By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; C01
For months, the museum in Philadelphia has been building buzz about its upcoming exhibit, "Secrets of the Silk Road," and the crowning jewel of its display: an amazingly intact mummy from western China, nearly 4,000 years old.
But a sudden call from the Chinese government pulled the mummy from the exhibit, as well as other archaeological objects sent to the museum from the deserts of China's Tarim Basin.
Even mummies, it appears, are not exempt from the modern sensitivities of Chinese politics.
The exact reason for China's objections remains unknown. The Chinese Embassy was closed for the Chinese New Year holiday. Spokesman Wang Baodong said the Pennsylvania stop wasn't part of the original plan for the exhibit, which had already appeared in Texas and California - an assertion disputed by organizers' statements and long-distributed promotion materials. Officials at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology declined to elaborate.
But the hundreds of mummies that have been discovered in China's Xinjiang province have long caused controversy, because their Caucasian features point to European origin - a simple archaeological fact that has had political and potentially explosive ramifications since they were discovered in this region of occasionally violent ethnic clashes.
The mummy that was supposed to go on display this weekend has Caucasoid features that are almost perfectly preserved - fair skin, auburn hair and round eyes. The woman's body, dubbed the Beauty of Xiaohe, is so intact that many have described her as looking as though she is simply taking a nap.
Her journey to America was the culmination of more than two years of scholarship, promises and heavy negotiations with the Chinese government.
Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, first stumbled across the Tarim Basin mummies in China in the 1980s. While Chinese scholars had long held them in storerooms and museums, they were largely unavailable to the West.
In interviews over the years, Mair has recounted how one mummy looked like his brother Dave, a mystery Mair thought worthy of investigation: How did Caucasians end up in China as early as 1800 B.C.?
Trying to gain access to the mummies, however, proved politically tricky. Ever since the Chinese government annexed the territory in 1955 and created the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, tensions have run high. To this day, many Uighurs view the ethnically Han Chinese as invaders and have looked for historical and political support for their cause.
But Mair's research indicates the mummies had little to do with the modern political divisions of Xinjiang. The Caucasians, according to his work, began migrating to the area about 3,000 years ago, but the Uighurs didn't arrive until around 842, after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom in modern-day Mongolia.
Regardless, those tensions may have played a role in the decision by Chinese officials to pull the plug.
Reached by e-mail, Mair declined on Thursday to go into detail about "the horrible bureaucratic snafu that has derailed the wonderful exhibition we had been working on for nearly two years and on which we had spent over $2,000,000 and mobilized dozens of researchers, designers, etc."
Only making things worse, he admitted, was the fact that all Chinese officials are on holiday for the Lunar New Year.
"I've done practically nothing else for the last month but try to straighten out this terrible mess," he said, adding that "we have not given up."
For now, the show, Philadelphia museum officials said, will go on. Several thousand pre-sold tickets will be refunded, but the opening planned for Saturday is proceeding with live camels, a Silk Road trading outpost and themed food. A later symposium, titled "Anatomy of a Mummy," and a program called "Mummies Through Time, Across Continents" are still on schedule.
The only thing missing will be mummies.