Yungang Grottoes, Datong, China (wikipedia.org) – this is where I either get to recover from jetlag on January 6th or go for a last-day trip on the way back to Beijing on January 30th. Still…look at the size of that thing!
Today is just another day prepping for paradise. Reading, writing, marking papers, walking around Queen’s Park with a GPS mapping monumental statues of old British horsemen for practice – it’s all necessary for getting out of here on January 3rd with only a few strings attached, with only a few things to do. My goal is to be as prepared as I can so that all I have to do when I get to China and Cambodia is to jump right into research. All that’s left is to update a few vaccinations, mark two sets of exams (I teach one course entitled Introduction to Archaeology (ANT200) and another in Modern South Asian History (HIS282) – both are actually really interesting so they feel like no work at all), celebrate Christmas with 100+ people through way too many holiday parties, and unapologetically say goodbye to all those people as I run off for six months to parts unknown.
In the case of China, I’ll be wandering and surveying parts pretty much unknown since the early 14th century (thanks Mongols).
Let’s give a little background:
Along with a map of China.
I attended the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) from 2011-2012 in the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology. While the University of Toronto has taught me how to analyze early humanity’s garbage and ruins, SOAS narrowed the scope of my subject matter to two fields: one, Angkorian Cambodia, and two, the Art and Archaeology of the Silk Road. The Silk Road, which as you can see by the map below stretched all the way from Istanbul to Chang’an (modern Xian) overland, was a route on upon which not only trade (of silk, spices, precious stones and gems, and rugs, to name a few) flourished, but ideas fused, cultures interacted, religions spread, militaries conquered, and diseases were transmitted.
The Silk Road (wikipedia.org) – in the 15th century the damn Ottomans decided to shut it down for a century and caused Europe to lose its collective mind and conquer the Americas.
“YOU HEARD ME SULEIMAN, GIVE US THE @#$!-ING SPICES OR WE’RE COMMITTING GENOCIDE!!!”
The most important cultural-religious transmission in the Chinese context – the one that was primarily taught in this course – was the spread of Buddhism from India to China and its manifestation in the construction of enormous complexes of cave-temples, grottoes, and monasteries (containing priceless statuary and wall frescoes, which have since been given price-tags by Sotheby’s). Most of these cave-temples were built along the Silk Road, which gave rise to the theory that the Silk Road also formed large segments of religious pilgrimmage routes. Wealthy Chinese elites patronized a number of these complexes through offerings of money or artisans, and this allowed for the creation of both universities housing volumes of religious texts in a multitude of ancient languages (including but not limited to Chinese, Sanskrit, Uighur, Khotanese, Turkic, Khara-khojo, and the rare Tokharian) and for large-scale building programs to continue over multiple centuries. The Buddha above at Yungang, for example, is the largest image carved from the rock of the complex, but is one of the earlier images, dating from the 5th-6th centuries CE. Construction at Yungang continued well into the 11th century.
Moving westward from Chang’an, China’s ancient Silk Road ran north and south on either side of the fearsome Taklamakan Desert, the world’s 16th largest by area and the world’s second-largest desert with shifting sand dunes. Oasis-towns dotted the edges, and became centers of trade on the Northern and Southern Silk Roads. Buddhist cave-temple complexes can be found in a large number of these towns, with the most imposing in Turfan and Kucha on the Northern Road. This ends up being a bit of a blessing in disguise, because the Southern Silk Road is, as my co-researcher Francesca Monteith laments, the region where things go “boom” in modern Xinjiang Province (Chinese Turkestan).
The Northern Silk Road used to pass through Loulan…now, Loulan is one of the most remote and ghostly ruins on earth. Which means, of course, it’s on my bucket list!
Buddhist cave-temples, grottoes, and monasteries were built into cliff-faces near these oases from the 1st century CE, when Buddhism first entered China, up until as late as the end of the Ming Dynasty (17th century). Most of the imposing Buddhist sites surrounding the Taklamakan Desert, which on the map above is that blank space between Kucha and Mingfeng, were abandoned between the 9th-10th centuries following the conversion of the local populations to Islam, which leaves them as time-capsules to understand the various pre-Islamic civilizations which inhabited this region of China. Uighur Muslims now form the dominant ethnic group along this part of the Silk Road, and from what I’ve heard have very few connections to their ancient Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and even Chinese ancestors.
European explorers first happened upon these Silk Road oasis sites and cave-temple complexes during the Great Game of the 19th century, a geopolitics match between Britain, France, and Russia to fill in (and conquer) the last pieces of the Eurasian map. Academic treasure-hunters such as Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Albert von le Coq, and Ferdinand von Richtofen excavated a number of Buddhist structures in Xinjiang and Gansu Provinces on the ancient Silk Road, and took texts, statues, and even in many cases wall-frescoes back to Europe to various museums and private collections. While the local Muslim populations would often vandalize the excavated statues between field seasons (idolatry, depiction of religious images), modern China now sees the removal of these items as cultural theft (despite their inability to preserve the ruins properly at the time). This is why I am going to be careful and tread lightly in Xinjiang Province, touching nothing but government-approved straircases.
Okay…that was a lot of background, but that’s all still only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s the essentials of what I learned in Art and Archaeology of the Silk Road over the course of a full year. Our instructor, Lukas Nickel, was one of the few foreigners who was granted permission to excavate in China on sites known to have been founded during the Historical Period (c.3000 BCE – Present…or so China likes to think), so he knew his stuff. I, meanwhile, was geared up to learn more about Muslim Silk Road sites like Samarkand and Istanbul, but because of his expertise in China it became clear that I could drop out of his course if I wanted to.
