Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape Makes World Heritage List


By staff reporter LI YING


THE Zuojiang Huashan rock paintings, from Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, has been listed on the World Heritage List at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s 40th Session on July 15, 2016. It is the first time China’s rock painting has been listed as a world heritage. The Huashan Mountain cliffs facing the river form a concave wall. During the 700 years from the fifth century BC to the second century AD, the Luoyue people lived and proliferated here, and created rock paintings on the high cliffs above the river bends. These immense reddish brown petroglyphs portray sacrificial ceremonies to gods and ancestors 2,000 years ago. The rock paintings, the cliffs themselves, Mingjiang River and the tableland opposite together compose a mystical and stirring cultural landscape. This is the setting of the world-famous Huashan Mountain rock paintings.



The mountains on which the rock paintings were painted.


Those who have been to Huashan Mountain praise its magnificence but are in awe of its rock paintings: How did the Luoyue people paint images on these towering and precipitous cliffs 2,000 years ago, with such rudimentary equipment? And why did they risk their lives to do so? What kind of pigments kept Huashan Mountain rock paintings from fading despite wind and rain erosion over millennia? The magical charm and eternal enigma of the Huashan Mountain rock paintings have drawn numerous scholars and visitors from home and abroad to see this magnificent mind boggler for themselves.


Magnificent Rock Paintings


Rock paintings are distributed throughout Zuojiang river basin in the riverine areas of Ningming, Longzhou, Chongzuo and other counties and cities. The paintings appear mainly on the wide, smooth and vertical cliffs where the rivers bend, and the Huashan Mountain rock paintings are the most representative. They are the best preserved, largest rock paintings with the richest content so far known in China.


The Huashan Mountain rock paintings are a remnant of the sorcery worked by the Luoyue people who inhabited the Zuojiang river basin. They were the ancestors of the Zhuang ethnic group who lived from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220).  



A close look at a group of pictures.


The rock paintings have been executed through flat molding, or first projecting the monochromatic pattern and then painting them. Huashan Mountain cliff stands 345 meters above sea level and looks out over the Mingjiang River. The 221-meter-long, 140-meter-high cliffs bear 11 groups of paintings, a total of 1,900, whose predominant feature is their 1,300 human figures. The pictures also include images of bronze drums, knives, swords, sheep-bells and beasts.


The main body of the picture consists of crude human figures, half squatting, their arms raised. The biggest is three meters tall, and the smallest 20 centimeters in height. Some are fully frontal, others in profile.


Each group of pictures generally includes a leader of giant stature standing at the center of a group, wearing a tiger cap and swords buckled to his side. He stands imposingly on a dog-like beast, presenting a froglike image when seen from the front. Those in profile are numerous, some semi-dressed and others naked. They include men and women, and present vital postures. Masses of smaller figures beat bronze drums, paddle dugout canoes, gather by the riverside and surround their leaders. They resemble a host of stars around the moon, seemingly in scenes of troops joining forces, holding celebrations or enjoying festivities. There are mono- and bi-layer circles surrounding some human figures, and “米” patterned circles inside others. Some appear as the sun or the moon and have a mystical ambience.


The paintings are in reddish brown, and from a distance look like patches of blood on the cliff face. Close up, the whole painting appears thickly dotted with mixed elements that give the concerted impression of an animated mystical hubbub. It thus forms a historical picture scroll portraying the power and grandeur of the ancient Luoyue people. It constitutes the essence of the Lingnan Painting Art and the foundation of its heritage. 


Unsolved Puzzle


For centuries, the rare and artistic rock paintings on Huashan Mountain have drawn droves of Chinese and foreign experts to do research that might solve the riddle of their artistic charisma, and to wonder at their inestimable archeological value. However, they remain a tangle of paradoxes composing an impenetrable enigma: Why did the ancient Luoyue people paint on cliffs opposite rivers? How did different painters maintain a uniform style throughout the centuries it took to paint the pictures? What pigments did the artists use to keep the paintings red and clear even after being exposed to wind, rain and sunlight over thousands of years? What significance did the various mysterious pictures convey? How did the Zhuang ancestors paint at such a height? These are just a few of the numerous riddles still to be solved.


The origins of the Huashan Mountain rock paintings are the biggest puzzle. They have engendered many romantic legends. The best known one tells of the legendary Meng Da, who in his teens had an insatiable appetite and whose physical prowess was matchless. During one year of turmoil and chaotic war, court officials plundered the wealth of the people, leaving them destitute. Meng Da was outraged at this oppression and determined to revolt, but lacked soldiers, horses and weapons. After cutting firewood on a hill, he always sat on the boulders, lost in thought, staring blankly into space.


One day, an elder with silver whiskers and white hair came to Meng Da and gave him a wad of paper and a pen, telling him, “Paint soldiers, horses and weapons on these sheets of paper, and they will become real after 100 days. But you must never tell anyone about it.” He then dematerialized like a god. Meng Da accordingly locked himself in his room and painted day by day, totally immersed. Feeling anxious, his mother asked him what he was doing. He replied, “You will know after 100 days.” On the 99th day his mother lost patience and thought, “There’s only one day left, so it doesn’t matter if I look at what he’s painting.” So she went in to Meng Da’s room while he was out and opened the box of paintings. In a flash, the unfinished pictures of soldiers and weapons yet to materialize flew out of the room and stuck to the cliff in front of their village, so becoming rock paintings. Although this myth adds a mystical element to the Huashan Mountain rock paintings, it fails to explain its origins.


