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

The Written Landscape

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The presence of petroglyphs in these transitional areas, close to portions of the Great Wall, the very apparent symbol of the Chinese empire, suggests that while occupying the area, the nomadic populations were creating their own signs and landmarks in the territory. Signs dotting the landscape in significant positions may have had multiple functions, ranging from religious symbols to geographical marks for travelling groups (similar to the traditional ovoo cairns: Even 1992, 435). At the same time and perhaps most importantly they would have reiterated these peoples’ attachment to a land with which they identified, but which was claimed also by the settled world. Several studies have explored the importance of landscape (natural or built) for the construction of personal or group identity (Tuan 1974), as the surrounding home space is a crucial element in the psychological self-definition of any population. The role of the natural landscape and its landmarks seems, however, to be even greater for mobile people, like pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, who by necessity are on the move and have a larger activity area than settled groups. Since mobile people rarely set up large architectural structures to reinforce group identity and cohesion, the adoption of natural landmarks in the territory and their transformation into group icons supplies this need, and at the same time appropriates travel routes and necessary resources.

If the above interpretation can help explain petroglyph concentrations within the larger space of the Yinshan and Helanshan and their relation to the mental and cultural landscape of their makers, for an understanding of how the petroglyphs functioned to produce meaning we must consider also where within these mountain ranges the engravings are located, and what their themes are.
china rock art petroglyphs
Figure 15B
Ge'er'aobao Gou canyon
(Dengkou county, Bayannur League)
china rock art petroglyphs
Figure 15A
Bu'erhan Shan hill
(Urad Rear Banner, Bayannur League)
In terms of landscape distribution, the ten sites examined can be split into two groups: the hill type (two small hills: Bu'erhan Shan and Heishimao; and three rolling hills: Gujingou, Siyanjin and Damaidi), and the canyon type (Ge'er'aobao Gou, Molehetu Gou, Dishui Gou, Xifeng Gou, Helankou) (Fig.15a & Fig.15b). At hill sites, petroglyphs are concentrated at the summit, while in the canyons they are carved on the steep cliff sides. Hill sites all afford remarkable distant views, while those inside the canyons are invariably close to water sources. Notwithstanding these differences, all sites have similar characteristics: difficult access (high in relative altitude), good view, appealing landscape and/or proximity to water (springs, waterfalls, rivers). In some cases, sites of either the hill or canyon type are associated with small shrines (Ge'er'aobao Gou), ovoo cairns, burials (Bu'erhan Shan), or Buddhist inscriptions (Helankou). At the same time, petroglyphs are often carved in positions and ways that allow for distant visibility, and on surfaces that have good sun exposure (possibly to further enhance this visibility). Some sites are also along trade or military routes (Helankou, Daxifeng Gou, and Ge'er'aobao Gou).

These peculiarities and associations indicate that the landscape played a paramount role in the selection of a place in which to carve signs and that in some cases similar choices based on landscape desirability were made also for religious sites. This fact does not automatically make all petroglyph sites into religious sites, but indicates that the two were often intertwined. The Mongols, the last occupants of these areas, considered the entire land (baigal) to be dotted with sacred places which were the focus of ritual and social activities. In fact, even though traditional ‘shamanistic’ healing practices were more often held within the ger (yurt), rites aimed at nature spirits took place on the slopes of mountains, at rivers or lake shores, and near prominent trees (Sauer 2001; Even 1992, 283, 352-80). Interesting is the choice of location for the construction of the traditional ovoo (or obo) cairns, about which the Mongol Mergen Diyanci Lama is reported to have said:

in the erection of an obo, much is said about the erection of the royal obo upon a summit of a high mountain, but in the ordinary run of events, since obos in this land of ours are made as a shrine and receptacle in which dwell the gods and dragons and eight classes of the lords of land and water, . . . then, as to the question of what terrain may be appropriate, one should erect them, praying for blessings and good portents, upon majestic, elevated ground, rich in mountains, water, trees and grass, and such as to make the whole mass of the people fall to their knees when assembled (Charles Bawden 1994, 6-7).

Difficult access, relative height, good views and beautiful landscape in relation to petroglyph sites may, then, indicate a desire to separate the carved signs from the realm of everyday life, placing them on a higher, perhaps spiritual, plane; the sometimes added presence of water could be interpreted as a desire to include life-giving forces in this scheme. When dealing with the material culture of pastoral nomads, however, we should also consider their lifestyle. Shepherds and hunters are excellent climbers, and tend to select high positions with good visibility from which they can tend their herds or spot wild game. This choice comes as no surprise if we consider also the presence of water in the generally dry landscape: this was an additional positive feature, since it allowed both shepherds and animals (to be watered or to be hunted) access to water. In addition, given the importance of distant view and visibility of signs, it is necessary to factor in the proximity of trade or military routes, along which these sites may have worked as significant landmarks indicating the presence of water or other resources. These locations appear then to be desirable places to satisfy both the practical and the spiritual needs of a pastoral and hunting society.


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