Ancient history, modern exploration come together in new Silk Road exhibition

Wu Huixin
"The Silk Road: Before and After Richthofen" covers the glory days of the ancient trading route as well as recent efforts to unlock its secrets.
Wu Huixin
Ancient history, modern exploration come together in new Silk Road exhibition
China National Silk Museum / Ti Gong

Visitors observe and take photos of the exhibits including paintings and copies of stone tablets in the museum to learn about the history and culture of the Silk Road.

The China National Silk Museum, the nation’s largest research organization dedicated to the history of silk, has been hosting a series of events to showcase the cultural heritage of the Silk Road.

The exhibition — “The Silk Road: Before and After Richthofen” — is the highlight of this year’s events. Antiques and artifacts on loan from 13 museums are on display through August 23, giving visitors a glimpse into the glory of the ancient trading route.

“The whole process of forming and recognizing the Silk Road has spanned more than two millennia,” said Zhao Feng, curator of the museum. “The exhibition gives people an opportunity to learn about their ancestors’ bravery, persistence, devotion and cultural exchanges.”

The origin of the Silk Road goes back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) when Emperor Liu Che dispatched ambassador Zhang Qian to the West.

In 1877, German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen popularized the Silk Road as an academic concept. The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.

The first part of the exhibition focuses on artifacts from ancient envoys, merchants, monks and priests. Their tracks converged into different routes which later intertwined to form a crisscrossed Silk Road network.

The Silk Road linked civilizations in trade, religion, technology, culture and arts. The remains of temples, pagodas and tombs were from envoys, merchants, sailors, herdsmen, soldiers, monks and priests, the real builders of the Silk Road.

Starting from the Han Dynasty, countless cavalcades of merchants traveled along the Silk Road to trade high-value products, particularly silk, tea and porcelain, expanding exchanges between Chinese and Western regions.

In the exhibition, pottery saddle horses made in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and figurines excavated from Xi’an in Shaanxi Province feature obvious Western appearances, proving their exchanges along the road.

Buddhism represented a major link in cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, as evidenced by myriads of Buddha sculptures and figurines found along the road. The exhibition includes some made as early as the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581).

Ancient history, modern exploration come together in new Silk Road exhibition
China National Silk Museum / Ti Gong

Showcases include pottery saddle horses from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) which were excavated from Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. The figurings show Western appearances, proving the exchanges between the East and the West along the Silk Road. Their achievements and documents are on display, showing these archeologists’ great contributions to the academic study of the Silk Road. The exhibition will go through August 23. 

The imperial court of the Han Dynasty set up official departments to take charge of various affairs along the route.

Bamboo and wooden slips from Xuanquan Posthouse in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, record envoys’ information, providing historians with precious details to study official appointment and tributary trade systems along the road.

The second part of the exhibition switches focus to Richthofen and his students’ research.

The Silk Road was not named until Richthofen came up with the concept after his exploration in China. His student Sven Hedin did surveys to carry forward the idea of the road.

Archeological explorations along the road peaked in the early 20th century. Groups of explorers from Sweden, Russia and the UK searched for relics in western China.

In the 1920s and 1930s, an exploration team led by Hedin and Chinese scientist Xu Bingxu surveyed today’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Gansu Province and Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region for eight years to research the Silk Road. Their exploration made great advances in geology, archeology and meteorology, giving a boost to scientific exchanges between China and other countries.

Their achievements and documents are on display, showing these archeologists’ great contributions to the academic study of the Silk Road.

In 2014, the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor of the Silk Road was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list under the collaboration of China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Since it stretches over 10,000 kilometers and its history spans two millennia, the application took 26 years with tremendous efforts to be approved.

Chinese historians, archeologists and scientists started to spread the information about the Silk Road culture from the 1950s, attracting visitors and documentary crews from Japan.

Japan’s Hirayama Ikuo was dubbed “Silk Road painter” because his great devotion to portraying the landscape, people and cultures along the road. The exhibition displays his works on loan from Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum.

Ancient history, modern exploration come together in new Silk Road exhibition
China National Silk Museum / Ti Gong

A sculpture featuring two Buddhas is on display. Evidences show that myriads of Buddha sculptures and figurines are found along the Silk Road, representing a major link in cultural exchanges along the route. 

The Silk Road: Before and After Richthofen

Date: Through August 23 (closed on Mondays)

Admission: Free

Address: 73-1 Yuhuangshan Rd

玉皇山路73-1

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