Treasures of the Silk Road: During a Period of Disunity in China's History, New Religious, Ethnic, and Commercial Influences Transformed Its Culture. (Museum Today)

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AN EXHIBITION of more than 120 spectacular artifacts from the regions where the Silk Road wound through Chinese territory is on view at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Fla. Included are metalwork, textiles, glass, funerary furniture, ceramics, and Buddhist sculptures, many only recently excavated and most never before exhibited in the West. With one exception, all the objects come from official public collections in Gansu Province and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a melting pot of ethnic groups and traditions that ultimately influenced cultural trends in the metropolitan centers farther east. Set in the 400 years between the tall of the Han dynasty and the rise of the Tang empire, the exhibition tells the story of cultural interactions through trade and religion, as opposed to military conquest. Mainly because of a relative lack of historical texts, the period is far-less well-known than the Han or Tang, yet it is a time of crucial cultural and artistic achievement.

The sandstone "Guardian" or "Heavenly King" exemplifies the cultural crosscurrents of the Silk Road and Chinese Buddhism. Such ferocious figures in lull armor originated in India, where Buddhism adopted these guardians of four directions to protect the Buddha and sacred precincts. The heavy, molded leather armor is a hybrid of Chinese and Central Asian styles, but the figures retain their foreign features--bulging eyes, large noses, mustaches, and beards. Increasing in popularity by the seventh century, Chinese heavenly kings ultimately rook the place of tomb guardian-warrior figures, merging Buddhist practices with native burial traditions.

Prominent among the foreigners in China in this period were Sogdians, who were the most-successful traders on the Silk Road. Almost 2,000 miles from their homeland in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Sogdian merchants maintained far-flung commercial contacts. One of the most-fascinating objects in the exhibition is the so-called "Sogdian Ancient Letter II." Among the oldest known writings in the Sogdian language, the letter details the turmoil in China in the years 307-314. The writer, Nanai-vandak, was deeply concerned about his business and fearful for his life as well. Famine and war had led to the death of fellow countrymen in China, and his letter contains instructions on how a large sum of money he had left behind should be invested to benefit his son. However, the letter was in a mailbag that was perhaps confiscated by Chinese border guards, and it never reached the family to whom it was addressed.

Buddhist sculpture forms perhaps the most important part of the exhibition, and one of the most impressive figures is a mere 4.5 inches high. The rare gilt bronze "Seated Buddha with a Parasol" is datable to around 480. Few such small-scale images have survived, and this one is complete with its royal parasol, the mandorla or halo, and four-legged pedestal. Probably cast in Hebei, China's heartland, it was discovered in Gansu. Perhaps carded by a monk or pilgrim traveling the Silk Road inside China, this compact image has the scale and presence of a much-larger statue.

As the main route into China from the West, Gansu and Ningxia were critical in the ancient world. Yet, with the exception of the famous cave-temples of Dunhuang, the spectacular Buddhist cave sites in the Gansu-Ningxia region are little known. Among the examples of Buddhist sculptures from the cave-temple site of Maijishan in Gansu province, one of the most haunting is the almost life-size figure of the "Buddhist Disciple Kasyapa." The Maijishan artists depict him as an aged monk--Kasyapa is the oldest of Buddha's disciples--his hands clasped in prayer and his mouth slightly open, perhaps chanting a Buddhist holy text. He is depicted as a foreigner--an Indian--with deep-set eyes and a prominent, arched nose.

Among the masterpieces in the exhibition is the sixth-century statue of the "Bodhisattva Guanyin" from Qin'an County, just to the northwest of Maijishan. …