Sharing treasures from the Silk Road

UNC-Greensboro professor speaks about Silk Road at Elon University

Marlena Chertock

APRIL 12, 2011

Neil Schmid shared his research on the Silk Road at Elon University in Lindner Hall, Room 102 on April 12, 2011. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

Nothing takes place without the influence of culture, according to Neil Schmid, a professor at UNC-Greensboro.

“If you only look at text, you’ll have an incredibly skewed understanding of the world,” he said in his presentation on campus Tuesday night. “Text is edited by scholars. The visual is so much richer, subtle and nuanced than text could ever be.”

Schmid shared his research at Elon on April 12 in a talk titled, “The Silk Road: Discovering China’s Religion and Art.”

Showing artwork and manuscripts found along the Silk Road, he said the Chinese empire is on one side of the Silk Road and the Mediterranean empire is on the other.

In many cases, the true purpose of the road is, is misunderstood. Not only silk was sold along the trade routes. Peacock feathers, lap dogs, drugs, jasmine, sandalwood, flowers and other items were sold, Schmid said.

Countries and empires received national prestige through their expeditions, he said, often aiming to obtain items of the oldest antiquity.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

Schmid’s research in particular focuses on the Taklamakan Desert.

“In the bleak desert they found art, architecture, cemeteries and manuscripts,” he said. “It doesn’t look like much but under the sands they’d find some of the earliest Chinese documents.”

Explorer Sven Hadin discovered mummies preserved in great condition in the desert. These mummies are a group of people of Indo-European descent who are not Chinese, Schmid said.

Their clothes are well-preserved and have been found to have plaid patterns similar to what would be found in Scotland, he said.

“This has the potential to upset the Chinese government, since they were found in China and are not Chinese,” he said.

This group of people disappeared in the 4th cent. C.E. 50,000 manuscripts were found in 492 caves in the desert, he said.

The manuscripts were written for various reasons, ranging from prayers, menstrual cramps, a model letter about becoming too intoxicated and apologizing so others can copy the letter and an abandoned wife’s letter to her husband. A phrase book in Khotanese was also found. It is a sort of transliteration of Chinese for the Buddhist monks, with simple phrases.

“People have problems and they try to deal with them,” Schmid said.

Inside, the caves are completely covered in art and paintings depicting scenes of Buddhist paradise. The colors are still vibrant, he said.

“China doesn’t have this type of artwork because of the destruction, attacks and wars and more recently the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

Studying the Silk Road, archeology or the artifacts that are found in those areas provides insight, Schmid said.

“They give us a view of life in a really immediate way, in a way that’s very human, that we can relate to,” he said. “People live their lives in ways that are very similar to ours, in a different time and place. And once we realize that it doesn’t seem so foreign. It provides insight to their lives and also ours.”

Now, the site is open for tourists but may be shut down in the future, Schmid said. The humidity from the breath of tourists’ can ruin the paintings.

There’s a movement to digitize the manuscripts and caves. It may make these materials that have been stored in libraries and the caves accessible, he said. The International Dunhuang Project is the best online resource on the Silk Road, according to Schmid.

***

Neil Schmid on importance of studying Silk Road

Neil Schmid on his interest in Silk Road studies

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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