Archaeologists uncover cultural heritage of Silk Road

By LU HANG and YANG FEIFEI / 03-23-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Han Dynasty brocade armband embroidered with the phrase “five stars rise in the east, benefit China” Photo: CFP

On March 4 and 5, Northwest University hosted a seminar on “Huang Wenbi (1893–1966) and the Silk Road” in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Scholars shed light on Huang’s academic philosophy and Silk Road archaeology, in a concerted effort to further research on the Silk Road. 

Pioneering spirit 

As the forerunner and founder of China’s Silk Road archaeology, Huang made remarkable contributions to the field and to the cultivation of talent for borderland studies. During 1937 and 1938, the office for renovating the forest of stone steles in Xi’an, headed by Huang, an archaeologist and expert on northwest history and geography, carried out a large-scale renovation project on the forest of steles in Xi’an, which thus began to take shape. 

Song Xinchao, former deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration and chairman of the Chinese National Committee for the International Council on Monuments and Sites, suggested the necessity of continuing and inheriting the spirit of Huang’s stele classification and research centered on the “Kaicheng Stone Classics,” as well as the investigation of damaged tablets and textual collation, digging deeply into the unique historical and cultural value of the Xi’an forest of steles. 

Why did Huang’s academic interest turn from philosophy to art history and then to northwest archaeology? Ge Zhaoguang, a professor from the Department of History at Fudan University, explained from the aspects of academic and intellectual history. From the perspective of “academic war” in borderland archaeology, the choice originated from the “winning chance” and “success or failure” in the academic competition between China and foreign countries. From the vision of academic pursuit and ambition, it originated from the attempt of Chinese academia to strive for reconstructing an independent, continuous, and territorially all-inclusive Chinese history. 

Huang’s Archaeological Report of Lop Nor is a classic that perfectly combines historiography and archaeology in the field of Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220) Silk Road history. It plays an exemplary role in the academic directions of the Silk Road history and the history of the ecological environment. In the opinion of Wang Zijin, a professor from the History School at Northwest University, this work expanded the research vision in this field by carefully examining the ecological conditions of the Silk Road, demonstrating innovative frontier consciousness and reaching a leading academic level. New academic insights can be found from research on changes in the ancient water system of Lop Nor, from related information disclosed from Han Dynasty wooden tablets in Lop Nor, and from the climate issues revealed by solar terms and seasons. 

Civilizational exchanges 

The Han Dynasty brocade armband, embroidered with the phrase “five stars rise in the east, benefit China,” is hailed as one of the greatest discoveries of Chinese archaeology in the 20th century. How can the animal patterns on the brocade and their implications be understood? Shen Ruiwen, a professor from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University, proposed that the four kinds of animal patterns respectively correspond to green dragon, white tiger, vermilion bird, and black tortoise, which together form a combination of four beasts guarding the Heavenly Palace. Viewing the “five star” brocade and the brocade embroidered with the phrase “conquer the southern Qiang” as constituting a fabric has led to some misunderstandings. The former piece represents auspicious phrasing through astrology, naturally against the background of the Heavenly Palace. The four animal patterns correspond to the four-direction palaces respectively, forming a four-symbol system. Their co-occurrence is a symbol of “up south, down north, left east, right west.” This provides a commensurate celestial context for “five stars rise in the east, benefit China.” 

“Buddhist archaeology composes an integral part of Silk Road archaeology,” said Ran Wanli, a professor from the School of Cultural Heritage at Northwest University. The two gold-plated, bronze Buddha statues found in the Hongduyuan cemetery of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220) in Chengren Village, Xianyang, Shaanxi Province represent the earliest independent offering of bronze Buddha statues in China’s archaeological excavations, providing great value for clarifying the introduction of Buddhism and Buddhist sculpture art and their Chinese localization. It rewrites the history of independently offered Buddha statues in ancient China, advancing this history, more than a century earlier, from the Three Kingdoms period (220–265) and the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the Sixteen States (317–420) between the third and early fifth centuries to the late Eastern Han Dynasty in the second and third centuries. 

“It changed previous understanding that Buddhist statues in the Eastern Han were mainly found in the Yangtze River basin,” Ran continued. In addition, it shows the navigability of the Silk Road between the East and the West in the Eastern Han era and the dynastic tolerance at the time, in which the Da Yuezhi people played an important role. Buddhism, as a foreign religion, not only captured the upper-class people as its main believers in the northern region and the Central Plains, but also saw the emergence of independent objects of worship reflecting religious belief—gold-plated, bronze Buddha sculptures. Buddha statues used as burial objects show that contemporary people treated Buddhism and Buddhist plastic arts with their own values and funeral views. 

The Silk Road was a thoroughfare for China-West cultural exchanges. The Suyab area in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) was initially a nomadic land of the Saka people. Since the 5th century, many Sogdians migrated from the Transoxiana region of Central Asia to settle there. It drew merchants from various countries to inhabit and seek prosperity. Zhou Weizhou, chief expert from the team of Chinese ethnic history at Northwest University, found that Suyab performed a significant role in the Silk Road in the Tang Dynasty. The relics unearthed from the Suyab ruins showcase that the history of Suyab was an epitome of the Silk Road in the heyday of Tang, and also an exemplar of exchanges between Chinese and Western civilizations.