Foreign Devils on the Silk Road Annotations

Last updated Mon Jun 2 10:07:10 UTC 2008 ( see DVD Documentaries )
Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is a wonderful book that I have had the chance to enjoy over and over again. Hopkirk's accounts of the various explorers and archaeologists who journeyed to the deserts of western China from 1860-1930 was a genius idea for a Wolfesque book which no one had ever thought to do before. Moreover, a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer has written that "Hopkirk is constitutionally unable to write a bad sentence" and I fully agree.

The book has also inspired me to further reading and study and I have uncovered a number of items not in the book that interested me. Anticipating that others will find these interesting as well, I publish them here for all to share.

Note: all page references are to the 1980 hardcover editon.

  1. Transliteration Issues (throughout)
  2. "Karakhoja, Gaochang" (p. 4)
  3. "Taklamakan (meaning in Turki 'go in and you won't come out')" (p. 12)
  4. "Wu-ti immediately decided to make contact with the Yueh-chih ..." (p. 14)
  5. King Oscar (pp. 54, 64)
  6. Nobel (p. 64)
  7. "Ram Singh" (pp. 73, 74, 79, 105, 147, 171-2, 206)
  8. "Khotanese" (p. 108)
  9. "some thirteen languages" (p. 108)
  10. Krupp (p. 114)
  11. "eastern outpost of an ancient Indian empire" (p. 154)
  12. "Roman town in Chinese Central Asia" (p. 155)
  13. "a feat of desert navigation" (p. 171)
  14. Pelliot, von Le Coq, Grünwedel, Hedin and Stein (pp. 178, 188)
  15. "He set out on horseback" (Mannerheim & Pelliot, p. 197)
  16. "The Chinese had closed the door on him at last." (p. 226)
  17. "these are not on view to the public" (p. 235)
  18. Langdon Warner's later career (p. 240)
  19. "The last shred of mystery and romance had finally gone from the Silk Road." (p. 241)
Further Bibliography
Other Sites
DVD Documentaries
  1. Transliteration Issues (throughout)
    Since the book was published, other Romanizations of some of the Chinese names have become more popular. Here are some of them for the help of the reader:
  2. "Karakhoja, Gaochang" (p. 4)
    What may be confusing for travelers to the area is that the throughout the narrative the Uighur name, Karakhoja, is used to refer to the ancient city which today is called by its Chinese name, Gaochang.
  3. "Taklamakan (meaning in Turki 'go in and you won't come out')" (p. 12)
    In The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West by J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000), p. 169, a different meaning is given: "Turcologists have seen in the word either a compound built with Uyghur tä(r)kli "abandoned" and Persian makan "place", i.e. 'abandoned place' or täkli "grape", i.e. 'grape place'.
  4. "Wu-ti immediately decided to make contact with the Yueh-chih ..." (p. 14)
    There are numerous theories about the derivation of the name Yueh-chih and none has yet found general acceptance. In Chinese the name translates literally as "Moon Clan." According to the Chinese researcher Zhang Guang-da, the name is a transliteration of their own name for themselves, the Visha (the tribes), being called the Vijaya in Tibetan. For more information, see History of civilizations of Central Asia, volume III: Zhang Guang-da, "The city-states of the Tarim Basin", p. 284
  5. King Oscar (pp. 54, 64)
    King Oscar II (1829-1907) reigned over Sweden and Norway. He was an acclaimed university mathematics student, distinguished writer, musical amateur and generous friend of learning. He helped to fund many of the expeditions of his good friend and political supporter, Sven Hedin.
  6. Nobel (p. 64)
    Emanuel Nobel (1859-1932) was the nephew and heir of the famous Alfred Nobel, member of the prize committee, head of the family's oil company in Baku and of its factories in St. Petersburg, and one of the foremost customers of Fabergé. In 1907 his firm built the first four stroke reversible (Diesel) engine. He co-sponsored Hedin expeditions from the second onward.
  7. "Ram Singh" (pp. 73, 74, 79, 105, 147, 171-2, 206)
    Also confusing is that many of the Stein's assistants seem to be named Ram Singh. Although this book is too busy to go into detail, it is made clearer in Stein's own Ruins of Desert Cathay.

