Culture feature Trace elements 

SAMA's Asian Treasures preserve the influence of commerce and religion

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A stoneware granary jar from the late-3rd-century Jin Dynasty sits in the foreground. Behind, a wall of Tang Dynasty tomb models that show the influence of Silk Road trade, such as the two-humped Bactrian camel, and cultural exchange with Western kingdoms, including an elaborate, 3-foot-tall earth spirit tomb model. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The sentiment was expressed often during the May 12-15 opening festivities for the San Antonio Museum of Art's Asian Art Wing: This collection will promote a greater understanding of and affinity for the Far East and its many cultures. If that's the aim of the Lenora and Walter F. Brown galleries, it's getting a late start behind manga, anime, and the designs of Takashi Murakami, which have spread like wildfire through the allowances and free time of America's youth and sparked an ongoing infatuation with all things Asian. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods" may be an Old Testament commandment, but it's also an anti-trade, and therefore anti-cultural-development, value. Desire leads to acquisition and acquisition leads to adoption.

SAMA's new wing, filled abundantly with more than 3,000 years of Asian pottery history, including granary jars, tomb models, and ewers, is filled with tantalizing clues to the way that Asian cultures influenced one another through commerce. What we might view as a relatively monolithic and homogenous Chinese culture was developed through many centuries of interaction and exchange - of humans and objects - with neighboring tribes and kingdoms. Asian Treasures is almost too crowded; there is so much material to sort through, but because it is comprised of household and ritual objects to which modern viewers can relate, it is both accessible and fascinating. And while it presents a record of a transactions long expired, it reminds us that what we take for granted today as the latest fad changes our culture in subtle but indelible ways.

"It has become a rule that trade always brings about cultural exchanges," Chinese archaelogist Ma Wenkuan told the English-language China Daily in 1998. Asian Treasures demonstrates that trade is cultural exchange, an assertion that can be tested against one of the most remarkable segments of SAMA's exhibition, patron Walter Brown's collection of the lesser-known Liao pottery.

The Liao Dynasty was founded in far northern China by semi-nomadic, tribal horsemen,the Khitan (or Qidan), in the early 10th century, and it endured a relatively brief 200 years. During that timespan, it flourished as a hub on the Silk Road, establishing five capitals and, according to scholars, drawing craft and tradespeople from throughout the region to its bustling centers.

The Japanese were excavating and writing about Liao culture in the 1920s, says SAMA Curator of Asian Art Martha Blackwelder, but pottery and tomb artifacts didn't really begin to come on the market until 1992. "Mr. Brown has always been interested in finding areas of Chinese art that hadn't really been 'discovered' yet," says Blackwelder. "He enjoyed the sancai glazes - which are also found in `the` Tang `Dynasty` - and the unusual shapes, and he knew it hadn't really been discovered in a lot of other parts of the world." New York dealers reportedly took notice of SAMA's extensive Liao display during the opening tours, as did Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian and Non-Western Art at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum. "My guess is that `Brown` must have the largest collection in private hands in America," Casler Price observed. "You could very easily have Liao that's really not that great or you can have Liao that's top of the heap. And I think Walter really acquired the best pieces out there that you can get."

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Earthenware created by the semi-nomadic Liao Dynasty is considered cruder than its contemporary, Song pottery, but this 11th-12th-century ewer in the shape of a pair of geese shows the style's warmth and charm.

The emergence of Liao pottery, which is often characterized by sancai - the use of green, amber, and cream glazes that the Khitan adopted from the earlier Tang style - and fish and animal motifs, has caused scholars to reassess the idea that the Liao were essentially barbarians who produced little art, but their pottery is considered much less refined than that of their Chinese neighbors. "Overall, Liao ceramics are not as finely potted," says Blackwelder. "Liao are nomads, so there isn't a tradition." In the course of conquering territory in China's northern provinces, they took over ceramic-producing villages, she explains. The contrast between the rustic Liao and the highly developed Chinese wares can be appreciated in the small gallery set aside in the Asian Wing for pottery from the Song Dynasty, a contemporary of the Liao whose delicate glazes and designs were "the height," says Blackwelder.

"The other thing about Liao is it's not an imperial ware," adds Casler Price. It's more of a folk art, although "I'm afraid to use this term because people will get the wrong impression. `But` for the untrained eye, for the Westerner, I can totally see the appeal because it's really fun." Among the Top Ten Curator's Picks for Asian Treasures is a late 11th- or early 12th-century Liao Dynasty ewer (a vase-like pitcher) in the shape of a pair of geese. The endearing, animated fowl twine necks while resting on a lotus-petal nest, and a molded cloud forms the handle.

