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North American Silk Road Collections: the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University

By Miki Morita 29 March 2017

Since the beginning of the Georgetown-IDP Project on North American Silk Road Collections last fall, IDP has worked with more than thirty institutions to include their pieces on the IDP database. However, there are also a few North American institutions who joined IDP before the current project. One such institution, the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University, has been an IDP partner since 2007. The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection boasts rare manuscripts from Dunhuang and Turfan, collectively known as the ‘Princeton University East Asian Library Collection of Dunhuang and Turfan Materials.’ Prior to being housed in Princeton University, these materials were collected by James C. M. Lo 羅寄梅 (1902-1987) and his wife Lucy Lo 羅先 (née 劉), Zhang Daqian 張大千, from whom the Los obtained some manuscripts, and Guion M. Gest (1864-1948).

In total 158 manuscripts in the Dunhuang and Turfan collections consist of those in classical Chinese, Tangut, and Old Turkic, and also contain fragmentary paintings and drawings. The manuscripts in Chinese have been catalogued (Chen and Tomasko 2010 a, b), and as a part of the current Georgetown-IDP Project, IDP will update information about those written in non-Chinese languages for the new IDP database. One such non-Chinese manuscript is PEALD 6r, a Buddhist manuscript illuminated with intriguing images such as huge snakes and a man burning in a blazing flame.

Fragment of a paper document with both writing and a colour illustration, both extensively damaged
PEALD_6r (Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā)
© The East Asian Library and the Gest Collection, Princeton University

PEALD_6r, mounted on a light tan paper, consists of text written in Old Turkic in Uyghur script, an illustration, and seals. There are two seals on the manuscript, ‘Zhang Yuan 張爰’ and ‘Daqian jushi 大千居士’ both of which indicate that this manuscript was originally in the collection of Zhang Daqian. Two additional seals on the mounting respectively read ‘不負古人告後人’ (Respectful of the ancients while informing posterity) and ‘雷音寺供養’ (From the Collection of Leiyinsi). The former was also used by Zhang Daqian, while the latter is one of the personal seals of James and Lucy Lo, indicating that the manuscript was also once in the possession of James and Lucy Lo (Chen and Tomasko 2010a, 9-12; Chen 2010b, 186-8).

This beautifully illustrated manuscript is a crystallization of the rich cultural interactions along the Silk Road. This and other pages were possibly bound together by a string through a hole pierced at the center of the circle on the left-hand side, such as the pustaka (palm-leaf book) format widely used in South and Southeast Asia (for a Manichaean example of an illustrated pustaka folio from Murtuk, see Gulacsi 2005, 188-191). The text is in Old Turkic vertically written in Uyghur script. This was developed from the Sogdian script, itself developed from Aramaic. The text has been identified as a part of Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā (Garland of legends pertaining to the ten courses of action), in which a teacher explains the ten modes of misdeeds to a disciple by retelling commonly known Buddhist narratives. The textual part contained in PEALD_6r is a dialogue on the effect of anger between the teacher and his disciple (Wilkens 2016b, 738-9). The colophons of this work inform that the Old Turkic version was translated from a version in Tocharian A, which was based on the same text in Tocharian B. This suggests that the text was translated into Old Turkic in the early phase of the Buddhist literature of the West Uyghur Kingdom (mid 9th – early 13th c.) (Wilkens 2016b, 9-10).

Close up on the illustration, with robed disciples, someone on fire, and two large snakes.

The illumination, placed in the middle of the page, is thought to be for a narrative in the tenth chapter (Wilkens 2016b, 738). The influence of Uyghur Manichaean art, whose tradition traces back further to West Asia, and of Sogdian art has been noted in the illustrated manuscripts of Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā in Old Turkic, including PEALD_6r, because of the use of gold and similarity to a wall painting from Shorchuk near Karashahr (British Museum, 1919,0101,0.279.d) (Wilkens 2016a, 209-213). A large snake is coiling itself around two male figures in Turkic attire. On the other hand, there is also an element unmistakably inspired by Chinese culture. The building in which a monk and a few other figures are residing has red-painted wooden elements and a partially green-tiled roof. Along with the ‘post-and-lintel system seen here, such elements are essentialized and simplified elements of Chinese architecture seen in murals widely across the Hexi Corridor and the Tarim Basin (present-day Gansu Province and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) since the late fourth – early fifth century (Steinhardt 2005, 175). Turfan was formerly a part of the Tang dynasty, and the post-and-lintel system was practically used in actual buildings in the Turfan region. There, it was also mixed with other architectural techniques and styles. Examples of such include wooden corbel brackets as well as beams being structurally anchored into earth walls, and wooden parts painted in the typical Uyghur style of the 10th and 11th centuries (Ruitenbeek 2016).

