Facade of a tomb at Persepolis, one of the centres of the Persian empire.

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Oxford historian’s book named among most influential translated into Chinese

Stuart Gillespie

In the summer of 2015, Peter Frankopan published his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, described by Bloomsbury as ‘a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east’.

Just three-and-a-half years later, the book has been named one of the 25 most important works translated into Chinese over the past 40 years. The Silk Roads takes its place on the list alongside literary classics including Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Professor Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, described himself as ‘flabbergasted’ to be chosen for the list, which was compiled by Amazon China on the 40th anniversary of Chinese reform and opening-up.

He said: ‘When I was told about it, I thought it was a wind-up. Many of the books on the list are ones I admire hugely, and to be mentioned in the same breath as The Great Gatsby, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or A Brief History of Time is genuinely astonishing. I realise that tastes come and go, so who knows if it will still be mentioned in 25 years’ time. But it is a great testimony to the importance of the humanities in general, of history, and of the impact that historical writing can have far beyond the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford.’

The Silk Roads challenged Eurocentric views of world history, shifting the focus east of the Mediterranean. It became a bestseller in a host of countries and categories, and was met with widespread acclaim. A follow-up work, The New Silk Roads, was released last year and explores more recent events.    

In Professor Frankopan’s own words, by writing The Silk Roads he was simply ‘trying to explain how the past looks from the perspective of the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, Central Asia and beyond’.

He added: ‘I’ve been a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester for nearly 20 years, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research since it was founded nearly a decade ago. I simply wanted to explain why the regions, peoples and cultures that I work on are not just interesting, but also important. It was not easy to write at all and I spent many, many late nights at my computer trying to work out if it was possible. I never thought for a moment about whether lots of people would read it. But I did think it was worth trying to write!’

Reflecting on the book’s success, Professor Frankopan – who has just published an illustrated version of The Silk Roads for younger readers – said: ‘It’s been a lovely – if sometimes strange – experience. This week alone, I’ve had tweets or Instagrams from people sending pictures of my book from bookshops in Norway, Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, and lots of emails from all over the world, often asking questions about what to read next, or for more information about a specific location, which I always try to answer if I can. But I don’t think it has affected me – we have four children, who do a pretty good job in keeping my feet on the ground. And because, like most academics, I always have deadlines for articles or chapters in books, there’s never a great deal of time to bask in the sunshine as I’ve got too much to be getting on with as it is.’