Asia Society Presents 'Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907 - 1125)'

Landmark exhibition is first major presentation of Liao artifacts outside of China

October 5 through December 31, 2006

More than 200 stunning objects recently excavated from Inner Mongolia have been brought together in the landmark exhibition, Gilded Splendor: Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125). The first major presentation of Liao artifacts outside of China, the exhibition reveals the complex cultural and religious legacy of the Liao dynasty, the most powerful in East Asia at the turn of the first millennium.

The recently excavated objects in Gilded Splendor shed new light on Liao-dynasty culture which, until recently, had generally been considered less sophisticated than the preceding Tang (618-907) and parallel Song (960-1279) dynasties. Archaeology in China over the last few decades has proven this characterization to be inaccurate as sites of Liao-period temples, tombs, and city fortifications reveal spectacular objects that testify to a highly refined and culturally unique empire.

Established with astonishing speed in the beginning of the tenth century by the Khitan, a confederation of nomads whose homeland was the eastern end of the Eurasian steppes, the Liao empire eventually comprised the greater part of Manchuria, eastern Mongolia, and north China. In geographic extent, it rivaled the other great powers of Asia such as the Khmer Empire of Cambodia and the Abbasid Empire of Iraq and Iran.

The exhibition is organized by Asia Society and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Historic Relics Archaeological Studies Research Institute and curated by Dr. Hsueh-man Shen of the University of Edinburgh, in conjunction with Dr. Adriana Proser, the John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society.

"Gilded Splendor brings together a selection of magnificent objects that have changed people's ideas of China in this period," said Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu. "Through this exhibition, major catalogue and symposium, Asia Society aims to provide new scholarship around archaeological finds in recent decades that reveal the significant role of the Liao dynasty."

"Earlier official Chinese histories treat the Liao as uncivilized nomads, even 'barbarians,'" said Proser. "These objects tell a different story. They illuminate the lives and practices of a nomadic people who settled and maintained distinct cultural traditions while developing rich and complex social, political, and trade relationships across Asia, including Persia, Korea, Japan, and Song China."

The exhibition is accompanied by a groundbreaking catalogue that includes essays by Nicola Di Cosmo, Dieter Kuhn, Hsueh-man Shen, Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt, Sun Jianhua, Ta La, and Zhang Yaqiang. Catalogue entries are authored by Emma C. Bunker, Lynette Sue-ling Gremli, Marilyn Leidig Gridley, Hiromi Kinoshita, François Louis, and Hsueh-man Shen.

The Liao Period

From the tenth to twelfth centuries, the Liao empire encompassed an enormous landmass, stretching from Manchuria to Inner Asia. This vast region was shared by peoples of diverse ethnic origins, including the nomadic Khitan people of eastern Mongolia as well as Jurchens, Han Chinese, and the Uighurs of Turkish descent. The Khitan's nomadic traditions were challenged by the new demands of a sedentary, centrally-ruled Liao empire. It is the confluence of cultures as well as the amalgamation of distinctive lifestyles and traditions - the sedentary and the nomadic - that distinguishes the artifacts of the Liao period.

Major archaeological finds of Liao-dynasty sites are situated in China's Liaoning Province, Hebei Province, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with the largest concentration in Inner Mongolia. The objects in Gilded Splendor were all discovered in Inner Mongolia, primarily at four important sites:

* The tomb (dated 942; excavated 1992) of Yelü Yuzhi and his wife. Yelü Yuzhi was a brilliant multilingual military strategist and cousin of the first Liao emperor, Abaoji (r. 907-26).
* The tomb (dated 959; excavated in 1954) of Xiao Shagu, the Prince of Wei, and his wife, Zhigu, the daughter of the first Liao emperor.
* The tomb (dated 1018; excavated in 1986) of the Princess of Chen and her husband, Xiao Shaoju. The princess, who died at the age of seventeen, was the granddaughter of the Liao emperor Jingzong (r. 969-82). Her husband was the elder brother of Emperor Shengzong's (r. 983-1012) wife.
* The relic deposit (dated 1049; excavated 1989) inside the White Pagoda in Balin Right Banner, the source of an amazing cash of Buddhist finds.

The Exhibition

Gilded Splendor is structured around four major themes illuminating the complex nature of Liao culture: its nomadic heritage, the Chinese tomb tradition, religious life, and objects of luxury and necessity. Objects in the exhibition include ornate harnesses, burial attire, funerary urns and ceramics, functional vessels and flasks, religious sculptures and panels, and decorative objects and elaborate jewelry. In addition, a mortuary house excavated in 1970 from a tomb at Jiefangyingzi, Wengniute Banner, will be on display. The wooden house is a sarcophagus that contained the remains of a male and a female found lying on a wooden bed when the tomb was opened. The wooden bed will also be on view in the exhibition.

Nomadic Heritage

Equestrian gear is commonly found in Liao-dynasty tombs, indicating that Khitan rulers continued to value their nomadic heritage after the establishment of the Liao dynasty. The horse was the most valued animal in Liao society, providing not only mobility but also sustenance. On display in the exhibition in the section on Nomadic Heritage are elaborately wrought sets of harnesses made of precious metals found in the Prince of Wei and his wife's tomb, as well as in the Princess of Chen and her husband's.