Black and white photograph of a mural with a Buddha image.
One of praṇidhi paintings from Bezeklik Cave 20 (MIK IB 6887_2; lost during the Second World War)(Click here for colour image)
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst

Painted during the West Uyghur Kingdom, some of the praṇidhi murals in the Bezeklik Caves in Turfan also depict Chinese architecture. The genre of praṇidhi paintings is considered to have developed in Kucha where Tocharian Buddhism was practiced, and the genre later reached Turfan (Konczak 2012; Mori 2015). Similar to the case of PEALD_6r, what we see here are Chinese architectural elements used as a background detail of Uyghur Buddhist art originally based on Tocharian Buddhism. The painters used a mixed Central-Asian and strongly Chinese architectural style for the praṇidhi paintings, although architectural elements inspired by the architecture of further western areas, such as later and transformed versions of Corinthian marble capitals, were co-existing with the Uyghur-Chinese style in Kocho (Gaochang; one of the capitals of the West Uyghur Kingdom) (Ruitenbeek 2016,109-112, 122). Also without major interrelations between the paintings’ inscriptions and painted architecture, one possible interpretation for the inclusion of Chinese architecture in these praṇidhi paintings is to exhibit the incorporation of China into the multi-cultural, Uyghur-centric sphere (Steinhardt 2004, 188).

Whether Chinese architecture was consciously selected for PEALD_6r or was simply copied from an architectural template of Buddhist art as a background detail cannot be easily answered. Yet PEALD_6r allows us to catch a glimpse of the complex spiritual sphere of the West Uyghur Kingdom and the formation of its Buddhist art in which various cultural elements along the Silk Road interacted with each other.


Chen, Huaiyu and Nancy Norton Tomasko, eds. 2010a. “Chinese-Language Texts from Dunhuang and Turfan in the Princeton University East Asian Library.” The East Asian Library Journal 14 (2): 1-13.

Chen, Huaiyu and Nancy Norton Tomasko, eds. 2010b. “A Descriptive Catalogue of the Dunhuang and Turfan Materials.” The East Asian Library Journal 14 (2): 13-208.

Gulácsi, Zsuzsanna. 2005. Mediaeval Manichaean book art: a codicological study of Iranian and Turkic illuminated book fragments from 8th-11th century East Central Asia. Leiden : Brill.

Konczak, Ines. 2012. “Origin, Development and Meaning of the Praṇidhi Paintings on the Northern Silk Road.” In Buddhism and Art in Turfan: From the Perspective of Uyghur Buddhism [Buddhist Culture along the Silk Road: Gandhāra, Kucha, and Turfan – Section II], 43-75. Kyoto : Ryukoku University.

Mori Michiyo 森美智代. 2015. “Kiji sekkutsu no ‘ritsubutsu no retsuzō’ to seiganzu ni tsuite” 亀茲石窟の「立仏の列像」と誓願図について [On Depictions of “Row of Standing Buddha” and Praṇidhi]. Bukkyō Geijutsu 仏教芸術 [Ars Buddhica] 340: 9-36.

Ruitenbeek, Klaas with contributions from Ines Koncak-Nagel and an Appendix by Gudrun Melzer. 2016. “Ruin Q in Kochoand its Wooden Architectural Elements.” In The Ruins of Kocho: Traces of Wooden Architecture on the Ancient Silk Road, 103-126. Berlin : Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Russell-Smith, Lilla and Ines Konzak-Nagel, eds. 2016. The Ruins of Kocho: Traces of Wooden Architecture on the Ancient Silk Road. Berlin : Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. 2004. “Red Lintels, Green Rooftops: The Role of Architecture in Eight Paintings from Temple 9 at Bezeklik.” In Cultural interaction and conflict in Central and Inner Asia : papers presented at the Central and Inner Asian Seminar, University of Toronto, 3-4 May 2002 and 23-24 May 2003 , edited by Michael Gervers, Uradyn Erden Bulag, and Gillian Long. Vol 6 of Toronto studies in Central and Inner Asia, 175-188. Toronto : Asian Institute, University of Toronto.

Wilkens, Jens. 2016a. “Buddhism in the West Uyghur Kingdom and Beyond.” In Transfer of Buddhism across Central Asian networks (7th to 13th centuries), edited by Carmen Meinert, 191-249. Leiden ; Boston : Brill.

Wilkens, Jens. 2016b. Buddhistische Erzählungen aus dem alten Zentralasien: Edition der altuigurischen Daśakarmapathāvadānamālā. Turnhout : Brepols.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Martin Haijdra of the East Asian Library and the Gest Collection of Princeton University, Dr. Zsuzsanna Gulácsi of Northern Arizona University, and Dr. Lilla Russell-Smith of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst for their help in writing this blog entry.


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