The Rock Art of Inner Mongolia & Ningxia (China) by Paola Demattè

Dates and Ethnicity

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The third period of Gai’s chronology (the Historic period) includes the petroglyphs produced by various ethnic groups from the sixth to the nineteenth century. This is to be understood as China's northern frontier historic period, which starts with the adoption of writing by the Tujue Turks in the sixth century. Following the demise of the Tujue in the eighth century, the area was occupied by the Tufan, the Huihu, and the Tangut Danxiang who established the Xixia dynasty. Lastly, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols, who swept across China and created the Yuan dynasty, settled in this area, where they have remained until today. The rock art of this period is characterized by a shortened (almost cartoonish) style in the representation of both human and animal figures, shallow carvings, use of iron tools, and co-mingling with inscriptions (in Turkik, Mongolian or Tibetan scripts). Gai Shanlin, Xu Jie and Wei Zhong, consider this the phase of decline of the Yinshan and Helanshan rock art tradition, a fact which they attribute to the introduction of writing and the shift away from pictures towards the written word.

This periodization of rock art finds a degree of support in the archaeological record of the Chinese northern frontier, though given the limited amount of excavation and survey specifically in the Yinshan-Helanshan area, associations between archaeological remains and rock art are tentative. Archaeological evidence relating to the local Neolithic is scant as little excavation has been carried out in these specific areas. Some scholars argue that in the Helanshan and in Ningxia, evidence of settled life indicates that the area was part of the greater Yangshao cultural system, and specifically of the Majiayao and Qijia types (both fully settled and agricultural) (Li & Zhu 1993, 11). From probing at about 30 sites, the Ningxia Neolithic seems however to have been characterized by the northern microlithic tradition (with evidence of a ceramic tradition and settled life). Excavations in the southern portion of the province, at the sites of Caiyuan (Haiyuan county) indicate that while contemporaneous with Majiayao, the Caiyuan culture had very distinctive regional traits, which eventually were to influence the development of the later (Bronze Age) Qijia culture (Ningxia Cultural Relics Bureau 1999, 468-9). This preliminary evidence attests that there was at least some degree of difference between the Neolithic of Ningxia and that of the fully agriculturist societies of the Wei River valley further to the south.

As for Inner Mongolia, given the size and geographical diversity of the territory, a variety of cultures are known. In the Neolithic, the differences between cultural clusters are more apparent, but the trend is towards homogenization, so that towards the Late Bronze Age many similar traits are apparent from west to east (cf. the Northern Zone complex, Di Cosmo 1999, 893). A well-documented Neolithic sequence (Xinglongwa, Zhaobaogou, Hongshan, Fuhe, Xiaoheyan) has been established for eastern Inner Mongolia (Nelson 1995; Inner Mongolia 1999). Less is known about the Neolithic of the south-central part of the province and specifically the Yinshan, but a preliminary sequence (Lower Wangmushan 4000 BC, Haishengbuliang culture 3000 BC, Miaozigou culture, Laohushan culture 2000 BC) has been established for the Haidai and Yellow River area to the southeast of the Yinshan. This evidence points to the existence of a mixed agricultural and herding economy.

For the later period, excavations in the Yellow River and Ordos regions of Inner Mongolia have brought to light the remains of the Early Bronze Age cultures of Dakou and Zhukaigou (c. 2000-1200 BC). The Lower Xiajiadian complex (c. 1800-1400 BC) is instead attested in the eastern part of the region (Bunker et al. 1997, 18-28; Di Cosmo 1999, 897-8; Inner Mongolia 1999, 83-8), where evidence shows also the development of elaborate ceramics and of fortified settlements. In a later phase (1000-600 BC) in the same area, bronze production played an important role as documented from excavations of Upper Xiajiadian sites in eastern Inner Mongolia and related northern cultures (Shelach 1999, 143-76; Bunker et al. 1997, 18-98).

Following the end of the Upper Xiajiadian (from 600 BC), the area enters a period characterized by protracted and historically-documented interaction between nomadic populations (the already mentioned Xiongnu and Xianbei) and the Chinese world of the late Zhou and Han (c. 500 BC-AD 300) (Ishjamts 1992; Shiji 1972, 2879-920 Xiongnu Liezhuan 50, ch. 110, vol. 9). The attribution to the Xiongnu of a good portion of the rock art of the Yinshan (and possibly of the Helanshan) is not without reason: many of the petroglyphs show a considerable stylistic and thematic similarity with the metalwork styles (belt buckles, knives, daggers, horse fittings) discovered in Xiongnu contexts (Wu En 2002). They include the so-called striation or X-ray style (with animals covered by lines representing their skeletons or their mantle), and the animal-combat motif in which animals are shown in a deadly embrace (Kessler 1993, 37-65 figs. 35-6; Bunker et al. 1997; Rawson 1990). The Xiongnu were wiped out in the second century AD by a new nomadic power, the Xianbei (AD 150-400), an ethnically mixed group which practised both pastoralism and farming. As the Xianbei occupied these areas they absorbed some of the Xiongnu population and seem to have been influenced by their material culture. Like the Xiongnu, the Xianbei were very likely responsible for considerable petroglyph production, even though their contribution is hard to distinguish stylistically and iconographically from that of their predecessors (Kessler 1993, 75-6, figs. 46-48).


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