Archive for Xinjiang

On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by Liz Hager


Traveling Monk sutra, colored inks on paper, 10th century CE,

Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. (courtesy British Museum) 

In July, 1900, Marc Aurel Stein stood amidst the high glaciers of the Pamir Mountains at the source of the Oxus River (now the Amu Dayra). As a young student in Dresden in the 1870s, Hungarian-born Stein was captivated by the military campaigns of Alexander, who marched his sizable armies from Greece through the steppes of Central Asian all the way to the Indus River valley, some 3000 miles as the crow flies.   Stein must have had a sense of what Alexander felt when he arrived at this place, the edge of the known world for the Greeks.  Although Stein couldn’t have known it then, this spot carried additional import. He was more or less at the midpoint of the famed “Silk Route,” the vast and shifting network of trade routes, which for centuries had connected China with the Mediterranean. Rediscovery of the civilizations along the Silk Route would make Stein’s reputation in his day.  And yet, today,  Aurel Stein is one of the least known explorers and archeologists of the 20th century.

Aurel Stein, Mogao Cave Grotto, Dunhuang, 1907,
photograph (courtesy Digital Archive, Toyo Bunko Rare Books)

Stein’s side trip to the Oxus was part of but one of 11 archeological expeditions he mounted during his lifetime, eight alone through the treacherous Tarim Basin in the heart of Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uigher Automous and Gansu Provinces).   Altogether these expeditions lasted 7 years and covered some 40,000 kilometers over the most inhospitable terrains on camel, horse-back, and, when the going got rough, by foot.  The teams endured hurricanes of sand, frostbite, blindness and death in pursuit of Stein’s singleminded quest for ancient secrets buried in the sand.  Quite simply, Aurel Stein was able to see beyond the absolute desolation of the Central Asian landscape, beyond the acute physical pain he and members of his party often endured, to the cultural promise that a thousand years of history had bestowed on this part of the world.

Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti, ink and colours on paper, mid 10th c. CE,
Five Dynasties
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China (courtesy British Museum).

Stein’s enduring legacy is his 1907 “discovery” of the Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang, a network of thousands of caves that once housed pilgrims and monks as they made their way along the northern and southern routes that skirted the large and formidable Takla Makan desert. The import of his find cannot be overestimated, for in the caves were tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures and artifacts, undoubtedly the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.  In the tradition of the day, Stein carted off as much as his camels could carry—literally tons—but not for himself.

The booty from Stein’s excavations was split among the governments of Britain, India, and Hungary. Portions of it are on view at the British Museum, the British Library, Srinagar (Kashmir) Museum, and the National Museum in New Delhi.  Some of it has been digitalized, but most lies in the basements.

In addition, see Venetian Red posts on elements of the Stein collections—Talisman of the Pole Star; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

The Dunhuang discovery in particular provided invaluable documentation of life along the Silk Route. Much of it dated from the Tang Dynasty, a period more than 1000 years ago of particular prosperity along the Silk Route. Stein’s most important find was the “Diamond Sutra”— dated at 868 AD, it is the world’s earliest known printed book. In an interesting side note, the collection also provided scholars with the data necessary to connect the path of Buddhism from India to China.

Although Stein has been dead for over 65 years, the Chinese haven’t forgiven this “imperialist villian” for purloining a part of their national heritage.  Today, mostly due to vandalism in the 20th century, fewer than five hundred caves survive intact. We’ll never know what the Chinese would have done with the pieces that Stein took.  The way things are going in the museum world, they may get some of them back.

Wider Connections

Today in the Takla Makan desert

Foreign Devils on the Silk Route —Peter Hopkirk’s engaging overview of the early 20th c. archeological “raiders”  in this corner of Central Asia.

The Thousand Buddhas (digital copy of 1921 original book)

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk RoadAnnabel Walker’s informative and highly-readable biography of Stein (now out of print)

Aurel Stein at the British Museum

What’s in a Vowel? Why We Should Care about Huns and Hans in Western China

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, People & Places, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by Liz Hager

Uighur silk textile fragment, Xinjiang, 10th-11th century (photo courtesy One Central Asia)

In hosting the Olympic Games, China has once again opened the proverbial kimono for inspection by the outside world, offering us a rare opportunity to gain insight into a country in the process of becoming a dominant world power. Harmony is an ancient component of the Chinese identity. Paradoxically, separatist conflict percolates throughout present-day China.

The Chinese “occupation” of Tibet has been well publicized for years, in part because the Dali Lama is able to travel and educate the world. Another, less publicized, ethnic conflict pits the minority Uighurs (pr: WEE-ger) against the majority Han Chinese in the far western province of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Uighur’s historic homeland. The conflict has simmered for centuries. It became an international news item in the beginning of August, when 16 Chinese paramilitary police officers were killed in Kashgar, alledgely by Uighur “terrorists” under the supervision of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  A string of “incidents” have been reported since then; many say the Chinese government is inflating the group’s importance, as an excuse to tighten control over the beleaguered peoples. 

Why should those of us who live half a world away care about the Uighurs, a poor and historically nomadic people? Their beautiful textile tradition is reason enough for me, the artist. The map below suggests a more compelling reason for the rest of us.

Xinjiang sits in already volatile region, which includes the sovereign nations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Mongolia. The well-documented conflict over Kashmir rages still after 50 years, the danger to the world heightened by Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities.  In Afghanistan, each superpower in turn has painfully relearned the difficulties of containment in a land of porous borders.  As part of the ancient Turkic (i.e. Hun) tribes that migrated over centuries from Mongolia to Central Asia, the Uighurs spill over Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We should know from history that tribal loyalties and animosities do not necessarily respect artificially-drawn national borders, so a conflict in Xinjiang eventually ripples outward.

Further, the march to modernization in this area necessitates that all these countries meld numerous tribal identities (not to mention Russians and Chinese) into singular national identities. Tricky business in places where tribal loyalties die slowly. Forcing “harmony,” while disenfranchising the native population, is certainly flirting with danger.

Xinjiang is an energy paradise—lots of sun, wind and, yes, oil. Something on the order of 60% of the province’s GNP is derived from oil and natural gas production. And this of course is the reason the rest of the world should really care about the Huns and the Hans in Western China.   

Need more?

Textiles in Oil Rich Countries

Analysis: August Incidents in Xinjiang

Der Spiegel on events in Xinjiang

Tarim Mummies

Fantastic grassland in Xinjiang province

Short history of the Huns

Uighurs—A Dying Race

High Noon in China’s Far West

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