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Rock of ages

Cui Jia, Xu Wei and Mao Weihua
Updated: Jan 9,2016 3:00 PM     China Daily

The carvings in Kangjia Shimenzi.[Photo provided to China Daily]

No, sexually explicit pictures did not begin with Marilyn Monroe in Playboy magazine in Chicago in 1953. Three thousand years ago, in the far northwestern reaches of China, men and women were getting their rocks off in what you can call either fertility rituals or sex orgies. Graphic depictions of their deeds, carved in stone, can be seen even today.

The rock art, in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, includes engravings showing as many as 300 men and women in mass flagrante delicto more than 1,000 years before that expression was even conceived.

Such images that old are rare not only in China but in the world, and these ones are far off the beaten track, so anyone who wants to see them needs to be willing to travel about three hours on a winding mountain road from the county seat of Hutubi.

The site, which has been known to the outside world for less than 30 years, is in Kangjia Shimenzi, in Tianshan Mountains in Hutubi county, west of the regional capital, Urumqi. The message of the depictions is clear, says Wang Binghua, former head of Xinjiang Institute of Relics and Archaeology and among the first experts to study the art: It is an expression of the desire for life and a form of religious worship aimed at securing prosperity for future generations, he says.

The carvings in Kangjia Shimenzi.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Wang says he first heard about the carvings from a local resident in 1987. The name Shimenzi means stone doors, referring to mountains on two sides of a long valley that, from a distance, seem to serve as its towering entrance.

To reach the rock art on one side of the valley entails reaching the foot of a red mountain and then climbing 15 meters. Once there, the hardy trekker will be rewarded with the sight of human figures in many sizes that bear clear facial features.

The tallest figure is about two meters and the smallest 20 centimeters. They were all carved on a flat surface of the mountain and a few meters above a natural platform which can be used as a viewing deck. This platform is also believed to be where a ceremony to pray for fertility took place.

Many of the male figures have exaggerated penises, as long as half their body height, and some are shown copulating with the female figures, with others dancing around them.

Wang says that judging by the facial features of the people shown, there are two distinct groups. Those with relatively wide faces resemble Mongolians today and the others, with deep eye sockets and high nasal bridges, resemble Europeans.

The carvings in Kangjia Shimenzi.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The 300 figures covering an area 14 meters by 9 meters were carved onto the cliff at various times, so the rock art site may have been a regular gathering point where the ancient tribes held religious ceremonies.

Rock art can give an insight into the way ancient people thought, says Wang Jianping, founder and president of the China Rock Art Academy in Inner Mongolia, but to be able to gain that insight you obviously need to know how to decode the messages.

Pre-historic rock art widely existed in what are now 120 countries on five continents as the information carrier of different primitive tribes bearing different information.

Experts say that most of the rock art discovered in China is in Xinjiang because its favorable natural environment has always been suitable for sustaining human communities. More than 1,226 rock art sites in 29 province and regions have been found throughout China, and most can be dated back to the Upper Paleolithic period.

In China rock art found in the north and south have completely different styles and themes even when they are from the same age. The ancient northerners normally carved in rock images of animals and scenes of herding while those in the south used red paint depict hunting as well as dancing during religious ceremonies.

Of course, because such rock art is exposed to the elements for so long, it is susceptible to deterioration, Wang Jianping says.

“Many of them have deteriorated to the point of disappearing, and the messages of our ancestors have been lost forever.”

Also, because of their remote locations and difficulties in evaluating their true historical value, about 75 percent of rock art in China does not enjoy the protection of the authorities responsible for such relics, he says.

“Dating and interpreting rock art are huge challenges for researchers worldwide. The authorities need to start treating these relics as important parts of the country’s heritage.”

Visitors climb the steps to take a close look at the rock art.[Cui Jia / China Daily]

Ancient rock art continues to be found around China, and the best known sites such as Kangjia Shimenzi have been turned into tourist attractions. In the case of Kangjia Shimenzi that has entailed building steps so visitors can get a close view of the human figures on the cliff. As much as experts welcome the public interest in such rock art, they also worry that growing numbers of tourists put preservation efforts at risk.

The discovery of rock art in Habahe county in Altay prefecture in northern Xinjiang, which includes a pictograph said to resemble an aircraft, has attracted widespread media attention and a growing number of tourists to rock art sites, says Liu Cheng, a professor of archeology at Northwestern University in Xi’an, Shaanxi province.

Liu, who first traveled to Habahe to study the pictographs six years ago, cites one practical example of how increasing numbers of tourists are already proving to be detrimental to preservation efforts.

“Many people are driving a long way to camp near the rock arts sites, and they leave garbage behind when they leave.”

His team has found beer bottles and other garbage even inside the rock art site, he says.

“There is evidence, too, that the pictographs have been tainted by beer. That is making our work more urgent.”

The most important work for his team is to document all the pictographs for research before they suffer from human intervention, he says.

Previously many local herders regarded the caves where the rock art is preserved as sacred, he says, and that is why they had remained free of human intervention for thousands of years.

It is important that local authorities ease up with their plans to develop the sites into tourist attractions, he says.

Because many rock art sites are highly susceptible to any form of human intervention, protective measures need to be put into place before tourism is developed, he says.

Wang Jianping says: “Rock art is not just art but something that paints a picture for us of how our ancestors thought before writing appeared. People need to realize that understanding our past can help human beings look into the future.”