Trea­sures of Ti­betan His­tory and Cul­ture

China Pictorial (English) - - FRONT PAGE - Text by Zhang Xue Pho­tographs by Chen Jian un­less oth­er­wise cred­ited

Hu­mans have been in­hab­it­ing the Hi­malayan moun­tains be­tween the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau and the South Asian sub­con­ti­nent since re­mote an­tiq­uity, and the re­gion is known for its bril­liant and pro­found plateau cul­ture. The 200-plus cul­tural relics now on dis­play at the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum in Beijing tes­tify to the fact that the snow-capped plateau has never been iso­lated from the out­side world. Eons of cul­tural ex­change and integration con­ducted with the sur­round­ing ar­eas and the cen­tral plains, where the Han civ­i­liza­tion orig­i­nated, have tremen­dously en­riched and di­ver­si­fied Ti­betan cul­ture.

Re­cently, many pre­cious Ti­be­tre­lated cul­tural relics were put on dis­play for the first time at the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum in Beijing. The ex­hi­bi­tion has al­ready at­tracted nu­mer­ous vis­i­tors with items such as Bu­nian Tu, one of the 10 most cel­e­brated sur­viv­ing paintings from an­cient China, a huge em­broi­dered thangka fea­tur­ing Ya­man­taka (a Ti­betan Bud­dhist de­ity) from the Jokhang Monastery, the ear­li­est de­cree is­sued by the Qing court to Ti­bet and the first of­fi­cially col­lated Ti­betan Trip­i­taka. Wit­ness of Cul­tural Ex­change

On Fe­bru­ary 27, 2018, the “Ti­betan His­tory and Cul­ture” ex­hi­bi­tion kicked off at the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum, fea­tur­ing 216 ex­tremely rare cul­tural relics re­lated to Ti­bet.

Themed on Ti­betan cul­tural ex­change, many ex­hibits were bor­rowed from 13 sa­cred re­li­gious sites in the Ti­bet Au­tonomous Re­gion in­clud­ing the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa and the Tashi Lhunpo and Sakya monas­ter­ies in Xigaze. None had been pre­vi­ously un­veiled to the pub­lic.

More than 180 of the ex­hibits were pro­vided by mu­se­ums and cul­tural her­itage in­sti­tu­tions in Ti­bet. A staffer of the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum stressed that many of the items from Ti­betan or­ga­ni­za­tions shouldn’t be missed, in­clud­ing a lo­cal Ne­olithic twin pot­tery con­tainer, a piece of silk fea­tur­ing the Chinese char­ac­ters “Wang Hou” (prince and mar­quis), a mag­nif­i­cent gold mask from the Zhangzhung King­dom and a huge em­broi­dered thangka from the Jokhang Monastery that dates back to the Yon­gle reign of the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644).

High­light­ing the im­por­tant role of Ti­betan his­tory and cul­ture in the de­vel­op­ment of the multi-eth­nic com­mu­nity that is the Chinese na­tion, the ex­hi­bi­tion is split into four sec­tions: Ori­gins of Civ­i­liza­tion, Ma­jor Links on the Plateau, Bud­dhist His­tory in Ti­bet and Re­united as a Fam­ily.

The plen­ti­ful un­earthed ar­chae­o­log­i­cal relics from Ti­bet dat­ing back to as early as the Late Pa­le­olithic Age (be­tween 50,000 and 10,000 years ago) show that since an­cient times, hu­mans have been liv­ing and pros­per­ing on the snow-capped plateau.

Han Zhan­ming, di­rec­tor of the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum, ex­plained that the four sec­tions are de­signed to trace the for­ma­tion of the lo­cal cul­tural iden­tity and the na­tional iden­tity by pre­sent­ing the his­tory and cul­ture of Ti­bet as well as ex­am­ples of cul­tural ex­change be­tween Ti­bet and the sur­round­ing re­gions in­clud­ing

China’s in­land ar­eas. Cu­ra­tors hope to ex­pound on the fact that Chinese his­tory was cre­ated by all the eth­nic groups of the coun­try.

Bu­nian Tu: His­tor­i­cal Tes­ta­ment to Har­mo­nious Han-ti­betan Re­la­tions

Of all the ex­hibits, Bu­nian Tu is one of the bright­est stars. Vis­i­tors from near and far have flocked to the ex­hi­bi­tion just for a glimpse of the mas­ter­piece. The work, now part of the col­lec­tion of the Palace Mu­seum in Beijing, has rarely been shown to the pub­lic even at the Palace Mu­seum, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor Shan Jix­i­ang, who vis­ited the ex­hi­bi­tion on its open­ing day.

The 1.3-me­ter-long silk scroll is gen­er­ally be­lieved to have been painted by Yan Liben, an artist and of­fi­cial of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907). Its gor­geous col­ors, smooth lines and del­i­cate com­po­si­tion make the paint­ing one of the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive works of the Tang Dy­nasty, re­flect­ing the close con­nec­tions be­tween the Tang court and Ti­bet, which was then known as the king­dom of Tubo.

Based on a his­tor­i­cal event, the paint­ing de­picts the scene of Em­peror Taizong of the

Tang Dy­nasty meet­ing Gar Tongt­sen Yul­sung, en­voy of Tubo ruler Songt­sen Gampo.

Songt­sen Gampo had pro­posed a mar­riage al­liance with the royal fam­ily of Taizong. Princess Wencheng, a mem­ber of the Tang royal clan, was sub­se­quently be­trothed to the Tubo ruler.

