Silk Princess painting

China, 7th-8th century AD

This panel comes from Dandan-oilik (Place of Houses with Ivory), a Buddhist sanctuary in Khotan. Before the advent of Islam in the eighth century AD, Khotan was a thriving ancient kingdom along the Southern Silk Route.

During his first expedition to Chinese Central Asia in 1900-01, Dandan-oilik became Sir Marc Aurel Stein's first excavation site in the Taklamakan Desert. It was an opportunity to test his archaeological theories and to perfect his skills at excavating in the unpredictable desert environment.

Painted plaques like this are among the most outstanding finds from this expedition.

The panels are also the best surviving evidence of the legendary Khotanese school of painting. This one illustrates the introduction of the cultivation of silkworms to Khotan.

A Chinese princess (second left) defied the emperor's embargo by hiding mulberry seeds and eggs of the silk moth in her head-dress and smuggling them past a border-post. An attendant draws the viewer's attention to this by pointing to the princess's head-dress.

The basket of cocoons between them signifies the success of the mission. On the far right, a figure holding a beating comb stands in front of a loom with a reel of thread behind. The four-armed deity (second right) has been identified as the patron of weaving.

The style of painting, with the main features of the figures outlined in red and their upper eyelids and eyebrows in black, has been found on fragments of wall-paintings from other sites in Khotan.

Another painted panel from Dandan-oilik in the British Museum shows two riders.

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More information


R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

M. Bussagli, Painting of Central Asia (Geneva, Skira, 1963)

R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Stein, vol. 3 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

M. Aurel Stein, Ancient Khotan: detailed repor, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1907)

J. Giès, M. Cohen and others, Sérinde, Terre de Bouddha : Di (Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1995)


Dandan-oilik, Khotan oasis, Xinjiang province

Height: 12 cm
Width: 46 cm
Depth: 2.2 cm


Museum number

Asia OA 1907.11-11.73



Collected by Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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