Silk Road Saga: The Sar­coph­a­gus of Yu Hong Art Gallery of NSW, Syd­ney, to Novem­ber 10

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Christopher Allen

FIF­TEEN cen­turies ago, a wealthy pub­lic ser­vant whom we know as Yu Hong was buried in north­east­ern China. His grave was re­dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent in 1999 when a peas­ant was re­pair­ing a dirt road, very close to where a wa­ter main had been laid down only four years be­fore; the burial had mirac­u­lously es­caped the se­vere dam­age that might have been caused by me­chan­i­cal dig­ging equip­ment and was found al­most in­tact, al­though it later ap­peared that it had been robbed in the cen­tury or so af­ter the in­ter­ment.

It took the form of a cham­ber com­posed of mar­ble slabs, carved in low re­lief, and this is how it has been in­ge­niously dis­played at the Art Gallery of NSW, but opened out to al­low the viewer to walk around in­side what was a very con­fined space. A pho­to­graph on one of the wall panels makes the orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance clear, but to un­der­stand the lay­out in the show, one should turn from the map of the Silk Road to­wards the room’s cen­tre: from this view­point one is look­ing through the en­trance of the tomb to the carved panels of its back wall.

It is ob­vi­ous at once this is a fas­ci­nat­ing ob­ject of great beauty: each panel is carved in low re­lief with elab­o­rate nar­ra­tive scenes and sur­rounded by dec­o­ra­tive bor­ders; the re­lief is shal­low, with flat sur­faces and sharp edges, em­pha­sis­ing or­na­men­tal, pat­terned ef­fect rather than the nat­u­ral­is­tic ren­der­ing of vol­ume; and traces of bright paint and even gild­ing sur­vive in places.

What is most strik­ing, how­ever, is that the iconog­ra­phy is clearly not Chi­nese. There are fig­ures with prom­i­nent noses — al­most too prom­i­nent, as though ex­ag­ger­ated by a Chi­nese artist to whom they ap­peared out­landish — and long thick beards, as well as nu­mer­ous mo­tifs that re­call Per­sian, Byzan­tine or even Greco-Ro­man clas­si­cal art. We find our­selves, in other words, be­fore a kind of time cap­sule that comes to us from a com­plex and partly for­got­ten world.

The in­scrip­tion on the lid of the cof­fin tells us Yu Hong lived from 533 or 534 to 592, a pe­riod of great his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance but to most of us among the least fa­mil­iar in his­tory. In China, it was the lat­ter part of a time of in­sta­bil­ity that fol­lowed the fall of the Han dy­nasty in the third cen­tury and pre­ceded the es­tab­lish­ment of the Tang dy­nasty in the sev­enth. In the Mediter­ranean, it was the cen­tury af­ter the fall of the Western Ro­man Em­pire, a pe­riod dur­ing which its sur­viv­ing eastern half, which be­came the Byzan­tine Em­pire, had tem­po­rar­ily re­con­quered some of the lands lost to barbarian in­va­sion.

But many other fate­ful events oc­curred in the sixth cen­tury: the black death came to Con­stantino­ple, and pop­u­la­tion up­heavals across Eura­sia brought Tur­kic peo­ples from their eastern home­lands into the cen­tral Asian area. At the end of the pe­riod, the rise of Is­lam led to the Arab con­quests of vast ar­eas of the world in the early sev­enth cen­tury, in­clud­ing a large part of the Byzan­tine ter­ri­to­ries as well as Per­sia and other lands in cen­tral Asia.

The sar­coph­a­gus thus be­longs to the last pe­riod be­fore Is­lam sup­planted the older re­li­gions of th­ese ar­eas, and this ac­counts for much of the iconog­ra­phy of the carv­ings. It also leads us to the iden­tity of Yu Hong him­self, for the ap­par­ently Chi­nese name is de­cep­tive. Anal­y­sis of his DNA shows his eth­nic ori­gins lay much farther west: he is de­scribed as hav­ing Euro­pean an­ces­try on the ex­hi­bi­tion la­bels and in the cat­a­logue, al­though this pre­sum­ably means more ex­actly Indo-Euro­pean, while his wife ap­pears to have been Eurasian.

It seems to be gen­er­ally agreed that Yu Hong was a Sog­dian; they were an Ira­nian peo­ple who spoke a now ex­tinct lan­guage re­lated to Per­sian. More no­madic than their cousins, how­ever, they were prom­i­nent in the trade along the Silk Road, a net­work that ran ul­ti­mately from the Mediter­ranean to China, cov­er­ing an im­mense dis­tance through of­ten in­hos­pitable lands north of the Hi­malayas; Ed­mund Capon re­lates in his cat­a­logue es­say that Aurel Stein, the great ori­en­tal­ist who trav­elled the Silk Road a cen­tury ago, found the ink in his pen froze dur­ing the icy nights in the Tak­la­makan Desert.

Silk was the most valu­able com­mod­ity traded from East to West and un­til the sixth cen­tury re­mained a Chi­nese monopoly. It was dur­ing the reign of Jus­tinian that silk­worm eggs were smug­gled out of China and brought to Con­stantino­ple for the first time.

But the sys­tem of trade routes also car­ried many other goods and helped to trans­mit styles, ideas and even re­li­gious be­liefs; it was thus that Bud­dhism trav­elled from In­dia to China, where it was at the height of its pop­u­lar­ity at this time.

Yu Hong, born in the Yu king­dom, was sent on a diplo­matic mis­sion to Per­sia while still a teenager and later set­tled in China, be­com­ing a se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cial un­der sev­eral suc­ces­sive regimes. He lived in a di­verse and mul­ti­cul­tural mi­lieu, must have been flu­ent in sev­eral lan­guages and would have been fa­mil­iar with a great va­ri­ety, in­deed a po­ten­tially be­wil­der­ing range, of re­li­gious doc­trines, be­liefs and prac­tices.

But such di­ver­sity is not nec­es­sar­ily an ob­sta­cle to be­lief in poly­the­is­tic sys­tems. It is

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