Hunters, Warriors, Spirits Nomadic Art of North China
The ancient nomads of North China were hunters, warriors, as well as traders, who facilitated the exchange of goods, technology, ideas, and arts; most important, they were builders of empires. Living a highly mobile life, wedded to chasing game and herding flocks of animals, they left behind an expressive artistic legacy, showing men and beasts, predators and prey, culture and nature, interlocked in a perpetual cycle of life and death. Their world is vividly represented in their artistic heritage, imbued with a profound spirituality, one evoking an ideal relationship between humans and nature that is more relevant today than ever before.
Accompanying the first large-scale and comprehensive exhibition on nomadic art in Hong Kong, the catalogue tells the story of the nomads, and the evolution of their art over three millennia. Through the five essays and the 250 objects, the catalogue traces nomadic art from its beginnings in the 1st millennium B.C.E to the golden age of nomadic art during the Liao dynasty (between 10th and 13th centuries). Edited by Mr. Hing Chao and Isabelle Frank, the various authors provide an overview of this artistic development through the lenses of archaeology, art history, and anthropology, placing it within the broader context of cultural exchanges across Eurasia. The catalogue concludes with an examination of the sculpture of a contemporary Buryat artist, Dashi Namdakov, whose works draw on the tradition of his nomadic forebearers.
1980s, archaeologists like Wu En E’situ 烏恩岳斯圖 (1933-2008) (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing) and Lin Meicun 林梅村 (Peking University) became China’s leading authorities in the art of multi-ethnic peoples in ancient Eurasia through their archaeological fieldwork, research, and publications.
In 1990, the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong presented an exhibition, Ancient Chinese and Ordos Bronzes, at the Hong Kong Museum of Art,3 becoming the first major introduction to the art of the northern nomads in the city. The scholars responsible for the catalogue, Jessica Rawson (then British Museum, U.K.) and Emma Bunker (Denver Art Museum, U.S.A.), juxtaposed traditional Chinese ritual bronze vessels with intricately animated personal items of the northern nomads, revealing previously overlooked intercultural and artistic connections between them. Mengdiexuan
夢蝶軒 was among the many local collectors who contributed to this ground-breaking exhibition. Fourteen years later, in 2004, the Art Museum at The Chinese University of Hong Kong organized an exhibition on Qidan 契丹art and culture. The Qidan were mounted hunters and warriors who occupied much of North China and founded the Liao dynasty (916-1125) contemporary with the Tang and Song dynasties. Noble Riders from Pines and Deserts: The Artistic Legacy of the Qidan
was the first exhibition and catalogue in Hong Kong to spotlight a single pastoral group and how their interactions with neighbouring Chinese regimes produced some of the most colourful and unique artifacts of the time.4 The exhibition’s selections also came from local Hong Kong collections, Mengdiexuan being one of the primary lenders. Unprecedented was the inclusion of large numbers of woven and embroidered Qidan textiles, which were studied and conserved in
collaboration with Zhao Feng 趙豐, China’s leading textile scholar and founder of the National Silk Museum in Hangzhou. It is fitting that this collection of Qidan textiles was subsequently donated to the National Silk Museum for study and conservation in perpetuity.
In 2013, the Art Museum presented another exhibition and catalogue, this time highlighting one single material, gold. The inspiration came from a pioneering article by Bunker.5 Based on archaeological discoveries, Bunker’s 1993 article suggested that using gold as an artistic medium— and not simply valued as currency—was introduced into North China from civilizations across ancient Eurasia during the second millennium B.C.E. In the Art Museum’s exhibition and
accompanying three-volume catalogue, gold artefacts spanning over three thousand years explored the full range of technical, artistic, social, political, and cultural impact of gold’s long history and development in China, illustrated by products from interactions with the art and culture of Eurasian peoples.6 Mengdiexuan’s loans to this exhibition subsequently formed part of the collectors’ gift to the Hong Kong Palace Museum, featured in its inaugural exhibition this year.
The current exhibition and catalogue, organized by Hing Chao for the Indra and Harry Banga Gallery at the City University of Hong Kong, continue to further the city’s appreciation of the artistic legacy of China’s northern peoples. The catalogue’s scholars cast spotlights on a wide range of artefacts from different eras: on specific motifs of fantastic and composite creatures and status regalia among late Bronze Age groups that suggest deep-seated personal or regional affiliations;
on personal articles (such as belt and archery accessories, tools and weapons, and horse harness fittings) that illustrate the often brutal realities of a hunter-warrior’s life in the harsh climate and rough landscape of the Eurasian steppes; on the subtle transformations, over millennia, of the animated imagery of the different pastoral groups (Xiongnu匈奴, Xianbei 鮮卑, Qidan, Jurchen 女真) as they adapted, adopted, and learned to live peacefully with their settled, urbane Chinese
neighbours. Material legacy represented by artefacts is matched by the spiritual legacy emanating from religious images created under similar culturally complex conditions. Examination of Buddhist murals and caves dedicated by mixed ethnic and cultural groups along the Hexi 河西 Corridor in the early centuries C.E. reveal imagery that reflected the fluctuating fortunes of the peoples who occupied those lands. Spiritualism manifested itself not simply in religious rites, icons, and iconography, but also artistically, in deep-seated cultural terms such as shape, line, and colour.
The 18 pieces in the present exhibition that are the work of Dashi Namdakov take the exhibition’s historical focus into the contemporary world. Set in the cultural and spiritual context of the Buryats in Siberia, their abstract and sometimes even strange forms may seem far away from the lively animals that inhabited the ancient artefacts. Nevertheless, they remain imbued with the spirit of life, land, and beliefs in the Eurasian steppes, the same spirits that informed the creation of the animal imagery of past eras. Namdakov’s creations open a new door to our appreciation of the hunter-warrior’s art and spiritual universe in the 21st century.
Acknowledgements - Hing Chao
Foreword - Isabelle Frank
Preface - Jenny So
1. Warriors and Animal Art - Hing Chao
2. Northern Ethnic Groups in Ancient China and Their Animal Art: The Xiongnu, Xianbei, Qiden, and Jurchen - Xu Xiaodong
3. Recognising Animal Motifs: The Trans-Regional Community in the Latter Half of the 1st Millennium B.C.E. - Raphael Wong
4. Early Buddhist Caves and Their Artistic Legacy: An Ethno-Historiographic Approach - Wei Zheng
5. Dashi Namdakov and the Artistic Expression of Nomad Spirituality - Isabelle Frank
Catalogue Entries - Hing Chao, Xu Xiaodong, James Fong