07 November 2013

Silk Road sarcophagus 592 AD

All semester, the students have been reading about the Silk Road that linked Beijing to Istanbul via Central China, Xinjiang, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We have examined the architecture of Islamic mosques, Buddhist temples, sculpted caves, markets and caravanserais. And we have tended to concentrate on the Chinese Yuan Dynasty (c1260-1368). This was when Mongolian leader Kublai Khan gained the title Great Khan by embracing Ch­inese culture and rebuilding Peking as his winter capital.

As with the best history, the accidental discovery in 1999 of a tomb in Taiyuan city, Shanxi province in NW China and the unearthing of a carved marble sar­cophagus changed minds. Historians now need to re­vis­it communication between China and the West, before the Tang Dynasty (618–906).

A fine description of the marble came from Caroline McDowall who noted that the sarchophagus was painted in gold, red and brown pigments, to house Yu Hong and his wife who were both interred there in 590s. While sharing a structure similar to many other tombs of the late C6th in north-central China, the carved and painted artwork on the marble sarcophagus' exterior showed no trace of Chinese motifs at all. Instead there were Persian and Buddhist scenes of hunting, feasting, music and domestic life.

The works depict either non-Chinese elements or mixed features of Chinese and foreign culture, be it heavily loaded pottery camels or porcelains with motifs of taming lions in a circus. Human figurines of Chinese or non-Chinese origin were shown relentlessly pursuing their long and lonely journey on the mysterious Silk Road.

DNA testing shows Yu Hong was Caucasian, and his wife was a mix of Asian and European. As a young man, he began his diplomatic career in West Asia, and was dispatched to China’s north in the mid C6th. Chinese was not his mother tongue. But where was he from? His epitaph suggests he came from a community of Turkic-speakers in Central Asia.

detail of Yu Hong’s sarcophagus, 
white marble,  592 AD
normally in the Shanxi Museum, China

Caroline McDowall noted that the sarcophagus looks like a typical Chinese building however a closer inspection of the crisply detailed scenes of banquets, entertainment and hunting, reveals the figures, carved or painted both on the interior and the exterior of all four sides of the stone structure, that do not look like the Han Chinese.

In fact the style and the iconographic themes on the sarcophagus are Buddhist, Sogdian in central Asia and Persian in western Asia. Reinforcing this finding is an absence of dragons but an abundance of camels, lions and elephants. Its pict­orial style evolved from a combination of features from Arabian, Persian, Indian, Turkish, Iranian and Roman origins, including hunters and fighters on camelback, on elephants, animals fighting and wine-making.

The Art Gallery of NSW has exhibited Silk Road Saga: the Sarcophagus of Yu Hong until November 2013. Co-organised with the Shanxi History Museum in central China’s Shanxi province, the 13 richly illustrated panels from the unearthed sarcophagus were displayed in parts so that all the exquisite details of its carved relief decorations could be revealed. While the sarcophagus itself was a major draw card because of its rarity and the fascination of scholars with its amazing iconography, another 16 other excavated objects are from burials of the same period in Shanxi province.


We should have started our lectures in an earlier period. Yu Hong's tomb has shown historians the extent of cultural interaction along the Silk Road when people from the west were no strangers to ancient China's cities. Travelling the breadth of Asia, merchants moved their export wares regularly and their arrival at both ends of the Silk Road established a continuing link between the different cultures.

The Tang Dynasty (started 618 AD) enjoyed successful diplomatic relationships and economic expansion such that every merchant, soldier and monk wanted to travel the Silk Road and throng the streets of Chang’an, the capital. But Yu Hong (died 592 AD) was already dead by then.

The Silk Road Saga Exhibition will close at the Art Gallery of NSW on the 10th November 2013.


Andrew said...

I hope the exhibition comes to Melbourne. The connection between east and west via the Silk Road so long ago is very interesting.

Hels said...


The number of objects in the NSW exhibition was very small. But the accompanying films, lectures, magazine articles and visiting curators from China made for an exciting programme. I wish the entire package would have come to Melbourne too.

Mandy Southgate said...

It's actually laughable how Eurocentric we are when we consider history like this. So much of British history remains unknown from the departure of the Romans to the Norman invasion and yet here we have such complex and fascinating histories and dynasties across Asia. Your classes sound fascinating Hels. I often wish I could attend as a student!

Student of History said...

The Silk Route has been my favourite subject all year. Thank you.

Hels said...


totally Eurocentric *nod*. In my comfort zone, I can tell you what Claude Monet ate for breakfast and who Augustus John had the hots for, without looking it up.

With Asian history, I even have to remind myself which of the stans Samarkand is in *pathetic sigh*

Hels said...

Student of History

I agree with you....it has been so exciting and full of new discoveries. A new book has just been published; I will add the details to this post as soon as our library has a copy.

Darragh McCurragh said...

It's amazing what DNA testing can bring to light nowadays. And apart from historic evidence save a few lives on death row ...

Hels said...


After all these years, I am still amazed at the unexpected information that is revealed, often totally by accident. We are the Cool Generation that knows everything there is to know. Yet...yet...we can still be sent rushing back to our history books to rethink old certainties.

Australian in Amsterdam said...

You have to love the mixtures of cultures, architecture and genes along the silk road. Examining the route in class this semester, I am intrigued with Islamic mosques that looked exactly like Chinese pagodas.

Hels said...


I love it too. Yu Hong was Europeanish and his wife was Asianish, and so I imagine it was in many families over the decades. Every trader, missionary, courtier and builder must have left an interesting legacy for future generations.

But my favourite blending of cultures was definitely The Great Mosque of Xian (685-762). The Great Mosque was looked like a Chinese pagoda in its architecture and did not look remotely middle eastern.

Adventure World said...

Follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo and journey through ancient Samarkand and Bukhara, cross spectacular passes and explore the Tien Shan Mountains dotted with yurts, sheep and horses, and visit the 2,000 year old Kashgar Sunday Bazaar.

Perfectly positioned along the ancient Silk Road between Asia and Europe, Uzbekistan is rich in history and culture and is home to some of the most spectacular cities and architecture on the Route. From the legendary cities of Bukhara and Samarkand to modern Tashkent and the vast red sands of the Kyzylkum Desert, the contrasts of this country are sure to excite travellers. The best time to visit Uzbekistan is April, May and October when the weather isn't too hot.

Student of History said...


Look what I found.

"Discovery Channel joins David Baddiel as he sets off on a 4,000 mile journey to explore the most famous trade route in history – the Silk Road. This four-part travelogue follows the comedian and novelist on the adventure of a lifetime, as he travels from Xi’an, China to Istanbul, Turkey to uncover a series of remarkable locations, mysteries and hidden gems, many unknown to the western world. The 2,000-year-old ancient highway changed the world, carrying not just trade but knowledge, religion, disease and dissent between the Far East aand Europe. With exclusive access to research and investigations, using cutting-edge technology, David retraces the steps of merchants, warriors and pilgrims along the largest trade route the world has ever known."

Sunday 21st Feb 2016
TV Discovery

Hels said...


every five years, when this subject is offered, the number of students enrolling is large. The silk road topic clearly still fascinates us.

Although we don't have a date yet for Australian tv, I hope the David Baddiel series is excellent.