Commentary – Nationalizing the Silk Road culture
This is an account written by Han Leran in Kizil Thousand Buddha cave no.10 on 10th and 16th of June, 1946. The cave no. 10 was used as a living quarter for monks and had no wall-painting. On the upper part of its north wall, Han’s assistant inscribed this account with white Chinese characters of 1 cm height (Chŏng, 2006). The text provides an insight into Han’s righteous indignation about foreign explorers who took most of the cave-paintings, while at the same time declaring his affection for the culture which made these caves. It is a plea to preserve this cultural heritage site. Today, the inscription is accompanied by a display of Han’s photographs, his awards as well as his paintings of Kizil murals and the Xinjiang landscape.
According to this account, Han became aware of the ancient art of Xinjiang after reading books written by Western researchers such as Sir Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq. In fact, antiquities and ruins of the Xinjiang area engaged the attention of the Western world in the late 19th century. Exploring this area and collecting its artifacts became an arena for intense competition between Western powers such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Russia while the influence of the Chinese Qing dynasty waned in the Western regions, where the caves are located. »Lost cities«, abandoned and forgotten sites of the Silk road attracted adventurers. Following the first exploration of Sven Hedin in 1895, many foreign groups of archeological, art historical and historical researchers from various countries investigated the historical sites of the Xinjiang province (Hopkirk, 1980). The Kizil Thousand Buddha caves are among rock-cut monasteries with mural paintings which appealed to researchers studying visual culture and cultural exchange in Asia. This site consisting of 236 cave temples carved into the mountain cliff, stretching over a length of two kilometers. It was first reported by the Japanese expedition of Count Otani Kozui (1876–1948) in 1902. In the same year, a German expedition led by Albert Grünwedel (1856–1935) and Albert von Le Coq (1860–1930) came here to conduct field research and collected pieces of mural paintings in the area. They repeated this twice, with expeditions in 1905 and 1913. In 1907, the French linguist Paul Pelliot (1878–1945) and his group excavated sites as well as two Russian expeditions led by Mikhail Mikhailovic Berezovsky (1848–1912) and Sergei F. Oldenburg (1863–1934), respectively. The »Western« expeditions surveyed the structure of cave temples, gathered sculptures and manuscripts, photographed the sites and scraped off mural paintings. Germans were conducting research most actively in these Kizil caves. They visited the Kizil caves three times and brought back hundreds of crates with objects to Germany, most of which are still housed in Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin (See IDP website, »Collections« for more details).
Chinese expeditions in this area occurred much later, in the late 1920s. After the Qing dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China in 1912, Xinjiang went through a period of political unrest. Many different regimes such as that of the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (IRET), the Chinese Muslim Kuomintang as well as an USSR-backed East Turkistan Republic tried to gain control over this area (Millward, 2007). When the Republic of China claimed its authority over the whole extent of the Qing dynasty’s territory, he first expeditions with Chinese researchers were set up. The first Chinese expedition to the caves was initiated by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, and the Chinese government imposed several conditions on Hedin for conducting research in the Xinjiang area: all findings should belong to the Chinese government and could not be taken out of China. Furthermore, Chinese people should join the expedition. When China regained its authority in this area after Hedin’s Expedition (1928–31), no more foreign expeditions were allowed to enter the region (Johansson, 2012).
Han Leran’s own investigation of the Kizil caves in the middle of 1940 occurred in the context of a nationalist and antiforeign movement in China. As a passionate Chinese communist activist against Imperialism and Fascism, he chose to study Xinjiang’s culture and archeological vestiges as part of a Chinese cultural legacy long been neglected by the learned Chinese class, and ravaged by foreigners over the last decades. His aim was to preserve the sites for posterity (Kwon, 1993).
As the inscription in cave 10 shows, Han was outraged because foreign researchers such as Stein or Le Coq had removed artefacts and mural paintings from the original sites. Beyond that, however, he disliked the fact that their reports separated Xinjiang’s culture from that of Han China (Kwon, 1993).
He gathered diverse material evidence to prove his idea that the Xinjiang’s culture was part of Chinese civilization. He excavated ancient tombs and found objects written with era names from the Tang Dynasty and compared Kizil mural painting’s visual elements with those of Dunhuang in order to identify a Han Chinese painting tradition in this area (Han, 1946). By studying the art and culture of Xinjiang, he wanted to appropriate not only the material remnants of local culture, but also related historical and cultural discourses.
As one of his tools of appropriation, Han copied wall paintings in caves in watercolor and oil, as mentioned in the inscription. Indeed, copying ancient murals in full-scale was a key feature of Chinese art practice in the 20th century. Han’s friend Chang Shuhong (1904–1990), known as »the guardian of the caves of Dunhuang« also studied art in France and discovered civilizations of the western Chinese regions while visiting the Guimet Museum of Asian art in Paris (founded in 1889) and reading Paul Pelliot’s books. Upon his return to China, he established a research institute in Dunhuang, where he and his artist friends copied Dunhuang murals. In the 1940s, huge exhibitions of these copies of Dunhuang cave painting were shown in different cities in China (Clarke, 2019). And until today, the National Dunhuang art institute hires artists to copy mural paintings (Xu, 2014). In terms of cultural heritage preservation, this tradition of copying may depict the state of mural paintings more comprehensively than photography. For Han, the copy of mural paintings of the Kizil cave was an act of passion towards art and the nation, as well as academic research and a contribution to the National Cultural Revival of China.
Dr. Ji Young Park is a PostDoc Fellow in the translocations research cluster at Technische Universität Berlin.
Sources and Literature
Alice Casalini, Ch.2. »Trends in the scholarship 1895 – today«, in: Towards a new approach to the study of the Buddhist rock monasteries of Kuča (Xinjiang). Master dissertation, Venice University, 2015, pp. 33–70.
Su-il Chŏng, Silk’ŭ rodŭ munmyŏng kihaeng : oasisŭ-ro p’yŏn, Seoul, 2006.
David Clarke, China—Art—Modernity: A Critical Introduction to Chinese Visual Expression, Hong Kong, 2019.
Leran Han, »Xīnjiāng wénhuà bǎokù zhī xīn fāxiàn—gǔ gāochāng qiū cí yìshù tàn gǔ jì« in: Xinjiang ri bao (18–19.07.1946).
James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, New York, 2007.
Peter Hopkirk, Foreign devils on the Silk Road: the search for the lost treasures of Central Asia, London, 1980.
IDP (International Dunhuang Project), »collections« (available online)
Perry Johansson, Saluting the Yellow Emperor – A Case of Swedish Sinography, Leiden, 2012.
Yŏung-pil Kwon, Han Rak-Yon ŭi saengae wa yesul in: The Journal of Korean Studies, no. 5, 1993, pp. 155–182.
Xiao xi Zhang and Ya li Wie, Han le ran zhuan, Yanji, 2012.
Wenwen Xu, »Replicas of Rarely Seen Buddhist Cave Art at Museum« in: Shanghai Daily (06.01.2014). Available online.
Quote this article as:
Han Leran: Inscription in Kizil Cave No. 10 (1947), commented by Ji Young Park, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike
, published 26.05.2020.