    Naik Ram Singh (? - 1909) was the handyman on Stein's first two expeditions. He was the one wth the special cooking requirements and who was attacked by severe head pains on his assigned trip from Khotan to Qarklik. He lost sight in one eye to glaucoma, yet continued his photography expedition to Miran where he was struck blind in the other eye as well. From there he was guided back to India where with Stein's help he was given a generous government pension, but died less than three years later. Naik means chief or leader and Stein often refers to him as "the Naik".

    Rai Bahadur Lal Singh and Rai Sahibs Ram Singh were Gurkha surveyors seconded by Survey of India with goal of mapping unexplored regions, e.g. the Kun Lun Mountains, and fixing the exact position of Khotan. Lal surveyed on the first Stein expedition, Ram on the second until forced to return home early with rheumatism upon which Lal re-joined in progress. Lal was awarded the title Bahadur while Ram won a prize from the Royal Geographical Society.

  8. "Khotanese" (p. 108)
    Stein discovered documents that recovered the previously lost language which has since been named "Khotanese" for Khotan, the oasis kingdom from which they stemmed. But who were the writers of this Middle Iranian language?

    The answer does not seem clear. Either they were Khotan Sakas, i.e. Scythians, who had lived in that area for quite some time or they were members of the Kushan empire who spoke a very similar language.

    By the way, this material has been published in Khotanese Manuscripts from Chinese Turkestan in the British Library: A Complete Catalogue With Texts and Translations and it's possible to read more about these Sakas in History of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume II: The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250

  9. "some thirteen languages" (p. 108)
    Hopkirk writes that Professor Pelliot "was at home in some thirteen languages". But just which languages where they? Apparently the impressive list included:
    1. French
    2. English
    3. Chinese
    4. Turki/Uighur
    5. Russian
    6. Mongolian
    7. Vietnamese
    8. Cambodian
    9. Laotian
    10. Tibetan
    11. Sanskrit
    12. Persian
    13. Syrian
    14. Khotanese
    I wonder if Latin and Sogdian would also fit on this list. (Derived from the Silk Road Foundation mailing list.)
  10. Krupp (p. 114)
    Friedrich Alfried Krupp (1854-1902) was the multi-millionaire member of the German industrialist family whose firm started out manufacturing steel in Essen. From the 1870's made the Krupp industries one of the world's largest steel and weapons manufacturers. Funded German expeditions from the beginning. Newspaper reports of private orgies in Italy with under-age boys probably drove him to suicide. The firm continues today as Thyssen-Krupp.
  11. "eastern outpost of an ancient Indian empire" (p. 154)
    At Lou-lan Stein brought to light quantities of Kharoshthi (Indian script) tablets. Stein felt that these records indicated that the Kushan empire, centered in Central Asia and northern India, at one time controlled the Tarim Basin as far east as Lou-lan, i.e. right up to the borders of China.

    Today, most scholars would disagree. The more accepted conclusion is that when the Kushan Empire fell before the combined pressure of Persians in the west and Hephthalites from the north, its scribes and officials fled east into the desert. There they were prized by the local rulers and employed by them to keep official records which, of course, they continued to do in their own language and script. More can be read about this in the wonderful UNESCO book History of the Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume II: The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250

  12. "Roman town in Chinese Central Asia" (p. 155)
    Describing Stein's finds at the southern Silk Road site of Miran, it is mentioned that the magnificent murals included one of winged angels and another signed "Titus". Hopkirk mentions that one sinologist believes that there may have been a Roman town at that time in Chinese Central Asia, but nothing more.

    Maybe he is thinking of A Roman City in Ancient China (London: The China Society, 1957) by Oxfordian Homer H. Dubs which holds that Roman legionaries taken prisoner after Crassus' disastrous battle at Carrhae were used by the Parthians as border guards in the east and eventually founded their own city. This theory, constructed on literary evidence, is convincing as far as it goes, but remains in doubt due to lack of surviving physical evidence, apart from, perhaps, the aforementioned painting, which might be simply someone not understanding what a signature is and copying it along with the rest of the image. In any case, this theory is apparently refuted in an issue of the journal Exercitus, but thus far I have not managed to find a copy of the article. The pertinent article may be found in volume 2, no. 3, pp.38-9 by Duncan B. Campbell. This is the news bulletin of the British Roman re-enactment group The Ermine Street Guard. A little bit more about this can be read in this USENET posting of May 1996: http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=19960519.230239.38%40arma.demon.co.uk&oe=UTF-8&output=gplain

    Nevertheless, apparently there are folk now digging to prove this theory as has been printed in this Los Angeles Times story. See also:

    By the way, the signature was actually "Tita" and it is speculation that this was a transliteration of the Latin name "Titus". This lecture summarizes the argument against the hypothesis.

