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Visions of a Lost Empire

A China-US archaeology exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the little-known and mysterious Tibetan kingdom of Tubo

By Li Mingzi Updated Oct.14

As a vital outpost along the Silk Road, Dunhuang, in what is now Northwest China’s Gansu Province, was once a center of exchange between the world’s great civilizations. More than a millennium ago, Dunhuang was a part of the Tubo Kingdom (619-842) for 67 years. During that time, some of the finest sculptures and frescoes existing in present-day China were created in the hallowed Mogao Caves.  

Bordering Tang Dynasty (618-907) China, the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom was a powerful regime that united the peoples of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Its founder was a local chieftain named Namri Songsten who gradually asserted power over neighboring clans.  

So far, historical documents do not provide a complete picture of Tubo. On July 3, a groundbreaking exhibition, Cultural Exchange Along the Silk Road: Masterpieces of the Tubo Period (7th-9th centuries), for the first time showed the full extent of the cultural and economic exchange between the Tubo Kingdom and the Tang, which at the time was the dominant civilization of Asia.  

The exhibition at Dunhuang Academy – the research institute overseeing the Mogao Caves – was organized by Dunhuang Academy and the Pritzker Art Collaborative. More than 140 cultural relics from nearly 30 museums and cultural institutions in China and abroad are on display.  

Most exhibits are from the collection of Margot and Thomas J. Pritzker – the family behind the world’s most prestigious architecture prize – and from the Abegg Foundation in Switzerland. In addition, 22 Chinese museums and archaeological institutions and six foreign institutions – including the Art Institute of Chicago, Moscow’s Hermitage Museum, and the AI Thani Collection of Qatar’s royal family – have also contributed treasured pieces.  

For David Pritzker, 36, director and chief curator of the Chicagobased Pritzker Art Collaborative, this exhibition is a long-held family dream that has finally come true.  

Exploring the East 
David Pritzker never asked his parents the reason why they were so fascinated with the Himalayas.  

Thomas and Margot Pritzker first visited the Himalayas in 1975, and were immediately drawn to the place. Ever since, the couple made frequent trips to the mountain range, and explored its cultures.“We both wanted to learn another culture. We wanted to experiment with another culture, and that was the start, and then it became an insistent passion,” Thomas Pritzker, 69, told our reporter.  

In the late autumn of 1988, Thomas and Margot’s expedition crew gained a new member – four-year-old David. The family spent nearly one month trekking in the Himalayas, providing the boy with lots of unforgettable memories. “I was carried by a porter in a basket. He carried me, and I sat in the basket talking, singing and laughing,” David said.  

“From a very young age, training my eye was something that I was always curious about. Just like the ear [for music], you can train your eye to see the right form and the right beauty,” David said. “You can train your eye to recognize who the artist is, the quality, the time period, all of that,” he added.  

The family had a house in Kathmandu, Nepal. Starting in 1988, David and his parents spent every summer in the Himalayas.   

When asked about his family’s enthusiasm for Asian art, David said: “In terms of Western art, it’s very much studied. People know a lot about it, Asian art at least in the US, when they [his parents] were younger, wasn’t something so well known, so I think for them the adventure of research and learning and travel was part of the excitement. For me, it’s also that way.”  

Since 1992, Thomas Pritzker has worked with the National Cultural Heritage Administration and Sichuan University on archaeological expeditions in Tibet. David also joined in fieldwork projects conducted by Chinese archaeologists.  

“The [Pritzker] family were able to endure the tough fieldwork and full of determination,” Huo Wei, an archaeology professor and dean of the Department of History of Culture at Sichuan University, told NewsChina.  

Huo recalled an incident that left a lasting impression on him: while the research team was climbing a mountain, a falling stone hit David’s head so hard that blood streamed over his face. Thomas, quite calmly, wiped his son’s face and asked him to keep climbing.  

As little David was nimble and faster climber than most on the team, he was often charged with the solitary mission of scouting the caves for anything of interest.  

In 1994, David made an astonishing discovery in Zanda County, Ali, southwest Tibet Autonomous Region. “They sent me to one cave site, much similar to Dunhuang. I climbed through some caves, one room after another... and then I came into a cave full of beautiful Buddhist paintings! That was one of the most exciting things in my life,” David said.  

David had discovered what is now known as the Barkarpo Cave, which had murals from the 13th century. “We joked that the cave could be named David Cave,” Huo said.  

“[It was] a really exciting experience, and that pushed me more to be passionate. Almost every summer after that, I would go with Sichuan University to west Tibet to do more exploration,” David said.  

