Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Silk Road by Frances Wood: Chapter 5 to the end.

I am continuing with my notes on the Silk Road by Frances Wood.

The fifth chapter deals with the transmission of faiths along the Silk Road by the Sogdians. Along with Zoroastrianism (a dualistic religion worshiping Ahura Mazda, which was associated with the sun and fighting against an evil deity), Manicheism was also propagated. Mancicheism was another dualistic religion which took in elements of Iranian, Semitic, Buddhist and Christian traditions. They survived in Medieval Europe as the Cathar movement, and adopted by the Uighurs of Mongolia. It also survived for some time in China. Mani believed people contained a finite number of light particles which could be divided amongst descendants and Mani believed that he was the successor of the other great prophets including Jesus, Buddha and Zoroaster.

Chapter 6 describes how China was influenced by the West in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Women's fashions became looser (thanks in part to a fat concubine called Yang Guifei) and the Chinese adopted the chair. This in turn influenced Chinese architecture. Tables and chairs were used and everything became higher up including windows. However, the Chinese way of sitting in a chair continued to resemble the way people sat on a mat, at least for some people. Also, by this time, Japan had isolated itself from Chinese influence and so continued with the tight-bodiced high-waisted style and continued with the mat system.

Chapter 7 is about the growth of Buddhism in China as evidenced by the cave of a 1000 Buddhas unearthed in Dunhuang.

Gradually Buddhism arrived in China via the silk road arriving in first half of first century with foreigners. Later, various monks in China went to great lengths going back aalong the silk road from 260 AD to accumulate the various sutras from India and translate them.e.g. Faxian in 399 and Xuanzang by 648. The account of one of these adventures is told later in Monkey.

Paper was invented and improved, and the first book recorded was made in 868AD by Wang Jie. This was in the form of a long printed scroll. Gradually stitched binding and whirlwind binding was introduced.

With the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 908AD following the Buddhist persecutions of the 9th century the great cave temples were abandoned and sand began to drift in. China oasis towns taken over by local leaders and Islam.

Chapter 8 deals with the succession of independent states that ook over the area after the decline of the Tang empire in 983. The Tanguts and Mongols were both Mongols and eventually, under Ghengis Khan , there was a huge empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to Peking in 1227. This was extended south to Tibet and northern India. This expansion continued until the 16th century.

Inroads made by the Muslims encouraged the West to seek out treaties with the Mongols against Islam in the thirteenth century. However, when William of Rubbruck, sent out in 1248, by the King of France reached Karakorum on the silk road he found there were Nestorians there already, and had been favourably received by the Chinese in 635AD. Furthermore there were captured Europeans there already.

In 1291 John of Montecorvino , a Franciscan friar, reached Peking and established a church.

Marco Polo is supposed to have been in Peking at the same time and makes little reference to him. This author seems to regard the Polo's account as inaccurate and doubtful, but they were supposed to have been welcomed into Peking by Kublai Khan around 1262 and stayed for 17 years, with Marco acting as roving ambassador.

In 1287 Nestorian clerics, Markos and Rabban Sauma arrived in Genoa having started in Peking. He then went on to Paris and Bordeaux and met Edward I.

Chapter 9 deals with travellers to Ming China (1368-1644) along the silk road. By now the sea routes were found to be more popular. However, embassies from peripheral states were greeted with gifts, treats and acrobatic displays.

Most famous city of the time was Samarkand which was ruled by Timur (Tamburlaine according to Christopher Marlow) because he was lame. He dreamed of emulating Genghis Khan and built himself an exotic town which was sumptuous with trees, garden, silks and various foods. Buildings too were magnificent. The sumptuous conception of Samarkand continued to dominate writers such as Keates, Arnold and Oscar Wilde.

Chapter 10 is about the Great Game - the jostling for dominance in the area between Russian expansionism from the north and British expansion from India during the 18th and 19th centuries. China also battled for control and dominance and at the end of the eighteenth century had conquered great swathes of land called the 'New Norders' Xinjiang and Sinkiang. However their grip on the area was precarious. As this weakened local leaders seized power and had uneasy relationships with the two main European powers in the area.

Chapter 11 is mainly about Sven Hedin. This Swedish explorer lived until old age despite taking many risks in his exploration of the Silk Road. Like Nikolai Przhevalsky, a Russian who came earlier, one of their aims was to get to Lhasa in Tibet. However, the Tibetans did not welcome foreigners. Przhevalsky died 1888, Hedin in 1952.

Chapter 12 concerns the opportunities for hunting in the Silk Road countryside, and the way these were taken up by Ellsworth Huntington, an American geographer. He believed that the climate had changed in the region and this had affected the populations and also the character of the people there.

Later Ralph Cobbold remarked animals such as the ovid poli were becoming scarce. As did R. C. F Schomberg in the 1930s who was most concerned that landmarks be named after explorers rather than members of the Nazi party.

Hunting produced trophies and also medicine. Tiger entrails were wound around pregnant women to ease childbirth.

Chapter 13 gives a brief general introduction to the life and work of Aurel Stein and his discoveries in the Dunhuang caves. The Daoist priest looking after them was Wang Yuanlu. He showed Stein the scrolls, and having reassuring local officials all was well, paid 500 rupees, removed as much as he could arrange to be carried to the British Museum.

Chapter 14 describes the collectors that followed: Pelliot, a French genius who visited the caves after Stein and carted more back to Europe, this time to Paris and wouldn't let anyone else see them. He showed some of the scrolls to the Chinese in Peking and this resutled in the caves being shut down, preventing further removal.

Then Germans Albert Grunwedel and Albert von Le Coq collected more artefacts from the area. Their justification was that they were not treasured by the local community who were in the habit of removing parts of the statues for fertlisiers. Muslims destroyed figurative pictures, the higher officials were Confucians and looked down on Buddhism as lower class religion, some of the locals were scared of the sinister nature of the writings and put them in a river.

Langdon Warner almost halted archeological expeditions by foreigners e.g. by hauling statues of horses from Xi'an to the university museum of Phildelphia before going on to Dunhuang. There, in 1923-4, he found that 400 white Russian deserters, interned in the caves in 1921 had scratched names, built fires, and generally desecrated murals. Also Mongol worhsippers leant and brushed against murals - in process of olbiterating them.

He fixed the pigments using glue given to him by a Peking chemist but encountered difficulties in the cold. Worked from day to night experiencing black remorse for what he had done and black despair. Even so, then negotiated with Wang to remove more statues - an old and tarnished one instead of the ones Wang had begged money to pay for restoration.

The contents of cave 17 are now dispersed between Peking, St Petersburg, Paris and London.

The last two chapters deal with explorers like the three women missionaries, Mildred Cable, Francesca French and Evangeline French who braved the unrest that occurred in the region throughout the twentieth century, and which continues today. Despite the encouragement of tourism by the Soviet Union and China, it seems to still be a lawless place, and the rise of the Taliban whose followers despise and deface anything Buddhist, make it a challenging destination even today.

Altogether, a very interesting and well-written introduction to a complicated part of the world. There is just one thing that puzzles me: I'm not sure if I've missed it, but there does not seem to be a single map. I would have much appreciated one, in fact I would have appreciated several.


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