    The Italian news service ANSA also reports on this story (in English), including a photo.

    In 2007 it appears there will now be DNA testing to see if this story could be true as reported in

    July 16, 2007:

    In the new book by Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (363 pp., illustrated), he describes stopping in Yongchang, China, to find a statue of a Chinese mandarin, flanked by a Roman soldier and a Roman matron. He also met a number of townspeople with Western features. Standing with two such men amid a crowd with more typically Chinese faces, he writes, "I imagined us three Europeans." And when he leaves to continue his journey, one of them says in farewell, "My people were Romans."
  13. "a feat of desert navigation" (p. 171)
    Hopkirk describes one of the highlights of Stein's second expdedition thusly:
    ... his bold southward crossing of the Taklamakan, a far more hazardous undertaking than the reverse. When Hedin crossed it he had first followed the northward-flowing Keriya-daria which ensured his water supply well into the desert. After that he knew, provided he continued to march northwards, he would sooner or later strike the eastward-flowing Tarim. A successful southward crossing, on the other hand, depended on hitting the 'mouth' of the Keriya-daria, a feat of desert navigation requiring absolute precision. The last few days of Stein's crossing were indeed anxious ones and water had to be severely rationed.
    Hopkirk is right; this is definitely an interesting story to read about further. It seems that Stein had Hedin's map and in his book My Life as an Explorer, Hedin makes it sound like child's play, remarking that because of his accuracy Stein was able to hit his target within one degree. But if one then reads volume II of Stein's Ruins of Desert Cathay, a rather different picture emerges. He writes (p. 389f.)
    Hedin had recorded of the ground where on his march from the south he had finally lost touch wiht the dry river bed marking the former extension of the river. I felt, indeed, almost assured of having hit the very point which his map shows as Camp XXIV.

    It seemed like a triumphant vindication of the accuracy of Hedin in mapping and of our own steering; yet as I look back to it now, it was too accurate to be true.

    In fact they had found the line of the old river, but were far from actually flowing water and worse, the ancient delta had left a myriad of dry channels to follow with no clear idea of which would lead to the actual river and which would be blocked up by thick vegetation. Not only was the target not hit, it was four more days before the partly frozen river was finally found, and not by dead reckoning, but by ascending to a high place and seeing ice far in the distance.
  14. Pelliot, von Le Coq, Grünwedel, Hedin and Stein (pp. 178, 188)
    In this kind of narrative, it is interesting to find out what the various protagonists thought of one another. We are given some information on what Stein thought of Pelliot, i.e. that he found him "a bit too self-centered". But Stein also came to the latter's defense in his Ruins of Desert Cathay, praising "the excellence of Pelliot's scholarship as well as to express admiration for his methods of excavation, evidence of which he had seen at Kucha."

    But what were Pelliot's opinions of his competitors? Courtesy of his one time student, the scholar Denis Sinor, now we know. In his personal memories of Professor Pelliot, he writes "Among the German scholars ... his favorite was Albert von Le Coq (perhaps because of his French ancestry); ... he was fond of retelling the adventures of Grünwedel with a high class prostitute in St. Petersburg". Apparently he regarded as intruders Hedin, "a mere ignorant traveler", and Stein for whom "he could never muster a kind word", perhaps because he "had the audacity to discover the treasures of Tun-huang before him". In a left-handed compliment he gave "Stein credit for having entrusted Chavannes with the task of editing some of the texts that he (Stein) was unable to read."

    The book lacks a photo of Grünwedel, but one may be found at the Russian Academy of Sciences: http://hp.iitp.ru/eng/08/0865.htm.

    Professor Sinor's very interesting essay may be read in its entirety at http://users.erols.com/arbs/paul.pdf

  15. "He set out on horseback" (Mannerheim & Pelliot, p. 197)
    I find very interesting the various disputes that arose within the expeditions. Both Stein and Hedin experienced nearly decisive mutinies among their hired workers on more than one occasion, probably because both explorers pushed so hard. Tachibana apparently suffered a complete mutiny of all of his workers while in the mountains of Tibet.

