Archives and public culture along the Chinese Silk Road

8 Oct 2018 - 09:00
Stacked manuscripts in Palchoe Monastry (founded in 1365), Gyangtse, Tibet
Stacked manuscripts in Palchoe Monastry (founded in 1365), Gyangtse, Tibet (Photo: Carolyn Hamilton)


In May 2018 Carolyn Hamilton, Chair in Archive and Public Culture (APC), and APC research associate, Professor John Wright, embarked on the second part of a three-stage set of site visits along the Chinese Silk Road, undertaken under the auspices of the South African Archaeological Society.

The arduous trip involved some 10 000 kilometers of overland travel in China, took the group up to Buddhist monasteries and temples at altitudes over 4000 meters, into the Gobi, to the remains of abandoned oasis towns in the shifting sands Taklamakan desert, and through countless police checks involving sheaves of permits and bio-tech surveillance, notably in the heavily-securitised Xianjang region.   

The APC researchers focused on three inter-related matters: the emergence of documentary  and other records in the region, shaped by the combined, and sometimes intersecting, imperatives of the transmission of Buddhism, the conduct of trade and the extension of imperial administration; the kinds of controls over, and affordances of, libraries, archives and documents that existed in the  early and hey days of the Silk Road; what the controls and affordances meant for rulers' and public knowledge of other places, new developments and so on – the equivalent for those times of what informed (public) deliberation; and finally, how that past is understood in and presented in contemporary public culture.

The trip offered insights on all these matters.

Throughout the trip, we paid attention to the histories of archives which have survived into the present, as well as to how the records have, or have been, moved or changed over time, often in response to shifts in regional power and politics. The loss of records was another focus of the trip, ranging from the destruction of documents in 1959 during the Cultural Revolution as happened at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa involving texts dating back to the seventh century, to Buddhist cave paintings damaged over the centuries, as result of the arrival of the Islam in the region, the destruction wrought during the Cultural Revolution, and rapacious collection by early European, Russian and Japanese expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In some of the ancient Buddhist temples which yet have vast libraries, cloth-wrapped documents in columbarium-like open shelving systems that extend on high, are on public display in the temples. At the Palchoe Monastery (founded in 1365), we observed pilgrims climbing under the shelving while performing their clock-wise circumambulations of central objects of veneration,  knocking their heads on the shelving to receive the blessings of the manuscripts, many of them sutras.

One of the highlights was the visit to the archaeological site of Gaochang, near Turpan, built as a garrison town in the first century BCE and abandoned by the 14th century. The excavated remains include the local monastery's library and the adjacent acoustic hall. In the seventh century, the famed Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar, translator, traveller and commentator - Xuanzang, passed through Gaochang on the first part of a seventeen-year overland journey to India in pursuit of Buddhist texts. Xuanzang prepared lectures in the library which he then delivered in the next-door hall, built specially for the purpose, a vivid instance of the connections between archive and processes of public deliberation which APC research pays close attention to.

Today, the local museums have not only rich relic materials from these sites but also a wealth of old documents- well-preserved because of the dry desert conditions - that have been recovered either by archaeologists or members of local communities. Some documents occur in burial sites; others have been found in sealed wall caches.

The historical focus of the trip on the old trade routes intersected with the dramatic reality of the current Belt and Road Initiative of the Chinese government that focuses on securing and developing a modern corridor - with roads, rail, pipelines, and power- connecting China with the Middle East and Europe. Xianjang province, on the far western border of China, is of central strategic importance to this initiative and an enormous Chinese security presence in this province, inhabited by mostly Muslim Uighur, is highly visible. Extreme forms of repression are extensively reported in Western media.

One of our central observations concerned the consistent way museum and other official representations of Islam and Uighur culture in Xianjang, and equally Buddhism and Tibetan culture in nearby Tibet, through a series of very recent museum and tourist initiatives  actively "park" local identities and religions in museums as history, heritage, and atavistic or quaint cultural forms, thereby lancing them of political potency. This positioning can be seen elsewhere in western China. In the case of the Wenshu Monastery in Chengdu, one of China's largest and best-preserved Buddhist temples, built in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the monastery's documents accumulated over centuries have recently been relocated to the local museum. Public institutions, notably museums, across the region, uniformly stressed the historical role of Buddhism and central Chinese administration in unifying people, and installing peace and order.