There is no doubt that the world in shrinking, at least in terms of learning about its shared cultural connections both ancient and modern. The discovery in 1999 of a tomb in Taiyuan city, Shanxi province (a region in northwestern China) and the unearthing of a fabulous sarcophagus relief carved in marble and painted in gold, red and brown pigments belonging to Yu Hong (533/534–92) and his wife who were interred there in 592 and 598 respectively, has meant that archaeologist are revisiting what happened between China and the West before the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906), China’s so-called ‘golden age’ of all its art forms.
While sharing a structure similar to many other tombs of second half of the sixth century in north-central China, the carved and painted artwork on the exterior of the marble sarcophagus surprisingly showed no trace of Chinese motifs at all. What it did reveal was engaging scenes of hunting, feasting, musical performance and domestic life, one which owed much more to Persian and Buddhist iconography than anything else.
Excavators also found evidence that Yu Hong, who had served as a provincial governor in the Chinese government, also practiced Zoroastrianism. Archaeologists since have been kept busy examining and proving the extent of the until recently underestimated cross cultural influence of Silk Road trade on both east and western cultures. While we have always known there was a big flow from east and west now the flow from west to east is being examined as well.
This had been taking place since the days of the ancient Romans and is well documented in objects made from pottery all around the Mediterranean, where the beliefs of the ancient Persian philosopher Zoroaster was also an established religion during the ancient Achaemenid or First Persian Empire founded by King Cyrus the Great as well as the Sassanid Empire.
The religion had all but dwindled and disintegrated when Alexander the Great invaded Persia in 334 BCE until it was revitalised during the sixth century after the Christ event into a formal religion bearing his name.
In a new exhibition Silk Road Saga: Sarcoophagus of Yu Hong at the Art Gallery of NSW from 22nd August to 10th November 2013 co-organised with the Shanxi History Museum in central China’s Shanxi province, the thirteen richly illustrated panels from the unearthed sarcophagus will be displayed in parts so that all the exquisite details of its carved relief decorations can be revealed. Features suggest that its pictorial style evolved from a combination of features from Arabian, Persian, Indian, Turkish, Iranian and Roman origins, including hunters and fighters on camelback, on elephants, animals fighting, and practices such as wine-making.
While the sarcophagus itself will be a major draw card because of its rarity and the fascination of scholars with its amazing iconography, its display will also be enhanced by more than sixteen (16) other archaeologically excavated objects from the same tomb or from burials of the same period in Shanxi province, which is bringing forth a multitude of fascinating finds.
China’s reputation in the west for being inscrutable grew up over the years because of having been throughout much of its long history, almost inaccessible behind a great barricade of mountains. The notion was reinforced because when contact with the west was finally established it found it impossible to engage China’s interest because there was seemingly really nothing that China wanted, or needed from it.
Or so it was first thought.
Following the introduction of western motifs into China, local artisans were inspired to explore their own creativity often with dynamic results. As in Europe using the dates of Kings or Ruling Houses or in China’s case, Dynasties and Emperors to assign dates to ancient design, objects and wares and their development, in reality is a general guideline, since at all stages during their stylistic, and technical evolution there was a good deal of overlapping.
It was during the Chinese Yuan dynasty (c1260-1368) that merchants traveled what has become known as the Silk Road sometimes called the Pax Mongolica, because a single power dominated its length at one period in its history. This was when Mongolian leader Kublai Khan gained the title Great Khan by defeating his brothers, embracing Chinese culture and rebuilding the city of Peking as his winter capital.
Travelling 7000 kilometers Chinese merchants moved a trickle of Chinese export wares regularly and their arrival in Europe provided an opportunity to establish a continuing dialogue between peoples of different cultures. We know that as early as five centuries before Christ there were reports of peacocks and parrots from the east in Greece and that the Romans discovered silk during the course of a battle in 53 BC with the Parthians.
The unfurling of gleaming silk banners by their enemies made a lasting impression and within seven years silk canopies were in use at Julius Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome.
During the reign of Emperor Augustus it became the passionate predilection of Roman patricians wives to wear silk scandalizing the more conservative members of the senate, such as Seneca who reputedly said “I see garments in which there is nothing to cover either the wearer’s body or her shame”.
The farmers of north central China developed a highly specialized activity the production of silk, or Sericulture. Thinker, political figure and educator Confucius in one of his ancient texts tells us that it had emerged around 2700 BC although today’s archaeologists in China have found fragments dating much earlier than that.
In 1271 Kublai Khan announced the beginning of another Chinese dynasty with himself as first emperor, naming it Ta Yuan, meaning great origin. To know how they felt it was probably like the Normans taking over Anglo-Saxon England and eventually leading to such conflicts as the War of the Roses, a period in western history being explored in more detail due to the global popularity of television shows like The Tudors, The Borgias and now The White Queen.