    But an entirely different sort of dispute arose among the Germans, in this case over excavation policy. While the academic Albert Grünwedel mostly wanted to study ruins in situ, an approach far ahead of his time, his colleagues Albert von Le Coq and Theodor Bartus, the expedition handyman, were caught up in the general frenzy to bring back a large volume of finds. As Grünwedel was the titular head of the expedition, he was often able to prevent wholesale grabbing and destruction of context, but at times his authority was ignored by Le Coq having Bartus secretly packing up the statue or whatever without the leader's knowledge.

    In the catalog of disputes there is one Hopkirk does not describe even though he discusses both of the antagonists: Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and Professor Paul Pelliot. Regarding the former's expedition arrangements, Hopkirk merely writes that he set out on horseback in 1906 on instructions from the Russian General Staff. What he doesn't mention is that actually Mannerheim has been contacted by Pelliot and was to have been a member of his expedition. However, even though these two worthies traveled to China together, reaching Kashgar, their disagreements led Mannerheim to set off on his own and never have anything more to do with the expedition again. Given the lack of complaint in subsequent writings, this development was to the apparent satisfaction of both sides. For this information we are indebted to the the Mannerheim website: http://www.mannerheim.fi/05_s_ura/e_kiina.htm

  16. "The Chinese had closed the door on him at last." (p. 226)
    Hopkirk describes how Stein's final 1930 expedition to China turned into a fiasco when officials prevented his Harvard-sponsored expdedition from removing anything. It was only in 1997 that we learned the rest of the story as in the November/December issue of Archaeology magazine (Vol. 50, no. 6, abstract). The piece by Shareen Brysac, employing information from the biography of William Hung, details how one Wang Chin-jen had accompanied the first Langdon Warner expedition as a Chinese interpreter. When he reported on Warner's activities to Hung, the American-educated dean of Yenching University, the latter made sure Warner's second expedition would meet obstacles wherever it went. It seems a good supposition that he did the same with Stein's fourth expedition as well. This information also appeared, in slightly different form, in the book Tournament of Shadows (1999) by Brysac and Karl Meyer.
  17. "these are not on view to the public" (p. 235)
    Hopkirk writes that the Dunhuang manuscripts have been taken by Stein from Britain to China and not returned, yet are not even on display. But there has been formed the International Dunhuang Project with the British Library working with their Chinese counterparts and others which essentially attempts to reunite all of the manuscripts if only virtually: http://idp.bl.uk/
  18. Langdon Warner's later career (p. 240)
    Despite the criticism that the American Warner receives for the acts he committed at the Dunhuang site, during the second world war he probably helped to save a great deal of Oriental art. He argued strongly against American bombing of the Japanese cultural and art centers at Kyoto and Nara and they were in fact spared. Source: http://www.lib.duke.edu/lilly/artlibry/dah/warnerl.htm (Duke University)
  19. "The last shred of mystery and romance had finally gone from the Silk Road." (p. 241)
    So Hopkirk ends his book. But is he right? As announced by the South China Morning Post on February 6, 1999, under the direction of Dr. Dolkun Kamberi a most dramatic excavation took place at Cherchen, a southern Silk Road site mentioned by Hopkirk. Excavated there was a mummy, actually a dessicated corpse, who has become known as Cherchen man, and also, a Cherchen woman. Almost perfectly preserved in the dry, high salinity sands, these Caucasian figures have been in the ground for some three thousand years. How did Indo-Europeans come to be so far east and what was the nature of their culture? Who were their ancestors and what, if any, was their effect on the burgeoning Chinese culture of the era? What else can be learned about prehistoric Indo-European culture? With this find, the mystery has only deepened and become far more intriguing than it ever was. Read this account of Dr. Kamberi's talk for the Silk Road Foundation – http://silkroadfoundation.org/artl/22797.shtml, the original South China Morning Post report, http://www.eurasianet.org/resource/cenasia/hypermail/200002/0099.html, and this review of the recent book Tracking the Tarim Mummies.

Further Bibliography

Other Sites


Documentaries:
Created 30 October 2003.
Address comments for this page to Richard Heli