CITY OF AN­GELS

佛寺里的 ”天使“

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY DAVID DAW­SON & HATTY LILU

In 1906, Bri­tish ex­plorer Aurel Stein un­earthed a rare dis­cov­ery in China's west­ern out­post of Mi­ran— fres­coes of winged an­gels on a Bud­dhist tem­ple. Gen­er­a­tions of arche­ol­o­gists have tried to puzzle out the story be­hind this artis­tic ex­change, as Silk Road his­tory takes on new po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance in China to­day

In De­cem­ber of 1906, on the south­ern edge of the Tak­la­makan desert, deep in the heart of present-day Xin­jiang, arche­ol­o­gist Marc Aurel Stein saw an an­gel.

The fresco was dis­cov­ered dur­ing an ex­ca­va­tion of a Bud­dhist sanc­tu­ary at Mi­ran near Lop Nor, a salt lake in south­east Xin­jiang. The im­age, which had graced a Bud­dhist stupa, re­sem­bled a Chris­tian an­gel, com­plete with gar­lands and feath­ered wings.

“My sur­prise was so great that at first, I found it hard to be­lieve my eyes,” Stein wrote in his 1921 work Serindia. “Not here, close to the des­o­late salt-wastes of Lop Nor, in the ru­ins of what seems the very last out­post of Bud­dhist Cen­tral Asia to­wards China, could I have ex­pected to come upon what looked like late clas­si­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Cheru­bim.” Stein vis­ited Mi­ran three times be­tween 1906 and 1914, and found at least eight an­gels, all of them painted mo­tifs on a dado (the lower in­te­rior wall of a tem­ple).

Chi­nese mythol­ogy has many crea­tures with West­ern coun­ter­parts— vam­pires that hop and weretigers, to name two—but these were dif­fer­ent. “I could not long re­main in doubt that the clas­sic in­flu­ence was far more marked in these fres­coes than in any re­mains of an­cient pic­to­rial art which

I had so far seen or knew of, whether north or south of the Kun-lun and Hin­dukush,” Stein wrote in Serindia. He com­pared the fig­ures to ap­saras, fe­male flying spir­its in Bud­dhist mythol­ogy, which Stein would later find in abun­dance at the Mo­gao Caves at Dun­huang. But the ad­di­tion of wings and gen­der-neu­tral traits to Mi­ran’s flying guardians seemed to evoke Chris­tian icons, and the large eyes and aquiline noses spoke of clas­si­cal in­flu­ences.

Other dis­cov­er­ies at Mi­ran gave clues about the ori­gins of the work. A piece of silk, which Stein called “def­i­nite palaeo­graphic ev­i­dence” for “un­der­stand[ing] the pur­port of what seemed like a loan from early Chris­tian iconog­ra­phy,” proved to be a ban­ner with Kharosthi script. Orig­i­nat­ing from In­dia, the lan­guage died out in the third cen­tury in its home­land, but con­tin­ued to be used un­til the sev­enth cen­tury along the trade routes in Cen­tral Asia. An in­scrip­tion on one mu­ral at Mi­ran was writ­ten in the same lan­guage: “This fresco is (the work of) Tita, who has re­ceived 3,000 bhatp­makas for it.” Stein de­duced the name “Tita” to be an al­tered form of “Ti­tus,” a pop­u­lar name in the Ro­man ar­eas of the Near East and Syria.

These cherubs were one of the most strik­ing ex­am­ples of cul­tural ex­change on the Silk Road, as well as the old­est: Stein dated the find to no later than the fourth cen­tury, well be­fore the first glimpses of Chris­tian­ity were mak­ing their way to the coun­try dur­ing the Tang dy­nasty (618 – 907). The first rec­og­nized emis­sary of Chris­tian­ity to China, a Nesto­rian monk named Alopen, is believed to have ar­rived in 635 in Chang’an (now Xi’an), the cap­i­tal. In 638, Tang Em­peror Taizong (唐太宗) au­tho­rized a Nesto­rian church to be built in the cap­i­tal with 21 Per­sian priests and monks, with an edict that seemed to em­body the tol­er­ant spirit of the era: “The Way does not have a con­stant name and sages do not present an un­chang­ing form. They go from place to place es­tab­lish­ing their teach­ings and thereby save all liv­ing be­ings.”

By the end of the Tang dy­nasty, how­ever, re­li­gious devo­tees of all stripes were flee­ing per­se­cu­tion. The fa­mous Nesto­rian Stele, an eighth­cen­tury memo­rial to Alopen and the first 150 years of Chris­tian­ity in China, is thought to have been buried dur­ing the height of anti-bud­dhist cam­paigned in the mid-800s that also af­fected Chris­tians, Zoroas­tri­ans, and Manicheans in the em­pire. Mi­ran, too, had ex­isted in con­tested ter­ri­tory be­tween the Tang, Tur­kic em­pires, and Ti­betans since the time of Taizong.

A 2013 ar­ti­cle in the Chi­nese Ar­chae­ol­ogy jour­nal dates the Mi­ran stu­pas at some­time around the third or fourth cen­tury, when a small set­tle­ment and monastery flour­ished there nom­i­nally un­der Tang rule. A Tibetan fort was later es­tab­lished at the same site around the eighth or ninth cen­tury, but by the time Stein was vis­it­ing, it had been aban­doned for more than 1,000 years, and many of its price­less relics had been dis­carded in trash heaps.

Faced with one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing cross-cul­tural artis­tic ex­changes in his­tory, Stein, in the usual blithe man­ner of his era’s arche­ol­o­gists, packed off seven rel­a­tively in­tact fres­coes to Kash­gar and later New Delhi in 1914 (he also ex­co­ri­ated a Ja­panese ex­pe­di­tion that re­moved an an­gel in be­tween his sec­ond and third visit). A num­ber of them were later sent to the Bri­tish Mu­seum, and an unknown num­ber are said to still be un­der the stew­ard­ship of In­dia’s Na­tional Mu­seum, not ex­hib­ited to the pub­lic and too frag­ile to travel. China’s an­gels seem des­tined to be lost to his­tory again.

China’s own ex­ca­va­tions of Mi­ran be­gan in the late 1970s. In 1989, at least two more “dou­ble-winged ce­les­tials” were un­earthed at tem­ples around the site, as well as in the Silk Road ruin of Loulan the pre­vi­ous year. As China’s am­bi­tions to build new roads across Eura­sia get un­der­way, traders will soon be sym­bol­i­cally re­tread­ing the roads that the an­gels once trav­eled— though noth­ing, per­haps, can re­cap­ture the magic of painted wings peek­ing out of a mil­len­nium of dust, rem­nant of a cul­tural cross­roads that once flour­ished at the desert fringes of em­pires.

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