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A Silken Path to Trade

By Will Schroeder | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

Two glazed earthenware roosterheaded ewers, one from Tang Dynasty China and one from thirteenth-century Iran, now stand side by side in a new exhibition, evoking the long and complex story of the relationship between trade and Asian art. The ewers’ origins predate the Tang Dynasty in ancient Persia, where they were executed in metal as well as ceramics. Like other cultural forms, they made their way back and forth between regions inside Asia and colored the societies engaging in artistic trade.

The story of the birdheaded ewers only touches on three out of the sixty centuries represented in the Asian Art Museum: its collection tells of the fashionable and the modish, the financial imperatives of trade, and the insecurities of emperors.

Fourteen thousand objects have been moved to spacious new quarters in what was once San Francisco’s main public library. The Asian Art Museum’s greatly enlarged space--more than double its former size--has afforded its staff an opportunity to rethink the methodology behind presenting its encyclopedic collection of Asian material culture. “It’s very rare to be able to redo it all at once,” says chief curator Forrest McGill. “It gives us a chance to do it globally, and to think about how to do it as a whole with all the seams and all the linkages.”

The Beaux Arts building was redesigned by the hand of Gae Aulenti, a Milanese architect known for her conversion of a Paris train station into the Musée d’Orsay. The new Asian’s debut exhibition, “In a New Light: The Asian Art Museum Collection,” will open March 20 and will feature 2,500 treasures including Korean paintings and Tibetan tangkas, Islamic manuscripts and Cambodian Buddhas, and Indian stone sculptures and Chinese jades.

During the Tang Dynasty in China, which spanned the seventh and eighth centuries, there was extensive trade with West Asia, which led to a desire for what were then exotic forms. “Central Asian goods were very fashionable and modish in Tang China, and foreign jewelry,” says McGill. “You can see changes in women’s clothing during this period.” He adds that Southeast Asian dancers were imported into the Tang courts to satisfy a general desire for the foreign. Elements of Japanese culture, too, owe their origins to Western Asia--the Japanese adopted modes of dress, styles of architecture, and China’s written language during the Tang Dynasty.

As early as two thousand years ago, trade took place along the Silk Road between East Asia and China to Central Asia and the Mediterranean. Asia is a Greek and Roman term that designates the region east of the Ural Mountains and the Ural River--a disparate continent, possessing the longest coastline, the greatest variety in climate, and three-fifths of the world’s population. “If you look at Pakistan and Japan, they have much less in common culturally than, say, Ireland and Russia, but both places are considered part of Asia,” says McGill.

One need only imagine the assortment of objects that were once found in a marketplace along the Silk Road--from piles of tea and spice and medicine to gold, ivory, furs, jade, lacquer, and bronze--to envision the difficulty in presenting the Asian Art Museum’s collection in a way that conveys cosmopolitanism and cultural interchange while maintaining a sense of the local. In its new home, the museum is presenting pieces by region and in chronological order. Architectural constraints--most notably the U-shape of the historic building--forced the collections into a linear progression. “The building itself is linear, so this led us to make a virtue of necessity,” says McGill.

In the museum’s first gallery, a Ming Dynasty blue-and-white porcelain dish decorated with bunches of grapes demonstrates the exchange of material goods--and the allure of myth. The porcelain was coveted for its beauty and rarity. But it was most highly prized for reputedly changing color when touched by poison--a protection against would-be assassins. This dish’s Persian inscription indicates that it belonged in 1643 to the builder of the famed Taj Mahal in Agra, India--the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It was created during the first part of the previous century and was already an antique when it came into the possession of Shah Jahan. Chinese blue-and-white porcelain would also make its way into the collections of Ottoman sultans and Persian Safavid shahs.

The Persians traded the Chinese glass and metalwork in exchange for silks and ceramics. A collection of pan-Asian ceramics gives a sense of this artistic interchange in the loggia through which visitors exit the museum. Besides the necessity in the sun-filled loggia to display lightfast objects, there is a method to the presentation. The juxtaposition of ceramic forms from across the entire geographic region of Asia tells of a place steeped in its own fascination for the exotic, and later, for the marketable. Several of the ceramics on display are Thai or Vietnamese copies of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain ware, created to compete on the market.

After the fall of the Ming, the Manchu ruled China from 1644 until 1912 and cultivated a different sort of exchange. “Manchus were minorities, so what they were afraid of was other minorities, especially the Mongols,” says Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator of Himalayan art and Chinese decorative art. “The only way to control the Mongols was through religion, because the Mongols had great reverence for Tibetan Buddhism, especially the Gelug order.” The Manchu court sought to rein in the Mongols and ward off incursions by establishing ties with Tibet and the Gelug leadership.

The museum possesses a five-foot-tall dancing lionheaded Dakini, an example of the Tibetan religious art produced during the reign of the Qianlong emperor by his imperial workshop. The workshop included Tibetan and Nepalese artisans, who were well trained in the execution of the forms of Tibetan Buddhist religious iconography and were familiar with texts delineating the images’ exact dimensions. Dakini, or Skywalker, is a protector goddess of the same rank as a Buddha, and she is the particular protector of the Gelug order. This fiercelooking lacquered wood image of the goddess is a reminder not only of the importance of Tibetan Buddhism as the religion of the Chinese emperor, but also of the political importance of preventing threats to imperial power.

“Trying to present the most abstruse philosophical ideas in Buddhist artwork that the complete novice can understand has been a large part of the work of the past four years,” says McGill. The museum has brought in historical, religious, anthropological, and educational consultants to prepare for the move to the new building. These consultants served as advisers and co-authors for the text panels and other materials used throughout the museum. “For us to move into a completely new building and to rethink the way that the didactic functions work in light of the encyclopedic collection is a rare opportunity,” says McGill.

About the Author

Will Schroeder is a writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Funding Information

The Asian Art Museum has received $905,028 in NEH support for the storage and reinstallation of its collection.