Friday, September 10, 2021

The Enduring Influence of Afghanistan on Chinese Art

 From Sixth Tone:

The best evidence of these exchanges can be seen from the region’s influence on Buddhist statuary. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great met and married Princess Roxana of Bactria — modern-day Afghanistan — while campaigning in the region. After Alexander’s death, Afghanistan fell under the control of the Hellenic Seleucid (312-246 BC), and later, the Bactrian (246-129 BC) empires. These states settled colonists from the Hellenic world, spread the Greek alphabet, and promoted the worship of Greek deities. Many cities in the region built Greek-style theaters, stadiums, squares, and temples, and leaders patronized Hellenistic artistic styles, including sculpture.

During the reign of the Kushan Empire (58-375 AD), Buddhism flourished in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving birth to Gandharan art, which fused Grecian and Buddhist styles. Gandharan artists depicted the Buddha and Bodhisattvas with Greek features and wearing Greek robes, and their work would prove influential as it spread east along the Silk Road, as can be seen from the Kizil caves in Xinjiang, the Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yungang grottoes in Datong, and the Longmen grottoes in Luoyang.

Less well known, however, is how ancient Afghanistan acted as a conduit through which direct depictions of Greek deities made their way into northern China. For example, gold ornaments of Eros — the Greek god of love — riding a dolphin, atop a griffin, or embracing the goddess Psyche, have been uncovered at the Tillya Tepe site in Afghanistan. Part of the famous “Bactrian gold” trove, these depictions belong to the same Hellenized culture as a red brocade robe with yellow pomegranate motifs unearthed from the Yingpan burial site in what is now Xinjiang and a gilt-bronze stem cup decorated with figures and grapevines discovered in Datong, in North China.

Batik cotton fabric from the Eastern Han dynasty, excavated from the ancient city of Niya in Xinjiang, depicts the Kushan river goddess Ardochsho holding a cornucopia, with startling similarities to images carved on the Begram ivories excavated in Afghanistan. The Russian archaeologist Boris Marshak has argued that a silver plate featuring a depiction of Dionysus dating to between 384-534 AD and unearthed in the northwestern Gansu province, as well as a gilded silver vase depicting the Epic of Troy found in the tomb of Li Xian (buried 569 AD) in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, were not created in Greece or China, but by artisans in Central Asia. (Read more.)

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