Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage

Yang Yang
The area boasts a variety of cultural heritage, including colored pottery kiln ware, mountain ballad called Huar, river and farm scenery, leather embroidery and Tibetan carpet.
Yang Yang
Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
ThePapers / Ti Gong

The winter landscape of the city of Xining, Qinghai Province

Half an hour before we landed at Caojiapu International Airport, in Haidong Tu Autonomous Prefecture on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, we felt a bit dryness in our mouth and nose – that is the high plateau welcoming us with its thin and crisp air.

Then we saw the nebula of neon lights of the twin cities of Xining and Haidong in the east of Qinghai Province.

The area, besides being a transportation hub, turns out to be rich with cultural heritage, including colored pottery kiln ware, mountain ballad called Huar, river and farm scenery, leather embroidery, Tibetan carpet, and many more heritage skills.

Colored pottery 彩陶

As people discovered fire, they made a milestone in the civilization progress as they cooked food, hunted beasts with torches, and created pottery through the combination of mud, water and kiln firing.

In the upper reaches of the Huangshui River, running parallel to China's mother river, the Yellow River, for about 200 or 300 kilometers from the Longyang Gorge on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, a tomb cluster was unearthed in Sunjiazhai (Sun Family Village) in Datong County in Xining in 1973.

It spans thousands of years with traces of both the Majiayao Culture (the culture of the ancient Qiang people) in the Neolithic Era, the Qijia, Xindian and Kayue cultures in the Bronze Age and some Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) cultural heritages.

Among the finds, a colored pottery basin bearing dancing figures roused international attention.

The pottery basin, with a height at 12.7 centimeters and a caliber at 28.5 centimeters dates back 5,000 years.

The refined terra-cotta basin is decorated with triple-string pattern outside and patterns of three groups of five dancers each in its interior.

Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
Ti Gong

The colored pottery basin with patterns of dancing figures unearthed in Sunjiazhai is now displayed at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

The dancers joined hands and tilt their heads toward the right. With their left legs pointing unanimously to the left, they are portrayed dancing rhythmically.

Liuwan Village in Haidong Prefecture in the middle and lower reaches of the Huangshui River is a place of another archeological feat.

In spring 1974 a water-channeling project in Liuwan Village led to the excavation of some 40,000 pieces of relics. Among them more than 20,000 pieces belonged to the colored pottery items. Their historic span is estimated to cross one thousand years.

Pottery utensils, used for storing water and food and for cooking, enabled early humans to lead a stable life.

The making of pottery involved selecting clay, mixing it, fermenting, molding, decoration, drying out and firing. Prehistoric potters then discovered using mineral pigments to decorate the works. A mixture of iron oxide and manganese oxide was able to create the color of black, the color of white derived from quartz, and the color of red mainly came from iron.

As one of the world's origins of colored pottery, the Yellow River basin is noted for its adhesive and chromatically pure loess, which was particularly suited for pottery.

The colored pottery of Liuwan went through its Banshan Phase and Machang Phase of the Majiayao Culture, and the Qijia and Xindian cultures of the Bronze Age.

The Banshan Phase features red-and-black patterns setting off a usually orange or brick-red base. Their patterns are usually represented by parallel, wave, diamond, zigzag, semicircle, circle, double-window, vortex and gourd patterns.

The colored pottery of Liuwan Village reached its peak in the early Machang Phase, with its paintings usually in vivid and bright black. A transition to large circles with paddy fields patterns from the former vortex patterns marked a change from water worshipping among primitive people in the Banshan Phase to land worshipping in the Machang Phase.

The art form started to see a decline from mid- and late Machang Phase, with colored patterns gradually simplified and turning sparse in the Qijia and Xindian cultures, as an echo to radical social changes, cruel battles, dislocation and loss of life reliance among clan societies.

Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
Yang Yang / SHINE

Some Neolithic era colored pottery works preserved at Huangyuan County Museum in Xining

Huar the ballad 花儿

A researcher on Huar, a west China ballad, wrote in his work "Collection of Huar" half a century ago that "Huar flourishes in Qinghai."

He was right in his summary. In Qinghai people sing the ballad while they are admiring mountains, rivers and farmlands.

There are countless Huar pieces in the province as a verse in one such ballad goes, "May I ask you, porter, how many pieces of Huar are you able to sing and shall I compare them to the thousands of sesames I throw into the sky? Yes, if I trek across Qinghai to its border while singing the ballads, I am still singing till I reach there and I'll spend three more years continuing to sing it on the homeward journey."

