Liao Archaeology: Tombs and Ideology along the Northern Frontier of China

By Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Liao Archaeology: Tombs and Ideology along the Northern Frontier of China


Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman, Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


ABSTRACT

The death and burial practices of the semi-nomadic Liao empire (A.D. 947-1125) of China and Inner Mongolia are explored to determine whether, once the north-east Asian group known as the Qidan established their dynasty in Chinese territory, they came to follow the customs of the Chinese afterlife as they had done in their transformations from nomadism to city dwelling and front native practices to Buddhist worship; or, if in the privacy of death they retained their native rites and customs. Evidence pertaining to this issue comes both front Chinese texts and from excavations of Liao-period tombs.

Chinese texts about Qidan burial practice are cited, showing that front the Chinese point of view, the burial customs of the Qidan classified them as barbarians. Evidence front Qidan tombs, however, seems to contradict the Chinese textual accounts. The tombs of the Liao emperors, it will be shown, employed Chinese architecture in dramatic fashion even in the early tenth century. Excavated evidence front nonroyal Liao tombs also shows the use of Chinese building traditions. Beneath or behind the architectural facades, however, native Qidan practices often persisted.

In addition, it is argued that burial practices suggest that the Qidan not only deviated at times front Chinese funerary practices, but also were influenced by practices of other peoples of north and northeast Asia, including the first-millenium B.C. Scythians. KEYWORDS: Chinese archaeology, north Asia, northeast Asia, mortuary practices, ethnicity.

LIAO IS THE CHINESE NAME of an empire established by a seminomadic ruler of Qidan nationality along China's northern fringe and in northeast Asia in the tenth century A.D. From the tenth century A.D. through the first quarter of the twelfth century A.D., the Liao empire ruled sixteen prefectures of north China, including the city that is today Beijing; most of the three northeastern Chinese provinces that formerly comprised Manchuria; and portions of Korea, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the Mongolian People's Republic, the Gobi Desert, and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (Fig. 1).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Between the fall of the Liao empire in 1125 A.D. to another non-Chinese dynasty, the Jin, and the twentieth century, most of what we knew about the Qidan came by way of Chinese texts. Those literary records describe the Qidan as distinct from their Chinese neighbors, who were frequently described by the Chinese as "barbarians."

Excavation of Liao sites began during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Those expeditions uncovered the tombs of three Liao emperors, as well as numerous artifacts (Tamura and Kobayashi 1953; Torii 1936). Beginning in the 1950s, widespread excavation of Liao sites was undertaken by local and provincial Chinese teams in Liaoning and Inner Mongolia. Some three hundred Liao tomb sites have been uncovered in the last half-century. The excavated evidence presents a remarkably different and significantly more complex image of Liao society and the Qidan people than do Chinese texts. Above ground, Liao tombs may be marked by simple mounds or expansive paths lined with monumental sculpture. Below ground, burial occurred in a single chamber or a complex of nine interrelated rooms. The walls of those tombs can be unadorned or completely covered with murals and relief sculpture. The corpse may be contained in a single or multilayer coffin, of wood or stone, or it can lie directly on a funerary bed. Cremated remains of the occupant may also be placed in a container. A corpse might be covered with garments or treated in a preservation-enhancing way and encased in a protective covering.

Certain of these burial techniques can easily be linked to practices of the neighboring Chinese or other sedentary peoples near China's borders. Other postmortem practices are unquestionably native to the Qidan and, in fact, corroborate descriptions of this group in Chinese historical texts. …

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