Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè

Ningxia: Helankou

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The diversity of religions and cultures found at some Yinshan locations is documented elsewhere along China’s northwest frontier. An emblematic place is Helankou, a site in Ningxia province that is rich in both petroglyphs and Buddhist motifs and is linked to a nearby Buddhist temple and an imperial cemetery. Helankou is one of the numerous canyons that dissect the eastern foothills of the central Helan mountains (Helanshan), a range that, like the Yinshan, separates the Asian steppes from the greener fields of northern China. Petroglyphs are found at eight major loci in the canyon, but are concentrated at the eastern opening of the gorge on smooth cliffs and on boulders disseminated in the alluvium. The Helankou petroglyphs are difficult to date, but various elements indicate that they were produced over a long time, probably from the late first millennium B.C.E. to the later imperial period during the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties (Xu and Wei 1993).

Helankou exhibits a diversified imagery that goes beyond the more predictable animal representations and includes face outlines, hand prints, human figures, symbols and even inscriptions (Xu and Wei 1996) (Figure 2). The site is known for the variety and complexity of its face and/or mask imagery, but the inscriptions are also very significant. The earliest are in Xixia, a script developed for the language of the Tangut Danxiang, the founders of the Xixia dynasty (1038-1227 C.E.), which was centered in Ningxia. These inscriptions relate mainly to Buddhism, the religion patronized by the Xixia. Some of them comment on the petroglyph’s spiritual meaning and associate them with the Buddha, showing that though devoted to Buddhism, the Xixia were in awe of the pre-existing rock engravings. Other inscriptions are repetitions of the name “Buddha,” as if the words were an offering (like the Buddha icons found at countless cave sites), or an actual representation of the Buddha (as is the case at some Chinese Buddhist sites). These inscriptions indicate that Helankou was also a Buddhist site and that some of its later imagery may be connected to that religion. More recent inscriptions are official edicts or records in Chinese dating to the Ming dynasty. Whether in Xixia or in Chinese, these written records must be considered an integral part of the site (Demattè 2011). Their presence in the midst of, and in dialogue with, petroglyphs highlights the interconnectedness of all sign-making and of all practices performed at the site.

This evidence links Helankou to a number of nearby sites that the Xixia dedicated to Buddhist or ancestral devotion. The closest is Baisikou, a Buddhist temple at the opening of a canyon situated few kilometers south of Helankou. Baisikou includes two pagodas, the ruins of a temple and third pagoda, the ancient burial grounds for monks, and a more recent temple building (Ningxia Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics 2005). Farther south, but still on the route to Helankou, is the Xixia imperial cemetery, an extensive area (c. 50 square kilometers) on the eastern foothills of the Helan(Han Xiaomang 1995; Steinhardt 1993) that holds the tombs of nine Xixia emperors and over 300 elite burials. The proximity and alignment of these and other smaller sites on the road to Helankou suggests that in the past the entire area may have been akin to a pilgrimage route dedicated to devotional and ritual activities (REF).


Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Abstract
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ >Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
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