Thomas T. Allsen. Commodity and exchange in the Mongol empire: A cultural history of Islamic textiles. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xii, 137 pp. Hb. ISBN 0 521 58301 2.
Reviewed by Daniel C. Waugh, Associate Professor of History and International Studies, The University of Washington (Seattle).
Professor Allsen's study brings together a dazzling array of textual material on a topic which has very broad implications. In this slim volume, he provides substantial documentation of the important role played by the Mongols in economic and cultural exchange across Eurasia. Others have depicted the Mongols as mere facilitators of trade in luxury goods. He demonstrates that the high levels of consumption of luxury textiles at the Mongol courts not only meant they took an active role in encouraging trade but also led them to stimulate production. He argues that their demand for what many of the sources call "Tatar cloth" (nasij, a gold brocade of Near Eastern origin) developed under the influence of models from Western Asia but connected with indigenous nomadic traditions. The luxury cloths not only served as decoration for tents and garments for ceremonial occasions but played an important role in social relations and the system of rewards distributed by the khans. Few scholars could have brought to this subject the credentials of the author, who published previously a well-received book on Mongol administration and taxation and has an enviable command of almost all of the essential languages (he confesses to needing some help with the Latin sources [!]).
Perhaps the most successful of the chapters is the third, devoted to "Acquisition and Production," in part because it has a relatively compact chronological scope. Acquisition of valuable textiles was not merely a matter of plundering during war, extracting tribute, and then providing the infrastructure to ensure safe travel for regular commerce. Allsen documents the way in which Mongol rulers established centers of production (granted, in many cases by forced re-settlement of the artisans), which meant that by the time of the Yuan, "domestic" production could supply the needs of the Mongol courts. He admits that technical analysis of the textiles themselves will still be needed to confirm his conclusions, which are based largely on a careful consideration of textual evidence. In this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, he makes a case for the value of, inter alia, Marco Polo's evidence. While he never cites the recent book by Frances Wood (Did Marco Polo Go to China?), which appeared when his volume was likely already in press, he effectively undercuts her skeptical and poorly-documented conclusions.
In keeping with the series title, the book has a clear Western Asian bias but one which leaves this reviewer slightly uncomfortable. Although well into the narrative he occasionally mentions early (e.g., Han-era) interactions between the Chinese and the nomads beyond the Great Wall, curiously he does not even cite the important book by Barfield which emphasizes the way that relationship shaped both nomadic and sedentary empires and draws upon the abundant written sources documenting the degree to which the luxury goods of China had penetrated the steppe. His only citation of the exhibit catalogue Empires Beyond the Great Wall (1993) is for a spectacular thirteenth-century robe, even though much of the earlier archaeological evidence highlighted by that exhibit points to a very significant Chinese impact on the development of a taste for luxury goods among the nomads. In short one might question whether so much should be attributed to the Mongols and whether their taste for luxury textiles necessarily comes from the West, as Allsen insists. Even if one agrees with his conclusions about the over-riding importance of western "influence," one can lament the fact that he did not make better use of visual materials (e.g., in murals at Dunhuang and other sites) which, if anything, could have strengthened his arguments about the early stages of its penetration of the East.
The more serious problem with the book is its lack of clear methodology and discrimination in presenting evidence. Method consists largely in accumulating detail from any time and any place--the idea seeming to be that wherever one can find significant ceremonial use of cloth and gold, one may thereby be demonstrating the sources (however far removed) for the particular Mongol practices of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Here we have one of the alluring traps of Eurasian cultural history, the desire to connect everything: the Achaemenids, Sakas, Bactria, Kushans, Uighurs, Mongols, Timurids and Mughals (not to mention Owen Lattimore's twentieth-century observations). The sharing of forms and practices by different societies at different times does not prove borrowing in one direction or another; caution is needed in reading too far back from modern ethnographic data.
At times, the book reads like a card file of miscellaneous references, each of them intriguing in its own way but badly in need of culling and organizing. Organization indeed is a serious problem. Material in the later chapters might easily be combined with that earlier in the book and the whole condensed to provide more force and clarity to the argument. The discussions of textiles in tents and in court ceremonial clearly could be improved by such reorganization. In fact, one might argue what we have here is a long (and indeed important) article, which the loose editorial standards of Cambridge University Press have allowed to be inflated into a book.
That said, I would stress that Allsen is unlocking the door to a much deeper understanding of cultural interaction across Eurasia; we should look forward to his completion of the larger project, of which this is only a small part.