“We began to see the connections between East and West. Major connections,” Margot Pritzker said. “So when we realized that it became very interesting because they were all influencing each other.”  

At 16, David published his first academic article titled “The Treasures of Par and Kha-tse” for Orientations, a Hong-Kong-based magazine for connoisseurs and collectors of Asian arts. He later earned a PhD from Oxford University in the early textual history and historiography of Tibet.  

Ancient Exchanges 
“When people talk about the Silk Road, it is largely about the East-West connection, yet little is said about the influence of Tubo on the Silk Road, since its timespan was relatively short. But its role is important,” David Pritzker said.  

He points out that Tubo studies are still at an early stage. “The earliest studies started in the early 1900s, but only over the last three decades have people began really to engage in the studies of the Tubo period.”  

“The exhibition we put together here was done to raise questions, not to answer questions,” he added.  

The Tubo regime built a huge network of trade with Tang Dynasty China, South Asia and Central Asia. It had close relationships with the Sogdians and Sasanians in present-day Iran, the Turks on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Nepal and India.  

The exhibition displays a variety of secular artifacts, including a gold quiver-plate painted with scenes from a lion hunt and a silk brocade with large, circular panels dotted with pearls.  

However, the silk garment of a Tubo maiden of nobility, from the collection of the Pritzker Art Collaborative, takes a place of honor at the very front of the exhibition. It features a duck motif in pearl medallions and a neckline placket, which is the collar on a Tang Dynasty outfit.  

“This piece of clothing reveals the interaction between the East and the West at the time,” Huo told NewsChina. Brocades with animal motifs in medallions was a typical Sogdian textile design, while the placket neckline was common in Tang dress. “It shows that Tubo people had been influenced by both the Tang Dynasty and the West at the time,” Huo said.  

Another exhibit that has astonished visitors is a parcel-gilt silver water jug from the Guyuan Museum of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The jug, or ewer, was initially excavated from the tomb of Li Xian, a general from China’s Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581). What makes it so special is its illustrations depicting tales from the Trojan War. The body of the jug has three pictures: the front shows Paris giving the golden apple to Aphrodite, while the left panel has Paris taking Helen away with the help of Aphrodite, while the right shows Helen returning to her husband Menelaus.  

How this ewer decorated with ancient Greek tales journeyed to China still remains unknown. There is a theory among researchers that the jug was either made by artisans of the Sassanid Empire in central Asia who borrowed the Greek mythological elements, or by artisans from Bactria, part of the ancient Persian Empire, who were influenced by Greek culture.  

Wise Fish 
David Pritzker’s favorite item is a gold-plated bowl from the Tubo period. The outside is etched with a lion-shaped relief, a symbol of royalty, while the interior was decorated with three fish in a water basin surrounded by lotuses. Two of the fish have human faces and one is dead.  

David suggested the design depicts the “Tale of the Wise Fish” from Indian and Sogdian literature.  

According to the Sogdian variant of the tale, in a drying pool lived four fish. The wisest of them possessed a thousand thoughts, the second, a hundred, the third, 10, and the fourth, only one. The last one observed that the pool was drying up, and it informed the others and then escaped. But the three learned fish despised the advice of their simpler companion. They stayed and perished.  

“Perhaps, the most learned fish is shown here already dead – face down in the water. It, along with the two other human-faced fish, symbolize in the tale false wisdom and arrogance,” David wrote in the introduction for the piece at the exhibition.  

“Archaeologists have found that the Tubo culture was influenced by different cultures along the Silk Road,” Huo told NewsChina.“They are closely related, but this is the first time that these artifacts can be seen together,” Huo said.  

While the curators sought to re-create the life of Tubo royalty, there are almost no artifacts on display from the royal family. Most of the exhibits were from the surrounding regions or the Zhang Zhung Kingdom, which predates the Tubo, and the Guge Kingdom that succeeded the Tubo.  

“So far archeologists haven’t excavated the royal tombs of the Tubo Kingdom out of respect for the Tibetan people and their culture,” Luo Wenhua, director of the Research Institute of Tibetan Buddhist Heritage at the Palace Museum in Beijing, told NewsChina.  

“It’s been quite difficult to present the Tubo Kingdom through artifacts, because we’ve been constantly discussing what objects we need and where to find them,” he added. The solution, Luo said, was to exhibit cultural artifacts from surrounding regions to provide a jumping-off point for the imagination.  

“The meaning of this exhibition is not to challenge people with obscure academic questions, but let them experience something they haven’t felt or seen before – after all, no historical record has ever given a verified account of Tubo’s history,” Luo said.