Ordos, 5th century

The people who lived in Mongolia between 8,000 and 3,500 years ago were farmers not horsemen. Historian Adam Kessler told Time magazine: "From our knowledge of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, we had assumed tribes in this region spent most of their time on horseback. But archeology is beginning to show that from 6000 B.C. on, these were agrarian societies.” [Source: Michael D. Lemonick, Time magazine, September 26, 1994]

Archaeologists working in Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia in China have uncovered the remains of more than 100 walled towns and cities of settled people dating back as far as the 3rd millennium B.C. and found extraordinarily beautiful artifacts such as stone altars and jade dragons. Scattered around Outer Mongolia are burial stones organized in squares and circles. Some cover slab-lined tombs and are thought to date as far back as to 2000 B.C.

Around 1500 B.C., Mongolia became colder and drier—a climate more conducive to grasslands than crops—prompting a shift from a crop-based to livestock-centered society. Cattle was raised in areas where pastures were rich. Sheep were raised in areas where the pastures were sparser.

In 1995, perfectly preserved mummified remains of a nomad and his horse were unearthed from the Ukok Plateau in Siberia near where China, Mongolia and Russia all met. The 3,000-year horseman wore braids, embroidered trousers, a fur coat, high boots. A large elk was tattooed across his back and chest. Some archeologists argued this man was an early Scythian.

The Scythians were Indo-Iranian horse people who migrated from Central Asia near China to the European Steppe north of the Black Sea around 700 B.C. For 400 years they dominated an area that stretched from the Danube across the Ukraine, Crimea and southern Russia to the Don River and the Ural Mountains and then mysteriously vanished. The Scythians preceded the Huns, Turks and Mongols by many centuries. The were not a unified group but rather a confederation of related, warring nomadic tribes. It is believed that they spoke an Indo-European language similar to Persian.

Hsing-Lung-Wa and the Early People of the Mongolian Steppe

Seven to eight thousand years ago, the Hsing-lung-wa Culture was distributed north of the Yen Mountains and west of the Liao River on the Mongolian steppe. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “At the dawn of the Neolithic Age, i.e., some 8,000 years ago, the Hsing-lung-wa Culture emerged in the eastern part of the landlocked region, where people based their economic life chiefly on primitive agriculture, fishing and hunting. The carved stone figure of a goddess that is possibly the earliest object of worship in the form of a female goddess in China. Excavations in the area also yielded a large number of jade objects that date to 3,000 B.C. or so. Characteristic of the Hung-shan Culture, these relics are considered as significant as jade pieces of the Liang-chu Culture. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Approximately 3,500 years ago the climate began to change, gradually turning Inner Mongolia into an area of vast grasslands. The nomadic tribes active on the steppe were truly complex and diverse, and were identified by dwellers of the agricultural culture in the south by a multitude of different names. Some of the names found in classical Chinese historical literature include Kuei-fang, Hsien-yun, Jung-ti and Hsiung-nu (known in the West as the Huns). Excavated artifacts such as the gold hawk-shaped hat ornament and other metal ornaments with motifs of ferocious birds and animals signify the brave and fierce nature of these northern tribes. \=/

“The early nomadic tribes active on the steppe were truly complex and diverse. They were identified by dwellers of the agricultural culture in the south with such names as Kuei-fang, Hsien-yun, Jung-ti and Hsiung-nu. Excavated ornaments with patterns of fierce birds and animals suggest the nature of these northern tribes. After the decline of the Hsiung-nu domination, a host of other nomadic groups rose to prominence in China's northern frontier. \=/

“Artifacts of the tribes known as Wu-huan, Hsien-pei, Turks, Khitans, Jurchens and Mongols, who were but a few of the peoples on the Mongolian steppe, have been found and are displayed at museums. Some of the tribes entered the Central Plains and set up imperial rule. Other groups held power over both the steppe and the agricultural regions of the south. Generally speaking, though, cultural exchange in Inner Mongolia over the last two thousand years or so has been a constant and common force regardless of whether the region was ruled by the Han Chinese or by the northern tribes. \=/

