Silk Road Initiative

The Center for Buddhist Studies Silk Road Initiative

Silk Road Image

Gold coin with image of
Buddha, Kushan Kingdom.
Kanishka (circa 100-140 A.D.).
Found at Ahin Posh, Afghanistan.

The "Silk Road" has catapulted into the Western public imagination in the past decades, fostered in part by the cultural and political opening of Central Asia following the end of Soviet rule, as well as by increasing Western interest in Buddhism. Less happily, attention to the Silk Road has also been generated from recent geopolitical struggles in Afghanistan, Xinjiang (China), Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Popular reference to the Silk Road often conjures up images of long chains of camel caravans moving through desert landscapes and of bazaars where a diverse array of peoples come to exchange commodities and information. This somewhat romanticized and limited set of images has been sanctioned by a number of books for general audiences extolling the late 19th and early 20th century explorations of the region by scholars and adventurers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Albert von le Coq, and Paul Pelliot. These publications have found a surprisingly large and enthusiastic audience and have contributed to the recent blossoming of Silk Road study tours, exhibitions, performances, PBS-style documentaries and beautiful coffee-table photography books.

Despite the increase in public interest, the "Silk Road" has yet to find a secure place in the academy: there are few programs in American universities devoted to, and defined by, the Silk Road. Scholars are cautious with regard to the concept of the "Silk Road," considering it something of a modern construct. But it is precisely the constructed nature of the Silk Road that makes it such a fertile organizing concept for scholarship: by (constructed) definition, it both permits and encourages trans-national, trans-regional, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary approaches to research and understanding. The Silk Road rubric provides an opportunity to transcend longstanding boundaries that have challenged and constricted existing area studies, to re-imagine and reconfigure space and place, to emphasize their dynamism and syncretism rather than their traditional, static identities. And, of course, there is an enormous body of evidence testifying to the antiquity of "Silk Road" commerce, social and political structures, art forms, and religious practices that traveled along multiple routes connecting China, India, Central Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean

Mission of the Silk Road Initiative (SRI)

The SRI is a comprehensive research initiative that will highlight, within a cross-disciplinary setting, the region's transnational and cross-cultural connections in both ancient and modern eras of globalization. (The region in question includes the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan and the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.) The initiative will operate under the auspices of the Center for Buddhist Studies and focus on individual, collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship through seminars, workshops and conferences.

Our hope is that the initiative will grow to include direct support for research projects and publications. The SRI will foster joint initiatives between UC Berkeley and various external international, educational, and cultural institutions, and will develop strategic initiatives to advance research in defined areas of intellectual urgency. Another component of the initiative will be collaborations with those in the creative and performing arts, building on previous events organized during Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Project's residency at Berkeley in 2002 and 2007. Finally, the initiative will be involved in outreach, sharing research with other educational and cultural institutions, and to providing accessible information to the general public through publications and the creation of digital resources.


The SRI will develop academic partnerships with UC Berkeley departments and research units, such as South and South East Asian Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Near Eastern Studies, the Institute of East Asian Studies, and the Institute for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. In addition, the SRI will seek to develop a relationship with national and international Silk Road Studies programs, as well as with private organizations such as the Silk Road Foundation (Palo Alto), the Silk Road Project (under the Directorship of Yo Yo Ma), the Society for Asian Art, and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, among others.

For further information on the Silk Road Initiative, please contact Sanjyot Mehendale.