ANCIENT CHINESE SILK UNRAVELED IN XINJIANG
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with its unique geographic, historical and climatic conditions, is much like a living museum, which has “collected” relics that have disappeared from all other locales. Today, archaeological discoveries and research conti
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with its unique geographic, historical and climatic conditions, is much like a living museum of the Silk Road’s history.
The “Silk Road” refers to the trade route that pioneered by the diplomat and explorer Zhang Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 8). It began from the Chinese capital at the time, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi Province), and stretched across western China, namely Gansu and Xinjiang, and continued further through Central and Western Asia, eventually connecting to the countries of the Mediterranean. One of the main articles being transported along it was Chinese silk, hence the name.
However, curator of the China National Silk Museum, Mr. Zhao Feng, says that, “The earliest silks to appear in Xinjiang were not the ones we usually think of, the ones that Zhang Qian transported during his time as an envoy, it was much earlier than that.” When I heard this statement, it greatly piqued my curiosity.
An Even More Ancient Silk Road
The story begins with a discovery made about 90 years ago.
In the 1920s, Soviet archaeologists began excavation on the Pazyryk burials, located in the northern Altai Mountains. This region is part of the permafrost zone, which, combined with the tombs being sealed with felt insulation, has allowed many of the artifacts within to be very well preserved, including exquisite rugs, horse harnesses and weapons, as well as some very rare pieces of silk. Among these relics is a finely crafted saddle blanket, adorned with typical Chu-style phoenix patterning from the Chu State during the Warring States period (475–221 BC). This patterning can also be seen on the bronze and lacquerware from the same period, which serves as evidence toward the age of these silks.
These ancient silks found in Central Asia are closely related to the history of Xinjiang, and are often mentioned in archaeological research involving the textiles of said region. As for why they were discovered at such a great distant, the answer lies in the fact that the Pazyryk, an ancient horseback people, often frequented the roads of Western China that had appeared even before the establishment of the Silk Road network during the Western Han Dynasty. The silks found in these tombs were reflected by silk pieces unearthed from ancient tombs in parts of Xinjiang such as Toksun County.
These relics of ages long past shed light on a very important matter, namely that the history of the Silk Road extends far beyond the Western Han Dynasty. In other words, the ancient Silk Road dates back much earlier than the expeditions of Zhang Qian, and it had extended westward via numerous routes. But due to the lack of related records, this even more ancient road and the events that transpired along it have remained mysteries. These pieces of silk that, fortunate for us have survived all these years, are now our greatest key to unlocking the history of this early Silk Road and Chinese silk.
The Silk Legend Uncovered by Aurel Stein
Another early discovery of silk articles from Xinjiang was made by Hungarian-british archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943). In 1900, he travelled from India through Kashmir to Xinjiang, where he began explorations. Vice Director of the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology Ms. Li Wenying told me that archaeological observations regarding textiles is a special type of archaeological work, requiring knowledge of materials and techniques related to textiles, and thus knowledge of the history of art and craftsmanship, before thorough research can be performed. Although Stein was a very outstanding archaeologist, he did not have such a background in art and craftsmanship history, so after taking large numbers of textile relics with him he merely announced their discovery through printed materials, and did not perform any further research on them.
Today these textiles from the Han and Jin dynasties (202 BC–AD 420) are held in India at the National Museum, New Delhi, the most well known of which being a collection of works of Han brocade. Some of them are embroidered with texts, even the weavers’ name, from which it can be judged that these brocade most likely were introduced from the Central Plain to Xinjiang. After these artifacts were announced by Stein, they captured the attention of scholars throughout the world, who, from these findings, acquired troves of important information regarding the silks of ancient China.
In 3rd century AD, Han Dynasty records show that the Xinjiang region of the time was known as “the 36 kingdoms of the west”. These city-states were very unstable, and of many of them all that remain today are ruins. But the silk relics unearthed from some of these ruins serve as crucial indicators of the development of silks from the Han to Wei and Jin dynasties. Aside from a small number of Western Han finds at Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan Province and the Qinghai Province, virtually no silks from this era have been discovered anywhere in China.
