on December 19, 2012
This book started out with four stars and gradually lost them all within 200 pages. First of all, it has readability issues. There is a staggering amount of footnotes, of which a large amount is devoted to explaining why everyone else is wrong. Where the argument is too long for a footnote, the footnote refers us to an endnote or even an appendix. Seriously, I think he should have organised his train of thought better so the whole argument can be read as one text, not as a scavenger hunt. The other significant problem with readability is in the transcription of foreign names. For most languages, the author uses every known diacritic mark, plus various symbols I've never seen before and don't know how to pronounce; but for Chinese he uses Wade-Giles instead of pinyin. So not only I'm chasing footnotes all over the place, but I have to pause every few minutes and think through what I know of Chinese history and geography and try to match the modern names to the antiquated ones. Before long I was thinking "you know what buddy, if you didn't want people reading your book you shouldn't have written one." And for all his showing-off of his linguistic chops, he incorrectly pluralised "metropolis" as "metropolises."
Later on I started to realise that the use of Wade-Giles stems in part from a love of obsolete theories, wherein the whole book is also premised on the notion of the Aryan invasion; and in part, I think, from a desire to show his disdain of China and firm belief in colonialism as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Because as he explains to us, the Russians and Chinese ruined the Middle-East and turned it into what it is now, while the British stepped in only to rescue the rest of Asia from the Barbarians. I did like the part where (in a footnote, as usual) the author tells us that "contemporary opinions are irrelevant." Same to you, buddy. Same to you.
Also, it doesn't really tell us much about the Empires of the Silk Road. There is some strange concept of the "Central Eurasian Cultural Complex" which seems to consist of two or three pragmatic ideas that were adopted in various forms in pretty much the entire world, but which in the author's opinion, are proof of the Aryan legacy. There is obsessive yet patchy reporting of wars, rebellions, coups, and other adventures of the leaders, but pretty much nothing about the people: how they lived day-to-day, how they supported themselves, whether they were in good health, whether they were well governed, etc. This makes the whole thing both tedious and uninformative.
Now other than the readability problems, the obsolete ideas, the lack of information, and the intense personal dislike of the author I developed from reading him, the main problem is that I don't know how factually correct this thing is. There is one fact that seems incorrect to me, and if I go fact-check and find that I'm right and he's wrong, the whole thing will fall down. Even leaving that alone, I find it very strange that the Crusades are not ever mentioned, though all the parties involved are included in the topic of the book, and the author loves to talk about wars and migrations. You'd think the Crusades would be a perfect topic for him. It makes me wonder somewhat WHY he didn't bother even mentioning them, and more importantly since I don't care about his opinion, what else he left out that I don't know about.
In short, I neither trust nor like this author, I didn't enjoy reading his book, and everything I learned from it I'm gonna have to confirm and expand from other sources. In addition, as the other reviewers mentioned, the end goes completely away from history and into the author's personal views of the rottenness of the modern Middle-East. Luckily I was forewarned, having read the reviews, so I didn't bother too much reading that part.
on August 26, 2011
If you've read Beckwith's "Tibetan Empire ..." you've read much of the best part of "Empires."
"Empires" is really two books: an extremely good one concerning the archaeology and history up to about 1700 (the Treaty of Nerchinsk was 1689) pp. 1-231; and an inferior, highly subjective one concerning the past four centuries, pp. 232-362. Both Appendices are first-rate.
This is unsurprizing. Beckwith has written several superb linguistic books and his linguistic, ethnographic and archaeologic analyses are excellent. His excursion into the morass of "modernism" and Sino-Soviet-Central Asian politics is unfortunate.
Read this book, but take 130pp. of it with a teaspoon of salt.
on May 3, 2011
This book is a problematic work that mixes brilliant history, not-always coherent screeds against a mysterious "modernism" that holds little resemblance to any real political movements, random bits of amazing detail with lengthy glosses of summation based on bold faced assumptions, and a necessary attempt to destroy the idea of "the barbarian" and make the modern reader understand the centrality of Central Asia.
The weakest parts of the book as a history are often those that are the most fun to read. Chris's random blasting against a postmodernism he often poorly understands are always entertaining, if often out of place with his actual history. And always his passionate belief in the destruction brought by the imperialism of "peripheral" peoples upon Central Eurasian peoples is a bright and passionate clarion for the ways in which misunderstanding history can cause real people in the contemporary world real pain and loss of power and status.
That the book sometimes pursues these passions to a point where it weakens the history is understandable, if ironic given the authors assaults on postmodernist analysis which could have saved him from the error. An example of this is the way that repeatedly in the book cultures are "central Eurasian" up until the point that they take on a large and permanent enough base outside the current geographic boundaries of central Eurasia. The Greeks and Persians, for example, are central Eurasians until they invade the Scythian peoples, when they suddenly become non-Central Eurasians because... Well, there is often no cause given. The fact that they are established states outside of the geographic zone who are imposing imperial ambitions on those inside it is enough to make the invader not central Eurasian, even when they still fit every hallmark of the "central Eurasian cultural complex" as defined by the book itself.
But as the book comes closer to medieval and modern history it gains clarity and focus, grows in detail, and relies less upon random political choices in place of hard research. It is in the analysis of central Eurasian states as an active, participating, and even central force in history, religion, philosophy, art, and science that the book really shines. It performs a crucial work of demonstrating that between Rome and China, Arabia and Japan was not a vast empty sea of grass, but a vibrant cultural complex that did as much or more to shape the world as the more famous civilizations around its edges.
All in all a problematic, challenging, complex book that is well worth the read.