Throughout the ages, nomadic tribes constantly migrated across terrains across the Silk Road. Spanning from Europe, Central Asia to China, they were masters of the agricultural, merchant and warrior life – herding livestock across the vast steppes, whilst fighting one another for survival.
These types of civilisations played a foundational role as a cultural bridge between the East and West. From their heritage, visitors can see that the nomads were a conduit for the flow of art, military, religion and ideologies. Indra and Harry Banga Gallery at Hong Kong’s City University highlights this part of history with their latest exhibition, Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China.
The Value spoke to chief curator, Hing Chao, further about the exhibition.
Despite the pandemic, 3D scanning has enabled exhibits like a shaman's robe (right) to be displayed
Digital records of Orochen and Ewenki tribal music offer a rare glimpse into nomadic culture
So, why were the nomads important?
Living a mobile life, wedded to herding and hunting of animals, the nomads left behind an expressive artistic legacy. Different motifs – including men and beasts, predators and prey, culture, and nature – interlocked in a cycle of life and death. Their world is vividly represented in their artistic heritage, imbued with a profound spirituality.
Showcasing more than 250 exhibits, this exhibition tells the story of the nomads – from their origins during 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 broader context of cultural exchange across Eurasia.
Archer oeuvre by Russian artist, Dashi Namdakov, gives a contemporary take on the fearsome warrior
At its height, the Mongol Empire ruled over many nomadic tribes, linking a vast area from Europe to Asia
To keep these nomadic tribes' heritage alive, the chief curator explained it was vital 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 embraces a comprehensive collection of nomadic music – including tribes such as the Orochen and Ewenki. A combination of mobile recording sometimes deep into the forest and studio sessions in both Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia were used to document their songs.
Collaborating with CityU and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), digital technologies were used to display 3D objects in this exhibition – such as reindeer head harnesses and saddles. As some exhibits could not travel from overseas museums due to the global pandemic, Chao added that digital tools such as 3D scanning helped display objects in a more interactive manner for visitors.
Armoured Horse from a Proto-Mongol Tribe in northeast China, glazed pottery, Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 CE) | Hing Chao Collection
Orochen Hunter's Robe, roedeer-hide | Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
The exhibition is divided into four key sections – early nomads of China, warriors and empire, animal art and the spiritual world.
Throughout China and Eurasia, nomads were commonly known under the umbrella hu in Chinese annals – such as Xianbei, Xiongnu and Rouran. China’s northern zone usually refers to territories occupied by the northern hu. At the same time, these territories expanded and contracted according to the ebb and flow of the pastoral nomads’ military and political power.
Responding to the imperial state of ancient China, the nomads formed confederacies. These were initially loose alliances among autonomous tribal groups that arose out of political convenience. Later, these grew into powerful empires, not only rivalling those of China but also conquering them. This region was connected to the broader eastern Eurasian steppes, which linked to the Middle Kingdom to regions such as South Siberia, Mongolia, and eastern Kazakhstan.
Light armour and the recurve composite bow (centre) were instrumental in building the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history
Reproduction of a 13th/14th-Century Style Imperial Mongol Full Lamellar Armour, Steel, leather, suede rope, brass, horsehair, copper, iron (2021)
Since the ancient era, the mounted nomadic warrior and their archery was central to their military history. At their culmination, during the 13th and 14th centuries, the nomads built the greatest land contiguous empire ever – the Mongol Empire. Combat was second nature to the 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, property, and family from predators and enemy raids. For the ancient nomads, there was no sharp 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’s robe. It was made by an old lady from Bayina, a remote village in the Great Khingan Mountains, northeast China – close to the border with Siberia. Daughter of the last military leader (jianggin) of the Kumarchen niru, which was one of the biggest Orochen bands during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). This was the last roedeer-hide robe she made before she passed away, and represents the final link to a past that vanished.
Decorated Horse Saddle; copper, gold, silver, wood and fabric, 19th century | Mengdiexuan Collection
Horse-riding equipment – such as the saddle, ornaments and clubs – were the foundations of the nomads' survival
The nomads' world straddled the grassland and the boreal forest, symbolically embodied in the iconic spirits of the grey wolf and the white deer. They relied heavily both on domesticated animals – horses, sheep, cattle, reindeer, camels – and on wild species, such as deer, felines, wolves, bears, and raptors.
Animal design of north China reflects the nomads’ dual role as herders and hunters, which were crucial parts of their visual identity. As warfare became more prominent in nomadic society, the role of the warrior took an ever-greater importance. This change is also reflected in the animal art, which began focusing on scenes of combat and predation.
Plaque with Wrestlers and Horses, gold, 2nd-1st century BCE | Mengdiexuan Collection
Tiger-Shaped Plaque, gold, 5th-3th century BCE | Mengdiexuan Collection
Chao explained that the nomads’ natural milieu is inhabited by spiritual beings. Worship of the sacred was organised through well-established sites, where rituals were performed, such as trees inhabited by powerful spirits (marked with colourful textiles) and natural springs with healing power.
Nature’s sanctity was extended to the animal kingdom. Certain animals connected the world of the living with other worlds like the elk, eagle, swan and wild duck. These animals serve as spiritual guides to the shamans – past and present – as they travel between worlds.
Meanwhile, nomads were uniquely aware of how life can be changed at an instance. Buddhist teaching appealed to the ancient nomads’ desire for inner peace, where dynasties like the Northern Wei and Northern Qi supported Buddhism as a 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 the nomads, Chao hopes visitors appreciate the world around them.
“I would like to think of this exhibition as a window into the world of the nomads, past and present. People will learn how the nomads’ relationship with their environment framed their worldview and forged their artistic sensibilities, which centre around a profound appreciation of nature,” said the chief curator.
With climate changing looming large in the world, he added that the audience can better understand and live harmoniously with nature – as it is inseparable with humankind.
Chief curator Hing Chao (right) hopes visitors can appreciate the world around them
Hunters, Warriors, Spirits: Nomadic Art of North China
Venue: Indra and Harry Banga Gallery. 18/F, Lau Ming Wai Academic Building, City University of Hong Kong
Date and Time: Now until 23 October 2022 | Daily 10am – 7pm (Except Mondays)
Exhibition Website: https://www.cityu.edu.hk/bg/exhibitions/hunters-warriors-spirits
Pre-registration is required