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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2:  Exhibition Reports


Monks and Merchants

Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China


The Asia Society

 725 Park Avenue, New York, NY

November 17, 2001 - January 6, 2002


Although fairly limited in size and scope, Monks and Merchants provides a good introduction to a broad topic - the confluence of East and West along the Silk Route in the mid-first millennium. At the same time it provides a good entryway into the broad holdings and mission of the newly renovated and expanded museum galleries of the Asia Society. The galleries themselves are worth a visit. Modern and bright, the new space designed by the architect Bartholomew Voorsanger, also manages to be warm and inviting. In addition to several floors of new exhibition space, there is a courtyard café and a multimedia visitors center in which “high tech” displays are brought to life by decidedly “low tech” controls - a rock placed on a table, for example, lights up an electronic map. These spaces are joined by a staircase that appears to float unsupported between the four museum levels - a mysterious road connecting the many Asian regions included in the work of the Society, or bringing West to East, much like the Silk Road itself.

The Monks and Merchants exhibit covers a tumultuous period in China's history, the four hundred years between the fall of the Han dynasty and the rise of the T’ang empire (AD 618-906). It also focuses on a remote region of Northwest China, including the provinces of Gansu and Ningxia, that served during this period as the point of entry into China not only for foreign populations, including nomads from the north as well as traders from the west, but their cultures, languages, and ideas, including religion. Thus what we see in these galleries are objects which reflect these new influences, from western decorative styles to Buddhism, which mixed together with local tradition to form a new, more worldly  "Chinese" culture.

The galleries are arranged according to major themes which reflect the changing order in Northwest China throughout the four centuries leading up to the T’ang empire. The first of these, “Heavenly Horses and the Aftermath of the Empire,” reflects the opening of the Silk Road at the end of the Han dynasty, in part to acquire the superior horses of Central Asia. A group of spirited bronze horses - one drawing a high status carriage, another under saddle, and one unbound and prancing freely (fig.1) - found in the tomb of a Han General reveals the esteem placed on horses in Chinese society, as well their vital role in military campaigns to protect the Northern borders of the empire.

Fig.1: Bronze figure of a horse, Eastern Han period, 2nd c.AD, from a tomb at Leitai, Gansu. Ht: 35 cm (Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou).

It is after the fall of the empire in AD 220 that China splintered into several smaller, independent kingdoms, and the influence of non-Chinese groups began to rise. We see early depictions of these non-Chinese peoples in scenes of daily life (including shepherds with goats and a Bactrian camel) painted onto bricks found in tombs of the Wei-Jan period (220-317 CE). Meanwhile, a letter excavated in 1907 by Aurel Stein (see AR 3:1:88), written by a Sogdian merchant currently living in the Gansu region to his partners back home in Samarkand, the Sogdian capital over 2,000 miles to the west. This letter, showing the sophisticated commercial interests of these first foreign traders describes, among instructions for the transfer of capital, various depredations by marauding Huns at the city of Luoyangs.

Fig.2: Silver gilt ewer from Tokharistan or Bactria, 5th-6th c. AD. Excavated from the tomb of Li Xian (d.569), in Guyuan, Ningxia . Ht: 37.5 cm (Guyuan Municipal Museum).

The next room focuses on artifacts from these early nomadic rulers, such as the Northern Wei (386-535), and Northern Zhou (557-581), who came into power in NW China during the 4th-64h centuries and were strongly attracted to Buddhism. Ruling NW China during the 4th-6th centuries, both dynasties were leading consumers of exotic goods, some used in elaborate Buddhist offerings. Many of the objects on display here come from recently excavated tombs. These include painted ceramic figures representing a military retinue - musicians from a military band, armored calvarymen and foot soldiers as well as Xianbu tribesmen, identified by their hooded robes and non-Chinese facial features - that accompanied an important Northern Wei general into death. Although it was robbed, the tomb of General Li Xian (502-564), a wealthy nomad who was a close associate of the Northern Zhou emperor, still contained several items which showed the great mix of cultural influences and peoples in the region at that time. Chief amongst these is a magnificent silver and gilt ewer imported from ancient Bactria (Afghanistan): such silver-gilt material is distinctly Chinese, while the form of the ewer itself is from Persia, and the fluted and beaded decorative work on its surface are Late Antique and Central Asian in origin, respectively. Moreover, the figures in low relief depict the Classical Greek myth of the Trojan War, but have the tight-wasted forms and flowing posture more familiar in eastern art (fig.2).

