Camels plodding across the desert, and a sense of timelessness evoked by Kitaro's theme music…. NHK devoted 17 years to the planning, shooting and production of The Silk Road, which unearthed trade routes linking long-lost civilizations of East and West. A landmark in broadcasting history, this series told the story of the rise and fall of ancient civilizations.
Into the heart of China
The NHK Tokushu documentary series The Silk Road began on April 7, 1980. The program started with the memorable scene of a camel caravan crossing the desert against the setting sun. Kitaro's music imparted a sense of timelessness, and actor Ishizaka Koji's resonant narration began with the phrase, "The Silk Road begins in Chang'an and ends in Chang'an." NHK Tokushu broadcast this series over 10 years. It was the start of an epic televisual poem.
The first journey described in the series began in Chang'an (now Xi'an), at the eastern end of the ancient route. On 450,000 feet of film, the NHK crew recorded the path westward to the Pamir Heights at the Pakistan border and this material was edited to make 12 monthly broadcasts. The program gradually revealed how ancient Japan was influenced by the other cultures along the Silk Road.
Seven years in the planning
Back then, it was generally thought to be impossible for TV cameras to penetrate the remotest regions of the Silk Road. But seven years of planning and negotiation overcame the various obstacles.
In September 1972, an NHK director was in Beijing for the TV relay of Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei's visit to China. The day after diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored, Chinese Premier Chou Enlai invited reporters to a reception at the Great Hall of the People. In a speech to them, the premier stated that China and Japan were no longer at war and asked for their support in introducing China to the rest of the world. He told them that this was their duty as journalists.
The director recalled how the Han and T'ang dynasties were eras of great cultural transfer to China, how China had accepted the cultures of many lands and made itself the most prosperous country. The Silk Road was the medium that made this phenomenon possible. He felt The Silk Road could be a TV program that responded to the hopes of the Chinese premier.
A broadcaster's dream
The executives of NHK's General Broadcasting Administration strongly supported this idea. Gaining access, however, was a problem. In a previous program, the camera crews for Legacy for the Future (1974-75) had not been able to enter the Silk Road region.
How were China's doors to be opened? Various negotiating routes were available, and the breakthrough came at the end of October 1978, with Deputy-Premier Deng Xiaoping's visit to Japan. The program director boarded the special train on which Deng was traveling and managed to talk to his secretary, passing on NHK's request to shoot scenes in the Silk Road region. On New Year's Eve, permission was granted and the enormous joint project began.
Seventeen years after the program was conceived, the project was completed. Writer Shiba Ryotaro described The Silk Road series as "the most fruitful Sino-Japanese cultural exchange in postwar history."
The Silk Road 01: Glories Of Ancient Chang An. Duration: 55:16
Begin your journey through China at the Great Wall and from there witness such sights as the incredible Clay Army, the amazing World's Largest Tomb and the fantastic Underground Murals of the Most Beautiful Princess Who Ever Lived.
The Silk Road 02: A Thousand Kilometers Beyond The Yellow River. Duration: 55:41
Leave Xi-an and cross the Yellow River on a goat-skin raft. Visit the giant Buddha at Bing-li-si, traverse the forbidding He-xi Corridor, stroll the streets of the citadel town of Zhang-ye, and visit the Nie-pan Buddha, already 200 years old when Marco Polo lived there in the fourteenth century.
The Silk Road 03: The Art Gallery in the Desert. Duration: 55:24
The Art Gallery in the Desert. Focuses on the famous Mogao caves at Dunhuang, which are indeed an art gallery of Buddhist art spanning centuries. Excellent closeups and sufficient analysis in a clear fashion to give some appreciation for the imagery and the changes in artistic style, reflecting the cultural exchange that took place on the Silk Road. It would have been valuable to have had more information on the treasure trove of manuscripts that the famous explorer Aurel Stein acquired at Dunhuang early in this century and took off to the British Library, although in several places the series shows photographs of what he discovered and items from other museum collections.
The Silk Road 04: The Dark Castle. Duration: 54:58
The Dark Castle. Includes a good sequence illustrating facets of travel via camel caravan along the Silk Road. Focus is on the ruins of the fortress-city of Karakhoto (one of the centers of the Xixia or Tangut state that flourished in the region just prior to the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century), where the modern archaeological/film crew finds various artifacts including pieces of silk and written texts. This film would be quite appealing for younger students because it includes some dramatization of the semi-legendary events surrounding the conquest and destruction of Karakhoto by the armies of Chingis Khan.
The Silk Road 05: In Search of the Kingdom of Lou-Lan. Duration: 55:04
In Search of the Kingdom of Lou-Lan. Introduces the region just east of the Taklamakan Desert--with striking shots of the terrain. Has an interesting segment on the way in which Lake Lop Nor has "moved" historically and the explanations why. Various archaeological objects--coins, Roman beads, written texts--showing the international connections of the kingdom that flourished here nearly 2000 years ago. One of most interesting segments shows the excavation of some tombs, with the uncovering of mummified bodies.
