Friday, March 25, 2011

The Beauty of XiaoHe 小河美女

She is almost 4,000 years old from the Bronze Age.  She is more than 1,000 years older than Confucius.  But God’s endowment never left her and she is as stunningly beautiful as ever.  She has been lying still and napping under the desert sand for all these years, unaware of the hustling and bustling trades of Silk Roads had come and gone as numerously many were turned into dust.  Her eyes are closed and long eyelashes are still intact.  A section of her leg is visible, pale and stiff.  She is the Beauty of XiaoHe who was found 6 years ago, one of more than one hundred well-preserved mummies discovered over the last three decades in Tarim Basin 塔里木盆地 of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 新疆维吾尔自治  of western China.  Her last stop in U.S. was the Penn Museum – the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as a part of the special exhibit Secrets of the Silk Roads where a little over one hundred artifacts and items were shown.  

No, the Beauty of XiaoHe is not a Chinese.  She has clear Caucasian features – elongated body, recessed and round eyes, and brown curly hairs.  Although still inconclusive, DNA studies suggest that she is a descendant of Eastern Eurasians and South Siberians.  At the crossroad of East, South and Central Asia, the region connects China and Middle East, Africa and Europe.  It is also known that there had been significant migrations and intermingling of many distinct ethnic groups since thousands of years ago.   Uyghurs , the dominant ethical group of XinJiang today appeared much later.  The region was subsequently ruled by Mongol Empire and followed by Dzungar Empire untill mid 18th century when Machurian Qing Dynasty annexed it into China.  As we speak, the protests and occasional violence from the separatists and independence movement explodes from time to time.  Who can untangle and escape the wrath of history? 

Bounded at north by Tian Shan 天山 mountains and south by Kunlun Mountains 崑崙山 which is the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Tarim Basin is extremely dry with the massive Taklamakan Desert right in the middle.  Thank to Tarim River, northern route of the Silk Roads takes the travelers and traders around the desert through towns on the oases along the way.  The map and legend below shows the routes and sites from which the articles and mummies of this special exhibit were first discovered.  (Note all the photos and figures displayed are from the official source of the exhibit and copyright may apply).

The rise of Silk Roads is, as the name suggests, due to the demand from the west for silk from China.  The legend has it that Empress Lei Zu 嫘祖 , the wife of the founding Yellow Emperor of China accidentally discovered the silk from silk cocoon 5,000 years ago.  Chinese guarded successfully the secrets of arts and technology in breeding silkworms and making silk fabrics for thousands of years till about 500 AD.  What might have helped was the difficulty in smuggling the silkworm larvae on long journey; it is delicate and a fuzzy nonstop eater who prefers fresh leaves of mulberry tree.   

Silk Roads was a network of land and sea international trade routes between China and the rest of the world then.  The more formal management of the security of eastern portion of the Silk Roads through  XinJiang and central Asia began in 138 BCE when Zhang Qian 騫, a Chinese military officer,  was dispatched by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty to the Western Regions 西域. Zhang’s task was to make contact and build an alliance with the central Asian people, in particular, Yuezhi 支, against the Xiongnu匈奴 who was the major external threat to China then.  

Tarim mummies offer unique opportunities to understand the history and culture of the region, some of which, we could only imagine, not too long ago, by reading Chinese Classics like Journey to the West 西遊記.  This special exhibit showcased items and artifacts excavated from the region in addition to two well-preserved mummies (the other one is an infant mummy from Zaghunluq Cemetery, a little creepy).  With the extreme dry climate and salty land, many items have been naturally preserved. The most impressive ones include an exquisite gold mask (see left) and splendid clothes of a wealthy Yingpan man (see right) that Professor Victor Mair of U Penn referred to as  “the most magnificent set of clothing from East Central Asia, and probably from anywhere in the ancient world.”
Another interesting item is a passport-like large travel document which was dated, signed and stamped by each security officer of the checkpoints as the individual traveled along the route.   However the most intriguing and disheartening items and story of the exhibit had to be those petite size “dim sum” (like the Chrysanthemum Shaped Dessert to the right) from the graves.  They were made of flour and were found in the Astana Cemetery.  According to the story, during the days of the disastrous 1958 Great Leap Forward Campaign by Chairman Mao, some people actually went into the graves and stole and ate these items with water to sustain their lives. 

It is time to pay a visit to the Silk Roads!

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