The tale de­picted in Bu­nian Tu is well known in China and an im­por­tant his­tor­i­cal mile­stone for Han-ti­betan re­la­tions. When Princess Wencheng went to Ti­bet, she brought a large vol­ume of silk, clas­si­cal books, seeds and hun­dreds of crafts­men from var­i­ous sec­tors. Her ar­rival ef­fec­tively brought ad­vanced cul­ture and pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy of the cen­tral plains to the plateau, which greatly pro­moted the de­vel­op­ment of pol­i­tics, econ­omy and cul­ture in Ti­bet.

Sub­se­quently, the chil­dren of many Tubo no­bles were sent to Chang’an, then the cap­i­tal of the Tang Dy­nasty, to study. For a long time since then, re­la­tions be­tween the Tang court and the king­dom of Tubo re­mained close and har­mo­nious. The paint­ing is a his­tor­i­cal wit­ness to the friendly ex­change be­tween Han and Ti­betan eth­nic groups, with im­mea­sur­able his­tor­i­cal value.

Ac­cord­ing to the ex­hibit de­scrip­tion, the scroll is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered an authen­tic paint­ing by Yan Liben, but some schol­ars be­lieve it a fac­sim­ile of Yan’s work from the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960-1127). The paint­ing is sched­uled to re­main on dis­play for just two months be­cause time has left it ex­tremely del­i­cate.

More High­lights

The mag­nif­i­cent Zhangzhung gold mask and a piece of silk fea­tur­ing the Chinese char­ac­ters “Wang Hou” are the two most rep­re­sen­ta­tive relics bor­rowed from the Ti­bet Au­tonomous Re­gion.

In the sec­tion “Ori­gins of Civ­i­liza­tion,” a gold mask dat­ing back to the third cen­tury, un­earthed in Ngari Pre­fec­ture of the Ti­bet Au­tonomous Re­gion, was placed in the cen­ter of the ex­hi­bi­tion hall. Sim­i­lar in size to a real face, the mask in­cludes a crown above the fa­cial part and is dec­o­rated with many lay­ers of fab­rics in the back.

The gold mask was used for burial in the Zhangzhung King­dom (500 B.C.-625 A.D.), mak­ing it about 2,000 years old.

Dur­ing that pe­riod, it was a pop­u­lar cus­tom to cover the faces of the dead with a gold mask in sev­eral Eurasian coun­tries. And sim­i­lar masks have been found in Nepal and In­dia.

Re­search shows that as early as 2,000 to 1,800 years ago, western Ti­bet es­tab­lished close ties with what is now the Xin­jiang Uygur Au­tonomous Re­gion as well as coun­tries on the South Asian sub­con­ti­nent. Ti­bet

con­ducted ex­ten­sive ex­change with the cen­tral plains and grass­land ar­eas of Cen­tral Asia.

The silk fea­tur­ing the Chinese char­ac­ters “Wang Hou” is now bro­ken and stained af­ter so many years, but the brown dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns on the bro­caded item and the blurry bird and beast de­signs give view­ers a glimpse of its orig­i­nal glamor.

Upon dis­cov­er­ing the Chinese char­ac­ters “Wang Hou” sur­rounded by the bird and beast pat­terns, ar­chae­ol­o­gists de­ter­mined that this kind of silk would likely be pro­duced on the cen­tral plains of China.

This piece of silk is the ear­li­est sam­ple dis­cov­ered in western Ti­bet so far, but silk pieces with sim­i­lar pat­terns have been un­earthed in the Xin­jiang Uygur Au­tonomous Re­gion and other ar­eas. “The char­ac­ters on the bro­cade were writ­ten in a font sim­i­lar to the cler­i­cal script, which in­di­cates that it was pro­duced on China’s cen­tral plains be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to Ti­bet, which ev­i­dences com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Ti­bet and the in­land ar­eas at that time,” ex­plained Zhang Jie, cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“With these relics, we want to cor­rect the com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that Ti­bet was a rel­a­tively in­ac­ces­si­ble place in an­cient times due to harsh geo­graphic con­di­tions,” Zhang added.

“In fact, it has been open to the out­side world since re­mote an­tiq­uity,” he con­tin­ued. “Since the Stone Age, Ti­bet has been in­flu­enced by the civ­i­liza­tion of the Yel­low River Basin and has been ab­sorb­ing the achieve­ments of civ­i­liza­tions in the sur­round­ing ar­eas and coun­tries, which pro­moted peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­change.”

Ti­betan aris­to­cratic clothes and ac­ces­sories, Qing Dy­nasty, held by the Po­tala Palace Man­age­ment Of­fice.

Part of Bu­nian Tu painted by Yan Liben, Tang Dy­nasty, 38.5×129.6cm, col­lected at the Palace Mu­seum. courtesy of the Palace Mu­seum

A thangka paint­ing about the life of the fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lob­sang Gy­atso, Qing Dy­nasty, 196×111cm, held by the Ti­bet Mu­seum.

An edi­tion of Kan­jur Trip­i­taka from Em­peror Yon­gle’s reign, Ming Dy­nasty, 72.5×26.5cm, held by the Po­tala Palace Trea­sure House.

Left: A piece of silk fea­tur­ing Chinese char­ac­ters “Wang Hou” (prince and mar­quis), dat­ing back to the third cen­tury, 44×25cm, from the Ti­bet Au­tonomous Re­gion.

Right: A pair of san­dal­wood suonas (Chinese wood­wind in­stru­ment) dec­o­rated with gold and jew­elry, Qing Dy­nasty, 58cm tall, cal­iber di­am­e­ter of 15cm, held by the Po­tala Palace Trea­sure House.

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