Exhibition: A Journey along the Silk Road with Dr Joseph Ting

The Culture Promotion Committee presents its first Historian-in-Residence Programme this year (2019) and is most honoured to have as its first incumbent in this role Dr Joseph S.P. Ting, former Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History. The theme of the Historian-in-Residence Programme is the Silk Road. Last November, the talk ‘Merchants on the Waves: Vietnam’s trading ties with countries along the Maritime Silk Roads’ given by Dr Ting ushered the programme into full swing. This February, Dr Ting led a group of PolyU students and staff on an historical exploration to Vietnam. Following this exhibition, A Journey along the Silk Road with Dr Joseph Ting, he will host another talk in April entitled ‘Merchants on the Sands: Different faiths along the Xinjiang section of the Silk Road’, shedding light on the dissemination of various religions over time along this route. May will see Dr Ting leading an eight-day historical exploration to Xinjiang.

We would like to thank Dr Ting for his liaison with the Hong Kong Museum of History and the Museum for lending us the animated map ‘Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor’ and the ‘Chronology of Notable Events along the Silk Road’ previously displayed in the Museum’s exhibition Miles upon Miles: World Heritage along the Silk Road. Also featured in this exhibition are a number of beautiful objects acquired by Dr Ting over the years from various countries along the Silk Road, as well as his Silk Road book collection. Apart from providing us with a glimpse of the customs and traditions of those countries, these exhibits also attest to Dr Ting’s key to learning: ‘travel far, read wide’. The marks left by ethnic groups originating from the Silk Road countries are also introduced in this exhibition with a view to examining their important role in the development of modern Hong Kong.

In Dr Ting’s words, everything in the world constitutes history and therefore we must know and study history. We hope that through this exhibition and the Historian-in Residence Programme, the PolyU community will contemplate the evolution of history, respect cultural diversity and recognize the importance of understanding the present by learning from the past.

Words from Dr Joseph Ting

I owe my keen interest in things from beyond the Great Wall to the influence of the martial-chivalric wuxia novels by Liang Yu-sheng and Jin Yong which I read in my early youth. When I was an undergraduate I chose to read Chinese Art and Archaeology, among other subjects, thus gaining a general knowledge of Chinese ceramics, painting, bronze and ancient rock carving. The sinicisation of the ruling Tuoba-Xianbei clan of the Northern Wei dynasty was the theme of the dissertation of my master’s degree. I delved into the archaeological remains to investigate the gradual south-westward migration of this ethnic group from its native place the Greater Khingan Range in northeast China to the Ordos where Pingcheng (Datong) was made their capital, and then the further southward relocation of their capital 80 years later to Luoyang, the major cultural hub in the Central Plain during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen. In my dissertation I compared the artistic style of the Yungang Grottoes at Datong to that of the Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang to examine the sinicisation process of the Tuoba clan. However, my knowledge of the source of Buddhist grotto culture was quite limited at that time.

I am fortunate to have worked at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and then the Hong Kong Museum of History for altogether 28 years. My curatorial career allowed me to gain access to cultural relics from areas around Xinjiang, Tibet, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, subsequently shifting my interest from the outlying regions of northeast China to northwest China. When I first visited the important city Kashgar in westernmost Xinjiang in 1985 and found that the facial features, spoken and written language, costume, food and religion of the local people were markedly different from those of the metropolitan Chinese, I was greatly impressed. The following year, I set foot in Dunhuang for the first time. After viewing the world-renowned Dunhuang murals, it dawned on me that Dunhuang was in fact the headspring of the grotto art and culture of Yungang and Longmen. In 2005 the exhibition From Eastern Han to High Tang: A Journey of Transculturation was held at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. The same artefacts had been previously shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in an exhibition curated by Professor James Watt, then Chairman of the Department of Asian Art. Excavated artefacts were displayed to illustrate the roots of High Tang culture, tracing their source back to the Wei, Jin and the Northern and Southern dynasties when alien ethnic cultures beyond the Great Wall impacted and integrated with the Han culture of metropolitan China for a period spanning over 300 years. I was greatly inspired by this exhibition.

My serious interest in Central Asia only began after my retirement from the position of Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History. In recent years, I have repeatedly set foot in Xinjiang and various Central Asian regions as well as visiting many other places including Iran, Caucasus, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. My travels enabled me to understand the breadth and profundity of the Persian and Arab cultures, and their enormous influence on the cultures of the surrounding regions. I realized how narrow had been my outlook and how ludicrous my self-conceit. In fact, prior to the spread of Han Chinese culture to the Western Regions, the army of Alexander the Great of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon had already swept across Central Asia, bringing Greek culture to present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places, and engendering the growth of Greco-Buddhist art based on Greek statues. The Indo-European speaking Sakas that were active on this vast territory at that time also left much evidence of their activities in Xinjiang. In the classroom, we learned about the Western Han diplomat Zhang Qian opening up the Western Regions and the Tang monk Xuanzang travelling westward in quest of Buddhist scriptures. However, we could hardly figure out where they had travelled to, let alone have any empathy with them. Only if you had been to Xinjiang and Central Asia, and traversed their deserts and snow mountains, would you realize how perilous their journeys and how herculean their determination and willpower had been. Zhang subsequently cleared the route connecting Chang’an to Central Asia via Xinjiang, subsequently opening up the Silk Road. Apart from bringing back many volumes of Buddhist scriptures, Xuanzang also wrote the great work Datang Xiyuji (The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions) which gives a minutely detailed account of the geography and traditions of many Central Asian regions, and greatly improved the Tang people’s understanding of the Western Regions and India. Xinjiang and Central Asia were where metropolitan Chinese culture, Persian culture, Arab culture and Greek culture converged. The artery connecting these cultures was the transcontinental Silk Road traversing tens of thousands of miles across Eurasia.

In 2014 I was appointed a member of the Culture Promotion Committee of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I strongly support the vision of the Committee. Organizing art and cultural programmes in a technically-oriented university is vital to enhancing students’ cultural awareness, allowing them to achieve a more balanced mental growth. I am very honoured to be PolyU’s Historian-in-Residence this year (2018/19). It is my wish to share my research interests with PolyU students and staff through this exhibition, historical explorations and talks. I also hope that these activities will arouse PolyU students’ and staff’s interest in the Silk Road and inspire them to explore the subject further.