Mummies Caught in Politics

Chinese officials block controversial Silk Road artifacts from a U.S. museum exhibit.

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mummy-305 The Yingpan Man, one of the mummies from the Tarim Basin barred from display at the Penn Museum, at an exhibit in Berlin in 2007.
Beijing has forced a Philadelphia museum to pull from display mummies and artifacts that are evidence of ancient non-Chinese inhabitants in China’s northwestern Uyghur region.  

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit opened on Feb. 5  without its star attractions, three mummies displaying Caucasian features from the Tarim Basin in the Muslim-dominant Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

“The artifacts have been in our storeroom for almost [a month], but the Chinese government suddenly told us – without giving any explanation why – that we are not permitted to open the crates and install the artifacts in the cases we have prepared so exactingly,” said Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor who helped bring the mummies to museums in the U.S.

Before arriving in Philadelphia, the mummies were shown without any problems at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, and at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The reason why Chinese officials objected to the Philadelphia exhibit remains unclear.  Chinese government offices could not be immediately contacted, as many of them remain closed for the Lunar New Year.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington said that the Penn Museum was not part of the original plan for the mummies, according to the Washington Post.  But no further explanation was given.

“We are still struggling to overcome the horrible bureaucratic snafu that has derailed the wonderful exhibition we had been working on for nearly two years and on which we had spent over $2 million and mobilized dozens of researchers, designers, etc.,” Mair said.

“I know the real reasons for what has happened, but probably won’t be able to reveal them until the exhibition is over,” he said.

Controversial Features

The exhibit included the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” a 3,500-year-old mummy of a woman bearing Caucasian features such as a long nose and light hair, raising the prospect that the region's inhabitants were European settlers and also the question about who first settled in Xinjiang.

The exhibits’ other elements – including a mummy of a baby and the Yingpan Man, a mummy from the 4th century A.D., as well as clothing, textiles, and personal treasures – also suggest a version of history at odds with China’s official narrative of civilization in the region.

Chinese officials have stated that the Xinjiang region, where the mummies and artifacts were found, has been “a part of China since ancient times.”

The region is home to Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, who are an ethnic minority in China.  China also fears a nationalist separatist movement in the region. 

Uyghur groups said the mummies reinforce their contention that  their homeland was not part of China. 

Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the Uyghur American Association, said, “The simple question is, if East Turkestan was indeed an inalienable part of China since ancient times, then why were the original and ancient inhabitants of this region not Chinese, but Uyghur-looking Caucasians?”

He continued, “China has no answer for this question except to fabricate that the Caucasian-looking mummies had nothing to do with Uyghurs."

“The existence of these mummies simply puts China's territorial claims that Xinjiang has always been an inalienable part of China since ancient times in serious question, which in turn threatens the legitimacy of Chinese rule over this vast resource-full territory.

“This is the last thing China wants out of exhibiting these mummies in the U.S. and other countries,”  Seytoff said.

He said the Association “strongly objects”  to the exhibition, charging that the Chinese government wants “to hide the truth of these mummies and the real history of East Turkestan.”

The designation "East Turkestan" is used by Uyghur groups to refer to the Xinjiang region.

Ancient Peoples

But others argue that the mummies from thousands of years ago have little to do with today’s Uyghurs.

Xie Xuanjun, a scholar of Chinese studies in New York, said, "They're not the same at all."

"They are whiter than the Uyghurs. They are white folk with golden hair and blue eyes. The language they spoke was ... very close to the languages now spoken in Europe.”

“This shows us that there was a good deal of movement in the ancient world, far more than we had ever imagined ... So this ethnic group has little to do with modern Uyghurs," he said.

Exhibit continues

The Penn Museum’s exhibit has opened without the artifacts from China, and features multimedia and a recreated excavation site in their place. 

“Even though the opening has been delayed, we have not given up,” Mair said.

Reported by Kurban Wali and Nabijan Tursun for RFA’s Uyghur Service and Gao Shan for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translation by Luisetta Mudie and Nabijan Tursun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.


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Feb 08, 2011 03:04 AM

What happened to my comment? I hope RFA does not use the same kind of censorship like Xinhua.