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Passing through Space and Time, Re-Viewing the Brilliant Past: Observations on the "Exhibition of Cultural Artifacts from the Xinjiang Silk Road"

by Gong Guoqiang
Institute of Han and Tang Studies
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

"Treasures of the Chinese People -- Exhibition of Cultural Artifacts from the Xinjiang Silk Road," held at the Chinese History Museum in Beijing from 19 May 1999 to 15 July 1999, has already ended. This was the first time that such a large-scale exhibition of cultural artifacts from the Xinjiang Silk Road appeared in Beijing,* and has consequently attracted widespread interest from various circles, both inside and outside Beijing. Scholars such as Li Xianlin, Jia Lanpo, Su Bai, and Feng Qiyong, among others, attended the exhibition with pleasure and have given rise to a new upsurge of excitement towards the "Silk Road" here in the capital.

In this exhibition, viewers saw many valuable artifacts that are difficult to preserve in the Chinese interior, such as various objects made of silk, wool, and hemp fibers, wooden utensils, documents made of paper and wood, and mummies (Figure 1). Even though these works belong to the remote past, many have survived intact with the original colors, eliciting involuntary cries of astonishment. This is because conditions for the preservation of ancient artifacts are especially favorable in the extremely dry climate of the Asian hinterland -- in the Xinjiang area, in the sand, in the vast Gobi desert.

The history of Xinjiang prior to the Western Han (202 BC - AD 23) is not precisely recorded. However, following rapid developments in the field of archaeology in New China, this limitation has already been surmounted. The delicate stone tools, ground stone implements, colored pottery, bronze vessels, and iron objects on display reveal to the world, from different aspects, that the area alongside the Xinjiang Silk Road also underwent change throughout the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Numerous civilizations flourished and had multiple threads of interaction with ancient civilizations in the neighboring regions of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Tibet, as well as Central Asia and Southern Siberia.

The return of Xinjiang to Chinese jurisdiction starts in the Western Han period. In 60 BC, the Western Han government in the Western Regions (present-day Xinjiang Region) established the Western Regions protectorate, which involved appointing officials and management of local military and political affairs. From this point, Xinjiang was officially designated a Chinese territory. The exhibition includes the seal of the grain superintendent, a seal from the Bolei administrative region, and Chinese-language bamboo slips and paper documents (including those of local officials, account books, travel passes, contracts, etc.), in addition to other artifacts with Central Plains characteristics. These objects conform with extant historical records, and are thus accurate reflections of history.

Furthermore, we can fully grasp from the exhibition that the Xinjiang area was an important thoroughfare, deservedly considered a crucible for the convergence of trade and culture from both the East and the West. Exhibited works include bamboo slips and documents in over ten different scripts, among these: Chinese, Uighur, Tufan (a Tibetan language), Sanskrit, Kharosth� (India, see Figure 2), Brahmin, Tocharian (Afghani area), Sogdian (Northern Tarim Basin), and Arabic. The exhibition also contains a tapestry with "military figures" in Greek and Persian style (Figure 3), a woven carpet in a lion pattern, a woolen robe depicting confronting human and animal pairs and tree designs on red ground (Figure 4), and a silk and wool fabric with large linked red deer. There are also Buddhist images with attendant musicians, gold coin from the Eastern Roman empire, Persian silver coin, Sasanian-style glass vessels (Figure 5), and a wooden lute called a konghou. Without a doubt, this manner of ancient cultural conversation between East and West still holds positive practical significance towards the peace and development of our modern world.

All of the treasures in this exhibition were recently excavated along the "Xinjiang Silk Road" after the establishment of New China, especially several large archaeological discoveries of recent years, such as the Niya grave (Figure 6) and the cemetery at Yingpan, each considered one of the ten largest archaeological findings in 1995 and 1997, respectively. These caused a sensation both in China and abroad. Among the objects, a multicolored brocade arm-pad found at Niya (Figure 7) received the most attention. The auspicious characters woven onto the shield -- "The Five Planets in the East Favor the Central Kingdom"-- correspond to entries in the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), the Hanshu (Standard History of the Han), and the Weishu (Standard History of the Wei) relating to celestial phenomena and astrology. This offers the viewer limitless food for thought. These "new" artifacts, along with the "old" artifacts earlier plundered away by explorers from the foreign Great Powers and currently stored in the museums of several countries, together form a treasure trove of primary sources essential to "Silk Road" research and other fields of inquiry.

True, this exhibition also has its shortcomings. For instance, the format of the exhibition is rather outdated and prosaic. Even for the ordinary viewer, the background introductions are too simplistic. However, one flaw cannot mar the jade. This exhibition is no doubt a happy event for scholarly circles in the capital; but it is also an incomparable opportunity for a wider viewership to see with their own eyes real artifacts from the Xinjiang Silk Road and to understand the history and culture of Xinjiang.

*The Shanghai Museum exhibited many of the same objects in Archaeological Treasures of the Silk Road from 1 April - 5 October 1998.

All illustrations come from the catalogue Silu ju zhen (Treasures of the Silk Road) (Beijing: Xin shidai chubanshe, 1999). Figure 2 appears in Shoucangjia (Connoisseur) 8.


*Click on each image to enlarge.

Figure 1. Baby mummy from Charchan.

Figure 2. Kharosth�
script on a wooden document from Niya.

Figure 3. Tapestry fragment from Sampula, Lop-bazar.

Figure 4. Fabric from the Yingpan site.

Figure 5. Glass cup from Simsim.

Figure 6. Niya site.

Figure 7. Brocade arm-pad with Chinese characters "wuxing chu dongfang li zhong guo" from Niya.

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