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Kucha and the Silk Road

USC College hosts inaugural event for an international consortium advancing the study of the ancient Kucha Kingdom and the Silk Road.

November 18, 2010

Organizer Sonya Lee of art history and East Asian languages and cultures in USC College gives opening remarks at the Kucha symposium. Photo credit Kristine Tanton.

Organizer Sonya Lee of art history and East Asian languages and cultures in USC College gives opening remarks at the Kucha symposium. Photo credit Kristine Tanton.

Scholars from the United States and Europe met at USC recently to discuss topics related to Kucha, an ancient Buddhist kingdom along the Silk Road.

Located in what is now the westernmost part of China, Kucha was once a major center of Buddhism and a trading hub in Central Asia. Kucha’s later history was intertwined with the dissemination of Islam and the great game of empire building across the region.

The Nov. 13 symposium was organized by Sonya Lee, assistant professor of art history and East Asian languages and cultures in USC College, with support from the Fisher Museum of Art International Museum Institute at USC; the Visual Culture in the Ancient World Initiative; East Asian Studies Center; and the Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Panelists discussed the visual culture of Buddhist cave temples in Kucha, and addressed the place of Kucha in world history in premodern and modern times. The audience included students and faculty from USC and other institutions in the greater Los Angeles area. Moderators were Lee and UCLA’s Lothar von Falkenhausen.

Participants included Angela Howard of Rutgers University who spoke about the visual language of meditation in the pictorial decoration of Kucha caves. Neil Schmid of University of North Carolina at Greensboro offered a case study of the Ksitigarbha and paths of the rebirth motif in Kumtura Cave 75. Lilla Russell-Smith of Asian Art Museum of Berlin, Germany, introduced the audience to her research on her museum’s Kucha artifacts.

Other participants were Valerie Hansen of Yale University who analyzed the history of Kucha Kingdom in terms of religious, linguistic, political and economic developments. Adele di Ruocco, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures in the College, discussed the historical significance of Russian imperial expeditions along the Silk Road.

Bruce Zuckerman, professor of religion and linguistics in the College, gave a presentation on the use of the latest computer imagining technologies for the study of wall paintings from Kucha.

The symposium was the inaugural event for the Kucha Research and Database Project, an international consortium based at Yale University and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal of the collaboration is to advance the study of Kucha through a series of conferences and scholarly publications, as well as the development of a digital database to document pertinent cave-temples sites in China, and artifacts now in overseas collections.

Among the participating institutions in the consortium are USC, UCLA, Yale, Asian Art Museum of Berlin, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Kucha Academy of Xinjiang, China. The next event related to the Kucha project is the visit of two scholars from Kucha Academy of Xinjiang to USC in January.