The reason for this is that silk is extremely difficult to preserve well, being highly prone to decay when exposed to air, and as many ancient tombs were not effectively sealed, 1,800 years is plenty of time for these
Ancient coins found in Xinjiang are as abundant and various as the textiles unearthed here. The ancient local currencies used in the Xinjiang region combined Chinese and western cultures, embodied in the casting methods, inscriptions and materials of the coins. The coins can be categorized into those of the Central Plain, local currency and that of foreign countries. Coins of different Central Plain dynasties, spanning from the Han to the Qing, have been unearthed throughout Xinjiang.
ancient and fragile materials to turn to dust. However, Xinjiang has an especially dry climate, with very little precipitation and thus few microorganisms, thus the textiles found within the tombs there have been able to survive the ages, and the collection is particularly large due to Xinjiang’s location at the central stretch of China’s Silk Road. What’s even more amazing is that many of the silks have retained much of their durability and brilliant colors, which is one of the important characteristics of archaeological discoveries in Xinjiang, as well as an incredible miracle for history and civilization.
The Han Brocade Code
But Stein’s discoveries were just the tip of the iceberg. In the 1980s and 90s, archaeological findings in two more locations in the Xinjiang region caused a stir throughout the world: the first was the Loulan Kingdom, which was established in 2nd century BC and disappeared in 4th century AD, the ruins of its capital located on the northwest bank of Lop Nur; and the second was the Niya Ruins, what remains of the Kingdom of Jingjue (Cadota in native language) from the Han and Jin dynasties, found in present-day Feng County, Xinjiang.
Within the Han tombs to the west of Loulan, large numbers of silk products from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220) were unearthed, along with extensive collections of dragon-, deer- and fish-patterned brocade. Li Wenying says that these patterns are typical of the Eastern Han Dynasty, distinguished by their rolling and dynamic designs. There were also some very rare patterns found, evidencing the high level of craftsmanship that had gone into the products.
A more important discovery was made in the Niya Ruins in 1995: from within the tomb near what was believed to be the royal palace of the Kingdom of Jingjue, a large collection of textile products was found. One of the tombs belonged to a husband and wife, who, judging from the level of the tomb’s luxurious décor, may have been part of the royal class of Jingjue.
According to written records found there, these silks were produced during the Eastern Han, Wei and Jin dynasties. Among them there was one particularly notable piece, a silk banner embroidered with the Chinese words meaning “The five stars rise from the east and empower the Central Plain”, which may have been offered as a gift from the Central Plain to the royalty of Jingjue, and has since been classified as a national-level artifact. The banner features brilliant coloring, known as “five- color brocade”, with the thread count reaching the highest of the era, and the script written in a rare ornate hand, making this relic a truly incredible find.
Upon observation of the other findings of the Niya Ruins, such as structures and ceramics, the local culture and economy came nowhere near those of the Central Plain region of the same period, yet the tombs there had preserved a collection of textile products of impressive scale. Here archaeologists found silks that they had read about in ancient records but had never seen, and even those that they had never before heard of. The collection of silks found in the tombs here encompassed virtually every type existing in ancient China, and the tombs have since become referred to as the “silk museum of the Chinese desert region”.
As for how these exquisite silks ended up here, this remains a matter of debate and speculation. What’s certain is that the unique craftsmanship and high level of artistic skill with which they were made, and the insights they provide on the history and background of the Silk Road, are very worthy of thorough and continuous research.
A New Window for Research on Chinese Silks
From 1995 to 1997, the Yingpan Tombs, located in Yuli County, central Xinjiang, emerged as another important find of the Lop Nur region. Yingpan is located close to a highway, and thus had been severely pillaged, but the enlightenment it provided still answered many questions about the Lop Nur wastelands.
