From the second millennium BCE, mainland China stepped into the Bronze Age. The first two dynasties, Xia dynasty (c. 2070-c. 1600 BCE) and Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BCE), dominated mainly the Yellow River valley in what is known as Central Plain. After the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty, royal relatives and generals were given control over fiefdoms in an effort to maintain Zhou authority over a vast territory. The fiefdoms later became more detached and turned into small states. The eastward move of the capital from Haojing to Chengzhou in 771 BCE marked the end of Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE), and the following Eastern Zhou period (771-221 BCE) was subdivided into two periods: the Spring and Autumn Period (771-403 BCE), during which the Zhou territory was broken up into a multitude of small states that were essentially independent, and the Warring States Period (403-221BCE), when seven major states had emerged as the dominant powers (Lewis 1990: 578).
While the early Han Chinese dynasties ruled the area of the Yellow River valley, three major powers of the non-Han populations, the states of Shu, Chu and Yue, appeared in the area of the Yangtze River valley. It is the third state that is of interest to us. The state of Yue occupied the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Taylor 1983: 14). It is believed by the Chinese historians that the Yue state was founded by the people loosely belonging to one group, the Yue, who inhabited the south-eastern coastal area. After the Chu state destroyed the Yue state in 334 BCE, the Yue people expanded south-westwards along the coast. By the late Warring States Period (c. 300–221 BCE), their expansion covered the whole Chinese southern coastal area and reached northern Vietnam (Liu 2005: 26). Along with the expansion, a number of small kingdoms and principalities emerged. The ancient Han Chinese historians referred to them as ‘Bai Yue’ (literally ‘hundreds of Yue’) (Brindley 2003: 12), and the Luo Yue group was one of them.
Based on historical records and archaeological findings, most scholars agree that the Luo Yue people inhabited an area from Guangxi in China to the Red River Plain in Vietnam. However, the current border between China and Vietnam makes the study of the Luo Yue people subject to nationalism from the two nations. Chinese scholars view the Luo Yue as an ethnic group descended from the Yue people, while their Vietnamese counterparts see them as an indigenous ethnic group. I would like to propose that the term ‘Luo Yue people’ refers to both the indigenous people and the immigrant Yue people, and their cultures mutually affected each other and finally mingled into a common culture. My argument could be strengthened by historical evidence. According to historical texts, the Luo Yue people cut their hair short and tattooed their bodies (Hutcheon 1996: 4). These traditions could also be seen among the Yue people, as recorded in Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian).
In Vietnam, the transition period from pre-History into history is poorly documented and mainly based upon legends (Tarling 1992: 116). In order to compensate for the lack of historical sources, however, Vietnamese scholars have used archaeological sources. Archaeological research in the past years has shed more light on the account of pre-History. Vietnamese archaeologists date the beginning of their civilisation to the Phung-nguyen Neolithic culture of the late third millennium BCE, which flourished in the Red River Plain throughout the Neolithic era until about 1500 BCE, the early Bronze Age (Taylor 1983: 7). Phungnguyen sites are located on slightly elevated terrain commanding stream valleys above the confluence of the Red and Black Rivers. Based on changes in pottery typology, there are three phases, the early, middle and late phases. Only eleven sites from the late phase contained bronze, and no recognisable metal artefacts have been found. The fragments were, however, made of a tin bronze (Higham 1996: 87).
Archaeological excavations have identified a series of regional settlement concentrations from the Red River Plain in Vietnam to the Pearl River valley in China, dating from the Bronze Age (c. 1500–600 BCE). They have a number of features in common. These communities cultivated rice and maintained domestic stock. They also included skilled workers of clay and stone, as the archaeological findings contained a number of fine wares fired under controlled conditions at high temperatures, and stone tools and ornaments of high quality. The excavated bronze objects include bronze vessels and different weapons. Pivotal sites of this period include Yuanlongpo, an important ancient cemetery about 200 km from the Huashan rock art site. Chinese scholars associate the cemetery to the Luo Yue people. During excavations of the site, a wide variety of grave goods was encountered, about 10% being bronzes (Higham 1996: 94). Already, these provide a portent of the warfare which was to dominate later bronze assemblages in this region: the items include spearheads, axes, arrowheads, and daggers or short swords. From the distribution of grave goods one can also see the possibility of social hierarchy (Allard 1995: 19).
