monks and merchants

Asia Society
silk road treasures


heavenly horses

nomad rulers

buddhism and china

buddhist cave temples



merchants and currencies

the tang dynasty

the silk road

Silk Road Encounters
Learn about the Silk Road.
the silk roadcontinued

The Arts of the Silk Road
The travel of artistic motifs, styles, and techniques along the Silk Road is closely bound up with the larger context of the travel of beliefs, ideas, and technology. For example, the art of the Silk Road includes the devotional art of Buddhism and Islam, the ideas behind certain styles of art such as narrative murals, and the technology to produce various artworks, including gigantic statuary and printed pictures. Religion is an important inspiration for art everywhere, and much of the art if the Silk Road was religious in origin. This includes not only the extravagantly pictorial art of Buddhism, which created a legacy of thousands of statues, murals, and illustrated texts across much of Central and East Asia, but also the glazed tilework of Islamic mosques, which stresses calligraphic, geometric, and other nonrepresentational artistic motifs. Though much of the art of the Silk Road was created to encourage religious devotion, today we value it also as a source of precious historical information. Buddhist cave murals often, for example, yield a wealth of incidental information. about ancient clothing and architectural styles, pastoral and agricultural practices, and much more. Similarly, many of the figurines produced in Tang China for burial in tombs as grave-goods for the use of the dead are of great historical interest today because they depict "exotic" foreign visitors from Silk Road countries.
By far the best known art of the Silk Road is the Buddhist art of murals and statuary in temples and grottoes across Central Asia and into northwestern China. Buddhist sculpture is prominent on the Silk Road from just east of Persia all the way to China and thence to Korea and Japan. As the Buddhist faith crossed the passes from India into Afghanistan in the late first millennium BCE, it encountered the colonies of Greek soldiers that had been left behind when Alexander the Great's empire collapsed. This led quickly to the incorporation into Buddhist art of key Greek sculptural elements, such as highly realistic portraiture, a tendency to endow faces with a subtle smile, and a hip-thrust standing posture. This Greco-Buddhist style, called Gandharan art, flourished for centuries and had widespread influence. (In recent years, tragically, thousands of examples of Gandharan art, including the giant standing Buddhas of the Bamayan Valley, have been destroyed by the fanatical Taliban rulers of Afghanistan.) With the surge in Silk Route commerce that came with the establishment of the Tang dynasty, the Gandharan style reached China itself, and transformed not only Buddhist sculpture but secular sculpture as well. The greater realism of Gandharan-influenced sculpture can be seen by comparing a stylized Northern Wei Buddhist sculpture with a Buddha from the Tang. But the same realism can be seen in ceramic funerary figures (buried with the dead as a display of wealth and to provide the dead with symbolic companionship in the afterlife), where figures of fashionably-dressed young women, for example, have typically Gandharan facial expressions and standing posture.

Buddhist influence went westward from Central Asia as well. The halo that is a symbol of sanctity and holiness in Christian art came into the Byzantine world from Buddhist pictorial art (as can be seen from the halos in the Dunhuang cave-temple murals, for example) via travelers along the Silk Road. Chinese landscape painting has its roots partly in Buddhist pictorial art as well, in the need to provide realistic backgrounds for picture-stories of the life of the Buddha. The landscape conventions that developed in Chinese Buddhist, and then secular, painting made their way west along the Silk Road to Persia, where they influenced the landscape backgrounds in polychrome miniature paintings. One can easily identify this Chinese influence in the layered-plane treatment of mountains, and the trees silhouetted on mountain ridges, that are prominent features of Persian miniatures.

Textile motifs were another kind of art that traveled rapidly in both directions on the Silk Road. The typical Persian roundel figure (often featuring two animals face-to-face inside a circle of dots, a motif that itself is a legacy of the animal style art of the steppe tribes) on printed or woven textiles was taken up by Chinese weavers during the Tang period, both to cater to the export market and because it became stylish in China as well. Ikat weaving, a technique that produces a pattern in cloth by dyeing the warp and/or the weft threads before they are woven into cloth, originated in India and traveled both to Persia and western China. The ikat weavers of the large Jewish community in Bukhara practiced their difficult craft until very recent times, and attempts have been made to revive it today.

The ancient Chinese were adept at a great many applied and decorative arts, but inevitably some were emphasized more than others. The Chinese had almost no tradition of glass-working, and glassware (a specialty of Egypt and the Arab cities of the Middle East) found an enthusiastic market in China. But the heaviness and breakability of glass made it difficult to transport overland on the Silk Road; not very much ever made it to China, and it was very expensive when it reached the Chinese market. Gold and silver metalwork, another Middle Eastern specialty, was imported into China in great quantities, especially during the Tang period. Many gold and silver cups, bowls, jugs, and other fancy utensils have been excavated from Chinese tombs, and often they are decorated with typical Middle Eastern motifs — griffins, deer, carnivorous beasts, and other animal-style art. Later indigenous Chinese metalwork often showed stylistic influences from these earlier imported pieces.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5