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
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
*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.
Central Academy of Fine Arts
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by Yin Tongyun
Select Bibliography on the Qingzhou Excavation
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
"Special Exhibition of Buildings
and Pavilions in Paintings" at the Palace Museum, Beijing
by Fu Dongguang
"Calligraphy and Painting
by the Eight Masters of Yangzhou"
by Liu Yurui
Three Kingdoms Bamboo Manuscripts at
Zoumalou, Changsha, Hunan
by He Junhong
Exquisitely Painted Figurines from
Qin Figurine Pit #2
by He Junhong