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The Asian Art Newspaper covers all the major international exhibitions, auctions and events. To keep you informed of what's happening in the world of Asian art today.

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The Silk Road in Ningxia

STONE STELE WITH SEATED FIGURE OF BUDDHA, Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), 11 x 18 cm, thickness 4 cm. Unearthed in Honghe village, Pengyang county in 1985

THE TERM, ‘SILKROAD' which was coined only in the 19th century,refers to the vast network of roads which already linked China with central Asia and beyond by the 2nd century. The primary trading commodity was silk, andthe routes straddling arid Ningxia on the northwest Chinese frontier were themost important since ancient times. Since the 1980s, significant archaeologicaldiscoveries around Guyuan in the south have been rewriting Ningxia's place onthe Silk Road. For much of the 6th century, Guyuan, known as Yuanzhou, was a‘barrier of the nation' and the seat of power for good reason. It wasstrategically placed at the confluence of two important routes: the southernone connecting the Ordos region to Pingcheng (present-day Datong) and theLiangzhou area, and the northern route linking Chang'an to Xinjiang and theXiyu, ‘western regions'. Chang'an, present-day Xian, was for centuries theChinese capital, and the complex cultural exchanges generated by foreigntribute and trade missions that also criss-crossed Yuanzhou made it a prominentSilk Road hub.

Subsequent tomb excavations provide evidence that it had linksstretching even further to Byzantium and Sassanian Persia (224-651) from aroundthe 3rd to the 10th centuries. These important finds, unearthed only in thelast three decades, form the basis of The SilkRoad in Ningxia, at the University Museum and Art Gallery ofthe University of Hong Kong. The exhibition is a special collaboration with theNingxia Cultural Relics Bureau which is offering a hundred rare artefactsincluding stone stele and religious objects, pottery figurines, ceramics,textile, metalwork, glass as well as coinage to explore the many faces ofNingxia.

Ningxia's ethnically and culturallydiverse universe was formed from elements all over the Silk Road. Ningxiameaning ‘Pacified Xia' is derived from ‘Xia', the name given to Tangut peoplesof Turkic origin, who were linked to the Tuoba Wei and the Dangxiang tribesearly in the first millennium. They exercised intermittent control overstretches of western Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai and severalcenturies later, reigned as the Xixia or ‘Western Xia' kingdom (1038-1227).Their cultural achievements were therefore rooted in Central Asia, Tibet andChina, where they were equally at home. Ningxia's earliest forms of artisticexpression however were associated with Buddhism which came by way of India.Monumental statuary and miniature Buddhist imagery were introduced when thereligion's first patrons, the Tuoba Wei, asserted their authority over northChina around the 4th century. The Xumishan grottoes, northwest of Guyuan, aretestament to the faith; some 130 caves housing 300 statues had beencontinuously carved out since that time to the Tang (618-906). Small,devotional representations of the Buddha in bronze, stone and jade alsocirculated among the faithful, including portable carved figurines and stelesmade from the local limestone.

Recent tomb discoveries in Guyuanindicate that Ningxia's own artistic impulses were embodied in secular art.Seven tombs found after 1981 and dated to the Northern Dynasties (386-577),were distinguished by long corridors, multiple skylights and niches. Two wereremarkable. One contained a Northern Wei (386-534) lacquer coffin sincedeteriorated, with lacquer painting visible on its cover, front and sidepanels. Lacquer art was a durable luxury product providing early evidence ofChinese painting, usually associated with the Han dynasty (206BC-220) andmetropolitan areas. The coffin's reconstructed lacquer panels are importantexamples of 4th to 6th century lacquer art, because they suggest the genre inthe remote northwest was comparable to that in the central plains. Another tombdated to the Northern Zhou (557-581) belonging to Li Xian and his wife, hadmural painting on its corridors. The figural composition was executed in richcolours, its expressive treatment indicating Wei and Jin (265-316) paintingtraditions whose graduated pink hues were fundamental to later Sui (581-618)and Tang mural painting styles. Both tombs also provide evidence of far-flungencounters.

