Blog entry #7- Cosmopolitan Chang’an

The three articles, Missiological Reflections on Nestorian Christianity in China during the Tang Dynasty by David Bundy, Daily Life in the Capital by Valerie Hansen, and Golden Peaches of Samarkand by Edward Schafer are all concerned with the influence of foreigners on the Chinese Culture, on the city of Chang’an in particular, during the Tang period in the late eighth and early ninth centuries.

 

The first article deals with the presence of Nestorian Christians in Tang China. Nestorian Christianity existed and prospered to an extent in China in the Tang dynasty. It relied heavily on the teachings of its monks and Nestorian Christian life centered on the monasteries’ activities. The dissolution of the Nestorian monasteries so that the monks could return to ordinary lay life resulted in a rapid decline and breakdown of Nestorian Christianity in China, ultimately resulting in its complete obliteration. The Nestorian Christians in China had accomplished much, however they failed to have a very profound impact in China and not much of a following compared to Buddhism and Manichaeism. Another reason for decline was its lack of contact with Mesopotamia, present day Baghdad. It is certain that Nestorian Christianity did not intend to mass convert people to their religion, nor were they making any claims of superiority over the other traditions. They simply wanted to establish themselves and adhere to their own practices. The Nestorians left Mesopotamia and travelled East most likely because of being alienated by the growing Islamic presence, which sidelined the other pre-existing traditions in the region.

 

The second article, Daily life in the Capital, focuses on the commercial as well as cultural exchanges that occurred in Chang’an, a major city in the Tang dynasty. The author of the article initially explains the layout of the city, and then moves onto discuss the two major features of the city, the trade activities by its merchants, and it’s functioning as the Tang government’s central examination center. By highlighting the city’s second important feature, Hansen recounts the mythical story of Li Wa, the famed prostitute who lured the bright young scholar who had come to Chang’an in order to sit for his central examinations in the city. Hansen recounts that the young scholar had experienced tragedy because of Li Wa but in the end, he was able to regain his pride and honour as well as Li Wa. This article as opposed to Bundy’s is more personal and conveys to the reader a sense of what it was actually like living in Chang’an at the time. However, the article’s main drawback is its lack of coverage on the main issue of foreign presence and influence in Tang China.

 

The third article, Golden Peaches of Samarkand focuses on the broad documenting of all the foreign contact experienced by the Chinese in the city of Chang’an during the Tang period through mainly commercial trade. The foreign contact ranges from the Tang Chinese’s trade with the Malayan Indians to Persians to the Japanese.  The author of this article mainly details the attitude of the Chinese faced by foreigners entering China, either by land or by sea. Although it was generally considered to be fashionable at the time to embrace foreign culture in China, such as by imitating Western styles of clothing, decorating and such, a lot of the time, foreigners were met with considerable harshness by the Chinese. For instance, it is mentioned that Chinese officials forbade foreign Uighur men from taking local Chinese women as their wives and procreating with them. Although this is a very extreme scenario, it effectively highlights the general attitude of the Chinese in regard to the acceptance of foreigners entering and living in Chinese society during the Tang era, which was very hostile indeed.

 

All three articles, bring to light a crucial aspect of foreign influence on the Chinese, that none of the influence was able to essentially prosper in the Chinese society. The Chinese, irregardless of their fashioning after foreign styles, proved to have a high level of social solidarity among them. Their society was so deeply entrenched in their own unique rich and complex cultural heritage that it was quite difficult for influences from other cultures to penetrate it. Hence, the highly unique and individual characteristic of Chinese cultural heritage is owed to the fact that it reflected such little influence from other cultures.

blog #6- sketches from the Dunhuang cave-sites

 

The two articles, Formulas of creativity: Artist’s sketches and techniques of copying at Dunhuang by Sarah Fraser and Buddhist cave-temples and the Cao family by Ma Shicheng both focus on the documents discovered at the 5 major cave-sites in Dunhuang, namely Mogao Ku, and their implications in our understanding of premodern artistic techniques. The excavations from the Dunhuang cave-sites are the earliest known preliminary sketches by artists ever discovered so thereby these sketches allow us to gain an insight into the methods undertaken by artists in preparation for their works of art, which in this case range from wall murals to religious artwork such as statues of the Buddha and accompanying bodhisattvas. The artists’ preparatory work also varied greatly as while ceiling murals were preliminarily sketched out in miniature form, paintings on silk banners were sketched out in life-size form. Another important aspect of these excavations is that the preliminary sketches of the artists helped the archaeologists determine which of the items were taken arbitrarily over the centuries from its original site as it was highly common for the imperial powers, especially the British to claim ownership of their excavations at these cave-sites and take back to Britain especially in the early 20th century. For instance, archaeologists were able to identify a missing statue of the Buddha in one of the Cave-shrines by consulting the sketches. Conclusively, although the artists’ sketches found in the Dunhuang cave-sites are not valued artwork in their own right, their true value lies in their conveyance of subtle characteristics of the final art pieces as well as the artistic techniques employed at the time by the artists at Dunhuang.