Silk Road Site Provides Unusual Look at Everyday Life In Medieval China

A conference titled “The Silk Road Project: Reuniting Turfan’s Scattered Treasures” will be held at Yale, July 10-12, marking the culmination of three years of research by an international team of archaeologists, historians, art historians and religious studies scholars. The Friday sessions will take place in Street Hall, 1071 Chapel St., and the Saturday and Sunday sessions will be held at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies in Luce Hall, 34 Hillhouse Ave. The conference is free and the public is welcome. All sessions will be in English.

The Silk Road was a key trade route linking China and the West from about 300-800 CE. Most documents from that period are official government papers, but those found at the site in Turfan include materials that illuminate the everyday life of ordinary people. (Turfan, in northwestern China, is located in today’s Xinjiang autonomous region.) Contracts detailing the sale of animals and slaves, family letters and other papers survived because the local population recycled these hand-written documents to make ritual paper clothing for their dead. The bodies were buried in tombs, where the documents were later found in well-preserved condition, along with textiles, petrified food and coins. The people of Turfan also dedicated caves with wall paintings to Buddhist monasteries.

Evidence of contact with India, Tibet and Iran have been uncovered at the site, and Turfan artifacts have been found as far away as India and Korea, confirming its importance along the Silk Road. Since 1900, explorers from France, Germany, England and Japan have excavated the site, and modern researchers are compiling a database to help them track the variety of objects related to Turfan.

Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation Inc., the Turfan project brought together a team of 25 Chinese and American scholars, including several from Yale: project director Valerie Hansen, professor of history; Stanley Insler, the Edward E. Salisbury Professor of Sanskrit; and Mimi Yiengpruksawan, professor of East Asian studies and history of art. Other participants include Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania), Oktor Skjaervo (Harvard), Denise Leidy (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Chen Guocan (Wuhan University), Deng Xiaonan (Beijing University) and Wu Min (Xinjiang Museum).

For further information, email the director of the project, Valerie Hansen, at or consult the conference schedule web-site at

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