Besides importing new art styles and goods, these rulers also became influential patrons of Buddhism. Buddhism was brought to China by monks, who carried scriptures and relics and established shrines along the Silk Route as they moved eastward from India and Central Asia. Since the religion encouraged the making of holy images, the new Chinese converts were quick to patronize the creation of new cave temples, pagodas, statues and texts. Several such sculptures are arranged together in a gallery indicative of one of these cave shrines; an actual, well-preserved shrine at the elaborate, cliff-hewn monastery of Dunhaung can be seen in an accompanying video. The Buddha is easily identified in these sculptures - he is shown wearing unadorned monastic robes, representing his disavowal of earthly ties, and often appears with his disciples. Other figures are of bodhisattvas, beings who have obtained enlightenment yet remain on earth in order to help others reach Nirvana, who are more richly arrayed, often with long hair, a crown and hold a lotus or other symbolic object. The central piece in this collection is an unusual, graceful, granite sculpture of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Chinese Guanyin), the popular protector of travelers and others in need of help (fig.3).

Fig.3: Granite figure of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, from Qinan District, Gansu Province; Sui Dynaty (AD 608-618). Ht: 144 cm (Gansu Provincial Museum).

Two very different sculptures show the disciple Kasyapa. The oldest of the Buddha's followers, he is depicted in an earlier clay work (AD 535-557) with a Chinese caricature of “western” facial features. This includes a prominent nose, deep high cheekbones, heavy, drooping brows, and oversized ears (fig.4), with the long or beaked nose the main stereotyped facial feature used by Chinese artists to illustrate such “foreignness.” In the later T’ang work, only a slight furrowing of the brow, and open, wise expression identify the older man, this time more Chinese in appearance (fig.5).

Fig.4 (right): Clay figure of Kasyapa, Western Wei period (AD 535-557), from Maijishan Cave 87 in southern Gansu. Ht: 140 cm (Maijishan Research Inst.).

Fig.5 (below, left): Sandstone figure of Kasyapa, Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906), from Binglingsi Cave 10 in Gansu. Ht: 75 cm  (Binglingsi Research Inst.).

Several works illustrate the lives of the Sogdian people, immigrants from Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) who came as merchants and soon served as officials in the Chinese courts. Although largely assimilated into Chinese society, they kept many distinct aspects of their culture, including their Zoroastrian religion - the local Chinese were fascinated by the whirling “Sogdian dance” of religious ecstasy, as depicted on one tomb door. A small area of the exhibit has been set aside for burial objects of the Shi Clan who settled in Yuanzhuo (Guyuan). The most striking of these is a gold mask, once sewn onto cloth; in addition to the use of gold, the central “crescent and sun” crown motif appears to reflect origins further west, in Central Asia and Iran. The same crescent and sun motif (later appropriated by Islamic states) can be seen on Sasanian coins of 6th century rulers Khusru I and II shown at the exhibit. These silver Sasanian drachmae were used as international currency on the Silk Road, along with Byzantine gold solidi (later, counterfeited), even more than were the square-punched Chinese coins, whose value was mainly recognized only within China.

The exhibit ends with artifacts of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), a time when various foreign influences came together to form a pinnacle of achievement in China, as well as the peak in trade along the Silk Route. Demonstrating this cosmopolitan era of assimilation are objects which show clear inspiration from other regions: silvered mirrors with grapevine motifs echo the first imported wine in the region, and are accompanied by depictions of lions, another exotic import, while a lead-glazed ceramic ewer with a phoenix head recalls the Sasanian metal ewer. Found inside a set of nested boxes - the largest one of stone, the next of gilded bronze, a slightly smaller, coffin-shaped box in silver, and the smallest of worked gold covered in semi-precious stones (fig.6) - was a tiny glass bottle containing 14 grains. These are said to be the remains of the Buddha, placed into 84,000 different caskets by an Indian King and distributed throughout Buddhist lands for worship.

Fig.6: Gold reliquary in the form of a miniature coffin, Tang Dynasty, from Dayun Temple, Jingchuan County, Gansu. Length: 12.3 cm (Gansu Provincial Museum).

The curators of this exhibit - Annette L. Juliano of Rutgers University, Judith A. Lerner, and Colin Mackenzie of the Asia Society - are to be thanked for bringing these fascinating and little seen artifacts to our attention. All recently excavated, and thus -unlike most exhibits dealing with ancient objects - all of secure, known provenience, they provide a solid education into an important era of Chinese history. Like myself, many who view this exhibit will likely find themselves adding Northwest China to their wishlist of places to visit in the near future. Similarly, Vishakha N. Desai, Director of Asia Society Museum and Cultural Programs, deserves commendation for expanding the institution into a first-class museum, and providing an important center for Americans to learn more about Asian history and society.

Reviewed by Michele A. Miller


Appearing in Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2.


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