A new future at the crossroads of history

For centuries, fame and fortune was to be found in the New World, and the West. Today, it is the East that is calling out to those in search of adventure and riches, taking center stage in international politics, commerce and culture. Historian Peter Frankopan argues this movement of power is both natural and expected.

Calling it the “true center of the Earth,” Frankopan says the East is still obscure to many in the West. Yet because this is where civilization itself began, where the world's great religions were born and where networks that linked continents and oceans together once emerged, he says, they will emerge again.

In Power Shifts, Peter Frankopan explores the connections made by people, trade, disease, war, religion, adventure, science and technology. He delineates the new silk roads, showing how we are now mirroring behaviors that have been seen across Asia for millennia and in doing so, giving way to a new paradigm of power.


Director's Q&A: Floris-Jan Van Luyn


What attracted you to this story?

I have studied Chinese and have been based in China as a journalist for most of the nineties. And it is kind of in my veins to look at the world from a non-Western perspective, or rather, to listen to non-Western voices. Peter's book is a best-seller in Asia precisely for that reason: he has an unexpected take on history and he approaches common knowledge from a different angle: the non-Western angle. That is quite surprising for a very British author. As he likes to say often: as a kid he studied the map of the world, only to find out in school that what he was taught was not so much about the world, but about the West or the Western take on the world. That is what triggered him to look beyond what was obvious to Western eyes.

Why was it important to tell this story?

I believe Peter's book, to many people, is a bit of a wake up call - to many people in the West, that is. He basically says "look guys, you are looking in the wrong direction, it is not happening here anymore, look East, look South!" People in those parts of the world already know that is the case, but it is still rare for a Westerner to admit it. That is what many Asians like about Frankopan.

In general, I feel there is very little willingness on all sides of the globe to really listen. People in West and East have opinions, but very little patience to listen. And I believe by listening you become much wiser. Peter has done that by digging into, for many of us, unknown parts of history. By zooming out, instead of in, he gives a historic overview that provides us a bigger perspective on world affairs. In that way, he shows us that we certainly have not entered troublesome times, as some populists claim. On the contrary, the world has never been so advanced and so peaceful. Peter says jokingly and seriously, "remember the Black Plague? Now that was troublesome!"

What should we know about your filmmaking process?

Not so much. The doc I directed was part of a so called Back Light Lab, in which we directors were asked to combine interviews and archives. It is a very simple concept, which I tried to keep as simple as possible with strong quotes, eye-direct shots, in black box, with a glass plate for maps and projection, strong archival footage and good music - telling myself that less is more. The biggest challenge to me was selecting the right archives: Frankopan talks about over a thousand years of history, and before 1910, there is not so much to show for, I can promise you that. So we had to improvise a lot. I was most fond of the amateur footage we found from the sixties and seventies, because that material had precisely the right tone of the melancholy of past glory and decay Frankopan was talking about when referring to Greece, Rome, Venice, yes, even Amsterdam.

Did you make any unexpected discoveries while shooting?

To me, personally, that using archives in a doc can be great fun! Up until this film, archival footage did not particularly appeal to me. That has changed for good.

What do you hope your documentary will achieve?

I hope the documentary, which is more a registration of a monologue by Peter, will do precisely what the book has done to many people in the West: change their way of thinking about the Western approach of history. I hope it will develop a new kind of awareness for a story that is much bigger then the one we have been taught at school.

About Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan is a British historian, specializing in the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century, and in Asia Minor, Russia and the Balkans. He works on Medieval Greek literature and rhetoric, on diplomatic and cultural exchange between Constantinople and the Islamic world, Western Europe and the principalities of southern Russia.

Published in 2015, “The New Silk Roads,” on which Power Shifts is based, was an international bestseller and is considered a major reassessment of world history.


The discovery of the maritime routes between Western Europe and Asia has often been described as the main contributing factor to the end of the Silk Roads and the cause of a drastically changed relationship between Asia and Europe.

In this lecture, Peter Frankopan discusses the history of the relations between Europe and Asia after the demise of the Silk Roads and following the European discovery of the Americas.




The Silk Road facilitated trade and contact between China and other cultures as far away as Rome. This interactive map from Harvard University shows routes, climate and stopping points for the Silk Roads that shaped ancient power in the East and West. See the whole map at Harvard's website.