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A Silk Road saga

In 1999 an extraordinary white marble sarcophagus was excavated in China

Left: Panel 5 of Yu Hong’s sarcophagus, marble decorated with carved designs in low relief, 96 × 101.7 cm. Right: One of the eight seats of the sarcophagus, Sui dynasty (581-619), white marble. Excavated from the tomb (dated 592-598) of Yu Hong, Jinyuan, Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, 1999, Shanxi Museum.

In 1999 an extraordinary white marble sarcophagus, unlike any previous discovery, was excavated in Taiyuan, the capital of central China’s Shanxi province. The sarcophagus belonged to one Yu Hong and his wife, who were interred in 592 and 598CE respectively.

The sarcophagus exemplifies the transcultural nature of life along the famous Silk Road, with its multiethnic mix of traders, pilgrims, monks and soldiers. Although the name Yu and the origin of the people known by this name are something of a mystery, Yu Hong’s epitaph leads scholars to believe he came from a community of Turkic-speakers in Central Asia. Yu Hong began his diplomatic career as early as his teen years in Central and West Asia, and was dispatched to China’s Northern Qi dynasty in the mid 6th century.

From afar, the sarcophagus looks like the model of a typical Chinese building. Closer inspection of the crisply detailed scenes of banquets, entertainment and hunting, reveals the figures, carved or painted both on the interior and the exterior of all four sides of the stone structure, to have deep-set eyes and prominent noses, not so Han Chinese-like. In fact the origins of the style and themes of the iconography on the sarcophagus are Buddhist, Sogdian in central Asia and Persian in western Asia. Reinforcing this finding is an absence of dragons but an abundance of camels, lions and elephants. And, in a very rare appearance for 6th-century Chinese art, one finds heavenly Zoroastrian priests – half-men and half-birds – flanking a fire altar, as seen in the centre of a base panel.

The sarcophagus is decorated with either finely carved or colourfully painted scenes on its interior or exterior wall panels. In a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW co-organised with the Shanxi Museum, the 13 richly illustrated panels will be displayed in parts so that the exquisite details of the decorations can be seen.

While the sarcophagus itself will be a major drawcard because of its rarity, its display will be enhanced by more than 16 other archaeologically excavated objects from the same tomb or from burials of the same period in Shanxi Province. The common character of all the exhibited works is that they depict either non-Chinese elements or mixed features of Chinese and foreign culture, be it heavily loaded pottery camels or porcelains with motifs of taming lions in a circus. Human figurines of Chinese or non-Chinese origin, blowing whistles on a horse or eating dry bread on a tall camel, encourage one’s imagination of a long and lonely journey on the mysterious Silk Road.

In conjunction with the exhibition A Silk Road saga: the sarcophagus of Yu Hong
24 August 2013 10am – 5pm

The discovery of the tomb of Yu Hong (533/534–92) in Taiyuan city, Shanxi province in 1999 has demanded a fresh interpretation of the cultural interaction that occurred between China and the West due to the travel and trade along the Silk Road. While sharing a structure similar to many other tombs of second half of the 6th century in north-central China, the carved and painted artwork on the marble sarcophagus surprisingly shows no trace of Chinese motifs. The scenes of hunting, feasting, musical performance and domestic life owe more to Persian and Buddhist iconography.

The symposium provides a detailed historical and geographical background to the exhibition enriching our understanding of how the ancient Silk Road enabled cultural intermingling before the rise of the Tang dynasty, the golden age of ancient Chinese civilisation.

Invited speakers include:

Prof Zhang Qingjie, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and the archaeologist who excavated Yu Hong’s tomb. He is a leading scholar on archaeology and history in Shanxi Province.

Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, who initiated the exhibition of the Yu Hong finding in 2002. He is a contributor to the exhibition catalogue and will give an introduction to the historical and geographical background of the Silk Roads and his interesting personal experience of his first encounter of the sarcophagus.

Prof Qi Dongfang, a leading scholar on Tang Dynasty (618-907) civilisation who teaches at the School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, China. His research covers Chinese archaeology and art history, particularly the communication between China and the West between the 3rd and 10th centuries.

Prof David Goodman, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia, Professor of Chinese Politics at University of Sydney, and currently Academic Director of the University of Sydney China Studies Centre. He is a regular visitor to and temporary resident of Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, and has deep affection for this city where all the exhibition objects come from.

Cao Yin, Curator of Chinse Art, AGNSW, who will present a paper on the Buddhist and Zoroastrian elements on the Yu Hong sarcophagus.

More about the symposium

Full list of programs

Proudly supported by
VisAsia Council

On view
22 Aug – 10 Nov 2013
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


Media contact

Susanne Briggs
Tel 02 9225 1791
Mob 0412 268 320