“Ships of the Silk Road: The Bactrian Camel in Chinese Jade” by Angus Forsyth

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It has been more than three decades since the passing of the great French economic historian, Fernand Braudel, but his adventurous influence runs deep in Angus Forsyth’s remarkable illustrated essay on the Silk Road—the lanes of transport between East and West that linked China, India, Africa and the Mediterranean before the era of motor vehicles. Braudel’s genius was in his ability to highlight the intimate detail against the grand canvas of history, and his approach to storytelling fundamentally shifted the way history is presented, whether in the curating of museum exhibitions or histories of leaders and transformative events. It’s the detail that counts. 

In Forsyth’s account, the Silk Road is envisioned in a series of objects that he himself has collected over a considerable time. While the title refers to Bactrian camels, these are simply the most numerous of the types of miniatures he has brought together here (and one small part of his collection), mostly made of nephrite jade and dating from between the western Zhou period (ca 900 BCE) to the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1911.

The illustrations represent the eye of one of the greatest living collectors of Chinese jade.

For those in Hong Kong who had the luck to catch the 2017 exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History on the heritage of the Silk Road, there are some obvious parallels in the mode of presentation as well as the timeline. The idea of the Silk Road was a 19th-century invention of the German traveler Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, an uncle of the Red Baron of World War I. The name caught on partly because it vested a network of long-distance trade routes with an aura of mystery and allure. The 2017 exhibition, like Forsyth’s book, had a Braudelian verve with its use of objects to tell the story of the Central Asian cultures that meshed and mashed across the ancient trade routes.

What we learn from objects is how the time and place looked to the people that lived it, how they used the objects, and what the objects say, in retrospect, about how we have changed. Forsyth’s achievement with this book is quite unique. By using his own collection, supplemented with archeological drawings and photographs, he adds an entirely unique, intimate, and appealing layer of meaning. The illustrations are not just historically significant but represent the eye of one of the greatest living collectors of Chinese jade.

The western view of the Silk Road tends to be dominated by the treasure trove of goods moving westward. To the Chinese, however, among the major products delivered by the Silk Road was nephrite jade, in all sizes, from pebbles to boulders, sourced primarily from the White and Black Jade Rivers in the Kingdom of Khotan, in present day southwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

From the fifth millennium BCE, to the 18th century when China under the Manchus began to bring Xinjiang under its control, jade was the principal import into China along the trade routes that led to the aptly named Jade Gate, or Yumen, in the oasis town of Dunhuang, on the eastern edge of the brutal Taklamakan desert. Together with Buddhist teachers, horses, exotic fruit such as watermelon (still referred to as xigua or western melons), and foreigners, especially Sogdians, loads of jade were carried by the double-humped Bactrian camel, a sturdy, hairy beast that was capable of quenching thirst with saline water and traveling 40 miles per day with a full load.

The Bactrian camel was the Mack truck of the trade routes, and in Chinese eyes, it became a symbol of the ecosystem that linked China with Central Asia, and beyond that, to the less interesting and more distant countries of the Mediterranean. (Sogdians were an Iranian culture that flourished in Central Asia between the sixth century BCE and 11th century CE).

To come up with 70 camel miniatures in jade is no small achievement.

Ships of the Silk Road: The Bactrian Camel in Chinese Jade, Angus Forsyth (Philip Wilson, March 2019)
Ships of the Silk Road: The Bactrian Camel in Chinese Jade, Angus Forsyth (Philip Wilson, March 2019)

As an antiquarian and collector, Forsyth is entirely focused on objects that reflect Chinese perceptions of the Silk Road—which in some accounts was called the Jade Road long before the same links carried exports to the West. Many of the jade miniatures he uses for illustration will be new to those unfamiliar with this medium but also surprising and interesting to fellow collectors. The very first illustration is of a hefty Sogdian weight lifter with his arms around a huge jade rock, ready for a squat lift. Forsyth dates this to the Song dynasty around 1,200 CE, a period of cultured appreciation of the past, when Chinese civilization far outstripped anything in the rest of the world, whether by Gross Domestic Product or sheer sophistication. Another jade miniature, of the same period, represents a foreigner bearing a large, smooth jade rock as tribute. A third, also illustrating the extraction of jade material, dates from the early Qing dynasty, showing a work team in a mine pulling a boulder out into the open.

These are prelude to Forsyth’s camel collection of 75 camel figures, all but five made of nephrite jade. This may well be the largest extant collection of camel figures in jade, and they clearly reflect Forsyth’s strengths and weaknesses as a collector. He is first and foremost an antiquarian, so his collection is defined less by aesthetics than by defining an ethnographic inventory of objects of a certain type, in this case Bactrian camels (not the single-humped dromedaries that are found farther south in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa).

Camels, sadly, are not adorable to start out with. Even so, this is a remarkable collection that expands the mental boundaries of anyone trying to understand the Silk Road from a Chinese perspective. This was a culture in which the heavy lifter of long-distance trade was an endearing beast that smiled with curled lips like a chimpanzee, slept with its neck outstretched like a dog, and habitually gnawed at its hump when at rest like an anxious teenager.

This is a valuable book that shows the validity of the collector’s eye, that tests conventional wisdom against what might be called the wisdom of objects.

Jade is an acquired taste for most westerners, more so than Chinese painting, which is also difficult because of its iconographic differences from the western tradition, and far more difficult than Chinese ceramic arts, which have been beloved since their first introduction in the 14th century. Most westerners think of jade as the apple green variety used in jewelry, derived mainly from Myanmar, and integrated into Chinese taste in the 17th century, as a result of Qing expansionism. Nephrite jade, sourced mainly from Khotan, comes in subtle colors, and with a few exceptions is developed as art objects in miniatures.

Because of the extreme hardness of jade, between 6 and 7 on the Moh’s scale, its small-scale sculptures are abraded, not carved, and the aesthetic experience is based on the silky, warm feel of hand-held jade more than its sculptural majesty, although many of the craftsmen of jade were able to evoke this quality as well. Partly because Confucius enthused upon the eleven virtues of jade as a model of gentlemanly behavior, jade became a symbol of the best in Chinese civilization. Throughout recorded Chinese history, dating at least to the late Shang dynasty, at the time of the first oracle bone inscriptions in 1300 BCE, and long before, jade was collected, revered, and developed as a cultural icon.

 

To come up with 70 camel miniatures in jade is no small achievement. Forsyth could have chosen to put together a standard catalog, aimed as most catalogs are at establishing a kind of ersatz provenance based on the name and reputation of the collector.

Instead, he chose to tell a story, which helps the readers of this book to understand how the Chinese—at one end of this transport system somewhat erroneously described as devoted to silk—might have understood it.

Despite its Braudelian inspiration, there are flaws to the book relating to the historiography. Forsyth is a collector and antiquarian, not a scholar of the Chinese language or history. So some of his statements on the integrity of a Han culture versus that of barbarians or humen might be decried by conventional historians who over the last few decades have come to look at early China as a diverse convention of ethnicities and cultural traditions.

Yet this is a valuable book that shows among other things, the validity of the collector’s eye, that tests conventional wisdom against what might be called the wisdom of objects. This book is a testimony to the value of acute appreciation of jade objects, and should serve as a template for ways to express both the excitement of Chinese history and the energy that goes into a collector’s vision.


Edith Terry is a writer and author based in Hong Kong.