Two thousand years from now, what will archaeologists unearth from the ruins of our civilization? Cars? Rice cookers? For sure, examples of “technology” so outdated as to provoke incredulity. The U.S. government believes that future humans — or perhaps extraterrestrial excavators — will uncover still-toxic nuclear waste dumps and therefore plans to create sculptural “spike fields” that will mark dangerous sites for millennia to come.
Will we leave behind anything of beauty and durability? Or will the remains of our supposedly advanced civilization compare poorly with those of the cultures that came before us, whose everyday objects possessed aesthetic value. One hundred fifty such artifacts, recently excavated in Xinjian Uygur Autonomous Region, western China, and dating as far back as the fifth century B.C., are now on display at the Tokyo National Museum in “Brocade and Gold From the Silk Road.” This impressive exhibition marks the 30th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and China.
Xinjian Uygur lies at the heart of the former Silk Road, less a single road than a vast network of trade routes linking Rome, its westernmost point, to Changan on China’s east coast — and even to Nara, Japan’s capital from 710 to 784. The region was not only a meeting place but also a melting pot of cultures.
The exhibits in the first gallery — texts written in an array of languages — make this point better than any map could. Some are exquisitely calligraphed, others neatly printed for legibility. There are wooden slips bearing Chinese characters, deeds of slave transactions written in Khotanese, an official letter of request written in the local language of Uygur and a beautiful fragment in Tokharian A, which flourished only from the seventh to tenth centuries.
Other texts reveal the existence of an astonishing religious diversity at the central Asian crossroads. There is a Nestorian Christian tombstone, an oracle bone inscribed in Tibetan, two fragments of the seminal Buddhist text “A Meeting With Maitreya,” an annotated portion of the “Analects” of Confucius and a gorgeously illuminated Manichaean letter written in an eastern Iranian language, Sogdian.
It is appropriate that many of these documents are fragmentary, for they resemble pieces of a puzzle, each illustrating one aspect of a complex Silk Road culture. Manichaeism, for example, was a blend of Christian, Zoroastrian and Gnostic thinking, which held that there were two equal deities of good and evil. Founded in Persia in the third century, the letter on display is evidence that Manichaeism, long past its peak, had adherents in this central region well into the 10th century. Goods may have changed hands briskly along the Silk Road, but the exchange of religious ideas was a far slower process. Nestorius was condemned as a heretic by the Roman Church in 431; the tombstone of his adherent shown here dates from the 13th or 14th century.
What this show casts most light on, however, is not lofty questions of belief, nor the efficiency of ancient China’s famous bureaucracy (evident from the meticulous record-making), but the beauty that the traders and dwellers along the Silk Road brought to their everyday lives.
The first gallery holds works in silk and precious metals, made by the nomadic tribes of Sakas and Xiongnu, and by the Huns. These items were created for daily use and trade, but all are equally beautiful. A bronze caldron of the fourth or fifth century is decorative yet functional. The work in gold is breathtaking, characterized by studded ornamentation and inlaid red precious stones. Some pieces are intact (a mask, a covered vessel, a ring), some are battered and misshapen (a cup, a sheath) but all are lustrous from their handling down the centuries.
These treasures are from the so-called steppes route, a trade road that connected the Mongolian highlands with the north coast of the Black Sea. This was one of three principal paths through Xinjian Uygur, the others being the northern and southern oasis routes that skirted the borders of the region.
Along the northern road lay the former garrison city of Gaochang and near it, one of China’s most fabulous archaeological sites. Astana — known as Karakhoja in the local dialect and named for an ancient Uygur hero famous for slaying a dragon — was the burial ground for the Han Chinese who administered the region, which was controlled by China from the fourth century. The necropolis contains more than 500 tombs, their contents found in a remarkable state of preservation when the site was excavated in the 1950s. Corpses have dried out but they have not decayed, and neither have the boiled dumplings that were buried with them.
The dry, hot climate has meant, too, that the colors of grave goods are as vivid as the day they were painted or dyed. From 640, Gaochang was under direct rule by China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) and many of the Astana items show the influence of Tang culture. A series of paintings portray elegant young women with the puffy red cheeks prized in eighth-century China. There are many small figurines — colorful variants on the more famous terra cotta warriors of Xian — that marvelously capture their subjects, among them a lipsticked scowling eunuch and a group of women cooking.
The Astana tombs also contained fine fabric items, including twill weave and resist-dyed silks. The loveliest fabrics at this exhibition, however, are in the final display area, showcasing items from the southern oasis route. Astana’s splendor adorned the deceased in their tombs, and the treasures of the steppes dwellers were traded and sold off. The woven items of the southern route, however — a tasseled saddle cushion, a brocade checkered garment, tapestry boots, a rooster-shaped pillow — were for daily use.
Their beauty is matched only by their practicality and their strength. A 10th- century brocade hood, lined with fur to last through the cold central-Asian winter, has lasted a whole millennium.
In 1880, William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, urged in his essay “The Beautiful Life”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
The houseless nomads of Xinjian Uygur mastered that maxim 2,000 years ago. Beauty and utility were combined in everything they turned their hands to.