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New Focus on Central Asia
Kyrgyz camp, Tian Chi, in China's northwestern Xinjiang province. (Photo courtesy of Nick Menzies)

New Focus on Central Asia's Puzzles

Over the coming three years, the UCLA Asia Institute will continue to promote study of Central Asia, with the help of outside faculty and new funding from the International Institute. Last month on campus, international scholars engaged in a day-long discussion on the region's history, arts, and cultures.

THREE DAYS after returning from Uzbekistan's Khorezm province, where she had been excavating an early medieval site with a team of Australian archaeologists, Elizabeth Brite was again listening to the views of experts on Central Asia's past, this time at an Oct. 18, 2008, conference organized by the UCLA Asia Institute.

Votive wooden plaque from Dandan-Uliq in the kingdom of Khotan. Courtesy of the British Museum, 1907,1111.70 (D.VII.5), ink and colours on wood.

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For a world region "always on the periphery," said Brite, every dedicated academic meeting is a welcome event. Brite was one of 11 graduate students to travel abroad this summer on a research grant provided by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies (CEES). She plans to write a doctoral dissertation involving ceramics and architecture from Khorezm that date from the fourth through the seventh centuries.

The International Institute provided funding for the conference, with additional support from CEES. In opening remarks at the event, Nicholas Entrikin, vice provost of international studies at UCLA, announced that the International Institute would extend its support of the Central Asia Initiative through the 2010–11 academic year, contributing a total of $39,000 over three years.

At the conference, six lecturers and three UCLA discussants offered variations on the themes of "mobility and governability" for an audience of about 50, including undergraduates and others from beyond the campus. The speakers were interested in historical evidence from ancient times up to the late 19th century, including textiles and documents from the Eurasian steppe, monuments and ornaments turned up at digs, oral histories, and remnants of Shamanistic religious practices. M. Nazif Shahrani—an anthropologist affiliated with the only Education Department–backed center on Central Asia, at the Indiana University, Bloomington, campus—brought the discussion up to the 20th century.

The herders and horse traders of the steppe make difficult targets for the historian. They are a bit like the sailors of the Indian Ocean past, says Nile Green, a UCLA associate professor of history who works primarily on South Asia and who chairs the Central Asia Initiative's steering committee.

"The very mobile people, the people who are in the midst of this steppe, not in the towns and at the edges, these are people who are not writing," he said, explaining the importance of archaeologists' and art historians' perspectives on the region.

Even though the geography of the region is varied, from desert to mountains to highland pasture, it is often forbidding and can loom very large in studies. David Christian, a professor of history at San Diego State University, spoke at the conference about similarities between the Mongol and Russian empires that arose in spite of the different bases of their economies. A French authority on Tibetan religion, Francoise Aubin of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, discussed the flexible and very durable tenets of Shamanism and how practices varied geographically, for example between egalitarian hunters in the forest and hierarchical cattle-breeding nomads on the steppe.

Apex of the ceiling of Cave 407 at Dunhuang, in China's Gansu province, c. 700, showing a trio of rabbits or hares inside a lotus motif.

Apex of the ceiling of Cave 407 at Dunhuang, c. 700, showing a trio of rabbits or hares inside a lotus motif. (Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy)

Some other presenters highlighted mysteries and unanswered questions about Central Asia. UCLA archaeologist Lothar von Falkenhausen noted difficulties in identifying ancient ethnic groups and explaining demographic changes "over long time spans." Devin DeWeese, a leading historian of the region also from Indiana University, Bloomington, tried to account for a "lingering reluctance to engage" available sources and other impediments to understanding the region.

While attempting to soften perceived contrasts between Central and East Asian arts, Susan Whitfield of the British Library vividly illustrated some mysteries encountered by art historians of Central Asia. Whitfield directs a London-based project to preserve and study the heritage of the Eastern Silk Road.

The art of the steppe itself was sometimes mobile. Artisans made ornaments for horses' harnesses, for example, and textiles for nomads' homes.

In her conference presentation, Whitfield promised to raise questions and did so. What, for example, is meant by the image of a blackbird diving into a cup? (See image above.) How did the equally perplexing symbol of three rabbits or hares running in a circle—they share ears, three in all—come to appear successively in Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian contexts?

As scholars pour through newly available archives, Whitfield hopes, they'll begin to provide the means for such symbols and Central Asian arts more generally to be interpreted on their own terms.