Further links between the Liao-dynasty elite and their Asian steppe roots are evident in the distinct mortuary practices of the Liao. These included careful preparation of the corpse by wrapping the limbs in silk and clothing the body in metal burial attire (the placement of a metal burial mask on the deceased is, within China, unique to the Liao). The complete funerary outfit of the Princess of Chen - which includes the gilt bronze death mask of the princess and her husband, her silver wire burial suit, silver gilt crown, boots and pillow, and jewelry in gold, silver and jade - are all on display. A small, yurt-shaped earthenware funerary urn on view takes its form from the traditional circular tents used by Khitan nomads.

The Chinese Tomb Tradition

Liao-dynasty tomb structures and their funerary contents reflect an integration of certain aspects of Siberian steppe burial tradition and Han Chinese tomb traditions with unique Liao Buddhist funereal practices. For example, a life-size wooden mannequin from a tomb at Yihenuoer Township, Balin Right Banner contained the cremated ashes of the deceased in its hollow chest. The mannequin received a burial that was no different from that of a real corpse, indicating that those who buried them believed they represented the deceased whose ashes they contained. This practice is unique to the Liao, and it incorporates the Han Chinese tradition of interring the entire body of the deceased with the Buddhist practice of cremation.

The interior of a Liao-dynasty tomb was often painted with murals depicting attendants and objects relating to the life of the deceased in an attempt to construct a familiar afterlife. Many tombs also contained written messages to enable communication with the spirits and provisions to sustain the "life" of the deceased after death. Such elements are discernible in the underground tomb of the Princess of Chen and her husband, which contained several burial goods that are now on display in the exhibition such as jade inkstones, used in calligraphy for grinding ink.

Religious Life

Four systems of religious belief prevailed within Liao society and sometimes intersected in devotional practices: Confucianism, Daoism, Khitan shamanism, and Buddhism. Liao rulers were also great patrons of Buddhist temples and monasteries and favored the spread of the religion in the northern regions through the printing of religious texts and the inscribing of scriptures on stone steles. Several examples of Liao Buddhist sculptures, ranging from votive stone sculptures of Shakyamuni Buddha, to bodhisattvas made of sculpted earthenware and high-fired sculptures in white glaze, are on view in this section of the exhibition.

A highlight of the exhibition in the section on Religious Life is a miniature pagoda excavated from the White Pagoda in Balin Right Banner. Fashioned of gilded silver, silver, and pearls, this sutra container has a structure very similar to that of an actual Liao-dynasty pagoda. Five sides of the pagoda are decorated with human figures in gestures of veneration. In the front of the base is a standing Buddha with a monk's staff and an alms bowl. A crested phoenix with spread wings and a long tail sits on the top of the pagoda's shaft. In its hooked beak is a string of twenty-four pearls.

Luxuries and Necessities

An abundance of luxury wares found in Liao royal and elite tombs testifies to the international nature and broad geographical influences of Liao culture. The tomb of the Princess of Chen and her husband contained objects imported from Iran and the Near East, amber from the Baltic Sea, and rock crystal from South or Southeast Asia. Foreign stylistic elements are visible on a number of the objects from this tomb. Skilled local and foreign craftsmen produced functional objects within the Liao territories, as well as specialized goods and adornments for the elite classes. The production of ceramics was particularly important. 

A fan in this section of the exhibition is in remarkable condition given it is made of bamboo, silk gauze, pigments, and gilding. With lovely imagery of birds, the fan was excavated in 1991 from a looted tomb, which belonged to an unidentified couple of noble rank. One extraordinary find on view from the tomb of the Princess of Chen and her husband, Xiao Shaoju, in Naiman Banner is a glass, mallet-shaped vase imported from Islamic Persia. Such glass artifacts bear witness to the trade contacts the Liao had with their neighbors in the west via the ancient Silk Road.

Exhibition Tour Schedule and Related Programming

Asia Society and Museum is the only U.S. venue for Gilded Splendor, which will travel to The Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne, Germany, and the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. The Princeton University Art Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum for Architecture and Anthropology both have important holdings of Liao-dynasty material that will be on display concurrently with the exhibition at Asia Society. These venues will also host Liao-focused lectures and tours for the general public. An accompanying interactive online exhibition at will feature object images and background as well as virtual tours through Liao tombs.

To coincide with the exhibition, Asia Society has organized a day-and-a-half-long international symposium, bringing together a group of archaeologists, art historians, and other scholars to present new research on the Song-Liao period, focusing on Buddhist art, Song-Liao tombs, and how recent archaeological finds are casting new light on this ancient Chinese civilization. "China's New Archaeology: Reassessing the Liao Empire (907-1125)" will be held Thursday, October 5, at 6:30 p.m. and Friday, October 6, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. A complete agenda is available at

Morgan Stanley is the lead sponsor of Gilded Splendor and its related events. Part of the Morgan Stanley Innovators Series. In addition, major support was given by John H. J. Guth and grants from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition and its related programs do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

About the Asia Society 

Asia Society is the leading global organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States. We seek to enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of policy, business, education, arts, and culture. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonprofit educational institution with offices in Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.

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Contact: Elaine Merguerian or Jennifer Suh, Asia Society, 212-327-9271