Introduction to The Silk Road Series

Graeco-Indian Buddha FigureTomorrow I start posting the 12-part Silk Road series as the Friday night documentary, which will take us up and till the end of the year to complete. I found this series about 2 years ago, and have watched it all the way through three times by now, and individual episodes at other times.

The series was made as a joint collaboration by NHK (Japan) and CCTV (China) in the late 70s, and, although technical progress has been made by way of filming since then, it still stands as one of the finest documentary series of its kind.

It tells the story of the Silk Road which ran from China to Rome, taking in most of the civilised world of its time. The series was originally produced in 24 episodes, but only 12 have been translated into English, and it’s these I will show here.

Fortunately for us they cover that part of the Silk Road which is of most importance for us, for it was along the Silk Road that Buddhism spread out of its native India and into China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Map of the Silk Road

Along the way many monasteries, temples, stūpas and some of the greatest Buddhist artistic centres were created, and in the series we get an idea of how extensive the civilisation was in the Middle Ages.

The series starts in Chang-an (present day Xi-an), the old capital of China right in the heart of the country, crosses the Yellow river and heads through the Gobi desert, spending most of its time in what is today the Xin-jiang Autonomous Region, before passing onto Afghanistan and the West.

Mo-goaAlong the way we visit the magnificent Mo-goa caves at Dun-huang, and other caves at Bezeklik and Kyzil; and the ancient Buddhist kingdoms of Lou-lan, Niya and Khotan.

During the series there is constant reference to the journey of Xuan-zang, who traveled the Silk Road to India and back in search of Vinaya texts in the mid 7th century, and one of the things that we learn as we watch the series is what a difficult journey that must have been at the time, as it is still trying today.

Sir Aurel SteinThere are also many references to Sir Aurel Stein, who made his famous expedition to the region in 1900 and recovered many Buddhist remains and helped develop interest in the materials that were still to be found there, and who was followed by a number of others.

Besides the primary interest (at least for me) of the remains of the Buddhist civilisations along the route, there is also some good ethnographic photography of the Uighars, who are the main ethnic group in Xin-jiang, showing their cultivation, their trading skills, and also their music and dance and other cultural activities. The situation for Buddhism has changed greatly since its heyday in this region, and the Uighars are now mainly Muslim, for the same forces which brought Buddhism along this road also brought Islam.

A Trader in TurfanApart from the Uighars, we also see something of the life of the many nomadic tribes who still dwell in the regions and learn something about their life, culture and history, and one of the strengths of the series is that it manages to show how, even though the cultures have changed in the meantime, still the people that are portrayed on the walls of the ancient cave temples are using tools and are employed in crafts and trades which have come down to this day.

The film has a certain tension between it’s coverage of the peoples now found along the route, and the culture which is forgotten in the abandoned cities and temples that now lie all round, but on the edge of the modern world, which gives the series a certain poignancy, and at times it is hard not to feel sad at the passing of what was once such a vibrant and flourishing Buddhist culture.

Over the coming weeks I will be occasionally supplementing the series with other material connected with the Silk Road and its peoples, to try and fill in some more of the background, and I hope you will take the time to learn something more about the history, both of the region and of the religion.


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