2007년 07월 09일
It seems to be a universal human impulse to decorate blank vertical surfaces with art. In the 1930s, lonely Basque shepherds in the western United States carved images of women from their hometowns in Spain into aspen trees (see “Mystery of the Arborglyphs,” one of the first articles Emma ever published). In cities ‘round the world, the words of spraycan prophets are written on the subway walls. Here in China, there are thousands upon thousands of cliffs, boulders and steles embellished with the striking characters of the Chinese script.
Stone tablets on the sacred mountain of Tai Shan in Shandong province
And in the mountains above the Yellow River, the ancient inhabitants of Ningxia carved thousands of images into the walls of the canyons they traversed as they moved between the Yellow River plain and the deserts of Mongolia. The Helan Shan is home to one of the richest concentrations of rock art in China. Since the 1980s Chinese archaelogists have discovered dozens of sites scattered among the valleys on the eastern slope of the range, and there are probably many sites still to be discovered.
The only one of these sites that is practically accessible to tourists is at Helan Kou, 58 kilometres northwest of Yinchuan, where there are over 5000 images carved into the rocks along a permanent watercourse. Accurate historical information on the site is a bit hard to come by (like much of what we see) – according to the interpretive signs at Helan Kou, the carvings are between 3000 and 10,000 years old, while a Professor of Chinese Art at Rhode Island School of Design contends they are mostly between 2500 and 1500 years old (see “Writing the Landscape: Petroglyphs of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Province (China)”). Well, at least that rules out the years 500-2007 AD.
“Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.”
Whatever their age, the carvings deal in some of the time-honoured themes of rock art worldwide, namely wildlife, domestic animals and scary faces. Unusually, there are also a handful of carvings with an agricultural theme.
A hunting scene, with what appears to be a tiger
Two goats running from their pen
A head of grain, possibly millet
The carvings are fantastic in their detail, their degree of preservation, and in some cases, the delicacy of the carving. We don’t actually know anything about rock art, truth be told, but we do seem to spend a bit of time wandering around deserts where rock art is found, and whether in the American Southwest, Australia or here, we’ve rarely seen rock art carvings with lines as fine as these.