Saturday, July 10, 2010

Visit With the Beauty of Xiaohe

I spent an entire day with an old girlfriend -- a 3,800 year old girlfriend to be exact -- when I was finally, after much anticipation, able to visit the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California, to attend their "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition. The lady in question is the justly famous "Beauty of Xiaohe:" the mummified, Bronze Age remains of a Caucasian woman recovered from western China's desert. Astute readers will recall we examined this subject last December, in what surprisingly became one of the most popular posts we have ever published.

This is a world-class presentation, displaying state-of-the-art curation, that really is worth a visit. The  exhibition displays important archaeological finds along the Silk Road, in juxtaposition to huge, life-sized, photographic murals depicting the exact location where the objects were found. This gives you the sense of being at the site yourself, encountering the artifacts precisely as they were first encountered by the archaeologists.

Support for the exhibition is first class. The catalog is well done, and they have the full range of Silk Road scholastic studies -- virtually everything of substance now available in print -- available for immediate purchase. I decided to get The Tarim Mummies; Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, by J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair. I like this book for its coverage of the so-called Subeshi witches.

This was an incredibly difficult collection to bring -- negotiation took several years -- coming all the way from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Ürümchi, China. Much of the credit for the exhibition's success in that regard goes to  philanthropist Anne Shih, a most cultured, charming, and persuasive Taiwanese lady who should probably be working in the Department of State. Mrs. Shih is also the one who convinced the Chinese government to allow her to bring a collection direct from the Potala -- the Bowers Museum's justly famous exhibition "Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World."

Mrs. Shih has an eye for the evolution of Buddhist art, and she tries to cultivate this interest in others. In consequence, the Bowers is developing special expertise in the area. This, of course, is what interests me the most, and I was pleased to see that the Silk Road exhibit also included Buddhist artifacts for examination. 

I particularly like to see things from the Tang dynasty (June 18, 618 – June 4, 907) -- things from Padmasambhava's time. You know, we sometimes look at Padmasambhava's era and get a sort of unnatural view. So, it seems helpful to examine the various cultural forces that greeted his arrival in Tibet through the medium of examining the era's arts. You quickly see that the suppositions we bring to study of Padmasambhava's life and times are not always realistic.

One of the things we find -- and it seems we are finding more and more evidence of this -- is that there were already numbers of blue-eyed Buddhists; indeed, it seems they were already about  and abroad for several centuries before Padmasambhava's time.  One likes to speculate about what sort of Buddhists they might have been.

Regardless, the "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition at the Bowers ends on July 25th, after which it travels to Houston, and then on to Philadelphia, where it is scheduled to open in February 2011. By the way -- the "secret" of this exhibition is that many of the artifacts predate the known Silk Road by some 2,000 years, demonstrating a much earlier, and flourishing West to East exchange -- a "global village" of sorts, operating well before anyone previously suspected it was possible.

Of course, we have always known that Westerners come in contact with Buddhism several centuries before Tibetans do -- but recent scholarship is coming closer to establishing that Westerners come in contact with Buddhist beliefs at the very time of Shakyamuni Buddha himself. We are also coming closer to establishing the earliest contact between Westerners and tantric beliefs. 

I would like to thank the fine people at the Bowers -- some of whom I have known for over twenty-five years -- for making my visit there so pleasant and memorable.

The Beauty of Xiaohe
Blue-Eyed Buddhists in the Ninth Century
Silk Road Archaeology: What If?

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3 reader comments:

Malcolm said...

The Buddha had blue eyes, or so it is said in the Pali suttas.

Thomas said...

If this is true, where does the injunction against ordaining those with blue eyes come from?

OoO said...

more like katherine hepburn lol
and there are stupa with gold eyes and stupas with blue

ask a stupa builder for why the blue eyes. its not about race lol