Having spent the last ten years as the museum’s curator of Asian art, Shawn Eichman’s knowledge of the Asian collection is intimate and encyclopedic. When asked to share his favorite museum artwork, how could he pick just one?
Eichman, who specializes in East Asian culture—he is fluent in Japanese and Mandarin and holds degrees in Chinese studies and East Asian Philosophy, as well as a PhD in Chinese literature—recently returned from a two-month trip to China. When he asked to meet me in the Pan-Asian Buddhism Gallery and headed to a mural fragment against the north wall near the door, it was clear the journey inspired his “staff pick.” The work is called Bodhisattva. Dating back to China’s Tang dynasty, circa 8th century, the fragment depicts a round-cheeked bodhisattva, or someone who could follow in Buddha’s footsteps to enlightenment but chooses to remain earthbound to help others find salvation, in earthy burnt sienna and turquoise.
“I was just at the place where this came from about three weeks ago,” says Eichman. “It comes from Bezeklik, which is a famous Buddhist cave site along the Silk Road. It’s right outside of Turpan, once a major city. As an example of Silk Road art, one of the things I find really appealing about it is that it brings together a number of different cultures, and that’s what we do here at the museum—we bring together art and influences from different cultures into one place. This is an example of where Chinese and Indian and Persian and Central Asian culture all came together for one moment and created this unique culture.”
Bodhisattva joined the museum’s permanent collection in 1951. It was purchased from a relative of Albert von Le Coq, a famous German archaeologist and explorer who led several expeditions to Central Asia and China in the early 1900s to collect artifacts for the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.
“In Bezeklik, they were able to remove literally entire caves worth of murals,” explains Eichman. “Not only that but they had to get them back to Germany. And, of course, this was before modern transportation so they packed them up in crates using straw and then transported everything on camels, yaks, and mules across the Taklamakan Desert, over the Khyber Pass—which is one of the most dangerous passes in the world—and then to India where they were finally able to get them on trains and into Germany.”
Eichman cites Le Coq’s book Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan as a fantastic travel account of the archeologist’s expedition—a must-read if you’re interested in learning the provenance of our Bodhisattva. “For example,” says Eichman, “once when they were staying in the caves in Bezeklik, they woke up in the middle of the night to this incredible cacophony of noise. They stepped out of the caves and looked down into the valley below and saw thousands of wolves, all howling at the moon. It gives you this incredible sense of the kind of adventure they were on.”
The Ethnological Museum had built 13 additional rooms for the new Turpan Collection, and the murals retrieved on Le Coq’s expeditions filled all of them. Unfortunately, “The story of how they made their way all the way to Europe has a very sad ending,” says Eichman. Many of them were destroyed in 1945 when Allied bombs destroyed the museum’s northwest wing. Today most of those works exist only in black and white photographs. We are fortunate to have a fragment of the story right here in Honolulu.