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The Secrets of the Mummies

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Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum Collection
Wall Hanging with Warrior and Centaur Design, second century BC–second century AD

The Bowers Museum at Santa Ana, which first selected the exhibits, struck an unusually cordial deal with the Chinese. But by the time the exhibits reached Pennsylvania this intimacy no longer held good. Perhaps the international reach of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the scholars associated with it, were politically unnerving to Beijing. In the exhibition catalog the art historian Lothar von Falkenhausen writes that “the present exhibition, for reasons connected with the historical situation of Xinjiang today, particularly emphasizes the Chinese cultural impact on the ‘Western Regions.’” But the setting in which the museum places the artifacts scarcely supports such a reading. And there may be yet another explanation.

Among the glories of the museum’s own collection is a pair of seventh- century limestone bas-reliefs. They depict two of the six warhorses of the warrior-emperor Taizong, who rode them into battle at the height of the Tang empire. Each horse had its own history of endurance. The sculptures even now show the shadowy arrows that wounded them. On the emperor’s death the reliefs of these six chargers were erected by his tomb, and their spirits were worshiped there alongside his for another thousand years.

Four of these panels survive in China’s Beilin Museum in Xian. The other two, in the disruptive period of China’s civil war, found their way to the United States. But in the words of the University of Pennsylvania Museum plaque, the horses “continue to hold a special place in the hearts of the Chinese to this day.” They have been lauded in China as patriotic symbols—they have even appeared on postage stamps—reflecting as they do the farthest reaches of Chinese power.

From time to time these massive reliefs—they have been called China’s Elgin Marbles—have been requested for exhibition by Beijing. But the University of Pennsylvania Museum has never acceded, knowing how hard it would be for China to return them. For this—the speculation runs—the museum is being obliquely punished.

However this may be, the exhibition—even in its present, shadowy state—continues to propagate its larger vision. A bold time line still stretches for some thirty feet over the wall that first greets visitors. The expansion of Indo-Europeans east and west from their homeland by the Black Sea in the fourth millennium BC, the domestication of the horse on the Russian steppe around 3200 BC, and the invention of chariots on these same steppes almost a millennium afterward place in grand perspective such later events as the foundation of Rome or of Xian. And into this dizzy trajectory fall the dates 1800–1500 BC, when the Xiaohe cemetery—most splendid of the museum’s reconstructions—was “created by unknown people.”

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