Thursday, April 15, 2004

Dead men tell their tales

"Nova" just broadcast a documentary called "Mysterious Mummies of China" about the mummies with European features - notably red and blond hair - found in western China. Chinese scholar Victor Mair (who knows his stuff) has linked these 3,000 year old mummies to the Indo-European-speaking Tocharian people. To corroborate this hypothesis, Mair visits a complex of caves home to a 7th century CE Tocharian Buddhist temple (That's right, white Buddhists at least 1300 years ago. Eat your heart out, Gere.) in the hope that artistic representation of the Tocharians will clarify their race.* He finds support for his theory in the temple's murals which depict men with red hair and beards. But only the color of their hair and beards, because, curiously enough, the portraits of these men have been, literally, defaced. Mair notes, "It's a shame that these figures have all been defaced by people of other faiths at some time in the past." As both an academic - especially a social scientist - at a Western university and a foreign scholar in China, Mair is demonstrating the political savoir-faire that his line of work demands. Though many religions other than Buddhism, notably Manicheanism, traveled along this stretch of the Silk Road, only one enforced its abolition of figurative art. Guess which one.

Here's a hint.

Before and After*For those of you wondering what happened to the Tocharians, Mair has this to say, "By about the 10th Century, the Tocharians had almost disappeared from the stage of history....I suspect that what happened to them is that they were primarily absorbed by the Turkish peoples who were moving into this area and replacing them. I believe that the legacy of the earliest inhabitants of the Tarim Basin survive in the current modern populations. We can sometimes see individuals with blond hair, with light eyes, very fair skin. And where did they come from? I think these are the vestiges of the ancient peoples. They now believe that they are Uyghurs, or Tajiks or some other group." In other words, they were assimilated and their religion and distinct culture supplanted.