The lacquer figures depicted in the first were of non-Chineseorigin, framed in a pearl motif, suggesting influences from Sassanian Persia. Agilt silver ewer with classical proportions was found in Li Xian's tomb,pointing to casting methods in the Persian world where gilt silver was afavoured metalwork medium. The ewer, probably used for serving wine, hadcharacteristically Sassanian decorative features; a loop-shaped handle with asmall Bactrian head, a duck-billed spout, six standing figures on its body androws of roundels encircling its neck and splayed footrim. Also unearthed was arare glass bowl with embossed rings. Glass was another foreign medium thatreached China via the Silk Road. That the bowl was buried suggests it wasvaluable; glass was widely treasured among Chinese Buddhist communities whoused rare glass objects as reliquaries. The object was glass blown, clear andcolourless, decorated by round facets resembling the honeycomb pattern,features identified with Sassanian Persia where faceting in relief-cut glasswas a popular technique. Also found were vividly painted pottery figurines ofnon-Chinese warriors depicted wearing armour of fish-scale motif in the Persianmanner.

These objectsindicate that Ningxia's trading ties reached Sassanian Persia, the lastauthentically Persian dynasty, possibly from the 3rd century onwards. Playing acritical role in the equation were the Sogdians, well-placed intermediaries inChinese and Silk Road merchant communities. They came from what was thenSogdiana, (present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) which the Chinese namedKangju, their junction for contact with the Persian world reaching as far as theRed Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. In China, the Sogdians were principallytraders exporting large quantities of silk to Persia in exchange for coinage,and accounted for some of the 2,000 Persian silver and Roman gold coinsdiscovered. Two of the most valuable silver coins, known as drahm, were found in Guyuan and were dated to thereign of Peroz (459-484), king of Sassanian Persia. Also unearthed were tengold coins from the reign of Ardashir (d. 241), founder of Sassanian Persia whomade Zoroastrianism the state religion.

There isevidence to suggest the Sogdians later formed a remarkable presence in Sui andTang China. Some held high office and were established as government officials.Eight Tang tombs had been unearthed in Guyuan between 1982 and 1995; seven hadepitaphs, six of which were in Sogdian, bearing the surname, Shi. The Shifamily tombs are among the earliest Sogdian tombs found in China. They seemedto incorporate Northern Zhou burial customs with indigenous practices; eachtomb contained a gold coin, gold masks, gold headdresses and items relating toZoroastrian fire worship. The tomb of one Shi Hedan for instance, was in thePersian style with a ‘heavenly horse' design on its stone tomb door. Anotherbelonging to Shi Daoluo was protected by a pottery tomb guardian warrior andguardian beasts crafted in a style peculiar to Ningxia, suggesting early burialpractices had regional variations.

When Tang China collapsed, the Ningxiaregion came under other forces. The Tanguts had grown more powerful in theinterim and began controlling large areas of territory from the northwestfrontier to Gansu. Later, despite constant skirmishes, they managed to coexistwith the Song (960-1279) and Liao peoples. In 1038, the Tangut leader, Yuan Haoproclaimed himself emperor of the Xixia, ‘Western Xia', making his capital atXingqingfu, present-day Yinchuan on the foothills of the Helan mountains. TheTangut dynasty existed for almost 190 years and was until recently, a mystery.Its distinctive character was made known when an imperial mausoleum wasexcavated around Yinchuan in the 1970s. We now know that the Xixia adapted Songtechnology and material culture to their advantage. Yuan Hao had claimed Songvassal status in 1044 and on payment of tribute, remained a tributary with itsown identity. For a start, he adapted Chinese ideograms to create the uniqueXixia written form which flourished within his territory. Circulating there toowas coinage, a mark of his autonomy, minted in copper and iron. Coinage as amedium of exchange reflected authority and control and tells us about the stateof money in the kingdom. Yuan Hao's coins followed the standard Chinesetemplate; round, with a square cavity in the middle and subsequently bore thereign marks of all Xixia emperors. Its denominations contained an importantfeature - the bilingual element - Xixia script on the one side, and Chinese onthe reverse, indicating their transferability.

Coinage wasnot the only form of money on the Silk Road. From at least the 6th century,textiles had been used for the purchase and payment of commodities, and assalary and even loans. As a luxury commodity, silk was particularly soughtafter as a medium of exchange. One printed silk fabric of Song date wasunearthed in the Baisikou pagoda, Helan county in 1986. It is decorated withpearl-bordered roundels and lozenges of Persian or Islamic provenancesurrounded by visibly Chinese motifs of ‘children at play'. The fabric'srepeated patterns suggest the influence of Sassanian compound weft twill silksimitated by the Sogdians, who also carried Chinese motifs such as the lotus,peony and cloud scrolls to the Persian world. Its Song manufacture might beattributed to the highly developed state of textile and other technologies alsoborrowed by the Tanguts.