Huar originated and is popular in Qinghai and Gansu provinces, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Both Han people and ethnic people including Hui, Tu, Sala, Dongxiang, Baoan, Yugu and Tibetan sing the ballad in a rhymed or impromptu style, and its tone is either lyric or narrative.

According to folk tales, a Huar singing fair originated from the local mountain pilgrimage.

In Laoyeshan Mountain in Datong County, there used to be mountain pilgrimages only. Then in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) a Tibetan girl named Cairangcao sang a ballad during her mountain pilgrimage. Her voice was stronger than a suona horn and her melody sweeter than a lark.

People followed suit and sang along with her. Since the girl's name suggested longevity, they named the ballad "The Longevity Song." And every June 6 in the lunar calendar, people held musical dialogue with the girl. As more and more people came, they created this Laoyeshan Mountain Huar singing fair.

The fair features some plots of romance stories with scenarios of trading, military journey, farming, hunting and some folk customs.

The lines are usually with seven or eight characters, and require the first to be rhymed with the third, the second rhymed with the fourth. In addition, the ending of the second and fourth lines should be a two-character phrase.

During each fair people gathered on top of a mountain, wearing their best costumes and a joyful look from the bottom of their hearts – the Hui lads with black vests and white hats, some Tu lasses with flower-decorated hats and twinkling silver necklace, and some Tibetan girls with their hairs plaited.

The ballads they sing preserve treasured historic and linguistic records, and the fair itself is a good opportunity for cultural exchanges among different ethnic people.

In 2006 the Laoyeshan Huar singing fair was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage, and some tourist events have been held since.

Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
Ti Gong

The 14th Datong Laoyeshan Huar singing fair, held in July this year

Leather embroidery 皮绣

Leather embroidery has been honored as the second treasure of Huangyuan County of Xining.

The art form was inherited from the ancient Qiang people who lived in this region.

The Qiang, a nomadic race who were also gifted in music, are among the earliest tamers of livestock and the earliest planters of wheat.

About 4,000 years ago the Qiang pioneered the virgin land of Qinghai, and the area started to progress toward civilization. In the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 25), the nomad race had grown to pose a threat to Chang'an, then capital of the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Hanwu then ordered his army to conquer their land while they were attacking the Xiongnu, a nomadic tribe and empire beyond the Great Wall. General Huo Qubing managed to win the battle and starting from 60 BC, the Han Dynasty administered the Huangyuan area and implanted farming culture to try to assimilate the Qiang.

There are few Qiang ethnic minority people in Huangyuan now, but their leather embroidery, dating back 3,000 years ago, is still a feature.

People use cotton threads, leather threads, horsetails and manes to work embroidery patterns, such as hills and rivers, flowers and birds, human figures and animals on a piece of livestock skin.

The Huangyuan Leather Embroidery Exhibition Hall is a project aimed to revive the art form and help with rural revitalization.

Some housewives of the rural areas in Huangyuan, after receiving training on embroidery patterns, are able to produce products meeting industrial standards and earn a monthly earning from 300 yuan (US$42) to 3,000 yuan.

The embroidery hall, also serving as a workshop, created sales revenue of 2.35 million yuan last year and had both domestic and global orders.

Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
ThePapers / Ti Gong

A sheepskin embroidery work features figures of ethnic minority people on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and their livestock.

Tibetan carpets 藏毯

People in Qinghai are proud of their Tibetan carpets. They compare them with brocade and soft cameo.

Together with Oriental and Persian carpets, Tibetan carpet with a history of 2,000 years is among the world's top three carpet categories. Their main raw material is the fabric from Tibetan sheep. Long, radiant and resilient, the fur is able to restore its shape quickly after being trod on.

In the traditional making of Tibetan carpets, skilled workers manually spin yarns, dye them and weave carpets. Their unique knotting enables all kinds of patterns. And after the final procedures of carpet shampooing and clipping and carving patterns, the carpets show a radiant texture with their layered patterns resembling the artistic effect of cameo.

In addition to Tibetan folk-style patterns, the carpets usually show landscape, culture, architecture and lifestyles of local herdsmen.

As companies in Xining introduced high-speed analyzed weaving machines from Belgium, productivity of Tibetan carpets in the province have been greatly improved.

In addition to their regular customers, the carpets are now channeled to major hotels and cruise ships at home and abroad through tailored production.

Of Tibetan carpet and mountain ballad: Plateau cities shine with cultural heritage
ThePapers / Ti Gong

A skilled worker from the local Shengyuan Carpet Group of Qinghai Province works on Tibetan carpet weaving.

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