Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Lecture | China Seminar

Chinese, Russian, and German 20th c. Expeditions in Central Asia: Politics, War, and Archaeology

Thursday 14 November 2019
China Seminar
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


In 1899 an International Congress of European and British explorers convened in Rome to discuss plans for Central Asian expeditions to the vast territory between Russia, western China, Tibet, and British-ruled India. Colonial archaeological aspirations were intertwined with political agendas; acquisition of geographic and cartographic knowledge was mission critical in German, Russian, British, and French expeditions. What remains unexplored, and will be the subject of this paper, are the links between archaeological goals, copying activities at Buddhist monuments, the cultural nationalism that engendered the projects, and the ways these issues impacted similar Chinese efforts in the late 1930s and 1940s. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), a period of retreat to the Inner Asian frontier, the location of Han-Tang ruins was as fundamental in determining their appeal as the antiquity of the sites. Government teams and private artists descended on archaeological sites throughout western China; I will argue that, in effect, albeit somewhat unwittingly, Chinese urban artists used Russian and German methods for archaeological site analysis developed in the late nineteenth century.

Perceived as untouched by American, European, and Japanese modernization on the coast, the north- and southwest frontiers were largely unknown (to the Chinese public) and newly unearthed artistic finds discovered in these remote regions were thought to preserve critical features of a long-lost Han civilization.  As western multicultural, former imperial frontier zones were fashioned into new provinces by the Republican Government, traditions were claimed and invented for the Han.


Prof. Dr. Sarah E. Fraser is chair professor of Chinese Art History and director of the Institute for East Asian Art History at Heidelberg University, Germany. Her current book project on Buddhist archaeology concerns national identity formation through archaeological and ethnographic projects during the Republican period (1912-1949). Her other studies include Performing the Visual (2004); Merit, Opulence, and the Buddhist Network of Wealth, ed. (2003); Women Cross Media, ed. (2019, forthcoming); Xu Bing: Beyond the Book from the Sky, ed. (2019, forthcoming).

This website uses cookies.  More information.