IN SEARCH OF A VANISHING CIVILIZATION

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HELANSHAN (Ningxia)
 
Less well known to the general public than the Yinshan rock art is those of the Helanshan Mountains, that rises above the Yellow River where it flows into Inner Mongolia.
 
The Helanshan Mountains, which lie in center and north of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region like a great ridge sticking out, are famous mountains on the plateau of northwest China. On the cliffs of this chain of towering hills covered with dense forest, our ancestors left an everlasting rock art. Numerous petroglyphs are inlaid, like the stars shining in the sky, on the cliff surfaces of a dozen mountains passes. When making an inspection tour along the foot of the mountains and enjoying these petroglyphs, one can feel as if he were walking along a gallery of ancient carvings.
 
Hunting Scene Suyukou Helanshan Mountains Ningxia
Hunting Scene, Suyukou,
Helanshan Mountains, Ningxia
Double circles and Masks with radiating headdresses Helanshan Mountains Ningxia
Double circles and Masks with radiating headdresses, Helanshan Mountains, Ningxia
 
The northern Helanshan Mountains contain a concentration of mask engravings. A shepherd who disturbed the sand covering the lower slopes discovered the first, a fair number of carved slopes have now been excavated, looking from a distance like blue pools on the hillside. They are large, flat and smooth, and the masks are carved on them in serried lines. Probably many more remain buried beneath the sand.
 
Petroglyph masks Helanshan Mountains Ningxia
Petroglyph of masks, Helanshan Mountains, Ningxia
I went to Helankou, a rock art site of Helanshan, the jeep get into difficulties after leaving the highway, so we finally had to continue on foot. Helankou so called "an opening in the hill" is a dry gully running from east to west. The cliffs on both sides had mask engravings.
 
All the masks are grotesquely distorted, some with an outsize nose, some with ears as big as the face itself, others covered in hair like an ape. Their expressions vary from rage to smiles, and patterns on them indicate either tattooing or the use of masks. The headgear is just as bizarre. One has a branch above it decorated with grass-like and ray-like headdresses - we wondered if perhaps they were meant to be feathers or a sacred halo - while others wear a conical hat and makeup that may be hunting camouflage. The weird images and the fertile imagination of the artists are quite out of the common run, and one is led to presume that the largest pieces served as idols for the worship of celestial and telluric deities. Perhaps the masks of Apollo, the celestial bodies, the totems and other symbols display the beauty of the patterns and forms, leaving the drawings full of mystery.
 
Bovine rock art Helanshan Mountains Ningxia
Life size bovine, Huihui Ditch,
Helanshan Mountains, Ningxia
The masks are also found in the ravines that stretch back into the mountains, where hunting scenes also occur. One group of over 50 animals in Xifu Ditch differs from the masks in its accurate and graphic representation, showing how closely early man observed the beloved and inexhaustible source of his subsistence. Wild oxen, camels and bigheaded sheep are delineated in only a few strokes. Carved on a hilltop towering forty meters over Huihui Ditch is a life-sized ox outlined with three parallel lines, inside which are cut three kids, creating an effect of movement.
 
Some pictures are distinct and deep; other have peeled off and become blurred, for the workmanship of these grand petroglyphs spanned more than thousands years, yet the manifold means of artistic expression can still be obviously seen by its lines, shallow or deep carvings, thin or thick outlines, and with a dotted style, all of which show our ancestors' craftsmanship and aesthetic judgment.
 
 
 
The China Rock Art Archive
 
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