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

China Scenic - - Contents - By Wang Wen Pho­to­graphs by Liu Yusheng, and as cred­ited

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.

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