Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè

Case Studies

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The weaknesses of the primitive-civilized dichotomy are effectively exposed on China’s frontiers. The northwest zone, which includes the provinces of Ningxia, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, is a case in point. In the deserts and canyons of this large area, rock art of Iron Age pastoralists mingles with Buddhist caves and temples, prehistoric petroglyphs are paired with official edicts of the late empire dynasties (Ming and Qing), and recent route markers intersect with historic the system of travel routes that have come to be known as the Silk Road. Mountains and springs, inscribed and worshipped by pastoralists, carved to be the abodes of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, annexed by the writing of the Chinese empire, or dotted with the nomads’ route markers are transformed into a large palimpsest that defies a single religion, ritual or political practice. Among these myriad ritual sites, three rock art locations and their surroundings may serve as useful examples: the Yinshan area of Inner Mongolia, Helankou in Ningxia province and Heishan in Gansu.

Inner Mongolia: Yinshan

The Yinshan or Yin mountains of central Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China that stretches from the northeastern grasslands bordering Manchuria to the western Gobi desert south of the Republic of Mongolia, run east-west separating the deserts and steppes of inner Asia from the agricultural lands of northern China. Positioned in the midst of north-south migration routes, the Yinshan ranges have been for millennia the location of movements, confrontations and exchanges between inner Asian populations and the Chinese world. Their canyons served both nomads and Chinese as links to each other’s lands, but also as sanctuaries, spiritual retreats, or safe havens in what was a challenging physical and political environment. The peaks and ravines of these mountains are littered with thousands of petroglyphs, which are interspersed with the remains of Chinese defensive walls and watchtowers, nomads’ tombs and ritual sites and Buddhist temples (Gai 1986).

For instance, in the gullies, hills and open spaces on the north side of the Yinshan in Urad Rear Banner (Wulate Houqi, Bayannur League), a desert territory in north-central Inner Mongolia, nomads’ tombs, rock art, and stone cairns share space with Buddhist temples and even historic Chinese walls. All these sites are in some proximity to each other and generally concentrate in high places, near water sources, or at the intersection of travel routes. At Bu’erhan Shan, a rock art hill site on the northern edge of the Yinshan just south of Saiwusu Town in Urad Rear Banner, petroglyphs are engraved on the flat surfaces of boulders or rock slabs darkened by desert patina (Figure 1). The motifs, which include animals (mainly horses and mountain goats), people (some carrying bow and arrow) and abstract symbols, reach the highest concentration at the summit of the hillock. The hill, though not extremely high, emerges clearly from the undulating desert plateau standing at a relative height of c. 50 m (total height m 1630 above sea level). At the base of the hill, are a number of burials that, though still unexcavated, have been attributed to the Tujie, a Turkic population active in this area around the 8th century. Bu’erhanshan is also on a travel route and within reach of water sources. The concentration of carved imagery at the summit, the presence tombs and other remains in the vicinity, as well as the link with roadways and water sources are typical elements of sacred sites. This evidence suggests that the place had some ritual significance. Though we cannot establish with certainty what beliefs were involved in shaping the place, rock art iconography and burial style indicate that the area was associated with the activities of pastoral nomads. Not far from Bu’erhanshan there are also stone cairns, locally known as ovoo (Chinese: aobao) large and sometimes elaborately decorated piles of stones used by inner Asian nomads since prehistoric times as markers of routes, intersections and sacred places, but also as symbols of cosmic mountain and altars to heaven (Mongolian Tängri) (Baldick 2000). Though today the ovoo are decorated with Buddhist Lamaistic symbols, their origin is linked to the pre-Buddhist beliefs of nomads and pastoralists, for whom travel was a way of life and the open landscape was sacred. As they moved in this vast territory, they left markers in the landscape to signal their travel route and their appropriation of the land.

Historical records and archaeological remains indicate that in the first centuries of the common era, this land was contested between the expanding Chinese empire and the mobile nomads (Demattè 2004). Though this place is today very dry and forbidding, in the past (particularly two thusand years ago) it was more fertile and its routes were of strategic importance (Hong et al. 2000). Evidence of this strife can be seen north of Buerhanshan and of Saiwusu Town where there are miles of a ruined Chinese Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) wall associated with a system of watchtowers and garrisons. This modest barrier of stones, sand and pebbles, which originally stood about 2 m high, was not designed to block the mounted warriors, but to stall them, allowing time for Chinese troops at nearby garrisons to arrive. However, beyond its function as a powerful symbol of the boundaries of the settled empire, the wall was also a cultural marker in the landscape: this line that arbitrarily divides the land, is also a signal of the connections between people on its different sides (Di Cosmo 1999).
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Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
Conclusion & References Cited
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