How Greece influenced Chinese art

world | Aug 21, 2008 | By John Boardman

The Greeks probably came from the east, Anatolia, in the first place - and they never ignored the other coast of the Aegean Sea, whether you believe there was a Trojan War or not.

Before the end of the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great, with his Macedonian and Greek armies, had overthrown the Persian empire, and he marched on east, through Central Asia even to India, founding new Alexandrias to add to the one he had built in Egypt.

Not all Greek soldiers wanted to go home. One group of Greeks in northern Afghanistan rebelled against Macedonian rule and made a new Greek kingdom in Bactria, on and around the River Oxus. They created what amounted to a whole new Greek state, in touch still with the homeland, building cities which compromised between the east and Greece.

These Indo-Greeks moved on south, even into northwest India, modern Pakistan, which had been becoming Buddhist. One Greek king became a Buddhist sage, and the Indo-Greeks even made one daring raid across north India to the great city of Patna, some 500 miles beyond Delhi.

Greek arts informed the Buddhist arts of the area. A clay figure of an attendant of the Buddha in east Afghanistan is to all intents a pure 4th-century Greek Herakles and only his club has been replaced - by a thunderbolt - for his new function as Vajrapani, the Buddha's guard and attendant.

We even find a representation of the Trojan Horse entering Troy, guarded by a highly oriental version of Cassandra. And the first image of the Buddha we have is on a coin of classical type and labelled, in Greek letters, BODDO.

In the 2nd century BC, northern Afghanistan had been taken over by a nomad people, who had been moved west from the borders of China - the Yueh-chi or Ru-zhi.

Once the Chinese Han dynasty got the better of the nomads, they pressed south the Greeks on the Oxus, and the succession of the so-called Indo-Greek kings can be traced mainly through their coinage and art, from the 2nd century BC even into the 1st century AD in north India.

The relics of these Yueh-chi near the Oxus are pieces of relief gold jewellery from six burials excavated by Russian archaeologists in 1978 at the site of Tillya Tepe, which lies just south of the Oxus River in northern Afghanistan, west of the great city of Balkh (Bactra). They date somewhere just before the mid-1st century AD.

The gold and the brilliance is distracting, and I soon found it best to redraw figures from the photographs, thus forcing myself to understand each part and not make assumptions about identity and detail from a quick glance or the descriptions of others.

As time passed and the pencil drawings accumulated, the focus of interest was sometimes shifted away from being purely Greek towards even China and India.

There are interregna of Parthians here and of the Saka (Scythians), all gone by the mid-1st century AD, by which time one of the tribes of the Yueh-chi from Bactria had moved south and, at the time of our gold, were founding the Kushan dynasty. The Kushans were to rule north India (partly Pakistan now) for three centuries.

Back in the 5th century, Euripides knew of the god Dionysos' visit to Bactria, where Greeks deported by the Persian king were living - and no doubt making wine - in an area long associated with festive agriculture and behaviour, remarked even by Indian writers in the Mahabharata. But you will find no exact parallel in Greek art for Dionysos and Ariadne sitting on a lion.

The lion has a leafy beard, a common feature introduced to Central Asian animals by Greek art - call it acanthoid - and a mane like a Greek griffin. The artist of this, or its model, was at home with the Hellenistic iconography of Dionysos and Ariadne and made a confection in keeping with his eastern home, where lion-riders are not uncomm



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