Archeologists believe that it was painted before the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and Warring States Period, more than 2,000 years ago. It took 700 years to finish, and in the process Luoyue artists used up the best part of their state-owned assets and manpower. As they made such huge efforts to complete this masterpiece, it was executed with clear goals in mind, namely, to hand down the rock paintings through the ages and strike awe into the hearts of all who saw them.


The subject matter of the rock painting is another unsolved puzzle. Owing to its long history and the shortage of relevant written records, experts can only carry out research on the painting itself and on excavated cultural relics. The picture appears to be a grand sacrifice or festive celebration.


Most of the human figures on the paintings are stretching out their arms on either side, their elbows bent upwards, in a half squatting stance. They appear to be mimicking frog postures. Frog worship was indeed an ancient Zhuang tradition, and the frog dance still exists. Bronze drums also appear in the paintings, and were important sacrificial vessels. Certain human figures display clear gender characteristics, including pregnant women and groups of children. Some believe they reflect the fertility worship of the ancient Luoyue people.


We can deduce from these attributes that the painting expresses joy, solemnity and reverence. If not a sacrificial ceremony, then it must be some kind of celebration. The ancient Luoyue people held grand festive celebrations simultaneously with sacrificial ceremonies, of which beating bronze drums and dancing frog dances were features. Certain experts believe it constitutes a paean in celebration of a victory against foreign invasions. Others perceive it as a prayer for a powerful army and prosperous society. There are also those who think it was the Luoyue people’s way of frightening river monsters away and praying for a good harvest. Different people thus have different opinions. It hence remains anyone’s guess.


But one thing is certain: The rock painting corridor in the Zuojiang river basin with the Huashan Mountain rock paintings at its core is rare both in China and throughout the world by virtue of the wide distribution of these difficultly executed, magnificent paintings. With profound artistic connotations and of major archaeological value, no matter what kind of scenes the paintings describe, they reflect scenes from the life of the ancient Luoyue people. They also express the people’s respect for heroes and eulogizing of power, as well as their good wishes for prosperity and favorable weather. The rock paintings not only show us the artistic achievements of the ancient Luoyue people, ancestors of the Zhuang ethnic group, but also the richness of their social life millennia ago, and their diligence, courage and tenacity.


A conclusion, however, has been reached as to the pigments used in the painting. For years, State Administration of Cultural Heritage experts have used scientific methods to detect the pigments used in the Huashan Mountain rock paintings. They isolated the natural mineral hematite as a major component. But adhesive must have been added to the hematite powder, as otherwise the paintings could not have been executed on those hard, smooth and erect cliffs. After further analysis, adhesives were indeed found in the pigments. However, where did they come from? How did the Luoyue people concoct these ingredients with primitive extracting and purifying methods? How did they confect the adhesives with the hematite? Many mysteries still linger. The pigment formulation, which never changed over thousands of years, might have been stumbled upon by accident. But how did these ancients “fly” through the air and accomplish paintings on cliffs 140 meters high? These are indissoluble conundrums.


Protect Heritage


The Carbon-14 dating method implies that the Huashan Mountain rock paintings were created 1,680 to 4,200 years ago. It subsequently underwent continuous improvement from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty, when this amazing masterpiece eventually came into being. After thousands of years of geological forces, the color of many long-exposed rock paintings has gradually faded, blurred and some has even flaked off.


In recent years, protection and conservation of the Huashan Mountain rock paintings has polarized public attention. In 1988, it was listed by the State Council as a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level. In 1998, the Huashan Mountain scenic spot with the Huashan Mountain rock paintings at its core was designated a national scenic area. Ningming county government sticks to the principle of “Protection first, utilization second” to prevent human damage or pollution. The county government conducts scientific planning and protection of the core Huashan Mountain rock painting scenic area. Each year, it organizes tree planting activities on both sides of the Mingjiang River and at the foot of the Huashan Mountain to green and beautify the environment. When it comes to the industrial and tourist programs at the core rock painting area, it strictly sticks to the principle of rock painting protection. Through wide-ranging publicity and education, the county’s general public has consciously built up awareness of the importance of protecting cultural legacies, as well as a sense of pride. Local residents have consequently supported the application for the Huashan Mountain rock paintings to be listed as world heritage.


On July 15, 2016, the “Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape” was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List by the World Heritage Committee in its 40th session in Istanbul, Turkey.


So far, RMB 150 million has been invested in the protection of the Huashan Mountain rock painting and its World Heritage application. Moreover, 16 protection and research projects have been launched to find a new path that combines protection and long-term governance. The Huashan Mountain rock paintings, a cultural Luoyue treasure, are thus well protected and preserved by the sons and daughters of Huashan Mountain.