One particularly notable conclusion was that the kingdom where the owners of these tombs lived was established right after the fall of the Loulan and Jingjuea kingdoms, which means that many of the silk items found here could be used to further explain and extend the history of silks in the Xinjiang region.
In Tomb No.15 of Yingpan, an entombed body of a man was discovered, which drew particular attention. This “handsome man” was found wearing a Central Asian-style white mask, with red lips and black eyes
and eyebrows, forming a mysterious smiling countenance. This tomb, essentially a treasure trove for researchers, was situated on a small hill, in a very visible location. The massive collection of exquisite Oriental and Occidental textiles gives one the impression that all the styles in the world at the time could be found there. The materials have retained the richness of their colors, and have kept archaeologists busy for years.
Li Wenying was at the dig site when the casket of the “handsome man” was unearthed. Due to the limitations of the outdoor environment, on-site work was difficult, so Li Wenying decided to wrap the wooden casket in plastic, then had it sent to Urumqi for preservation. It wasn’t until two years later that the laboratory at the archaeological research center unveiled the identity of the “handsome man”.
Li Wenying and Zhao Feng both participated in the cleaning of the man’s clothing and accessories, upon which they found that the body had been tightly wrapped in several layers of white spun silk, his arms, hands and even each finger having been meticulously bound, before he was dressed in his undergarments, then finally adorned in his robe and accessories. This is a burial custom commonly seen in the western region of China, and is much like that used for the Egyptian mummies, the most notable exception being the organ removal process.
There are many more mysteries surrounding to this man, such as his extravagant double-sided red colored and yellow patterned robe, the exterior layer of which was made from worsted wool from Europe, while the inner liner consists of Oriental yellow spun silk. His maroon-colored embroidered trousers are also very unusual; initially most researchers believed they were wool, but after closer examination and research they discovered that the material used was a type of silk made from cotton yarn, a material unique to Xinjiang.
Researcher of ancient textiles Jia Yingyi has pointed out that, based on observations of many textiles unearthed from Xinjiang, the textile industry there had emerged in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, which is significantly earlier than had been previously believed. A unique point about Xinjiang silks was that, due to the locals’ pious faith toward Buddhism, no form of killing was allowed, thus instead of the traditional method of boiling cocoons while the larvae were still inside, they waited until the moth had emerged before retrieving the silk strands. They also applied local traditional wool spinning methods to silk production.
In addition, the development and promulgation of Chinese silks were by no means limited to a westbound orientation, in fact, many textile techniques and styles from Western and Central Asia and Xinjiang influenced those of the Central Plain region of China, as well as the textile industry there. It could be said that the silks of Yingpan, especially the silk artifacts represented by the distinctive garb and accessories on the “handsome man” found in the tombs there, have opened up a special window for us through which light is shed on the developmental history of Chinese silks.
A large amount of textiles have been excavated from ancient tombs in Xinjiangxinjiang, varying in texture and category, which provides ample substantial material for the study of the western region’s costume and culture. Tang Dynasty Peacock patterned embroidery
Tang Dynasty Dear-and-bead patterned brocade
Tang Dynasty A pair of silk sock unearthed in Astana Tomb in Turpan, Xinjiang
Kaiyuan Tongbao coin of the Tang Dynasty (Central Plain’s currency)
Researchers speculate that this Han Dynasty human-and-beast-pattern wool robe unearthed from the Yingpan Tombs in Yulin County, Xinjiang, was an imported product from a western country.
Apart from papers, bamboo slips and tablets, traces of scripts have also been found on coins and textiles unearthed in Xinjiang, such as this famous piece of Han Dynasty brocade unearthed in the Niya Ruins, which was embroidered with the Chinese words meaning “the five stars rise from the east and empower the Central Plain”.
Unearthed from Tomb No. 170 of the Astana Tombs in Turpan, Xinjiang, this brocade manifests the affluent and multi-dimensional life of ancient Xinjiang. On the brocade, a lively and joyful scene of four instrument players standing on a stage with a ceiling is displayed.