The Silk Road 06: Across The Taklamakan Desert. Duration: 55:05
Across the Taklamakan Desert. Again a good sense of the varied geography, both physical and human, including a tour of a provincial oasis town and its market. Information on the main population of the area, the Uighurs, with interesting filming of such things as the making of the characteristic flat bread that is a staple of their diet. Then follows along the route of the famous explorer Stein to visit the ruins of Miran and Niya, now well out in desert, but at one time located on rivers and centers of sophisticated administration, economic and religious life. One sees, among other things, the wooden beams of a large "palace." Some of pictures taken from the artifacts removed to museums by Stein and others, including the mummified bodies of a couple, the silk robe that one of them was wrapped in, and the various objects of daily life that had been buried with them. [On these mummies, see the March 1996 National Geographic.] Clear evidence of the international ties of the Silk Road cities, with both western and Chinese artistic influences.
The Silk Road 07: Khotan-Oasis of Silk and Jade. Duration: 49:10
Khotan: Oasis of Silk and Jade. A camel caravan brings big chunks of jade down from the Kun-Lun Mountains south of the Taklamakan Desert. Comments on religious significance of jade in China; picture of spectacular suit of jade armor from a tomb. People searching for jade in a river; then the jade market in town. The silk industry--weaving and spinning. The famous tale of the "Silk Princess" who smuggled silkworms out of China and is depicted in one of paintings discovered by the archaeologist Aurel Stein. Expedition searches for that site in the desert (Dandan Oilik) but fails to locate it. Scenes of typical Uighur market day in Khotan, but Japanese film crew play the foolish tourists. A silk dance, with the female dancers carrying plates of cocoons. Visit to the local ice house in the heat of mid-summer. Some rather silly dialogue (When did you get the ice? In January? Oh, you mean in winter!) and a remarkable assertion that Uighurs have little furniture in their houses today because once (hundreds of years ago!) they were nomads. Other somewhat demeaning comments on Uighurs. Mosque scene with some 5000 worshippers on Friday--China as a bastion of freedom of religion today. A little about history of Khotan as a Buddhist center before the arrival of Islam in tenth century. Visits there by Xuanzang, the 7th century pilgrim, and by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.
The Silk Road 08: A Heat Wave Called Turfan. Duration48:46
A Heat Wave Called Turfan. Mud lake below sea level, excessive heat in summer with people sleeping in open air on roofs. Spectacular ruins of city of Gaochang (Kocho) with a fair amount on history and culture and some pictures of important artifacts including Manichaean and Nestorian paintings. Emphasis on cosmopolitan nature of the town. Impressive T'ang era fortress of Jiaohe (Yarkhoto) on a large plateau, but minimal comment on its history. Importance of grape harvest and raisins to the local economy; shows process of drying the raisins. The important Bezeklik Buddhist caves in nearby mountains, but talks as much about destruction by locals and foreign archaeologists as it does about content of paintings. One painting shows supposedly foreign ambassadors from more than a millenium ago. Interesting footage of the karez underground irrigation system including a walk through the channels. Overall, a lot of useful material in this film.
The Silk Road 09: Through the Tian Shan Mountains by Rail. Duration: 49:35
Through the Tian Shan Mountains by Rail. The 470 km. trip from Turfan to Korla, starting in the Gobi region, crossing the eastern Tien Shan and down into the northern Tarim Basin oases. Travel was at time railroad just completed (ca. 1980); much of footage and narrative is a paean to the benefits the railroad would bring to the indigenous peoples. Apart from lots of photos of the steam locomotive passing through sometimes stark landscape, also some good camel shots, since several taken along for the expedition to test how difficult camel travel over the mountain passes would have been for historic Silk Road travelers. Some interesting shots of T'ang era fortifications, especially at Iargo (?). Construction technique not packed earth layering but layering of rounded boulders with reed mats. Brief section on some 2500-year-old burials of nomads, with some elegant gold animal-style artifacts. Notes that even in 400 B.C. area had active E-W exchange. Brief music/dance performance in front of yurt of local Torft (? Oirot?) nomads. Tragedy of their Kalmuck ancestors in 18th century alluded to but not properly explained. At Yanqi (Karashahr) oasis on Kaigdu River, notes population is Hui Muslims, but when Xuanzang passed through in 7th century it had been Buddhist. Brief glimpse of Shi Koshing Buddhist cave complex in ruins; a few of sculpted artifacts.
