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by N.F. Karlins
"Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907-1125)," Oct. 5-Dec. 31, 2006, at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

Exciting works of art from China’s Liao Dynasty (907-1125), about 200 objects in gold, silver, jade, amber, rock crystal, wood, stone, ceramic and fabric, all recently excavated, are being shown for the first time in the United States at the Asia Society.

Why are the Liao so important? Because they once controlled a vast landmass, including most of present-day northern China, Mongolia and part of Siberia, stretching almost from the Sea of Japan to the base of the Altai Mountains to the west. And they influenced future nomadic rulers of China.

"Barbarian" nomads
If you haven’t heard much about the Liao (pronounced "lee-òw") until now, there’s at least one very good reason. The Liao were Eurasian steppes nomads, called the Khitan, who invaded and snatched a good chunk of the northern part of the parallel Song Dynasty’s territory. The Song, members of the Han (the ruling ethnic group for centuries in China), considered the Liao "barbarians."  

The Han, by far the most populous group in China today, endured many invaders, but wielded enough cultural power to eventually absorb them. And victors write history. The Liao have often been dismissed as a subset of the Song/Han. But recent finds, like those from the four sites in Inner Mongolia that form the basis of "Gilded Treasures," have served as catalyst for a reassessment of this little-studied civilization.

The Han of the period looked down on these impressive warriors, who twice fought them after setting up the Liao Dynasty, so successfully that the Han were forced to send annual tributes of large sums of silver and vast quantities silks in exchange for a peaceful border. A small cup in the form of lotus petals is one example of a luxury item, used only by the upper echelons of the Liao, which was probably made from this silver booty. 

Another reason that the Han despised the Liao was that, unlike earlier nomadic invaders (a constant problem throughout Chinese history -- as is demonstrated by the Great Wall), the Liao did not automatically adopt Han ways of doing things. 

The Liao developed a hybrid system of governing, using traditional Chinese administration for more settled areas and their own people to govern pastoral areas. After initially adopting traditional Chinese characters for its script, the Liao developed their own writing system with two scripts still not completely understood.   

The Liao did not remain in one palace but, true to their nomadic roots, traveled on horseback between capitals (they eventually had five) and left room for yurts (tents) in the middle of each. And the Liao mortuary practices, which I will describe, were different enough to revolt the Song.

Liao flamboyance
Like other people of the period, the Liao admired the wealth and material goods of the Song. The Song, though politically weak, turned out some of the most beautiful porcelains in Chinese history, along with gorgeous silks and other luxuries. Trade made the Liao conscious of the goodies to be had next door and they often bought them, both before and after their military triumphs. 

But the Liao, often using Song Dynasty craftsmen, usually combined Chinese motifs with nomadic ones. Since the Song looked backward in Chinese history for inspiration, too, it might seem that the two would meet culturally -- but the styles, materials and symbols each favored were distinctive. The Song preferred the simplicity and purity of more ancient styles, while the Liao opted for the more recent and flamboyant style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). For example, a Pillow in the Form of a Tiger in glazed stoneware, probably had an auspicious meaning for the Liao, just like other animal pillows from the Tang.

Much of the most spectacular material in "Gilded Treasures" comes from the tomb of Princess Chen and her husband, which was discovered intact. Her gold face mask, a nomadic tradition, is thought to be more a portrait than an abstraction. Looking at it, a thousand years disappear, and a human being stares back at you.

A silver wire-mesh suit that went over the dead Princess has been found in bronze in the tombs of other, less important members of the elite. It may have represented another effort to preserve the body from decay (the Liao practiced a kind of embalming). Since the Han people of the Song dynasty would never have altered the body, they would have been startled by such actions.

The Liao were inspired by (or aspired to) other cultures, too. The Princess’ tomb contained a metalwork basin from the Middle East, lots of Baltic amber jewelry, rock crystal necklaces from southern Asia and a headdress with pearls from the same area, attesting to trading links across immense distances. Not surprising, considering that the Liao controlled an area about three times the size of the Song, touching on many other cultures as well as including part of the Silk Road.

Artifacts of hunting and riding
The Khitan people of the Liao were nomadic , and hunting and falconry were important to them. Two full sets of riding gear were found in the tomb of Princess Chen. Made of silver, often gilded, some parts are ornamented with jade carvings.

Gilded silver saddle ornaments are decorated in repoussé with more than 100 tiny birds on-the-wing. These may have been fashioned by Song craftsmen, captured during military raids, but whoever made them, they’re masterful and distinctly Liao.

Elsewhere in the exhibition is an awl with a jade handle. It was used to extract the brains of dead swans to feed the falcons who captured them. Swan hunting was part of a crucial Liao ritual. Every spring, the emperor would go swan hunting and present the largest swan felled to an ancestral temple.

Living close to animals, as the Liao did, gives their representation of even mythic beasts a realistic charge. A gilded silver hairpin in the shape of a phoenix, a common symbol of female power for the Chinese and Khitan, was found in the tomb of Princess Chen. The elegant sweep of the creature’s tail is balanced by a striking, no-nonsense beak. 

A series of eight solid gold belt plaques from the same tomb displays twisting dragons, against a background of waves, mountains and ruyi fungi (considered to have magical properties). The ferocity and snaky scaliness of these brutes make them really terrifying.

Other funeral rites were uncovered in other tombs. The Liao absorbed Buddhism from Korea and the Song. They understood the idea of cremation and the soul leaving the body from Korean Buddhism, but still clung to Chinese funeral practices, such as honoring the dead as ancestors in the tomb. In several burials of prominent Liao, the dead were cremated but had their ashes placed in the chest cavity of a wooden, articulated figure, possibly manipulated in the course of some funerary rite. A life-size wooden puppet figure is one of the most fascinating items on display. 

Dr. Hsueh-man Shen of the University of Edinburgh, curator of the exhibition (in conjunction with Dr. Adriana Proser, John H. Foster curator of traditional Asian art at the Asia Society) told me that several other wooden funerary figures had been found, each similar, so it is clear that there was a standard way of making them. No one knows yet exactly how they were used.

Scripture and syncretism
Veneration of scripture was another trait of Korean Buddhism that the Liao adapted. Religious texts can be seen inscribed on gold and silver sheets, as can several kinds of small pagodas for preserving sutras. The Liao may have been "barbarians" to the Song, but they erected temples to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, while practicing a mix of these faiths and shamanism.

It’s easy to see this syncretism at work in one of the show’s masterpieces, the crown of Princess Chen. Her open-work crown in gilded silver is replete with traditional phoenixes amid foliage, but it’s topped by a Daoist figure with a halo of ruyi fungi. It could only be Liao.

One final reason that the Liao are not as well known as they might be: In 1125, they were pushed aside by their vassals, the Jurchens, another nomadic people. The Song Dynasty was pushed even further south. And soon, in the 1200s, China would be reunited, but under another non-Han people, the Mongols. But these developments are beyond the scope of this landmark show on the Liao, which offers plenty to think about and admire.

"Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907-1125)" was organized by the Asia Society and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Historic Relics Archaeological Studies Research Institute. The exhibition appears only in New York, so if you can’t get to see the show, you might want to purchase the excellent catalogue.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.