Academic journal article Antiquity

Cultural Hybridity and Social Status: Elite Tombs on China's Northern Frontier during the Third Century BC

Academic journal article Antiquity

Cultural Hybridity and Social Status: Elite Tombs on China's Northern Frontier during the Third Century BC

Article excerpt


The Northern Frontier of China during the third century BC, roughly along the Great Wall, is the region where the Chinese states and their pastoral neighbours came into direct contact, and material culture in this region often exhibits mixed traits from diverse traditions. Recent archaeological discoveries from this area, including the Majiayuan cemetery, have revealed more nuanced pictures of cultural exchange between the Chinese states and the pastoral groups to their north and west during the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). These discoveries have yet to be examined within such postcolonial concepts as cultural hybridity.

Hybridity is a useful concept when interpreting the causes and social impacts of cultural mixture in material culture. According to Liebmann, "in postcolonial theory, hybridity commonly refers to the complex transcultural forms produced through colonization that cannot be neatly classified into a single cultural or ethnic category" (Liebmann 2008: 83). Colonialism existed in many different forms, and is not limited to the colonies of the modern European states based on terra nullius; ancient empires created different colonial relationships based instead on a shared cultural milieu, or on a 'middle ground' between differing cultural values (Gosden 2004). I suggest that the archaeological remains from the Northern Frontier should be viewed in the context of colonisation created by the expansion of the Qin and other Chinese states. In addition, an investigation of hybrid forms of material culture should emphasise the role of social agents and try to reveal their intentions and social impacts (Gosden 2004: 24).

This paper examines the material culture and mortuary practices of the Majiayuan cemetery, and argues that during the third century BC, hybrid forms of social practice and visual expression were strategically adopted by members of the social elite on China's Northern Frontier to negotiate and communicate power and social status through demonstrating cultural, political and economic connections with diverse symbolic centres of power.


Recent archaeological work at the Majiayuan cemetery in Zhangjiachuan Hui Autonomous County, Gansu Province (Figure 1) has excavated 16 tombs dated to the third century BC, and yielded a large amount of artefacts with various cultural affiliations, mainly consisting of chariot and body ornaments made of gold, silver and bronze, as well as a large amount of beads (Gansusheng Wenwu Kaogu & Zhangjiachuan Huizu Zizhixian 2008; Zaoqi Qin Wenhua & Zhangjiachuan Huizu Zizhixian 2009, 2010). This cemetery is located in an area to the north and west of the Qin where many pastoralist groups, collectively known as the Xi Rong (West Rong), were active during the first millennium BC. After the conquest of the Yiqu Rong in this area, King Zhao of Qin established the Longxi Prefecture in south-eastern Gansu around 279 BC, and the Zhangjiachuan area belonged to this new administrative unit (Zhangjiachuan 1999: 56). In 271 BC, King Zhao built a series of defensive walls at Qin's north and west borders, which run from Lixian County in southeastern Gansu, through southern Ningxia and northern Shaanxi, to Junger Banner in Inner Mongolia (Wang Xueli 1994:199). The Majiayuan region was enclosed within this newly built border wall. The Majiayuan cemetery, however, is fundamentally different from other Qin cemeteries in terms of burial practice and grave goods, and probably represents the remains of the rulers of a Rong pastoralist group newly subjugated by the state of Qin.

The Majiayuan tombs exhibit distinct mortuary practices and material culture with highly mixed features, and cultural elements identified in these burials reveals an amazingly rich array of source cultures. First of all, different tomb structures and burial practices coexist at the Majiayuan cemetery. The cemetery includes 59 tombs, 16 of which have been excavated. …

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