The Silk Road 10: Journey Into Music: South Through the Tian Shan Mountains. Duration: 49:48
Journey Into Music: South Through the Tian Shan Mountains. From marshy 800 sq. mile lake through what film calls the most formidable pass in the southern Tien-Shan and on to Kucha, some 300 km. west of the pass. Some discussion of how important and cosmopolitan it had been in earlier centuries. Donkey cart "busses." Flourishing market today ("abundance of consumer goods in recent years" with nylon blouses the rage, not silk). Emphasizes fame of Kucha for its fruit and its music. Music theme throughout this film is one of its strengths: Harvest and threshing scenes and their songs, a cradle song, harvest festival with mashrab music and various traditional instruments such as dop, dotar, asatar. A tray dance, a performance of a traditional love song by an elderly woman accompanying herself on the long-necked lute, a wedding scene and its music. Interspersed is effort of Expedition to determine whether any of the instruments today are similar to ones that had come to Japan in earlier centuries via Silk Road and Kucha. Historic artifacts and paintings brought to bear--a painted box showing an "orchestra" which had been excavated in Buddhist ruins of Subashi Castle in 1903; paintings in Qumtura and Kizyl caves. In former find a 4-stringed instrument depicted which is like the Japanese lute (biwa), Tocharian inscriptions and images with Western features. In Kizyl Caves, largest such complex after Mogao in Dunhuang, the "Music Cave" (no. 38) with many images of angels (apsaras) playing instruments. One has a 5-string lute, the unique example of which in Japan being one in the 8th-century collection of the Sho-so-in. It seems to have traveled from India, via the Tarim Basin, and then East. Xuanzang quoted about the superiority of the instrumental music of Kucha. This film has a great deal of interest.
The Silk Road 11: Where Horses Fly Like the Wind. Duration: 49:14
Where Horses Fly Like the Wind. On the Kazakhs of the Northern Tien Shan (the narration notwithstanding, not to be confused with the Cossacks). Views of horses and sheep in mountain pastures. The oasis city of Hami, famous from early times for its melons. Interesting scene of salt production. At Hami, the "Silk Road" branches, one route going south of the Tien Shan to Turfan, Korla and Kucha; the other north to Lake Barkol. Han armies pursued Huns as far as Barkol. Interesting views of hospitality in a yurt, including ceremony of serving a sheep's head. Shows milking a mare, and discusses the importance of mare's milk in diet, but does not explain adequately processing of milk products. Interspersed with views of current nomadic life are historical references and quotations regarding the nomads from the early Chinese histories. Even in this region Han-era signal towers, which were manned by thousands of soldiers. Stress on fact that it was here the Han emperor sought the "heavenly horses" for his armies. Script errs in saying Chingis Khan led "Golden Horde" through here (Golden Horde is the common designation for the western part of the Mongol empire which came into being only after his death). Legend of Prince Mu meeting the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu) in Tienshi Lake. Interesting footage of Kazakh wedding; several scenes with music. September market at L. Tsaidam when nomads begin to descend from their summer pastures. Stress on new prosperity, availability of manufactured goods, and ethnic diversity ("races"). Ends with problematic assertion that sedentary agriculturalists change, but way of life of nomads never does (=part of the "romance" of the Silk Road). The expedition unable to cross border into USSR near where Ili River enters Kazakhstan.
The Silk Road 12: Two Roads to the Pamirs. Duration:49:46
Two Roads to the Pamirs. 3700 km. from Chang-an to Kashgar--in old days a full year's journey. Kashgar's main mosque and celebration of end of Ramadan with thousands in square; music and dancing (for men only)."Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine" (Abakh Khoja Mausoleum), burial place of 17th and 18th century Naqshbandi Sufi rulers; legend of the Kashgari woman Xiangfei, who met tragic fate as emperor's concubine. School for non-Chinese--cute kids identify their ethnic groups in rogues' gallery lineup. Bazaar and craftsmen--lathe run by hand bow; beaten copper pots, making jewelry, musical instruments--continuation of tradition of Kashgar as commercial center. Marco Polo quoted on city. Modern truck caravan trade over Karakorum Highway to Gilgit in Pakistan--barter exchange with silk, ceramics, tea, tools, thermoses from China in exchange for dried fruit, nuts, nylon scarves, medicines. Dancing entertainment. 1300-yr.-old Buddhist caves on outskirts of city, the oldest in Xinjiang (narrator mis-speaks--200-300 BCE), but all despoiled now. Drive toward Pakistan with scenic views, nomadic herders; scene of yak caravan crossing glacier to illustrate difficulty of mountain travel. Old fort at Tashkurgan; Ptolemy cited for report from Greek merchants about "Stone Tower" (the film does not mention it likely was not the one here...). Xuanzang passed through here. Tajiks of region; an interesting Tajik village wedding with dancing. Ends on Khunjerab Pass, 4943 m.