Exploring the Silk Road in China through an Art History Lens

This past summer, Assistant Professor of Art History Melody Rod-ari traveled to China along with art history major Alexandra Henry ’18, to explore the historic Silk Road and investigate the possibility of a CFA study abroad program. We asked her to share her thoughts and takeaways from this incredible adventure!

Traveling along the historic Silk Road has always been a dream of mine, owing to my research interests in Buddhist art and the movement of art. Beyond this, however, was also the thrill of being able to say I had done it and that I had followed the footsteps of so many pioneering merchants and missionaries who connected vast regions of the world through their goods and ideas. Planning for the trip began in 2016 when I learned that The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies offered study abroad opportunities to travel along the Silk Road. [CFA Dean] Bryant Alexander generously sponsored our exploratory trip so that Alex and I could experience the Silk Road, and also to see if this is could present an opportunity for a future CFA study abroad program.

The Silk Road itself was pioneered sometime during the mid-first millennium BCE, but it did not become an established trade route until the end of the millennium. Contrary to its name, the Silk Road did not consist of one singular route that connected East to West, however such a road did exist and was incredibly important. Instead, the Silk Road as we know it was more of a network, comprised of various overland and maritime routes. Alex and I traveled along the northern Silk Road in China. We began in Beijing and then traveled west to Xi’an, the old imperial capital, then to Lanzhou, a major transportation hub both today and in the past, to Xia’he, a Tibetan monastery town located in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. From there we traveled to the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang and then westwards to Turpan, an oasis town along the Silk Road. We ended our journey in Kashgar, which served as the meeting point between the southern and northern Silk Roads and was an entrance to the West.

In total, we traveled nearly 5000 miles in two weeks, excluding our travel to Beijing from Los Angeles and our return from Kashgar to Beijing! Along our journey, we saw amazing sights, ate foods that we could not identify, and met interesting people. As an art historian, this trip was especially fulfilling because there is no better way to experience the past and art than to see it in person—to walk around it, to get a sense of its scale, and to bask in its aura. I have been teaching aspects of the Silk Road in my classes since I’ve started at LMU, and while I have always conveyed the historical and artistic importance of the artworks that we have examined, I can now better share the context in which they are located and their awe-inspiring abilities.

Although, the journey itself was challenging and it challenged us to live up to the LMU motto, Lion Strong, the experience is one that we will cherish forever.  As an undergraduate in college, I did not have the financial means to take part in study abroad, but traveling with Alex and 40 other students from Jesuit institutions in the United States on this trip made me realize how transformative such an experience can be for students. As a faculty member at LMU, I am so proud that our university is trying to find ways for all of our students to take part in study abroad programs. They always lead to powerful experiences that just cannot be replicated at home.

-Melody Rod-ari, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Art History