The Young Scholars on the Silk Roads interview series seeks to empower young people, by giving youth a platform from which to transmit their voices. Via this series young scholars hailing from different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia will be interviewed to share their research and reflections on the ancient Silk Roads.
Kun Liang, from China, is currently a Master’s student at Peking University. With an academic background in various disciplines, including sociology, international relations, anthropology, and global studies. Kun has developed strong interests in intercultural interactions and people-to-people communication.
What do the Silk Roads mean to you?
Kun: The Silk Roads were initially formed to facilitate trade between different regions. Many factors contributed to their formation, from diplomacy to the spread of religions. The Silk Roads represented communication of ancient civilizations and different groups. They were not simply a geographical connection between East and West, but also pathways for the exchange of ideas and wisdom. Civilization as we know it has gained enormously from this kind of human interaction. It is worth mentioning that the Silk Roads were not dictated by diplomatic action and centralized power, but relied more upon spontaneous actions by ordinary merchants, Diasporas and monks.
What role has China played in the Silk Roads historically?
Well, the clue is in the name. If we are talking about silk, China is one of the starting points of the “Silk” Roads, as according to archaeological findings, the Chinese invented silkworm-raising techniques. My own hometown for example, Changsha, is home to a silk garment unearthed in Mawangdui Han tombs, which weighs a staggering total of only 49 grams. It is one of the oldest, best-preserved and lightest garments in the world, reflecting the superb silk textile technology of the Han Dynasty.
Additionally, China’s diplomatic practice helped to develop the Silk Roads. In the Han dynasty, Zhang Qian's diplomatic mission to the West also promoted the formation and prosperity of the Silk Roads overland.
Are the Silk Roads important to your country today? How so?
Recent years have seen the Silk Roads very much in the spotlight in a number of contexts. Cities across China are paying increasing attention to preserving historical remains relating to the Silk Roads. I have seen more and more Silk Roads related exhibitions across China, including an exhibition in Dunhuang about the 2nd century explorer and diplomat Zhang Qian as well as one at the National Museum of China on archaeological findings along the Silk Roads.
What do the Silk Roads represent today?
Although the ancient Silk Roads eventually vanished, they definitely hold value today. They remind people of the importance of regional openness and cooperation, and that accomplishment can never be achieved by one individual country. Each country has its own uniqueness, with which it can supplement other countries. It is the interaction of people that is the essence of the Silk Roads, which brings benefits and opportunities to all participants. The historic Silk Roads ultimately teach us a lesson of how diversity contributes to boost civilizations.
I know that you are already familiar with UNESCO’s pillars of intercultural dialogue and common cultural heritage. How do you interpret these concepts?
To me, common cultural heritage is the product of cultural exchange and communication among different peoples and regions. Take the city of Dunhuang as an example, which witnessed the interaction of civilizations from Southern, Eastern, and Central Asia, as well as Europe. Different groups built murals and sculptures in Dunhuang grottos the diversity of which is indicative of the various long-term cultural interactions taking place. By studying shared cultural heritage, one can have a more in-depth understanding in terms of both the self and other.
And what about the concept of “Intercultural dialogue”?
For me, “intercultural dialogue” is an important means to solve problems and reduce conflict. The world increasingly resembles a village because of unprecedented levels of connectivity, yet different groups live in different cultural and social contexts, which we cannot ignore. Even though we communicate, it is still likely that people remain different, and through “intercultural dialogue”, we can better explore those differences and find creative solutions.
How can young people get more involved in activities relating to the Silk Roads?
Young people are critical thinkers, shapers of change, innovators of ideas, disseminators of peace, and future leaders. Youth can be active learners and researchers of the historic Silk Roads, and they can inherit its spirit of connectivity, to make benefits towards a better and more inclusive world. I would encourage youth to record their life along the Silk Roads by various means, for example, writing, photographing, or filming, and disseminate this on UNESCO’s platform.