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

The Written Landscape

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To go beyond the limitations of a purely shamanistic approach, it is essential to look at the empirical evidence. Elements relevant to the interpretation of the local petroglyph tradition can be gleaned by observing the environment (natural or built) of these signs, their spatial distribution and relationships, their physical nature, and their iconography.

Landscape and Space

Landscape is the aspect which deserves the greatest attention, since it is often related to issues of movement, identity, appropriation, learning and sacrality in relation to place (Whitley 1998, Ouzman 1998, Hartley & Wolley Vawser 1998). Though petroglyphs are scattered over large parts of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia on the Chinese northern frontier, they concentrate in two main mountain ranges: the Yinshan and the Helanshan (Fig.2). The Yinshan run east-west like an arch above the great Yellow River bend for over 1000 kilometers, and reach heights of 2000-2300 metres above sea level (from the plateau height of about 1000 m). Today, this area is extremely dry, but historical and archaeological evidence indicate that in the past it was much more fertile. The Helanshan, to the south of the Yinshan, run north-south to the west of the great Yellow River bend and separate Ningxia from the western portion of Inner Mongolia (Alashan Banner). The proximity of the Yellow River and the protection of the Helanshan have made the plains of Ningxia a cultivable and desirable land, which various Chinese dynasties took trouble to defend from nomads by building portions of the 'Great Wall' on its western and eastern borders. One section runs along the Helanshan.

These mountain chains, while not particularly high, create a natural barrier which protects from winds and sand the fertile regions to their south and east. In the past, they offered easy movements through the canyons to nomads and traders. It is conceivable that these mountains were chosen as petroglyph sites, not only because they provided the stone surfaces necessary for carving, but also because their canyons were on the communication routes which connected the world of the steppe with China, and constituted a home environment at least for the nomads. Archaeological and textual evidence shows that trails of the so-called northern Silk Route passed through these areas and that the local nomadic populations engaged at different points in time in commerce at established trading posts. These exchange activities brought a considerable number of artifacts of 'Western' provenance to the region (Juliano & Lerner 2002). The canyons were also crucial to these nomads' creation of their own identity, and to their cultural and economic universe, particularly in the historical period when they came under increasing pressure from the Chinese agricultural world. With the expansion of settled life, the Yinshan and Helanshan tended to different economic life-styles: pastoralist in the north and agriculturalist in the south. Already by the late Zhou period (fifth century BC), one of the Chinese Warring States, Zhao, built a defensive wall on the southern edges of the mountains, thus creating one of the northern frontiers of the China. With the Qin (221-206 BC) empire and later the Han (206 BC-AD 220) (who built outer walls beyond the Yinshan), the boundary was well established and defended by sections of the so-called 'Great Wall', garrison cities and beacon towers (Gai & Lu 1981a).4

These fortifications, which are often closely associated with petroglyphs, appear as symbols of the settled empire and markers of a defined frontier, but at the same time they suggest connections between people on the different sides. The remains of two lines of the outermost early Han (c. second century BC) walls in Chaoge Banner run almost alongside the modern border with the Republic of Mongolia. This wall was reportedly built at the request of Emperor Wu of the Han to contain the Xiongnu and was defended also by military garrisons, such as the nearby Chaolukulun stone citadel (Chaoge Banner), or further away at Jilusai (Dengkou county) (Gai & Lu 1981b; Bayannaoer 1987, 263-4). The wall itself was a modest defensive structure made of stones, sand and pebbles (2 m high, 1.5 m wide) meant to stall an initial attack of nomadic cavalry, while a series of watchtowers farther south would have alerted the garrisons, and the Chinese army (Gai & Lu 1981a; Yu & Cheng 1980, 26, 98, 100-102). This policy of containment and wall construction continued throughout Chinese history and later and more massive walls (Ming) are visible in at various points of the Helanshan (Fig. 8).

The presence of Chinese fortifications in proximity to both mountains and petroglyphs, and the role of the Yinshan and Helanshan ranges as natural and perhaps symbolic borders, raises the issue of the encounter between the Chinese agricultural world and the Asian pastoral nomads. While for over 3000 years the northern and western nationalities have been portrayed in Chinese historic sources as barbaric intruders, it was actually the Chinese settled world that already by Shang times (1600-1100 BC) was expanding from the middle-lower Yellow River Valley onto lands that had traditionally been pastures (Chang 1980, 254). The nomads were attempting to escape the raids of Chinese settlers, while trying to hold onto the lands that provided them with resources not available further north: water, good pasture, and some grain.5

Even though scholars past and present have seen the relation between settled and nomadic populations as inherently hostile owing to the nomads' 'envy' of the wealth of settled people and lack of understanding of farming, more recent studies indicate that the differences were not always so well marked and that contacts were constant and productive for both sides (Di Cosmo 1999; Jagchid 1989). Agricultural expansion into nomadic territories is documented in various parts of the world (North America, Australia, and South Africa in the colonial period), and is responsible either for the slow demise of pastoral-nomadic societies, or for the emergence of symbiotic relationships between agriculturists and nomads (Jolly 1996). Di Cosmo has also pointed out that the northern frontier of China, even after the Great Wall was built, was not a rigid and insurmountable barrier, but a fluctuating and mobile area, which served to mediate between different cultures and to favour contacts and exchanges. At various stages of prehistory and history, Asian nomads contributed greatly to the development of Chinese civilization, acting as agents of cultural transmission from the Eurasian steppes to China proper and beyond (Bunker et al. 1997; So & Bunker 1995; Rawson 1990; Jacobson 1988). These peoples traded peacefully at times, but intermittently threatened the settled peoples of the Yellow River Valley.


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