In about the sixth century BCE, a more hierarchical society based on small village or family groups appeared. This gave birth to the Dong-son culture, which the Vietnamese archaeologists dated from the sixth century BCE to the first century CE. Iron came to be employed for weapons and tools during the Dongson period, but bronze still dominated and the bronze technology became more advanced and sophisticated. Most evidence for assessing the Dong-son culture came from cemeteries. Four cemeteries, Viet Khe, Chau Can, Xuan La and Minh Duc, stand out because of the survival of coffins cut from tree trunks. All lie on the fringes of the lower Red River delta. These tombs contain many bronze and a few iron artefacts. The former included drums, armaments, agricultural implements, vases, situlae and human figures (Higham 1996: 111). The Vietnamese scholars associate their legendary Hung kings to the Dong-son culture. According to tradition, the Hung kings were the rulers of the kingdom Van-Lang (Sardesai 1998: 9). In the last half of the third century BCE, the last Hung king was defeated by Thục Phan, the first figure in Vietnamese history documented by reliable sources, who proclaimed himself An Duong Vuong (‘King An Duong’), renamed his newly acquired state from Van-Lang to Au-Lạc (in Chinese ‘Ou Luo’) (Taylor 1983: 13). The Au-Lac kingdom was centred at Co Loa, the ramparts of which dominate the flat plain north of Hanoi. The ethnicity of Thuc Phan has been debated by the Chinese and Vietnamese scholars, as the former held that he originated in the north while the latter assumed his native identity (Qin 2007: 12). However, as the new state’s name ‘Au-Lac’ implies, Thuc Phan was most likely a lord from the Xi Ou (‘Western Ou’) group of Bai Yue.
Another important site of this period called Yinshanling was found in Guangxi, 600 km from the Huashan rock art site. Yinshanling site is also a cemetery, from which 108 intact or nearly intact graves have been unearthed. Very few bones survive, but 59 different categories of grave goods have been identified, including ten forms of pottery vessel, clay spindle whorls, three forms of bronze vessel and bronze swords, arrowheads, spearheads, halberds and battle axes. Bronze tools have also been found, including axes, chisels, scrapers, drill points and knives, bells, ladles and belt buckles. Iron offerings include spearheads, axes, adzes, knives and scrapers. Whetstones were commonly found (Higham 1996: 111). The Yinshanling site is dated as from mid-Warring States Period to Eastern Han dynasty (c. 350 BCE – 220 CE), and more than 60% of the tombs belong to the Warring States Period (403 – 221 BCE). Chinese scholars associated these tombs with the Xi Ou people, another group of the Bai Yue, thought to have had a very close relation with the Luo Yue people (Wei 2008: 32). When compared with the contemporary cemeteries of Dong-son culture, one is particularly struck by the quantity of bronzes, and the abundance of weapons of the Yinshanling site.
The Nanyue kingdom endured until the area was integrated into the Han Empire in 111 BCE (Liu 2005: 26). After that, the Han Empire incorporated the entire area in their new administrative structure, terming it a Zhou (district), and further sub-divided it into nine Jun (county). This situation lasted until a rebellion led by the Trung sisters, two aristocratic women from the region of Me Linh in northern Vietnam, occurring in 40 CE. The Chinese general Ma Yuan suppressed the rebellion in 43 CE and established a new system of commanderies (provinces) (Higham 2002: 109). Generally, after that and until 939 CE, except short periods of sporadic rebellions, south-western China and northern Vietnam were under the administrative rule of China, until the Vietnamese kingdom gained its independence (Taylor 1983: 250). It is believed that the period when the Han Chinese culture prevailed in this region marked the decline in the production of rock art in Huashan area, which most likely ceased in the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE) (Qin et al. 1987: 126).
In conclusion, according to most scholars, the Huashan rock art was produced during a period when tremendous historical changes happened in this area. Historians referred to the period before the Han conquest in about 210 BCE as Pre-Qin period, during which the non-Han peoples in this region had established their unique culture and identity. From the last half of the third century BCE, contacts and conflicts between the native populations and the Han peoples from the north increased sharply, as Qin finished conquering all the other states in mainland China and marched its troops southwards. After several years of harsh battles, the natives were defeated. The conquest of the Qin Empire marked the beginning of Han Chinese colonisation of this area, deeply affecting local populations and their culture, and that is why, before further analysis of the art, the discussion of the historical and archaeological background of this area, during the time frame when the rock art was probably produced, is important.
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