Wednesday, in a move cloaked with secrecy, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology announced that the upcoming “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition will open without billed artifacts or mummies from China. This last minute change of heart came three days before the exhibition’s scheduled opening and after the exhibition was organized a year ago by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California and traveled later to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The museum declined to specify China’s reasons, although speculation suggest the withdrawal has roots in regional Uighur dissent in Western China.
The mummies have been sensitive points in the past between Western researchers and the Chinese government. As reported last fall by the Los Angeles Times, in anticipation of the exhibition at the Bowers Museum, China has confiscated tissue samples intended for genetic testing in the past.
So, why is China so reticent when it comes to these mummies? As Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania put it, “”If you went to see the mummy in the museum, a Uighur would come up to you and whisper proudly, ‘She’s our ancestor. It became a political hot potato.”
How much of a threat do these 3,500 year old Caucasoid mummies present to China’s maintenance of a homogeneous state? Are they really capable of further fomenting the already contentious ethnic unrest? Despite DNA tests which indicate that these mummies are genetically European, many Uighur, who often resemble their European neighbors more than the Han Chinese, have latched onto these remains as proof of their ancestry and consequent historical claim to the land. It doesn’t really matter what the DNA says the ethnicity of these people was, their mummified remains have become a rallying cry for a nationalist movement thousands of years after their deaths.