From Silk to Spirit: Journeying along the Silk Road

We often think of globalization as a modern phenomenon, but the Silk Road epitomized it in ancient times. Established toward the end of China’s Han dynasty (202 b.c.–a.d. 220) in the first and second centuries, the Silk Road reached the height of its glory in the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618–906), Stretching 7,000 miles from China in the east to the Roman Empire in the west. Trade in silk was accompanied by exchanges in other commodities, such as gold, ivory, exotic animals, and plants, and followed by exchanges in thought, culture, religion, music, art, and dance. Everyday life on the Silk Road had an incredibly rich material culture. 

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)’s large earthenware pair of camels tells us of the powerful presence of animals and people along the Silk Road. The two-humped (Bactrian) camel with its fast pace was favored in the Chinese deserts over the one-humped (Dromedary) type, which was more effective in the Indian and Middle Eastern deserts. The set of 10 Tang figurines of the Tomb Retinue reminds us that Chinese culture at the time integrated civic life with religious beliefs of nature and influences of Buddhism. The first Buddhist influences came in the Han dynasty and were followed over subsequent periods in the Wei dynasty (a.d. 386–557), with the adoption of the Buddhist religion and building of monasteries, grottos, and stupas in China. Xuan Zhuang, the famous Chinese traveler, brought more than 600 Buddhist scriptures from India to Changan, site of the Tang capital, and was seen as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China. The large, colorful painting of Sakyamuni depicts the Buddha seated in discourse on a lotus flower throne in heaven, shown by pink, purple, and yellow clouds. Though this is a later, Ching dynasty (1644–1911) object, it illustrates the new vocabulary of Buddhist religious mythical figures that entered Chinese consciousness through the Silk Road—apsaras, bodhisattvas of wisdom (Manjusri) and of benevolence (Samantabhadra), and their accompanying mounts. 

Perhaps the most powerful presence of spirit and tranquility that emerges from the Silk Road is expressed by the Tang limestone figure of Monk Ananda. When the Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, the five ascetics to whom he preached, of whom Ananda was one, became his first monk disciples. Leaning slightly to the left, suggesting that he was originally placed to the right side of a larger figure of the Buddha within a temple setting, the figure of Ananda, cousin to the Buddha, stands on a lotus-form base. He displays simplicity through the shaven head, an incredible tranquility through his serene expression, and his station through the robes of a Chinese monk. From wanderlust and danger, to material goods and riches, to renunciation and spirit, the art and history of the Silk Road invite endless discovery.

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(Slightly modified from its original version, authored by Virajita Singh, published in ‘In Focus’ A Newsletter by and for Collection in Focus Guides, Minneapolis Institute of Art, April 2008)


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