China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - Power Through Narrative in the Hexi Corridor

Saturday, July 7
2:40 PM - 4:10 PM
Location: Marigold, New Building

Paintings from a group of tombs in the Hexi Corridor suggest that, as China’s Han dynasty collapsed in the third century, local magnates reached for new artistic techniques and subject matter to re-align their ideals with the reality that they were no longer operating under an imperial power, but as independent agents among diverse peoples. Across the tombs, images featuring tomb occupants show that power stemmed from an ability to balance competing interests. In one, an occupant leads a military campaign, encountering Xianbei and Sogdians, but not engaging adversaries, while in another the occupant presides over a legal case, deposing witnesses, summoning the accused, and handing down sentences regardless of the rank of those deemed guilty. Pictorial sequences unfurl over swathes of walls or along narrow bands, indicating that segmented narratives were introduced and adapted about two centuries before Jataka tales decorated the Buddhist cave temples that eventually dotted the region. 

The paintings demonstrate people’s willingness to adopt novel artistic approaches in the high-stakes setting of tombs and to embrace cultural blending and interaction — the latter of which puts them at odds with contemporaneous historical records of uprisings, suppressions, invasions, enslavements, and land-grabs. In both style and subject matter, the paintings project a remarkable degree of optimism and confidence — qualities that in turn set the stage for heightened artistic and cultural interactions, including the flourishing of Buddhism, that take place in the Hexi Corridor over ensuing centuries.

Heather Clydesdale

Santa Clara University, United States


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1 - Power Through Narrative in the Hexi Corridor

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