Rich Roots of Ancient Silk Road’s Nomadic Heritage Unearthed in CityU’s Latest Exhibition | Exhibitions | THE VALUE


Throughout the ages, nomadic tribes have constantly migrated through the lands of the Silk Road. Stretching from Europe, Central Asia to China, they were masters of agricultural, trading and warlike life – herding cattle across the vast steppes, while fighting for survival.

These types of civilizations played a fundamental role as a cultural bridge between East and West. From their heritage, visitors can see that nomads were a conduit for the flow of art, military, religion and ideologies. The Indra and Harry Banga Gallery at City University of Hong Kong shines a light on this part of history with their latest exhibition, Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of Northern China.

The value spoke to the chief curator, Hing Chao, about the exhibition.

Despite the pandemic, 3D scanning has made it possible to expose objects like a shaman’s robe (right)

Digital recordings of Orochen and Ewenki tribal music offer rare insight into nomadic culture

So why were nomads important?

Living mobile lives, married to herding and hunting animals, the nomads left an expressive artistic legacy. Different motifs – including man and beast, predator and prey, culture and nature – intertwine in a cycle of life and death. Their universe is vividly represented in their artistic heritage, imbued with a deep spirituality.

Featuring over 250 exhibits, this exhibit tells the story of the nomads – from their origins in the early 1st millennium BCE to their golden age between the 10th and 13th centuries CE. Bringing these objects to life, the narrative is presented through the diverse lenses of archaeology, art history, and anthropology, and placed within the larger context of cultural exchange across Eurasia.

Archer the work of Russian artist Dashi Namdakov gives a contemporary vision of the fearsome warrior

At its height, the Mongol Empire ruled over many nomadic tribes, connecting a vast region from Europe to Asia.

To keep the heritage of these nomadic tribes alive, the chief curator explained that it was essential to use digital tools to record certain aspects of their culture – such as music, stories and fashion.

Founded in 2003 and under Chao’s tutelage, the Orochen Foundation encompasses a comprehensive collection of nomadic music – including tribes such as the Orochen and Ewenki. A mobile check-in combination sometiDeep forest and studio sessions in Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia were used to document their songs.

In collaboration with CityU and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), digital technologies were used to display 3D objects in this exhibition – such as head harnesses and reindeer saddles. As some exhibits could not travel from overseas museums due to the global pandemic, Chao added that digital tools such as 3D scanning help display the objects in a more interactive way for visitors.

Armored horse of a proto-Mongol tribe in northeast China, glazed pottery, Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 CE) | Hing Chao Collection

Orochen Hunter Robe, Deerskin | Qing dynasty (1644-1911)

The exhibition is divided into four main sections – first nomads of China, warriors and empire, animal art and spiritual world.

Throughout China and Eurasia, nomads were commonly known as umbrella uh in Chinese annals – such as Xianbei, Xiongnu and Rouran. The northern area of ​​China generally refers to the territories occupied by the northern uh. At the same time, these territories expand and contract with the ebb and flow of the military and political power of nomadic pastoralists.

Responding to the imperial state of ancient China, the nomads formed confederations. These were initially loose alliances between self-governing tribal groups, born out of political expediency. Later, these became mighty empires, not only rivaling those of China, but also conquering them. This region was connected to the wider eastern Eurasian steppes, which connected the Middle Kingdom with regions such as southern Siberia, Mongolia and eastern Kazakhstan.

Light armor and the recurved composite bow (centre) were instrumental in building the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history

Reproduction of 13th/14th century style Imperial Mongol full lamellar armour, steel, leather, suede cord, brass, horsehair, copper, iron (2021)

Since ancient times, mounted nomadic warriors and their archery were central to their military history. At their height, during the 13th and 14th centuries, nomads built the largest contiguous land empire of all time. the Mongol Empire. Combat was second nature to nomads.

The ability to ride and shoot was honed as an essential skill from childhood – to hunt animals, as well as to protect one’s herds, possessions and family from predators and enemy raids. For ancient nomads, there was no clear distinction between hunting and warfare, which formed a continuum in their existential experience – both equally necessary for survival.

One exhibit that resonated with Chao was the Orochen Hunter Robe. It was made by an old lady from Bayina, a remote village in the Greater Khingan Mountains in northeast China. near the border with Siberia. Daughter of the last military leader (jianggin) of the Kumarchen niru, which was one of the largest Orochen groups in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). It was the last deerskin dress she made before she died, and represents the last link to a past that has faded away.

Decorated horse saddle; copper, gold, silver, wood and fabric, 19th century | Mengdiexuan collection
Riding equipment such as the saddle, the ornaments and the clubs were the foundations of nomadic survival

The world of the nomads straddled the prairie and the boreal forest, symbolically embodied in the iconic spirits of the gray wolf and the white stag. They relied heavily on both domesticated animals – horses, sheep, cattle, reindeer, camels – and wild species, such as deer, felines, wolves, bears and raptors.

Northern Chinese animal design reflects the nomads’ dual roles as herders and hunters, which were crucial elements of their visual identity. As war grew in importance in nomadic society, the role of the warrior took on greater and greater importance. This change is also reflected in wildlife art, which begins to favor combat and predation scenes.

Plate with wrestlers and horses, gold, 2nd-1st century BCE | Mengdiexuan collection

Tiger-shaped plate, gold, 5th-3rd century BCE | Mengdiexuan collection

Chao explained that the natural environment of the nomads is inhabited by spiritual beings. Cult of the sacred was organized through well-established sites, where rituals were performed, such as trees inhabited by powerful spirits (marked with colorful textiles) and natural springs with healing power.

The sanctity of nature has been extended to the animal kingdom. Certain animals linked the world of the living to other worlds such as the moose, the eagle, the swan and the wild duck. These animals serve as spirit guides for shamans – past and present – as they travel between worlds.

During this time, nomads were particularly aware of how life can be changed in an instant. The Buddhist teaching appealed to the desire for inner peace of the ancient nomads, where dynasties like the Northern Wei and Northern Qi supported Buddhism as the state religion and were patrons of Buddhist art.

Guardian figure, wood and pigments, Liao dynasty (916-1125 CE) | Mengdiexuan collection

Sculpture of Contemplative Bodhisattvas, Marble, Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 CE) | Mengdiexuan collection

Through Nomads, Chao hopes visitors will enjoy the world around them.

“I would like to think of this exhibition as a window into the world of nomads, past and present. People will learn how the nomads’ relationship with their environment has shaped their worldview and forged their artistic sensibility, which revolves around a deep appreciation for nature,” the chief curator said.

With climate change looming across the world, he added that the public can better understand and live in harmony with nature – as it is inseparable from humanity.

Chief curator Hing Chao (right) hopes visitors can appreciate the world around them

Exhibition details:

Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of Northern China

Venue: Indra and Harry Banga Gallery. 18/F, Lau Ming Wai Academic Building, City University of Hong Kong
Date and time: now until October 23, 2022 | Every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (except Monday)
Exhibition website:
Pre-registration is required


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