewer may not know whether she is in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyztan or when the team returned to a previous location, where exactly are those locations in Iran or what part of the Caucasus is being filmed.
If it were possible to excerpt about three good hours of the twenty-five or so hours of this footage, and combine it with a really substantial script, the result would be an incredibly good film. Probably because of the exigencies of producing a long series whose audience was, in the first instance, Japanese TV viewers (there is a passion for everything about the Silk Road in Japan), the result is less than satisfactory for many educational purposes. The films run the gamut from a fair amount of sophistication to banality. Generally the earlier films in series are done better than the later ones. Nonetheless any number of snippets and, in some cases, even most of a given film could be used for classes ranging from lower grades up through college.
List of films. Click on each to bring up a description of its contents.
Film 1. Glories of Ancient Chang'an.------------
UNESCO publishing, 1997. ISBN 92-3-103691-2 88 minutes. PAL (i.e., European) format. The jacket description (my own review will be forthcoming once I have converted the film to VHS):
A unique documentary in its wealth and depth of information. Original documents were filmed by local television teams of nine countries in Central Asia as the expedition, organized within UNESCO's programme "Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Route of Dialogue" retraced the 2,000-year-old 20,000 km. silk and spices route linking East and West and thus ideas, religions, people, products and cultures in both directions. John Lawton composed later a fascinating kaleidoscope, where, from Sian in China to Constantinople at the doors of Europe, the legendary and the present meet. And the dialogue is still alive.Note: As part of this project, UNESCO published a useful collection of academic essays The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce. Vadime Elisseeff, ed. (2000), some of which should be of interest to the general reader. A review of the book will be provided elsewhere on our web site. -------------
On the edges of the Taklamakan desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. 20th Century archeologist Sir Aurel Stein took on the deadly Taklamakan to prove his own theories about western China’s lost civilization. Again and again 7th Century monk Xuanzang’s writings led him to archeological treasure–once thriving cities now buried in the sand. On this trail, he made his greatest discovery: a thousand year old Buddhist library, in near perfect condition.The film is what we might call a "pseudo documentary," with a well-researched script and two expert talking heads, Sally Wriggins and Valerie Hanson. However, it was not filmed on location in Central Asia; so the scenes are all simulations, and actors play the roles of Xuanzang and Stein. A rather disappointing show, at least for the adult viewer. Can one assume the other films in the series are similar productions? What if Wriggins and Hansen could have been brought together with the footage from the NHK/CCTV series reviewed above?
Produced by Marek Gronowski (DNA Multimedia Corporation, 1760 West 2nd Ave. Vancouver, B.C. V6J 1H6, Canada, tel. 1-604-736-8783; e-mail: email@example.com. Works on both Windows and Mac. Can order for $24.95 through www.cdaccess.com.). What follows is an excerpt from a review I wrote for the REECAS Newsletter a couple of years ago:
© 2001 Daniel C. Waugh. Last updated December 24, 2001.
Silk Road Seattle is a program of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.