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‘Each inch of Xinjiang is gentle, warm’

Author  :  Yi Hua     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-08-21

American Sinologist Victor H.Mair is over 70 years old but he continues to pursue his lifelong goal of expanding the frontiers of Sinology.

Before he began his illustrious career, Mair lived in Nepal for two years, and what he experienced there led him to enroll in the University of Washington at Seattle in 1967 to study Buddhism as well as Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Mair received a Marshall scholarship and transferred into the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to study the Buddhism and Dunhuang studies. Later, he attended to Harvard University to continue his studies on the Buddhism and Dunhuang studies. In 1976, Mair received his doctorate and remained at Harvard to teach as an assistant professor.

He has concentrated on the study of Dunhuang transformation texts, a popular form of narrative literature in the Tang Dynasty, for 20 years and published three monographs Tun-Huang Popular Narratives , Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis and T’ang Transformation Texts: A Study of the Buddhist Contribution to the Rise of Vernacular Fiction and Drama in China.

Moreover, he wrote several papers in support of his thesis that Dunhuang transformation texts signified a narrative revolution of Chinese literature, solidifying his position as a top authority in the field.

In 1988, Mair led the delegation of American museums to visit China, where they stopped by the Museum of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, home of breathtakingly lifelike mummies. After only three hours in the museum, Mair decided to devote much of the rest of his life studying the Tarim mummies.

He met many people in Xinjiang who had the appearance of Indo-Europeans and he also read some records of Caucasians in Shih Chi and The Yuewei Cottage Notes. When he was translating Zhuang Zi at the University of North Carolina, he was captivated by the Tarim mummies.

In 1991, the media was filled with coverage about the findings and research on Ötzi the Iceman.

“An iceman has attracted the interest of so many scholars, but Tarim mummies are being neglected. I feel it’s not fair,” Mair said. He immediately decided to raise funds to conduct relevant studies. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a population geneticist at Stanford University, was not only willing to participate in the study, but also helped to generate funding.

A focal point of Mair’s research, the Xiaohe Tomb complex was discovered by Western explorers a long time ago, but no one has conducted scientific research at the site. Mair said: “These mummies are located in the central part of Eurasia. Chinese and Western experts have never reached to this area, so I decided to become an archeologist myself.”

In 1996, Mair invited more than 30 experts from around the world from different disciplinary backgrounds to gather at the University of Pennsylvania,including Colin Renfrew, a European authority in archaeological anthropology and a famous British archaeologist. They studied the Tarim mummies and related issues together and left a profound mark on academia. With time, the fame of Tarim mummies has finally begun to catch up with Ötzi the Iceman and Mair has transitioned from a scholar of Dunhuang texts and a Sinologist into an expert on mummies and a famous figure.

Mair always follows closely the research on Tarim mummies, and has since developed an intimate knowledge of the Xiaohe Tomb complex, the ancient tomb tunnels and other relics, giving him a unique perspective on many details. Tarim mummies come in various shapes and may be of more than one race or nationality. “The Tarim Basin is the heart of Eurasia, my second home. It fascinates me,” Mair said. He is closely familiar with Xinjiang and has directed many movies and televised documentaries on the region. He cannot hide his love for Xinjiang and once said, “Each inch of the land in Xinjiang is gentle and warm.”


Yi Hua is from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


Chinese link:


Translated by Zhang Mengying





Editor: Yu Hui

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