Chinese dynastic histories actually start long before the birth of Christ and continued unbroken until 1911. From the Han Dynasty 206BC to AD 220 onward what is known as the standard histories began. This meant a Chinese government department became responsible for keeping a day-to-day account of the present dynasty while writing the official history of the previous one. It was all an aspect of a great civilisation.
The people who emerged during this period became known as Han Chinese, considered to be the truly indigenous peoples of the land.
From the 1st century trade moved regularly overland between the Chinese capital and the Mediterranean a distance of 7000 kilometres. Rome cleared the eastern Mediterranean of the pirates, who impeded Roman maritime commerce at this time.
Also during Augustus’ reign as many as 120 Roman ships laden with trade goods, gold bullion and coins set out from Red sea ports each year and the trade with Asia was continued well into the 2nd century and this is well documented in Han dynasty records.
The Tang Dynasty was marked by strong benevolent rule, successful diplomatic relationships, economic expansion, and a cultural flowering of a cosmopolitan style when Tang China emerged as one of the great powers of the medieval world.
It was a period when its leaders, aristocrats and artisans incorporated symbols and themes gleaned from the many and vaaried diverse cultural traditions that lined the length of the Silk Road.
Its poetry, introduced by Po Chu-I, became legendary in Chinese history. He insisted poetry must be understandable by an ‘old country women’ and his style would influence many modern Western writers.
The Tang is recognised in the west through its vibrant ceramic figurines. T’ang pottery has been found as far afield as Egypt. Its potters are also known to have introduced cobalt oxide, a new colorant, imported from the near East, for cobalt was not discovered in China until the 15th century. Three colour or sancia ceramic wares were in vogue for a short time from about 680 – 750.
Merchants, clerics, and envoys and a multiethnic mix of traders, pilgrims, monks and soldiers from India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea, and Japan travelled the Silk Road and thronged the streets of Chang’an, the capital where foreign tongues became a common aspect of daily life.
The exhibited works depict either non-Chinese elements or mixed features of Chinese and foreign culture, be it heavily loaded pottery camels or porcelains with motifs of taming lions in a circus. Human figurines of Chinese or non-Chinese origin, blowing whistles on a horse or eating dry bread on a tall camel, encourage one’s imagination of a long and lonely journey on the mysterious Silk Road.
Although the name Yu and the origin of the people known by this name are something of a mystery, Yu Hong’s epitaph leads scholars to believe he came from a community of Turkic-speakers in Central Asia.
Yu Hong began his diplomatic career as early as his teen years in Central and West Asia, and was dispatched to China’s Northern Qi dynasty during the mid 6th century.
The sarcophagus looks like the model of a typical Chinese building however a closer inspection of the crisply detailed scenes of banquets, entertainment and hunting, reveals the figures, carved or painted both on the interior and the exterior of all four sides of the stone structure, to have deep-set eyes and prominent noses, not so Han Chinese-like at all.
In fact the origins of the style and themes of the iconography on the sarcophagus are Buddhist, Sogdian in central Asia and Persian in western Asia.
Reinforcing this finding is an absence of dragons but an abundance of camels, lions and elephants. And, in a very rare appearance for 6th-century Chinese art, one finds heavenly Zoroastrian priests, half-men and half-birds flanking a fire altar, as seen in the centre of a base panel.
Many historians consider The Ming period (1368 – 1644) in Chinese history was the last great dynasty that was really Chinese. During the period that followed, from the middle of the 17th century when Chinese influence on western culture really began to intensify, the Manchus who to the mainstream population the Han Chinese were really foreigners, ruled it.
There will also be a symposium as part of a show so that scholars can deliver a detailed historical and geographical up to date background to the exhibition.
Invited speakers include:
Professor Zhang Qingjie, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and the archaeologist who excavated Yu Hong’s tomb. He is a leading scholar on archaeology and history in Shanxi Province.
Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, who initiated the original exhibition of the Yu Hong finding in 2002 and is also a contributor to the exhibition catalogue will give an introduction to the historical and geographical background of the Silk Road and his interesting personal experience of his first encounter of the sarcophagus.
Professor Qi Dongfang, a leading scholar on Tang Dynasty (618-907) civilisation who teaches at the School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, China. His research covers Chinese archaeology and art history, particularly the communication between China and the West between the 3rd and 10th centuries.
Professor David Goodman, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia, Professor of Chinese Politics at University of Sydney, and currently Academic Director of the University of Sydney China Studies Centre. He is a regular visitor to and temporary resident of Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, and has deep affection for this city where all the exhibition objects come from.
Cao Yin, Curator of Chinese Art, AGNSW, who will present a paper on the Buddhist and Zoroastrian elements on the Yu Hong sarcophagus.
22 Aug – 10 Nov 2013
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney
Location: Upper Asian gallery
Symposium To Be Held
24 August 2013 10am – 5pm