BARGAIN BUYS FROM BALI TO BARCELONA
Silk Road Saga: The Sarcophagus of Yu Hong Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, to November 10
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