“More often than not the history of such cultural exchange is told through the archeological finds themselves as an examination of artifacts from different historical periods and from various tribal cultures so demonstrates. After all, the northern tribes had over time absorbed the legacies of neighboring areas in the west and in the south directly into their cultural domains. The Great Wall of China was erected as a definite border to keep the nomads of the pastoral north away from the farmers of the cultivated south. Traditionally, the Chinese have viewed their history only in terms of the regions south of the Great Wall. However, if we were to remove this fence in our perception, what kind of picture of the world would emerge?” \=/

Ordos Culture

Ordos, 4th century BC

The Ordos culture refers to groups of nomadic peoples occupying a region centered in modern Inner Mongolia during the Bronze and early Iron Age from at least the 6th to 2nd centuries B.C. The Ordos culture is known for significant finds of Scythian art and is thought to represent the easternmost extension of Indo-European Eurasian nomads, such as the Scythians. Under the Qin and Han dynasties, from the 6th to 2nd centuries B.C., the area came under at least nominal control of contemporaneous Chinese states. Some regard the Ordos as the source of the Xiongnu. [Source: Wikipedia]

Aileen Kawagoe wrote: The Ordos culture may have “inhabited the southern Mongolian Plateau as early as the Shang Dynasty. Though they lived along the western and northern perimenters of the main Han Dynasty settlements, they retained a distinctive culture more aligned with the Scythian peoples of the Steppes than their Chinese neighbors. They are known primarily through their metalwork. The Ordos animal style refers to the depictions on many of the belt plaques, horse gear, and weapons of scenes of animals in combat. Such themes are linked to the ancient Near Eastern tradion. During the Han Dynasty, the Chinese formulated peace treaties with the Xiongnu peoples who were the dominant force of the Ordos region at this time. Xiongu tombs have been excavated in Mongolia that contained Chinese luxury goods such as silk and bronze mirrors next to their own works. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, International Seminar on Ordos Bronze held in Ordos, Chinese Archaeology, Institute of Archeology Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]

Equestrian nomads occupied the area previously settled by the Zhukaigou culture from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C. before being driven away by the Xiongnu. The Ordos Plateau was covered by grass, bushes, and trees and at the time of the Ordos People contained the best pasture lands on the Asian Steppe at this time. The Ordos are mainly known from their skeletal remains and artifacts, especially "Ordos bronzes": blade weapons, finials for tent-poles, horse gear, and small plaques and fittings for clothes and horse harness, using animal style decoration with relationships both with the Scythian art of regions much further west.

Ordos Culture: Source of the Xiongu?

The relationship between the Ordos People and the Xiongnu is controversial; for some scholars they are the same and for others different. Many buried metal artefacts have emerged on the surface of the land as a result of the progressive desertification of the region.According to Iaroslav Lebedynsky, they are thought to be the easternmost people of Scythian affinity to have settled here, just to the east of the better-known Yuezhi. Because the people represented in archaeological finds tend to display Europoid features, also earlier noted by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen,[1] Lededynsky suggests the Ordos culture had "a Scythian affinity".[8] Other scholars have associated it with the Yuezhi.[3] The weapons found in tombs throughout the steppes of the Ordos are very close to those of the Scythians, who known on the Asian Steppes as the Saka. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In Chinese accounts, the Xiongnu first appear at Ordos in the Yi Zhou Shu and Classic of Mountains and Seas during the Warring States period before it was occupied by the states of Qin and Zhao. It is generally thought to be their homeland; however, when exactly they came to occupy the region is unclear and archaeological finds suggest it might have been much earlier than traditionally thought. As the Xiongnu expanded southward into Yuezhi territory around 160 B.C. under Modun, the Yuezhi in turn defeated the Sakas and pushed them away at Issyk Kul. It is thought the Xiongnu also occupied the Ordos area during the same period, when they came in direct contact with the Chinese. From the Ordos area, the Xiongnu conducted numerous devastating raids into Chinese territory (167, 158, 142, 129 B.C.). The Han–Xiongnu War began with Emperor Wu of Han, and the Han colonized the area of the Ordos as the commandery of Shuofang in 127 B.C.. Prior to this campaign, there were already earlier commanderies established by Qin and Zhao before they were overrun by the Xiongnu in 209 B.C. +

