Folk-Lore/Volume 23/Review/Ruins of Desert Cathay

Ruins of Desert Cathay. Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. By M. Aurel Stein. 2 vols. Macmillan, 1912. 8vo, pp. xxxviii + 546, xxi + 517. 333 ill., xiii colour plates and panoramic views, and 3 maps.

Fortunately it is neither necessary nor permissible here to deal with most of the matter contained in the eleven hundred and odd pages of these two splendidly illustrated volumes. Any review must be swollen to inordinate length by more than a casual notice of the geographical explorations and surveys during two years and a half in Chinese Turkestan and Kansu; of the moving tale of adventures amidst cowardly Chinese and truculent Turki mutineers, and in crossing the thirsty Sea of Sand, scrambling through well-nigh impassable river gorges, and finally wading thigh-deep through snows which crippled the author with frostbite; and of the archælogical and artistic investigations which continued and extended for nearly a thousand miles eastwards those detailed in the two magnificent volumes of Ancient Khotan.

Greek arts and ideas of classical times were spread in many ways of war and peace from the west of Europe to the centre of Asia. The ships of Sennacherib bore Greek sailors down the Euphrates, and Alexander's conquests seated Greek culture in north-west India and Bactria. But the Chinese acquisition, at the end of the second century B.C., of part of Bactria opened a fresh outlet for a flood of Greek influence which caused the sudden blossoming of Chinese art under the emperor Wu Ti, and was only stayed by the shores of the Pacific, leaving behind it even in far Japan such unmistakable traces of its passage as the familiar Grecian Key ornament. This classical current took its course through the aee-long caravan route between East and West over which Marco Polo journeyed and around which has lain Sir Marc Stein's work on his two expeditions of 1900-1 and 1907-9.

The indebtedness to Greece of ancient Persia has been a commonplace, but there is still much to learn about that of China, and the study of that Asian culture-complex in which Hellenic, Indian, and Chinese elements were mingled and Buddhism and various forms of Christianity strove for mastery will gain enormously from Sir Marc's excavations of documents in several languages with classical seals and Græco-Buddhist wood carvings and frescoes, when these have been fully reported upon by the army of scholars to which they are now affording employment. Discussing his finds, the author suggests (vol. i., p. 476), with much probability, that the non-Oriental winged angels he illustrates from Miran are affected by early Christian iconography. Other figures from the same site resemble the Greek Eros and Persian Mithras, and frescoes of the Jataka legend of King Vessantara are inscribed as the work of Tita,—obviously Titus, a Westerner.

The most remarkable acquisitions, however, were won, not by digging, but by diplomacy exercised upon a wary but corruptible Taoist priest at the sacred "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas," to the south-east of Tun-huang, where a honeycomb of cells showed Indian and Greek influences in their fresco work and stucco statuary of the date of the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). About five years before Sir Marc's visit, there was accidentally discovered an immense mass of manuscript etc. rolls concealed in a rock chamber apparently walled off from the passage of one of the cave-temples in fear of invasion early in the eleventh century of our era. Some of the writings date back to the third century, and one antedates printing from wooden blocks to at least A.D. 860. Sir Marc, aided by his Chinese secretary, after long and skilful negotiations, spread over many days and at different times, bore away about 9000 manuscripts in Chinese, and others in Tibetan, Iranian, Sanskrit, Old Turkish, and unknown languages, a collection of moral tales of animals and men in Runic Turki and not later than the eighth century, and, above all, a roll containing the Confession-prayer of the Manichæan layman. The last named is at present the only complete document known to exist of the faith of the Persian who called himself the Paraclete, though Dr. von Lecocq obtained fragments of both Manichæan and Nestorian texts in his excavations at Turfan in 1904-7. In addition to writings, Sir Marc obtained over 300 religious pictures, painted or embroidered on silk and linen (mostly dating from the seventh to ninth centuries), ex votos and temple banners of silk and brocades, and many other art relics. This mass of material must solve, and raise, many problems, and cannot fail to yield results of the greatest importance to the study of culture drift and of the history of religion.

The persistence of sacred rites and sites is often illustrated. At the desert station of the (Mohammedan) "Pigeons' Shrine" holy birds are now fed in place of the sacred rats of Buddhist days (vol. i., p. 161). Amongst the Kirghiz of the Turfan region, a shrine with the usual Mohammedan votive offerings also contains a slab carved with a male figure holding a curved sword, said to depict the wife of Kaz-ata, an ancient hero himself represented by an inaccessible rock pinnacle above the shrine,—an indubitable relic of a more primitive worship (vol. ii., p. 425).

Turning to non-religious folklore, one regrets very much that the author's time and objects did not allow him to hunt after superstitions and traditions as diligently as he did after river sources and antique frescoes. Evidently living folklore was even more abundant than the archæological remains for which at times he raked over ancient but still evil-smelling rubbish heaps, and we pick up from his casual notes stray ears from the great sheaves that might have been reaped. In one place he himself exclaims (vol. i., p. 39),—"What a rich harvest could be gathered here by the student of old customs and folk-lore!" When he sees a polo game at Chitral he remarks that "plenty of fairies were said to have been seen flitting round the polo ground at the previous match played two days before" (vol. i., p. 36), and that their appearance foreboded deaths and violent events. The defeated side in the same game has to dance for the amusement of the victors, and shortly afterwards he sees a Kafir dance in which small axes are whirled. He is visited by a Mongol who will not face the camera (vol. i., p. 468), and his followers are disturbed at night by the sound of dragons (vol. ii., p. 321), and believe in "'old towns' buried by the sands, and full of hidden treasure," guarded by demons and not to be found a second time, (a legend referred to by the traveller Hsuan-tsang in the seventh century). His Chinese secretary, when bringing to An-hsi the corpse of a companion who has died on a journey, burns "a well-penned prayer to the dead man's spirit, asking him to preserve the corpse in fair condition for a week [till a coffin can be got] and to prevent a breakdown of their cart" (vol. ii., pp. 340-1). One record left by a Tibetan garrison of a thousand years ago specifies a medicine of "boiled sheep's dung mixed with butter, barley-flour, and other savoury ingredients." Such chance items whet the appetite for a more connected account of Central Asian folklore.

For physical anthropologists Sir Marc supplies many valuable photographs ranging from the Chitrali representatives of the Homo Alpinus to the western Chinese, and has made numerous records which will see the light later. It is noteworthy that, even under the elaborate Chinese civilisation of the third century, fire was still made by churning or rotating wooden pegs in blocks. Around the towers of the ancient frontier wall near Tun-huang were found tallies, gambling or divination cubes, and broken earthenware mended by string and leather thongs laced through holes, mixed with records dated in the first century; and elsewhere domestic furniture and appliances of early periods were unearthed. From the cave-temple hoard already mentioned came ancient damasks with Western patterns, probably prepared specially for export like the "Old Japan Ware" treasured at Dresden (vol. ii., pp. 209-10).

In conclusion, one is glad to find that in transliterating non-Chinese names the diacritical marks which are so irritating and useless to non-expert readers have been omitted. The volumes before us contain a great mass of fascinating narratives of exploration, adventure, and archaeology, and it is to be hoped that an abridged edition at a popular price will be issued later to interest the general public in Sir Marc Stein's remarkable discoveries.