This special exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History makes considerable use of audiovisuals, especially video, which have the dual advantage of not requiring insurance and holding the interest better than, say, incomplete pots which, however interesting, can also be somewhat dry.
There are more that 200 items exhibited, including jades, textiles, ceramics, gold, silver and bronze ware and glass, ranging in size from coins to wall-sized murals. Some three-quarters come from Chinese museums, with the balance coming from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Some of the pieces—Tang-dynasty figurines of horses, camels and Central Asian traders—are to be expected, but quite a number of others are unusual. These include Western imports—some apparently all the way from the Byzantine Empire—of gold, silver and glass, as well as textiles with designs of clear Greco-Roman inspiration. Buddhist works are much in evidence but Manichean and Nestorian Christian items are also represented. The latter seem particularly appropriate given the season and served as fascinating reminders that Christianity in China predated Matteo Ricci by quite a few centuries.
The Chinese—or perhaps more accurately, Chinese-sourced—pieces are on the whole well- and clearly-organised. The Central Asian exbhibits, however, seemed to lack context: some are undated and it was unclear how the pieces, some fascinating Scythian gold-work, for example, fit into the larger picture. Some of these, if my chronology is correct, predate the Silk Road per se. In addition, some items, especially (although in retrospect not particularly surprisingly) the gold-bedecked outfit of the Golden Man from Issyk kurgan in Khazakhstan, are, disappointingly, replicas.
The exhibition—part of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region—is not without some political contemporary content. “One Belt One Road” had a mention. These three countries, China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan—as opposed to, say, Uzbekistan—are represented because these three had cooperated to have the “Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor of the Silk Road” listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
The English translations might have done with a proofread: the Silk Road ultimately went into “decline”, not “declination”. With such a wealth of artifacts on view, this may seem like a quibble, yet fixing the English would have taking only a minimal amount of trouble compared with all the effort that went into mounting this excellent exhibition in the first place.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.