In the “Origin of the Xiongnu: (Russian Academy of Sciences, Sergey Miniaev argues that despite the popularity of the “Ordos hypothesis” of the origin of the Xiongnu, the Ordos culture is not the only Scythian zone culture that is responsible for the artefacts found in so-called Xiongnu burials: ” If one turns to Scythian sites in the Far Eastern steppes, one can see that one more zone of the Scythian world existed in the region of old south and south-west Manchuria. The burials of the region (in Nan-chan-gen, Zhou-tzia-di, Tzun-du-chan and some burials deep in the upper stratum of the Xiaziadian settlement) have some common characteristics: the position of the dead was predominantly extended supine; a wooden coffin was inside the rectangular pit, the short walls of which were inserted into the long ones; the coffin was covered with stone slabs and the walls of the pit were lined with similar slabs. Like “rank-and-file”Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) burials, those graves had bronze buttons, zoomorphic plaques, small bells and imitation cowrie shells inside. Some types of the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) grave goods, especially the shifted three-bladed arrows and the flat shear-arrows made of iron, can be regarded as a result of the development of similar bronze arrows from the above-mentioned Scythian burials. It is noteworthy that the shape and weight of those arrows bespeak the use of a big bow, apparently, approaching the Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) bow in size.

20080319-1287 xiongnu osu.jpg

Periods of Inner Mongolian History

Pre-Steppe Period (ca. 80th-16th century B.C.) : Around 1500 B.C. the climate of Inner Mongolia began to change, gradually turning the area into a vast steppe land. The society that existed during the four thousand years prior to the transformation was agriculturally based. To date, major excavations in Inner Mongolia have been conducted in two areas, one in the southeast and one in the central south, where archaeologists have unveiled many sites of distinctive cultures. The Hung-shan Culture, for example, is best known for its exquisite jade implements and carvings of human figures and deities. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Jung-ti and Tung-hu Period (ca. 14th-4th century B.C.) : Beginning in the middle of this period, the tribes on the Inner Mongolian steppe began to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. Cultural relics are represented by knives and daggers with decors of animal heads or with animal patterns, which have been described as "Ordos-style." Also found are bronze ritual vessels of the Shang and Chou Dynasties, which could have been brought from the Central Plains. \=/

Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu) Period (ca. 3rd century B.C.-1st century): Over the past 20 to 30 years, several Hsiung-nu burial sites have been discovered in Inner Mongolia, and finds include belt buckles with animal patterns, decorative plaques and animal-shaped bronze sculptures, apart from the bronze knives and daggers made in the Ordos-style. To be sure, gold and silver pieces unearthed in certain sites, along with objects with animal decors, have served to illustrate the cultural interaction between the nomadic tribes on the eastern and western steppe. \=/

Hsien-pei (Xianbei) Period (ca. 2nd-5th century): The Xianbei are regarded as proto Mongols. While relics of the Hsien-pei share the same characteristics with works of animal themes and gold pieces of earlier cultures of the steppe, the gold ornaments with decors of horse head and deer antlers featured in this exhibition are rendered in a style not seen in the art of the Hsiung-nu. The Northern Wei was a dynasty that ruled over both the steppe and the agricultural regions. Indeed, several artifacts related to the agricultural society of the south are also presented in the exhibition. \=/

T'u-chueh (Turk) Period (ca. 6th-8th century): Originated in the Altai Mountains, the T'u-chueh (Turks) succeeded during this period in extending their territory to the area north of the Gobi Desert and to Central Asia. The themes of the art of the Turks are a clear departure from the culture of the Han Chinese as can be detected from the Turkic figurative stone carving, the silver hu vessel decorated with the figure of a gilt Caucasian head and the silver dish with the makara pattern on view in the exhibition. \=/

