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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: September 13, 2010 NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 16, 2010
Art on Rock
The Helan Mountain rock engravings shed light on history and culture in Ningxia


GOD OF SUN: The rock engraving "God of Sun" at the Helan Mountain provides insight into the beliefs of the ancient people (WANG LEI) 

With sprawling deserts and serene lakes, the natural wonders of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region have never failed to take the breath away from visitors. The area has another major attraction, though: the Helan Mountain rock engravings.

The Helan Mountain, 35 km away from Yinchuan, capital of the region, shields the city from the Tengger Desert. The mountain is impressive, with a magnificent view adorned by ruggedly beautiful rocks and contrasted against a vast backdrop of soaring hills. A crystal clear creek snakes its way around the rocks, while distant snowcapped peaks rear their white heads toward the blue sky.

Hidden in a maze of narrow alleyways are thousands of rock engravings that offer a clue about human history and ancient civilizations of the area. At Helankou—a deep valley at the east foot of the mountain—alone, more than 5,500 pieces of rock engravings have been discovered. This accounts for around one third of the total on the mountain.

What make these rock engravings different from those in other areas in the country are their bold, vigorous lines and vivid descriptions. The designs on the rocks provide a glimpse into many aspects of nomadic tribal life: hunting, grazing, dancing, sacrifice and reproduction. There are also a number of animal images, like running cattle and flying birds.

At Helankou, there are 2,768 pieces of life scenes, 1,769 of animals and 708 of human faces, Wang Yuguo, Deputy Director of the Administration of Helan Mountain Rock Engravings of Ningxia, told Beijing Review.

Either carved with solid stoneware or chiseled with metal ware, these pictures were created 3,000 to 10,000 years ago. The patterns made with metal tools have obvious chisel points and slender, deeper lines, said Wang.

There is a reason why Helankou houses a great number of rock engravings. With spring water flowing around, this area was an ideal location for ancient people to live and hold sacrificial activities. Most importantly, the towering mountains were sacred and spectacular in the eyes of early humans, said Wang.

One of the most enlightening sections is a famous engraving about hunting. It shows a strong man drawing his bow to target a herd of deer. Interestingly, the hunter was engraved much smaller than the animals. So it seems that the creators of the rock engravings understood the theory of perspective.

Another internationally recognized piece is an engraving of the "God of Sun." With radiant lines around its head and gleaming eyes, the "God of Sun" looks powerful and dignified. It is believed that nomadic ancestors considered bumper harvests as bounty from the "God of Sun" and natural disasters as punishment.


LIFE ON ROCK: A rock engraved with an image of a deer at the Helan Mountain (WANG LEI) 

As a direct expression of how the creators understood the world, the rock engravings reflect the customs and worship of the primitive tribes, as well as their imagination and artistic creativity, said Li Xiangshi, a senior rock engravings researcher with the Northern University of Ethnics, who first discovered the Helan Mountain engravings in 1965.

As part of the country's cultural heritage, these rock engravings are of great significance for studying the culture, religion and art of ancient China, said Li.

In addition, the rock engravings may have served some practical purposes, said Ji Yanjing, a researcher on ancient civilization at the 2010 International Rock Engravings Symposium held in Yinchuan in June this year.

Research suggests they were likely used to record astronomical phenomena and animal activities and may reflect time and seasonal changes, said Ji.

While researchers continue their efforts to understand the rock art, they have called for better protection of the relics. Abrading sand, wind and rain have been obliterating the delicate designs on the rock and are threatening to wreak havoc on the artwork.

What is more disturbing is artificial damage, as souvenir hunters chip away the fragile surfaces and thoughtless local farmers scratch, chalk or paint over the designs, said Zhou Xinhua, a rock engraving expert and former Curator of the Ningxia Museum.

"The rock engravings are extremely fragile and vulnerable. Once they are damaged, it is difficult to recover the original condition." said Zhou.

Some suggested that the rock engravings be moved to museums, but the approach is hardly realistic due to the large amount of the relics, he said.

In response, the local government has spared no effort to keep the heritage from disappearing. It has increased investments to build embankments around the site, in case of floods or mudslides. Moreover, a computer-controlled monitoring system was put in place in May 2010 to enhance protection.

"These rock engravings are priceless cultural treasures of the country, and should be handed down from one generation to another," said Zhou.


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