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Empire of the Silk Road

Responding to the powerful, imperial state of ancient China, the nomads formed confederacies. These were initially loose alliances among autonomous tribal groups that arose out of political convenience. Later, these grew into powerful empires, not only rivalling those of China but also conquering them. The actual origin of the first nomadic empire can be traced to the military conflicts between the Qin dynasty and the Xiongnu for supremacy over North China. From the Northern Wei dynasty onwards, the nomads founded several imperial dynasties including the Liao, Jin, Yuan, and Qing.

The nomads’ influence on China was profound and multi-faceted––in the military domain, arts and culture, religion and language, as well as in trade and foreign relations. Pastoral nomads, more than the sedentary populations, recognized the essential role of trade. And with the patronage of nomadic imperial rulers, intercontinental trade along the Silk Road flourished, triggering exchanges in goods, ideas, philosophies, arts, culture, and technology, on an unprecedented scale.


Empire of the Silk Road

The Horse

A complete Liao dynasty saddle and horse set would be crafted with exquisite skill and enriched with numerous ornaments. The front and rear saddle bridges were often wrapped in gold or gilt silver, stamped with such designs as the double-dragon or phoenix. All the horse trappings, the headpiece, breast collar, girth, haunch straps, and bells, would be made of similar materials, often gilt in gold and silver, and decorated with animal-shaped or geometric ornaments in jade, crystal, and agate, placed at regular intervals.


Empire of the Silk Road

Liao nobleman

The special burial customs of Qidan nobles have allowed their personal effects to survive, offering a view of their actual garments and adornments. For his burial, a high-ranking Qidan noble would be dressed in a fitted silk garment, with a fine metal mesh. His head would rest on a pillow, with a gilt silver or bronze crown, and a mask covering his face; amber carvings would be placed on his hands, and gilt silver boots on his feet. An impressive amber pendant, with assorted necklace and wrist ornaments, would decorate his upper body. Around his waist he would wear a leather belt enriched with gold, silver, and jade from which hung useful accessories: knives with jade handles (both practical and decorative), gold and jade tools, small jade containers, etc.


Empire of the Silk Road

Hu-Han Cultural Interactions

Since the late Shang dynasty, cultural, technological, and artistic developments in China’s Northern Zone were closely tied to those of the Central Plains; the Northern Zone served as a bridge to the outside world, instigating creative developments throughout China’s entire dynastic period.

In the hinterland of North China, interactions between the Chinese (Han) and the non-Chinese populations (Hu) accelerated in the first millennium B.C.E., during the Spring and Autumn period. Increased mobility and militarisation led to intensified cross-cultural exchanges between the nomads and the northern Warring States—especially the Yan, Zhao, and Qin kingdoms. From the Western Zhou period on, the cross-fertilizations of Hu and Han aesthetics produced unique designs for weaponry, tools, utensils, and personal adornments; such ornaments, especially horse trappings, became extensions of their masters’ identity.

As nomadic and Chinese populations increasingly intermingled, especially under “conquest regimes” (e.g., the Northern Wei, Northern Qi, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties), the nomadic vocabulary of animal art was entirely integrated into Chinese aesthetics.