Khitan Period (ca. 10th-12th century): While the saddle ornaments, knives and whistling arrows all serve to illustrate the culture of the Khitans, a good portion of the objects on view in this section is made up of Liao ceramics. The design of the cockscomb-shaped hu vessels is in effect taken from the style of the leather pouches used by the nomadic tribes to hold water. On the other hand, the long-necked vase with a phoenix-shaped attachment exhibits a flavor in line with Persian art. \=/

Jade Pieces and Artifacts from Ancient Inner Mongolia

Jade pieces and artifacts from ancient Inner Mongolia include: Goddess Figure: Hsing-lung-wa Culture, Neolithic Age (ca. 6000 B.C.): Stone, height: 65.5 centimeters. The body of this female figure, rendered from the hip up, is shown in a tucked position. Though crudely carved, it appears to be nude. At the time of excavation, it was found standing with the pointed end in the ground within a structure where the hearth was kept. Ancient cultures had protective spirits that included a spirit figure for the hearth and a goddess for regeneration. In terms of the sculptural features of this work, the feminine features have obviously been emphasized, including the breasts, the extended abdomen, and the hips. These are all parts of the female body vital in one or another to giving birth to and raising babies. This reflects an early recognition of the importance attached to fertility and nurturing in this culture. [Source: Collection: Lin-hsi County Museum (Ch'ih-feng, Inner Mongolia), National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Chueh Ornaments Hsing-lung-wa Culture, Neolithic Age (ca. 6000 B.C.): Jade, diameter: 4.6 and 3.7 centimeters: Made of polished greenish and greyish-green jade, these are two circular ring forms with slits, known in jade terminology as "chueh". For the ancient peoples of China, it was used as a form of ornament or as a ritual object. These are the earliest such pieces that have been found in Inner Mongolia. [Collection: Lin-hsi County Museum (Ch'ih-feng, Inner Mongolia)] \=/

Crown with Hawk-shaped Finial Cap: Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.): Gold, finial height: 7.1 centimeters, band diameter: 16.5 centimeters: The cap for this crown was pounded out of gold and then fused with the hawk, which is shown with wings outstretched standing above images of wolves and sheep. The head and neck of the eagle were carved from two pieces of turquoise and tied onto the body with gold filament. The head and neck are therefore movable. The body and wing feathers have been rendered with exceptional finesse. The talons are powerful and rest on a semi-circular sphere sculptured in low relief with images of wolves and sheep struggling. This cap would have been worn along with the accompanying gold headband, which was cast by mold and rendered in a semi-circular form. Composed of two pieces, the top one fits into the bottom with tenon and mortise. Therefore, in front, the band shows as an upper and lower level connected by vertical tenons. The band is decorated at both ends with images in low relief of a reclining tiger, ram, and horse. The other areas of the band are decorated with criss-crossing lines in relief. This unique crown was most likely worn by a ruler of the Hu minority of the Hsiung-nu culture. [Collection: Museum of Inner Mongolia (Hohhot)] \=/

Crown: Liao Dynasty (907-1125): Bronze, height: 31.5 centimeters, width: 31.4 centimeters, diameter: 19.5 centimeters: This crown is composed of openwork bronze. The front shows three concentric areas with scalloped edges rising to a point (known in Chinese as a "ju-i" form). The central part has a niche form and the borders in between are decorated with paired phoenix designs. At the top is a phoenix and wings appear on either side of the crown. Gilt bronze crowns were part of the regalia of Khitan nobility and officials who made up the Liao Dynasty in northern China at the time. This crown was excavated at Ch'ih-feng (Ulanhad), and a similar gilt silver crown was found in the Liao dynasty tomb of the Princess of Ch'en (1018). According to research, it reflects the influence of Taoism, thereby providing further evidence for the artistic and religious milieu of the Khitan. [Collection: Museum of Inner Mongolia (Hohhot)] \=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2022

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