Printing,which had been invented during the Song, enabled the Xixia to develop their ownprinting devices, such as a carved wooden printing block with a large typefaceof Xixia characters. The Xixia also translated ancient Chinese tomes andBuddhist scriptures into their own tongue. A fragment of a stone steleinscribed in Xixia script suggests it was used to disseminate the Tangut brandof Buddhism which had been strongly influenced by Tibet. When Tang controlweakened after the 9th century, the Tibetans occupied its central Asianterritories for two centuries, and made a significant impact on Buddhistpractice. In Sino-Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri, who epitomised wisdom as one ofeight deities embodying the bodhisattva ideal, was much venerated. During theXixia dynasty, a gilt bronze figure of Manjusri was depicted in characteristicSino-Tibetan form, with elaborate headgear and costume, holding his sceptre andseated typically astride a white lion. Believed to reside on Mount Wutai, oneof the holiest Chinese sites, Manjusri had also been the Tang empress, WuZetian's deity and had a cave hall dedicated to him at Dunhuang when Gansu waspart of the Tibetan realm.

The Xixia remained Song vassals untilthe Tangut empire was decimated by the Mongols in 1227. Thereafter Sino-TibetanBuddhism was superseded by Islam which reached the northwest via Central Asia.Ningxia, whose ethnic Hui minorities remain believers today, later became animportant Islamic centre in China. Islamic influences were increasingly feltduring the Yuan (1279-1368). A pair of 14th-century, crescent-shaped silverscales some 10 cm high, suggests trade remained a prominent activity. Each ofthe scales has a ring foot and handles and is decorated by pearl motif bandssurrounding six panels of prominent Arabic inscriptions that display themetalwork traditions of both the Persian and Arab worlds. Conversely, importantChinese inventions had been continuously exchanged with these parts. Paper,which was invented in Han China, arrived in the Islamic world after the Battleof Talas in 751, when Chinese prisoners of war introduced paper technology tothe Samarkand area. Paper replaced the use of papyrus in the art of the book.

Found in Xiji county during the Ming (1368-1644) was a 590-page ancient Qu'ran. Its spine and parchment cover may havedeteriorated, but the dry climate has preserved its pages, which are clearlywritten in Arabic naskhiscript, illustrated with gold arabesques and colourful pigments, particularlythe blue associated with heaven. The Qu'ran's style is reminiscent of opulentilluminated prototypes usually identified with Mamluk Egypt (1250-1517). Thatit reached China along with other much older objects, attests to the enormousscale and scope of exchanges made possible by the Silk Road of which Ningxiawas a notable conduit.

Yvonne Tan

Until 15 March, The Silk Road in Ningxia is at theUniversity Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, 94 Bonham Road,Hong Kong, www.hku.hk/hkumag


Related Images (Click related image for enlarged version)

1: STONE STELE WITH SEATED FIGURE OF BUDDHA, Northern Wei dynasty (386–534), 11 x 18 cm, thickness 4 cm. Unearthed in Honghe village, Pengyang county in 1985
2: BOAT-SHAPED SILVER SCALE with Arabic inscription, 14th century, height 10 cm. Unearthed in Kashgar, Xinjiang
3: GLASS BOWL, Northern Zhou dynasty (557–581), height 8 cm, diam. (mouth) 9.5 cm. Unearthed from the tomb of Li Xian and his wife in Shengou village, western Guyuan in1983
4: GILT BRONZE FIGURE OF MANJUSRI, Western Xia dynasty (1032–1227), 46.5 x 25.5 x 58.5 cm. Unearthed in Xinhua street, Yinchuan in 1986
5: QU’RAN WITH PAINTED PARCHMENT COVER, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 26.6 x 20 cm.
6: SILVER GILT JAR, Northern Zhou dynasty (557–581), 36.9 cm, diam. (base) 13 cm. Unearthed from the tomb of Li Xian and his wife in Shengou village, western Guyuan
8: FRAGMENT OF A STONE STELE, Western Xia dynasty (1032-1227), 27 x 22.5 cm. Unearthed from the district of Western Xia tomb, Yinchuan in 1974

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