A green-lead-glazed cremation vessel in the shape of an elaborate pagoda, from the same time period, is also eye-catching. Devout Buddhists, the Liao introduced styles and practices to the Inner Mongolia region that were representative of Indian and Central Asian traditions and aesthetics. The 2000 traveling exhibit, Differences Preserved: Reconstructed Tombs from the Liao and Song Dynasties, featured artifacts from a Liao tomb that showed the melding of cultures that occurred in the dynasty's busy industrial centers. The family buried in the Liao-style tomb was actually Han Chinese, but the ashes were interred in trunk-style coffins, one of which was inscribed "The burial is Jhapita (cremation) of the Western (India) world." Corpses from the contrasting Song tomb were wrapped in mesh netting and silk, in keeping with Chinese Confucian practices. Buddhism, which had reached other parts of China from India, was already falling out of favor in the South when the Khitans were at the height of their power.

According to historians such as Richard Foltz, author of Religions of the Silk Road, wheeled transportation and metallurgical skills traveled east along with Buddhism, Hinduism, Janism, and other religions, and SAMA's Asian Wing also features significant exhibitions in South Asian (including the Himalayas, Vietnam, Tibet, and India) and Japanese objects that help visitors discover these cultural trade routes. "With the installation of this material and with the loans, this is absolutely a teaching collection, in the best sense," says Casler Price. "`Barring paintings,` you could basically teach a class on Chinese art history, or Japanese art history, or Indian, from this collection."

In response to the discovery of more Liao artifacts, the Chinese government recently has taken steps to protect and begin excavating the site of the Liao Dynasty's primary capital, Shangjing, which lies on the grasslands of North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. China Daily reported in 2002 on Zhenji Temple, which harbors Liao-era grottos ornamented with more than 100 Buddhist images and a reclining 12-foot Buddha, and is threatened by flooding from the neighboring Shali River.

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A pair of 6th-century soldier tomb models from the Northern Qi Dynasty possess strong facial features that may represent Turkic peoples.

But Buddhism wasn't the only Silk Road religion that influenced the Khitans. After the 7th-century Muslim conquests of present-day Afghanistan, Islam became the predominant faith among western Silk Road trading posts, which previously were often operated by Buddhist monasteries. In 1998, archaeologist Ma Wenkuan reported finding Iranian glassware and a bronze bowl bearing a hexagram and Arabic characters in a Liao princess' tomb. China Daily also reported that Ma discovered a written history documenting the Liao Dynasty founder's commercial relationship with western Islamic kingdoms, as well as written histories about Persian envoys sent to the Khitans.

Ma's theory that Liao culture was influenced by Islamic culture is not orthodoxy, and Blackwelder says she doesn't see evidence to support it in SAMA's materials. But the influence of Central Asian trade on Chinese culture is undisputed, and it began long before the Khitan rode their horses from Mongolia to Manchuria.

"The influence of the Silk Road ... you also see specifically in the Liao pieces, but even in earlier forms," says Casler Price. "The camel is such an icon of Chinese tomb pottery, and `on` the Silk Road in particular the camel was so crucial in bringing goods." SAMA's collection features several wonderfully detailed camel tomb models from the 7-10th-century Tang Dynasty, which Casler Price describes as "one of the most Cosmopolitan places on earth ... people from all four corners of the world." SAMA also has many tomb models of "foreigners" from this period - Turkish people, Central Asian steeds that were often accompanied in life by their foreign trainers, and Khitans - as well as Buddhist-influenced demons and spirits.

Years of scholarship and familiarity with the tombs of Egyptian pharoahs have created a popular assumption that many, if not most, finer artifacts were created for the elite. But as a critic writing about a 1995 Chinese ceramics exhibit noted, "the latest archaeological discoveries suggest that `popular and court` styles were less different than scholars have thought." And the Chinese were pioneers of mass production, says Blackwelder. "A good example of that is looking at early tomb objects. There's a whole sort of production line and the Chinese became quite proficient with this early on." She adds that, "It's well-known that when objects were made for imperial consumption, extras were also made and sold to other classes." Not unlike Takashi Murakami knock-offs or Crate & Barrel's new Classic Century dinnerware, which reprises two earlier styles by modernist Eva Heisel, whose work is preserved in the Museum of Modern Art. In 1,000 years, a Classic Century setting may be installed in a glass case with a label explaining that white-collar Americans, although they often struggled economically and primarily consumed coffee in disposable paper cups, were willing to sacrifice a debt-free future for a well-designed tea set in which one can find a hint of the creator's native Budapest.

By Elaine Wolff



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