But I didn’t, and through that course I not only learned the content of this incredible syllabus and aced a graduate course, but I became lifelong friends with two of the kindest, deepest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Erin West, Francesca Monteith, and I – a rainy day in Edinburgh, 2012. My haircut has improved drastically since then…at times.
The first, Erin West (left), was a UCL grad who had transferred over to our little department to take this single Art and Archaeology of the Silk Road course as part of a larger curriculum in Chinese archaeology. She took up a position at a university in Nanning, Guangxi Province, and has been back and forth between the US and China for the past half-decade teaching and working on GIS (Mapping) projects. There’s hope that she’ll be joining us for at least a few days during our work in Sichuan Province (which is not on the Silk Road but I’ll get to that in a second) – if not, I’ll coax her into coming down to Cambodia at some point when I’m there. For the year I was in London, she was in many ways my moral compass, and despite the fact that my religious apathy clashed with her impressively devout Christian faith, she remains one of my closest friends.
The second, Francesca Monteith (center), is my main travel companion and co-researcher in China through January. We met through at least two classes at SOAS, and she’s now a PhD Student at Peking University, writing her future Doctorate in Mandarin…Jesus…(sorry Erin, I know, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, but a Ph-freaking-D written in MANDARIN!!!).
About a year ago Francesca and I decided that we should try to write a paper together on her subject matter (Buddhist cave-temples in China). For her, it was the ability to showcase her research in Western journals, get someone with some technological experience to help her with the spatial components of her research, and have a fresh pair of (somewhat informed) eyes to take a look at what she was researching. For me, it’s a chance to expand my academic horizons outside of Cambodia, to be part of a project that is apparently hot right now in Buddhist archaeological circles (and yes, I understand that comprises of about thirty people across the entire globe so there’s no real choir to preach to), to apply this 3D photogrammetry software I’ve been working on, and to see a region of the world I’ve been infatuated with since Francesca, Erin, and I sat in Lukas Nickel’s classroom soaking in his lectures like a sponge.
The topic of our paper has changed a number of times, with Francesca leading the way. Originally we were set to focus on the evolution of monks’ quarters at these cave-temple sites, but now we’re attempting to create typologies of cave-temples based on size, location, time period, artistry, spatial analysis…it’s a good mix of what she does and what I do. And, it makes this photogrammetry hobby of mine all the more necessary for our research!
Agisoft Photoscan-created 3D image of a Buddhist prayer niche, Sichuan Province, China (photography by Francesca Monteith) – in order to build this image I had to go out and buy a 1TB Solid State Drive so my computer’s hard disk wouldn’t catch on fire…again…
Agisoft Photoscan-created 3D image of a Buddhist idol shrine, Sichuan Province, China (photography by Francesca Monteith) – I know I’m showboating a little bit, but video games now use this software to make their imagery more realistic. Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, Sony…I’m happy to send out a resume.
Our research is going to take us from Beijing to Sichuan Province (woohoo 30 hour train ride!), where we’ve been given clearance by the Department of…some elongated aggrandized name I should probably memorize before I leave…to walk around freely with a GPS, camera, and even some survey equipment to pretty much any cave-temple complex we want to research. We’re in Sichuan because a similar phenomena of rock-carved Buddhist architecture occurred along the Salt Road, the Silk Road’s little cousin that came up from the south of China to Chang’an. Trade centers in Sichuan, like in Xinjiang, became wealthy from their position along this road, and created Buddhist pilgrimage sites of their own which consisted primarily of carved prayer niches and grottoes. Cave-temples in Sichuan are relatively under-researched, and will no doubt yield some excellent connections and comparisons to sites in the north of China.
Which is why we’re headed up there next. After 1-1 1/2 weeks in the south, and other long train rides between Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan), Lanzhou (an industrial city with a hi-speed train station), and Turpan (an epic Taklamakan Desert city on the edge of the Flaming Mountains (images pending)), we’re applying the exact same methodology at some sites in Xinjiang and Gansu provinces: measuring, surveying, mapping, typologizing (which is not a word but neither is “archaeologasm”), and turning every temple into mock scenery from Far Cry 4.
The sites in Northern China aren’t set in stone yet (actually they are, get it? Haw haw haw! *crickets* blah, fine…), but they’ll be mainly in Xinjiang Province and Gansu Province. We’ll be there for 2 weeks before heading back to Beijing via Datong (to see the epic Yungang Grottoes in the first image), and then that’s it. Notes done. Data collected. Paper on its way to publication. Now, there’s a distinct possibility that we could be starting in the north and ending in Sichuan, but because Francesca has had little to no time to breathe in the last month or two I’m pretty much at her mercy.
Approximate route through China: Beijing – Chengdu (furthest south) – Lanzhou (the end of the Xinjiang-Lanzhou high-speed railway) – Turpan (furthest west) – Dunhuang (China’s most famous cave-temples) – Jingchuan (Langdon Warner’s old stomping ground) – Datong – Beijing. Approximate distance: 5900km (3666 miles). And we’re not doing a damn mile by plane!
This research trip in China will stretch from January 4th to February 1st, after which time I’ll be flying to Phnom Penh, Cambodia via a 24 hour layover in Seoul. I’m almost more excited about this project than my actual Dissertation research in Cambodia, and now that I’m less than a month away it’s hard to contain it. It’ll be a great way to practice my Mandarin, get accustomed to a new (and possibly future) field, create connections in China for further research, strengthen my friendships with Francesca and Erin, and most incredibly experience this incredible cultural legacy left behind and oft-ignored by Buddhist archaeologists.
Anyways, enough gushing, I have to get back to reading about these damn caves and pretend I know what I’m looking at when I see them. Next week’s entry will be the long-promised “My Dissertation…zzzzz”.
29 days until Beijing!