BMCR 1999.01.16

The Camel’s Load in Life and Death, Iconography and Ideology of Chinese Pottery Figures from Han to Tang and their Relevance to Trade along the Silk Routes

, The camel's load in life and death : iconography and ideology of Chinese pottery figurines from Han to Tang and their relevance to trade along the silk routes. Akanthus crescens ; 4. Zürich: Akanthus, 1998. 159 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9783905083125

1 Responses

There is no more important topic than the commerce and culture of the Silk Road during its many periods of development since their history are directly connected with so many other focuses of scholarly interest beyond including the histories of the Classical world, the Middle East, India, and China. Elfriede Regina Knauer’s new book focuses on the era that is considered the golden age of East-West and West-East interchange through the deserts of Central Asia, from Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), the first dynasty to control large parts of the non-Chinese territories lying along the Silk Route, to T’ang (618-907 A.D.), the most successful of all in uniting a farther West with an increasingly sophisticated metropolitan China. She does so by concentrating on a major type of artifact surviving from those days, pottery figurines of Bactrian camels (the most widely employed since they are suited to the cold) now found in a large number of archaeological and arts collections throughout much of the world. Her book sets out to determine the meaning and contexts of these depictions and to evaluate what is shown in terms of charting a history, at least one aspect of it, of Silk Road trade.

Knauer’s book is divided up into a series of short essays in which she explores her topic over time, including, as a kind of postscript, a brief review of camels as seen in various post-T’ang art and what she calls a Mongol-era “Nachleben,” when depictions of camels had a quite different intent. After an introduction, Problemstellung, and a look at her artistic sources and past studies, Knauer first examines early Silk Road trade and the first surviving depictions of camels, including an analysis of saddles and loads, in a carefully comparative context. The book then moves on to a consideration of the “culmination of the trade” and of the tradition of the pottery camels under the T’ang. In continuing her analysis of the loads and saddles she notes the importance of a new “demon mask” symbolism, whose meaning she explores in a comparative, folkloristic sidebar. She also considers what is known from archaeological and other sources regarding what was actually carried during the trade of the era, noting how what is illustrated often corresponds exactly to what is actually known to have been carried, but not always, due to stylization of the figurines whose context is largely funerary and thus symbolic. The last part of the book is devoted to her conclusions. There is an appendix of maps and tables and a short, and in this reviewer’s view inadequate, index, but no bibliography, a major shortcoming of the book since literature used can only be elucidated after reading through very extensive footnotes.

Knauer’s book is profusely and well illustrated. Virtually all of the major pieces known to her are illustrated and discussed in detail, and the choice of comparative material illustrated to support this discussion is excellent. The illustrations are in fact one of the major strengths of the book. The second lies in Knauer’s extremely careful and nearly exhaustive use of the Western-language secondary sources which she utilizes in a masterful way making her book useful to those interested less in her topic than in a more general consideration of the Silk Route and its scholarship. The author makes few if any missteps in her interpretations and exhibits none of the weakness of other, similar books, which, while doing a good job with art or archaeology, often are hopelessly out of date in their interpretations of historical and cultural contexts or are just simply poorly documented (e.g., works of the late T. Talbot Rice, among many others). Knauer is an experienced scholar and is currently a Consulting Scholar at the Mediterranean Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. She was trained in Germany and her work shows clearly a strong interest in the Classical world which appears to be her academic base.

But this is not to say that there are no problems with Knauer’s book. The single most significant one is that she has written a book in a field where there is a profusion of East Asian scholarship but without a knowledge (apparently) of any East Asian language. Since there is now a rich archaeological literature in both Chinese and Japanese on the Silk Road this is particularly unfortunate. The biggest problem in this regard is in the author’s lack of access to the Chinese archaeological literature, which could have provided substantial amounts of new information to bolster the author’s interpretations and reports of new finds as well. This latter deficiency has made Knauer’s book obsolete even as it was published.

Knauer also seems not well read in the Western Sinological literature (although she does handle the Western Central Asian literature in an impressive fashion). While we can perhaps forgive her for not reading the Shan-hai ching, “Canon of Mountains and Oceans,” with its wealth of useful mythological material of direct import to her study, in the original, she seems even unaware that such sources (and there is a wealth of material beside the Shan-hai ching) even exist. This is particularly difficult to fathom since such material is extensively excerpted and discussed by Wolfram Eberhard, among others, in his volumes (“Lokalkulturen im alten China,” I, T’oung Pao, Suppl to Vol. 37, 1942, and II, Monumenta Serica, Monograph 3, 1942; see also the same author’s highly useful “Kultur und Siedlung der Randvölker China,” T’oung Pao, Suppl. To Vol. 36, 1942) on China’s local cultures and related topics. Knauer’s discussion of the “demon masks,” for example would have been far richer if she had used the Eberhard works which must have been known to her since she does use work by Edward Schafer, who cites Eberhard.

In conclusion, Knauer has written a useful book but one in which the presentation is extremely one-sided since it considers only the Western-language literature, and not all of the relevant studies at that. That is to say, while the book is a useful resource it is by no means an exhaustive study of its topic and the information that it provides, as a result, is extremely limited. It should, as a consequence, only be read alongside more thorough and complete studies (in Western languages, the work of Hans Wilhelm Haussig, for example, starting with his Archäologie und Kunst der Seidenstrasse, Darmstadt: Wissenchaftliche Bugesellschaft, 1992) and carefully. The work implies that the author has gathered together what can be known about her topic, and while she does use the material and sources available to her extremely well, this is clearly not the case and the reader need be wary. In writing such studies in the future the Eastern as well as Western secondary literature must be taken into consideration. Chinese and Japanese are now highly accessible languages, taught at all major and most minor universities. These days, for the hardy, even Uighur, another relevant secondary language, is available at least at selected sites. One cannot, be to sure, read all the languages needed for working on Central Asian topics (most in the field are lucky to master a few major ones after a lifetime to study), but one must certainly pick and choose topics that reflect one’s strengths. Alas, Knauer has not done that, partially spoiling an otherwise strong effort.