Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Beauty of Xiaohe

The other day I traveled to Philadelphia to see an exhibition that the Washington Post has described as "one of the hottest tickets on the East Coast."

Hot it may be, but I have to admit that some of the artifacts I saw on display gave me the chills. The exhibit, which is at the Penn Museum, is called "Secrets of the Silk Road." And what's chilling about it is that it includes a number of extremely ancient things that really have no business being around anymore: textiles, foods like pastries and wontons, even a couple of amazingly well preserved dead bodies--all of them thousands of years old.

The main attraction is a mummy--one that was, unlike the deliberately embalmed Egyptian variety, naturally preserved by the dry climate of western China--that has been dubbed "the Beauty of Xiaohe," and that dates from between 1800 and 15oo B.C.E. Again, unlike Egyptian mummies, she isn't wrapped up in material that conceals her face and skin from view. She's wearing what was presumably the latest fashion in what we now call the Tarim Basin in about 1500 B.C. E--furry booties, a pointed felt hat, and (we're told) a "string skirt" under the blanket she's wrapped in.

She's basically just lying there, almost as though she's taking a 4000-year nap, albeit in a glass case. Her eyes are gone, but her eyelashes are still there, and quite lush. She has an adorable little pointed nose (as the Post points out, the kind of nose Michael Jackson spent his life pursuing) and prominent cheekbones (perhaps a bit more prominent now than when she was first buried), and an abundance of auburn hair that cascades around her shoulders. She is, or was, indeed a beauty, and it's hard to take your eyes off her. But to me there's something disturbing and frustrating about her as well, and about many of the other objects of daily life in the exhibit.

The Post review of the exhibit, which ran the day before I saw it, made an intriguing point about the "dichotomy between narrative history (which is obsessively interested in authority figures, emperors, kings, generals and the like) and the history of ordinary people (who strive for survival and, if they're lucky, dignity)." I'm primarily interested in the latter--that's what draws me to historical fiction, which allows you to get at lives that are otherwise opaque--and I looked forward to seeing an exhibit that focused on it. (The New York Times has also run a piece on the exhibit, which is surely the biggest thing to hit the Penn Museum in quite some time.)

But, as the Post article also pointed out, the fact is nobody really knows much about the people whose artifacts, and in a couple of cases bodies (there's also a mummified infant), are on display. In fact, it's all pretty confusing: a lot of different people apparently passed through this area, leaving traces of themselves behind, over the course of thousands of years. The signs accompanying the artifacts do the best they can with the little information available, but often they're reduced to simply describing the object you're looking at without giving you much in the way of context or background information. (Of course, sometimes the information wasn't all that obvious: apparently the tall wooden objects situated at the graves where the Beauty of Xiaohe was found were phallic symbols, for the graves of females, and vulvas, for the graves of men. To me they looked more like oars and wooden renditions of those primitive stone faces on Easter Island, but what do I know.)

As the Post writer observed, the challenge of this exhibit is to get us to care about people to whom we can attach no names and no stories--in contrast to an exhibit about, say, Thomas Jefferson, or even Cleopatra. I did want to care, but I have to admit it would have been easier had there been more of a "narrative" available--something the Post article dismisses as a "now-cliched crutch" in the context of museum exhibits.

Cliched or not, it's a crutch that seems to work, at least for me. Amazing as it is to see a 4000-year old woman, complete with eyelashes and hair, she doesn't really come alive, as it were, unless you know something of her story.

And I guess that's why the historical figures I write about--even the ones whose appearance remains a mystery to me--seem far more real to me than the Beauty of Xiaohe. I can always imagine what their eyelashes looked like, or their hair. But without some facts about their lives, and without the letters that have preserved their voices, I would never be able to imagine them.

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